The Colson Centre (www.colsoncenter.org) has produced a series of short, apologetic videos, “What Would You Say?”, to help Christians address issues of social and moral concern. (They can be viewed at www.whatwouldyousay.org.) The following are transcripts of three of these videos, all dealing with religious liberty. [AL, Editor]
Is religious freedom just a way to protect privilege?
You’re in a conversation and someone says, “Religion has been used to justify all kinds of bad things, like war and slavery. Claiming religious freedom is just about protecting privilege.” What would you say?
Sometimes people think that standing up for religious freedom is really about clinging to power and privilege. They assume that Christians who defend religious freedom just want to protect their own dominance in society. But is that really true? Is religious freedom just a way to protect privilege?
No. And here are three reasons why.
Number 1: From the beginning, Christianity has taught that all people have inherent and equal dignity. Christianity teaches that all people carry God’s image, or the Imago Dei. That belief in the Imago Dei is the foundation of a Christian teaching that turned the ancient world upside-down. It put an end to the barbaric gladiatorial games, curbed the widespread practice of infanticide, and changed the way society thought about slavery. Until the early Church, everyone in history accepted slavery as a fact of life. But the idea of the Imago Dei led Christians, most notably the Apostle Paul, to realize that all people are created in God’s image and are worthy of equal dignity. Very early in the history of Christianity, Christians took a stance against slavery. Christian communities pooled money to buy slaves and set them free. In a 4th century letter from St. Augustine, we read of a group of Christians who freed an entire shipful of slaves! In the Middle Ages, the Christian king Clovis married Matilda, a former slave, and the two issued the first anti-slave laws in history. Any slave who entered the kingdom of Clovis and Matilda was considered free. The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas wrote that slavery violated the law of nature. During the Renaissance, four popes openly condemned the slave trade. In both England and America, the abolition movement was led by Christians. The same can be said of Christian pastors like Martin Luther King Jr., in the Civil Rights movement. Today, many of those at the forefront of the struggle to end sex slavery and human trafficking are Christians. While it is true that certain groups in the Civil War South tried to use Bible verses to support race-based chattel slavery, their wrong interpretation of those verses was well outside the mainstream of Christian history. Because of Christianity’s teaching about the Imago Dei, Christian communities have worked from the beginning to protect the vulnerable.
Number 2: The idea of religious freedom also comes from the belief in the imago Dei. Just as Christianity brought about the end of slavery, it also uniquely promotes the idea of religious freedom. Both teachings come from belief in the image of God and the inherent dignity of each person. It is impossible to separate respect for the human person from respect for religious freedom. Christianity asserts that all people are worthy of equal dignity. The early Christians taught that people must be free to follow their conscience in matters of religion because each person bears the image of God. That’s what phrases like “free will” or “moral agency” mean. No one can force another person to believe something against their own will. From its opening pages, the Bible teaches that every person is made in God’s image. That core understanding of human dignity means Christians must stand for freedom—including the freedom for every image-bearer to live according to their beliefs.
Number 3: Religious liberty, by definition, is equalizing. It is freedom for all people, not just for one group. Religious freedom is an application of “the Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” That means if Christians want the freedom to follow God according to their consciences, without undue interference from the government, they must also defend the rights of all others—fellow Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and even atheists—to peaceably do the same. When true religious freedom is prized by a society, people of every faith win. Take, for instance, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that upheld the right of Catholic churches in New York state to safely gather during COVID-19. That ruling also upheld the rights of Jewish synagogues to gather. Wins like these don’t just guard against government overreach for one religious group; they ensure everyone’s freedom to peaceably live out their faith.
So the next time someone says that standing up for religious liberty is just about protecting privilege, remember these three points: Number 1: From the beginning, Christianity has taught that all people have inherent and equal dignity. Number 2: The idea of religious freedom also comes from the belief in the imago Dei. Number 3: Religious liberty, by definition, is equalizing. It is freedom for all people, not just for one group.
Does advocating for religious liberty hurt our Christian witness?
You’re in a conversation and someone says, “Standing up for religious liberty is bad for Christian witness. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to turn the other cheek?” What would you say?
Sometimes people think that Christians who advocate for religious liberty do so at the cost of their Christian witness. They assume that defending religious freedom is motivated by fear and distracts from the Gospel. Since Christians are supposed to be fearless and self-sacrificial, doesn’t defending religious liberty compromise our Christian witness?
No. And here are three reasons why.
Number 1: Religious freedom is not a social construct. It reflects what is true about us as humans. Religious liberty isn’t an invention of America’s Founding Fathers. It’s a pre-political, God-given right. All people have the right, given by God, to peaceably live according to our convictions without fear of unjust punishment and restrictions from kings, presidents, and city councils. To be sure, governments don’t always recognize religious freedom, but their very failure to do so only highlights that religious liberty is a natural right, given by God—not a privilege given to the people by a benevolent ruler. This is part of what it means to be made in God’s image, and to have the law of God written on our hearts. We know, intrinsically, that to be free to worship God according to our own convictions, our neighbours need to be allowed to do the same—even if we think they’re wrong. Standing up for religious liberty is part of our Christian witness. Religious freedom is rooted in the truth about who we are as image-bearers. Telling the truth about how we were made will never get in the way of the Gospel.
