Religious Liberty’s Imperative

Mark Tooley on February 16, 2023

(Here’s my talk to the International Alliance of Christian Education meeting at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on February 9, 2023.)

I’m honored to speak here to so many notables in Christian academia, which is the brain-trust for American evangelicalism. So much depends on what YOU do, with ramifications for the wider Body of Christ!

As mentioned, I work for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), founded in 1981 as an ecumenical think-tank to make Christian arguments for democracy, human rights and religious freedom for all people.  Lest we think today’s challenges are uniquely perilous, IRD was founded to rebut church officials and agencies that were during the Cold War’s decisive final years effectively siding with and defending the persecutors of Christians around the world. 

During those perilous times, many prominent and influential church entities and personages were, under the aegis of Liberation Theology, colluding with Marxist regimes and revolutionary movements. They sincerely believed that the Gospel’s call for solidarity with the poor and the oppressed required the church to align with dictatorial and even violent forces striving to overthrow oppressive political and economic systems. For them, state-imposed economic equality, guaranteeing basic human services, was more important than individual freedoms, including religious freedom. In their eyes, dissident Christians under Marxist regimes who defied the state were betraying the poor and instead serving the cause of imperialism and exploitation.

It seems unbelievable today, but senior denominational and ecumenical leaders of once respected institutions openly extolled the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, their patrons in Cuban, and their ultimate patrons in the Soviet Union, although more carefully. They were silent about prisoners of conscience, including Christians, who suffered for years in East Bloc prisons. One prominent Cuban Christian dissident, Armando Villadares, would late recount that while in Castro’s prison, authorities would mock him with pro-Castro statements from U.S. church officials. These betrayals were to him more painful than physical torture.

Making basic arguments for a right to religious freedom and freedom of speech and association, based on God-given human dignity, were sadly necessary then. And it is again needed today. IRD’s founders included the great evangelical theologian Carl Henry, the Catholic theologian Michael Novak and then Lutheran pastor, later Catholic priest, Richard Neuhaus, who wrote our founding statement “Christianity and Democracy,” which is online and which I commend to you. Regarding religious freedom, it says:

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, democratic governance subscribes to a distinctive understanding of human rights. That understanding is that human rights are prior rights. That is, human rights are not established by the state. The state is bound to acknowledge and respect those rights which have their source in the transcendent dignity of the human person created by God. Valid distinctions are made between categories of human rights personal, civil, political, economic, and social. Individual and communal freedom from terror and coercion is essential to the protection of all human rights. Repressive regimes of both the left and the right frequently and falsely pit social and economic rights against the rights of freedom. But without freedom persons cannot pursue their economic and social well-being as they deem best. And without freedom the economic and social advances which regimes claim for the poor cannot be examined and verified. As a matter of empirical fact, those societies which give priority to freedom generally secure social and economic rights more successfully than do those societies which attempt social and economic advance at the cost of freedom. The most fundamental of all human rights is the freedom of religious faith and practice. Religion is both freedom’s shield and central sphere of action. “For religion,” Pope John Paul II has declared, “consists in the free adherence of the human mind to God, which is in all respects personal and conscientious; it arises from the desire for truth and in this relation the secular arm may not interfere, because religion itself by its nature transcends all things secular.” Religious freedom consists of many parts: the freedom to believe, to worship, to teach, to evangelize, to collaborate in works of mercy, and to witness to the public good. Where religious freedom is violated, all other human rights are assaulted at their source. The churches should be relentless in protesting every infringement of freedom, especially of the freedom of conscience and association, and most especially of religious freedom. In protesting human rights’ violations, governments will of necessity take into account many considerations political, diplomatic, military, and economic. The ethics of the Church, however, are not the ethics of Caesar. In witnessing to the transcendent dignity of the human person, the churches are bound not by reasons of state but by obedience to Christ. Therefore the witness of the churches should reflect an unwavering adherence to a single standard in the judgment of human rights. Whether the regime in question is repressive only in order to maintain itself in power or whether it aspires to totalitarian control over its people, whether it fashions itself as rightist or leftist, whether it is friend or foe or neutral toward whatever great power, to the extent that it violates the rights of people to be the artisans of their own destiny it blasphemes against the divine intent for human life. The churches dare never be apologists for such blasphemy in the name of some higher social good. Because every person is called to the fullness of humanity revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ, there is no higher good than the human person. With particular respect to the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human community, Christians insist that no human being is expendable. 

