Public Square

Are Christians Defining ‘Religious Freedom’ Correctly?

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A recent Barna Group study reveals a significant rise in fears regarding religious freedom in America. More than three-quarters of American evangelical Christians surveyed said, “Religious liberty is worse off today than ten years ago.”

David Kinnaman, Barna’s president, directed the research. He concludes:

Based upon the fact that millions of Americans see an escalating threat to religious freedom, we anticipate that more people will feel the need to stand up for their religious convictions in a public manner. Christian leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to help coach people toward a biblical response to the faith challenges of an increasingly post-Christian society.

Many evangelicals I speak with share a sense of foreboding that religious freedom is being restricted. I’ve noticed, though, that few people can clearly define religious freedom.

The definition of religious freedom comes from the First Amendment: “The Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The First Amendment does not guarantee freedom of worship, which is often the way “religious freedom” is now described.

Free exercise of religion is a broader concept than freedom of worship, and it includes the right to live out a faith-based life.

For Christians, this means the right to live and work based on God’s design and desire for us as laid out in Scripture.

The distinction between free exercise of religion and freedom to worship is profound. Freedom to worship is restricted to what we do within the walls of our churches and our homes. Once we move into the marketplace and the public square, we must adhere to the secular worldview constructed and maintained by society and the state.

In 2012 I wrote about a very troubling argument made by the Department of Justice in Newland v. Sebelius. The Catholic owners of Hercules Industries were challenging the government mandate to provide free contraception and sterilization surgeries to employees. The government argued:

  • Seeking profit is a wholly secularist pursuit.
  • Once people go into business, they lose their religious freedoms in the context of those activities.
  • Everyone who engages in secular undertakings must acquiesce to the precepts of secular ideology.
  • The government establishes this ideology through the passage of laws and promulgation of regulations.

In a 2012 article, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, lists numerous examples of men, women, and children whose First Amendment rights have been violated by those trying to redefine the meaning of religious freedom. Sekulow argues,

Politicians mock the faithful’s claims of religious conscience, while current government entities and actors treat religious freedom and expression as obstacles to be overcome rather than as important values to protect.

We must protect the robust idea of religious freedom. Scholar Bruce Abramson writes,

This quintessentially American formulation, which recognizes aspects of human belief, behavior, morality, and expression into which no government may legitimately intrude, has long served the needs of both church and state.

Religious freedom is not just important because it’s in the Constitution. It’s important because the principles that support religious freedom flow from God’s word. True religious liberty provides the freedom to live and work within a Christian worldview seven days a week in our families, churches, communities, and vocations. We’re called to be salt and light in the world, not in a closet.

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