Number 2: Religious freedom is an ancient and central part of Christian teaching. From the Apostle Paul to the Catholic Catechism to the Westminster Confession, Christianity has long taught that everyone should be free to worship and share their beliefs. In fact, religious freedom shows up in the earliest teachings of the Christian Church. Tertullian, a third-century Church Father, wrote, “It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion”. The early-fourth-century Edict of Milan, issued by Christian emperor Constantine, opened the door to state-wide religious freedom by ensuring that the government could no longer demand religious conformity. These early Christian teachings are based on the words of Christ Himself, who insisted that all His followers must choose Him freely, from the bottom of their hearts. Sometimes Christian communities have failed to respect religious freedom. But that does not change the reality that religious freedom is interwoven with the basic teachings of the Church. These early Christians understood that they had a sacred responsibility to uphold their neighbours’ religious freedom, and that responsibility carries over to us today.
Number 3: Standing up for religious liberty is a way to love our neighbour. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbour. If Christians truly love our neighbours, we should work to create the best society we can, where the government honours God-given rights and respects the God-ordained dignity of every person. Study after study has shown a direct correlation between societies that are healthy, prosperous, and respect human rights and societies that respect religious freedom. In 2018, Pew Research Center found that the nations with the most religious freedom also tend to protect free speech and freedom of conscience. Nations that restrict religious freedom, like Iran and China, restrict other basic rights as well. Religious freedom leads to greater prosperity, too. A study found that in the U.S. alone, religious individuals and organizations contribute more than 1.2 trillion dollars to the economy. Economist Arthur Brooks found that religious people who practice their faith (that is, people who say that their faith is a significant part of their lives) are 25 percent more likely to donate to charity than secularists or people who rarely attend church, and they are 23 percent more likely to volunteer their time serving others. Standing up for religious freedom is about upholding the common good according to God’s word. It is, quite simply, a way to love our neighbour as Christ commanded us.
So the next time someone says that standing up for religious liberty is bad for our Christian witness, remember these three things. Number 1: Religious freedom is not a social construct. It reflects what is true about us as humans. Number 2: Religious freedom is an ancient and central part of Christian teaching. Number 3: Standing up for religious liberty is a way to love our neighbour.
Doesn’t Religious Liberty Protect Extremists?
Doesn’t religious liberty protect extremists too? You’re in a conversation and someone says, “Religious ‘freedom’ is bad because it gives cover for violent religious extremists.” What would you say?
Some people think that religious liberty allows religious groups to do anything they want to do. So, extremist groups are able to use religious freedom as a license to hurt others. But does standing up for religious freedom mean enabling violent or dangerous groups?
Absolutely not. And here are three reasons why.
Number 1: Religious freedom does not protect violent actions—even if they are religiously motivated. Religious freedom protects each person’s right to speak, act, and live according to their deeply held religious beliefs, peacefully and openly. It means that the government cannot unjustly punish you for holding, expressing, or peaceably acting on your religious views. However, religious freedom does not translate to a blank check for violence in the name of religion. A Judeo-Christian concern for religious liberty stems from a belief that every person is made in God’s image. That’s why Christians, Jews, and others who advocate for religious liberty also oppose human rights violations like sex trafficking, forced marriages, and physical abuse—whether or not these actions are motivated by religious beliefs. The right to live according to one’s conscience frees people of faith to work for the good of their neighbors—it’s not a free pass to excuse evil in the name of religious devotion.
Number 2: Discomfort is not the same as violence. Just because somebody’s beliefs make another person feel uncomfortable does not mean those beliefs are dangerous. This is a crucial distinction that must be made to properly understand the scope of our rights. It is increasingly common—on public school and university campuses, and even in the workforce—to claim that someone expressing their views is harmful, hateful, or even violent. But that’s not true. Consider this situation: A religious student voices her Christian beliefs on marriage or sexuality in a classroom or in a professor-assigned essay. Some of her fellow students – and maybe even her professor – would almost certainly claim that her words make them uncomfortable. But is she harming anyone in any way? Of course not. She is simply expressing beliefs held in common for thousands of years with billions of people all over the world. She’s well within the limits of her freedom—even if her words and beliefs make others uncomfortable. Sure, not everyone agrees, but isn’t that what freedom is for—to test out competing ideas and see which one lines up with the truth? And who knows? Maybe hearing her explanation will encourage others to think more deeply about what’s best for individuals and for society. Encountering ideas or beliefs that make us uncomfortable is part of living in a pluralistic society. The alternative is forced conformity and cancel culture, where only one set of ideas is acceptable, and all others are punished and repressed. And that is definitely not freedom.
Number 3: Religious freedom actually makes societies safer for more people—not fewer. The alternative to living freely according to your beliefs is a stifling conformity where the government and the powerful decide who can speak and what they can say. One version of that is cancel culture, which we’re seeing more and more of in the West. The other is outright totalitarianism. Nations that do not protect religious freedom and free speech also tend to violate other human rights. In Iran, for example, there is very little religious freedom. And under the Iranian regime, women have no legal protection against domestic violence and abuse from husbands, and they cannot request a divorce based on that abuse. If someone tries to convert from this oppressive form of Islam, he or she faces imprisonment and even death. Religious freedom guards against totalitarianism by protecting people’s rights to discuss and explore new ideas; live out their beliefs freely without fear of repercussions; and change their minds and their lives as they learn more about God.
So the next time someone tells you that religious freedom leads to religious extremism, remember these three things: Number 1: Religious freedom does not protect violent actions—even if they are religiously motivated. Number 2: Discomfort is not the same as violence. Number 3: Religious liberty actually makes societies safer for more people—not fewer.
These three articles were written and presented by Brooke McIntire.