This challenge to religious freedom 40 years ago was present in overseas regimes, but directly relevant to American Christians because American church officials were justifying their persecutions or looking the other way. Religious persecution abroad of course tragically continues, while we also have threats here at home. We should not conflate our challenges with prisoners who were in Cuban or Soviet prisons, or who suffer today in North Korea or Iran. We are not there, and our exceptional liberties are a great blessing for which we must be grateful. But there are great challenges, if more subtle, are still very real, and require vigorous response, supported by strong thinking and public arguments.

This situation was recently illustrated by the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, which repealed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as man and woman. The vote was mostly symbolic, as the 2015 Obergefell ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to marriage between persons of the same gender. But proponents claimed the court, having overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade assertion of a constitutional right to abortion, could now do so on marriage.

Some evangelical groups supported this Respect for Marriage Act, or at least declined to oppose, because they believed it offered religious liberty protections, which is questionable. And some even argued that same sex marriage in civil law is now an essential human right to be celebrated, even if not sanctioned within the church.

Some Christians, for understandable reasons, have decided to mute the historic Christian teaching on marriage in favor of legal protections for practices inside the church. But in so doing, they have retreated from the church’s responsibility to witness to all society about the truth of God’s creation and to share the teachings that lead to authentic human prosperity.

There is a tendency for some traditional Christians no longer to engage the marriage issue because it is viewed as politically settled. But The Church has timeless and universal teachings that transcend political seasons. The definition of marriage both inside the church and in wider society, no less than religious liberty, is such an issue.

Polls indicate that perhaps two thirds of Americans marriage affirm same sex marriage. Of course, The Church’s teachings on core doctrine do not shift to conform to preferences of a particular society.  Its core doctrines, if true, are universally true, regardless of any poll. Core Christian teachings are never determined by popularity, they are not sustained by popularity, they do not shift in response to popularity, and they do not command respect if they surrender to or accommodate popularity.

In all its historic branches, The Church affirms that God made male and female, and that marriage is their unique union. This understanding of marriage as male and female of course is not unique to Christianity or biblical tradition. It is rooted organically in nature and has been common to all cultures across millennia. But Christianity has specifically refined marriage as a monogamous lifelong faithful union, in which male and female are equal, and which mirrors the eternal, cosmic union between Christ and His Church. All of civilization has been a beneficiary of the church’s teaching.

The Church has never regarded monogamous male-female marriage as specifically for The Church, like baptism or the eucharist. Marriage, like the family and government, is created by God for all cultures and times. Government does not have the authority to redefine marriage, since marriage predates government in God’s order of creation. Marriage as male and female was created for the protection and prosperity of all humanity. The Church adheres to its marriage teaching from divine obligation and in service to the good of all humanity.

So The Church is not at liberty to abandon its marriage teaching in reaction to American public opinion in 2022 or 2023 or at any other time and place, even if limited religious liberty protections are attained. Doing so would betray its highest calling to reveal and mirror God’s love to the world. Legislation and contemporary political calculations play no role in The Church’s permanent treasury of teachings.

American Christians are tempted to surrender The Church’s permanent treasury of teachings when they are difficult, embarrassing or seem irrelevant. What if public opinion defies or mocks The Church’s teachings? No matter. Public opinion has often across millennia rejected The Church, but The Church and its teachings outlast passing public opinion.

What seems permanent in earthly politics or public opinion often is not. Very few in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to abortion expected that ruling to be overturned half a century later. The court was in sync with growing public opinion. America’s two largest states, with support from Republican governors (Reagan and Rockefeller), had already legalized abortion. Other states were following. Both political parties were largely pro-choice. The debate was ending.

In response, the Roman Catholic Church did not retreat from its teaching about abortion. Already declining Mainline Protestant denominations had adopted pro-abortion rights stances starting in the 1960s. Emerging and growing Evangelical churches eventually aligned with Catholics and the historic Christian stance. The pro-life movement began with unlikely prospects. Yet with support from The Church, it prevailed.

We do not know what will happen with American public opinion and the definition of marriage in the future. A new generation may emerge that reflects with sadness on the retreat of traditional marriage and accompanying family structure. Every generation reacts at least in part against the preferences of the earlier generation. No matter what happens with marriage in U.S. civil law, Christian teaching, which reflects the eternal union of Christ and His Church, will not change. Christians in all times and places live amid laws and social customs at odds with what we know to be true and good. I’m grateful that this alliance here tonight is committed to upholding universal and unchanging Christian teaching.

Religious liberty is no less a key teaching for Christianity. Historically the institutional church has often been complicit in religious persecution. But over the centuries nearly all Christian traditions have come to realize what is clear from the Gospels and what was clear to the early church, that to follow Christ is a calling between individuals and God, not coercively orchestrated by state power. The church, when faithful, will contend for the rights of conscience for all persons.  

I’m going to liberally quote and paragraphras from my friend the diplomat and religious liberty advocate Tom Farr of the Religious Freedom Institute, who spoke on the “theology of religious freedom” to our annual Christianity and National Security Conference, which you can find online in video and text.

The origins of the Christian understanding of human freedom are in the Bible, Tom noted. The Book of Genesis declares that each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Each of us bears God’s image, and we are in a profound sense equal to each other. Imaging God, each of us has intellect and will, the well of free choice. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection stressed these ideas of equality and freedom by freeing each of us from the bondage of sin. As Paul puts it, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Christianity’s logic of religious liberty is that true liberty is the freedom to choose God, in this life and therefore in the next, Tom said. God does not coerce us to choose Him. Jesus did not coerce obedience or belief, which would have eliminated how we image God with our intellect and will, and the source of our dignity and our human agency. Each of us is truly free because we are can choose the true and the good.

Early church fathers like Tertullian and Lactantius asserted that religion’s very nature requires free choice, Tom observed. So justice requires freedom for all in matters of religion. Tertullian argued that religious freedom was a natural right, a capacity inherent in nature that “every man should worship according to his own convictions.” Lactantius moved this idea to the level of policy, arguing in his Divine Institutes that a just governor would protect religious freedom, which found its way into the so-called “Edict of Milan,” issued in 313 by Emperor Constantine. The Edict declared religious freedom for all throughout the Roman Empire, history’s first declaration of universal religious freedom.

Tragically, Constantine’s successors used coercion to punish heretics and schismatics, evincing the Christian understanding that fallen humans, including Christians, will abuse power if permitted, Tom recalled. True religious freedom, in which even heretics warrant an immunity from coercion by the state or any other human agent, would not fully crystalize for centuries. The Protestant Reformers did not advocate full religious freedom but their teachings about the individual’s direct access to God and the availability of salvation by grace through faith alone made religious liberty inevitable, as no sovereign power should be allowed to stand athwart this process. Dutch and English Protestant dissenters refined this understanding that, through conflict and compromise, eventually leading to an expectation of religious toleration, not only as a matter of right, but also to avoid endless religious and social conflict.  A tolerant society is likelier to be peaceful and harmonious.    

America’s Founding Fathers were the heirs to these insights, echoing Reformation, ancient and medieval Christian ideas, Tom said. They venerated religious conscience in human nature and social flourishing. James Madison defined religion as “the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it.” He understood conscience as a primary means by which people discerned and carried out that duty. The duty of following one’s religious conscience is so important that, as Madison puts it, it is “precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of Civil Society.”

Guided by the Founders, American democratic principles of limited government were partly derived from Christian teaching about humanity’s universal sinfulness, which engenders the corruption inevitably joining concentrations of power. The founders believed that no group could be trusted with too much power for too long. Religious citizens’ commitment to an authority beyond the state and religious communities’ role in civil society also supported limited government. The founders knew independent religion is one of the most effective limits on state power and authority. As Tom noted, here we see reflections of the medieval idea of the “freedom of the church.”

The Founders with most early American also believed that virtue was required in a republic and that virtue could not be coerced but only taught and sustained mainly by independent religion that was persuasive, Tom observed. This commitment to religious freedom undergird the overall understanding of human equality, hence “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  The rights of no person, religious or otherwise, could be trampled on by others. The Constitution guaranteed protection for the “free exercise of religion” for all individuals and all religious groups. Tom Farr noted that the Founders considered citing “conscience rights” but instead specifically cited religious freedom because they wanted to protect the public rights of religious exercise, not just the private rights of conscience, and to protect whole religious communities, and not just the rights of individual citizens.

America’s understanding of religious freedom sourced to Britain’s Toleration Act of 1689, which ended a century of religious conflict, and to John Locke, with origins far earlier. The phrase “religious liberty” originated with the earlier cited church father Tertullian in the year 197 AD, which later influenced the earlier cited Lactantius, counselor to Emperor Constantine, whose Edict of Milan granted religious toleration. In his own copy of Tertullian’s work, Thomas Jefferson specifically underlined this phrase, which he used in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, as recounted in Robert Wilken’s 2014 book, The Christian Roots of Religious FreedomConscience rights and religious freedom are inherently and specifically biblical, rooted in an understanding of each person created in God’s image with sacred rights to think, speak and worship, according to conscience without fear of compulsion by society or state.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing with Baptist friends an 1809 letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at New London, Connecticut. His famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut in which he spoke of a “wall” separating church and state is commonly quoted, of course, often by persons wanting to limit religious influence in society and politics. But his missive to the Methodists, which I of course prefer, has been largely forgotten, sadly. His words here are important:

No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprizes of the civil authority. It has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the consciences of men either attainable, or applicable to any desirable purpose. To me, no information could be more welcome than that the minutes of the several religious societies should prove, of late, larger additions than have been usual, to their several associations. And I trust that the whole course of my life has proved me a sincere friend to religious, as well as civil liberty.

Jefferson obviously had a personal theology very different from Methodists and Baptists but he still was a well-wisher of their success as fellow celebrants of democracy and religious freedom for all. Jefferson’s Christian-inspired views are enshrined in law but not always sustained by public opinion. Current threats involve society’s rejection of traditional Christian teachings about sex and gender. But not long ago, biblical teachings about racial equality earned scorn, threats to livelihood and even worse.  My friend the former president of Asbury Seminary Maxie Dunnam, a venerated figure today among evangelical United Methodists, was literally forced to leave the state of Mississippi as a young pastor in the early 1960s when he and a dozen other Methodist clergy signed a mild public statement affirming civil rights.  No church would thereafter accept them, the bishop would not protect them, and Maxie relocated to California, never to return to a Mississippi pastorate. In  the late 19th century, sometimes Methodist preachers were punished by the business community because they preached against saloons, dance halls, theaters, gambling dens and brothels, which were the center of commerce for many communities. Methodism’s early 20th century architect of Prohibition recounted that his preacher father, on Maryland’s eastern shore, for this reason, was unable to procure housing in towns and was forced with his family to live in the country, because business interests organized a boycott against him wherever he went. So perhaps Prohibition was foisted on America in part because of these sour boyhood memories by a zealous temperance activist who never forgot this persecution.

It’s imperative for traditional Christians today not to succumb to the boycotts, social pressure and litigation by secularists and progressives who disdain our traditional teachings. But in this struggle we must be clear about our own biblically informed commitment to religious freedom for all people. We are entering a new cynical, “postliberal” age in which there are voices on both left and right who oppose full religious freedom. Those on the left want to establish secularism as the state church.  Now a very small but growing group on the right want to resurrect long ago Christendom by establishing some form of Christianity as the only remedy to modern decadence. So-called integralists have emerged over the last several years to advocate for a society in which the Catholic Church is once again paramount in society including in civil law. According to some of its theorists, Protestants and maybe Jews will be tolerated but lack full legal privileges, while heretics and blasphemers would be punished, with death not entirely ruled out. Integralists like Patrick Deneen’s 2018 Why Liberalism Failed, in which the University of Notre Dame professor asserts that classical liberty has failed, and that’s America’s experiment in full freedom for all was not just corrupted over time but doomed from the start, because the Founders operated on false premises about human freedom.

Integralists now have Protestant counterparts who are usually fierce and highly intelligent young Calvinists who want a Reformed confessional state that establishes a form of Christianity and punishes heresy and blasphemy. Some would take away voting rights for women as a secular liberal contemporary innovation.  They call sometimes call themselves magisterial Protestants or advocates simply of Protestant social teaching, because, after all, the Protestant Reformers in the 1500s also supported Protestant confessional states. The most important and serious advocate for this perspective is Stephen Wolfe, who is academically credentialed, and whose new book The Case for Christian Nationalism, calling for a Calvinist confessional state, with a “theocratic Caesarism,” has created a stir.  For many young men, these arguments are bracing.

These appeals for establishing religion go beyond the integralists and self-identified Christian Nationalists.

A statement last year from National Conservatism signed by scores of distinguished conservative thinkers declared: “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.”

What does it mean to require the state and civil society to “honor” Christianity?  What does it mean to consign non-Christians to limited freedom in their “private lives and their homes?”  Such calls certainly contravene America’s laws and best traditions.  More importantly they contravene historic Christian teaching, which knows the Bride of Christ is eternal and does not need coerced subservience in earthly affairs. 

I wrote a response to this declaration noting that America does not “tolerate” religious minorities but treats all citizens as equals. I recalled the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights from George Mason and James Madison, inspired by sometimes jailed Baptist dissenters, that said “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”  And I cited the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, by Thomas Jefferson, which disestablished the church in Virginia by declaring “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do…”

My article provoked a response from an earnest and intelligent young man who actively advocates for establishing a state church.  He wrote in a prominent conservative publication that, my defense of religious freedom inspired by Jefferson and Madison revealed I am clearly a public atheist, a Virginia supremacist, a son of the Second Great Awakening (which Christian Nationalists don’t like), and a Whig.  I responded on Twitter by pleading guilty to all of the above, except for being a public atheist. 

Mid-20th-century British historian and Methodist layman Herbert Butterfield, a Cambridge professor best known for his 1931 The Whig Interpretation of History, argued in his 1952 History and Human Relations that Christian-influenced civilization must move towards greater respect for individual people and their options, as the element of voluntariness in society is an “important factor in a religion so personal and intimate.” He wrote:

 A Christian civilization, precisely because it must embrace so high a conception of personality, must move towards what Christians themselves may regard as its own undoing – towards freedom of conscience instead of greater solidarity in the faith. A world in which personality and conscience are respected, so that men may choose the god they will worship and the moral end they will serve – this, and only this, is a Christian civilization when human development has reached a certain point…Since it cannot be argued that unregenerate man is naturally Christian, it is bad tactics as well as bad ethics for Christians to dwell too greatly on the advantages of uniformity as such. Uniformity would only be too likely to come at their expense – the unbeliever treating them to those severities which, so long as they had the power to do so, they meted out to him. It is legitimate then, for Christians to hope to convert as many people as possible, but not to translate this hope into a dream of terrestrial power, or to expect from Providence that the dice shall be loaded in their favor and the forces of the world itself ranged on their side. We must first praise God for the human intellect and the freedom of the mind, and only after that is it legitimate to pray that men – as free men – may come into some degree of unison. Christians are strongest if, regarding themselves as the servants rather than the masters of men, they claim no peculiar rights against society as such. They must claim the right to worship the God in Whom they believe, and they have no justification for regretting that others should have the same freedom in the matters that most highly concern human beings. This tolerance is the minimum that we must have to make a Christian civilization. 

Butterfield warned that the advocates for religious conformity imagine a “happy agreement about fundamentals [but] close their eyes to the ugliness of the methods by which such a system has to be achieved.”  

Christians who recall history and admit to the darkness of human nature know too well the ugliness of coerced conformity, religious or otherwise.  In today’s America, ascendant secularists and progressivists push a coerced and destructive conformity about marriage, gender and sex that is hostile to faith, nature and ultimate human happiness.  Of course we must resist their pressure, often at great sacrifice to ourselves, knowing that our defense of religious freedom for all benefits not just ourselves and our institutions but is a cherished gift to all people and most importantly reflects the very character of God.

We wage these battles not grimly or pessimistically but knowing that God is redeeming the world, with His greatest triumphs yet ahead. We don’t look back but forward, hopeful and confident that as the Gospel spreads, so too will civilization move forward with jumps and starts, by divine grace, despite human cupidity and failure. Any civilizational advance entails dignity for all, in which each person, bearing God’s political image, chooses his or her path. Amid those choices there is Christ, who across the ages declares: “Come whosoever will.”

Many thanks to all of you here who, as leaders in Christian education, will fight these fights in witness to our faith and will teach future generations in the ways of God-ordained human dignity, freedom and peace among all people.  

  1. Comment by David on February 17, 2023 at 8:20 am

    Religious freedom in the US goes back a bit further than mentioned. The 1645 charter of the town of Vlissingen, now Flushing, New York City provided:

    “We do give and graunt unto the said Patentees…to have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience, according to the Custome and manner of Holland [1579], without molestaçõn or disturbance, from any Magistrate or Magistrates, or any other Ecclesiasticall Minister, that may extend Jurisdicçõn over them…”

    In 1657, Director General Petrus Stuyvesant attempted to overrule this causing the residents to protest with the Flushing Remonstrance:

    “The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.”

    Dutch authorities eventually sided with the residents ordering Stuyvesant:

    “You may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.”

  2. Comment by Michael Giere on February 20, 2023 at 11:51 am

    Outstanding address – this is timely and important reminder.

  3. Comment by Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Hyde on February 20, 2023 at 4:01 pm

    Great article. Keep up the god work.

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