Two weeks ago, the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) hosted a symposium on religious freedom attended by more than twenty-five Christian scholars from around the country. The conference was part of a year-long IFWE project that is funded in part by The John Templeton Foundation. The group assembled was composed of men and women who have been working for years on protecting religious freedom. Our aim was to understand the biblical roots and history of religious freedom and how Christians can become more engaged in preserving religious freedom, not just for Christians but for people of all faiths.
Why Religious Freedom?
You might ask why an organization like ours that deals with faith and work issues is interested in religious freedom. In 2011, we founded IFWE to help Christians understand how their work is to bring flourishing to the communities where God has called them to serve. At that time, we believed religious freedom was important, but I am not sure we saw how it connected to faith and work.
Then, in 2012, I read a blog by Wesley Smith at the Discovery Institute about a very troubling argument made by the Department of Justice in Newland v. Sebelius. In this case, the Catholic owners of Hercules Industries were challenging the government mandate to provide free contraception and sterilization surgeries to employees. This was the government’s argument before the judge in defense of the mandate:
- 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 principles of secular ideology.
- The government establishes this ideology through the passage of laws and promulgation of regulations.
It was hard to believe that our government, which is based on a constitution that defines religious freedom, could make an argument that, in essence, would redefine religious freedom out of existence.
The Newland v. Sebelius case helped us see not only how religious freedom is essential for living out a biblical understanding of work but also how religious freedom in our country is in jeopardy. At IFWE, we have always argued that for followers of Jesus Christ nothing is secular, everything we do is spiritual. This is especially true about our work. As the Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
And again, he tells the Colossians:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving (Col. 3:23-24).
Therefore, whatever we do in our work, even the work we do in the public square, is done to glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom. This is our high calling, and it is all spiritual activity.
The apostles Peter and John found themselves in a similar situation when they were arrested by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish governing authority of their day) and told to stop talking about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22). Their response to the Sanhedrin was, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19)
Religious Freedom at Risk
Thankfully, the judge did not agree with the government in Newland v. Sebelius; however, over the last six years, there have been numerous examples of men, women, and children whose First Amendment rights have been violated by those trying to redefine the meaning of religious freedom and force faith out of the public square.
Some politicians and members of the media belittle individuals’ claims of religious conscience, treating religious freedom as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an important value to protect. As Os Guinness writes in his new book, Last Call for Liberty:
…America is now experiencing an open assault on freedom of religion and conscience. What was the founders’ “first liberty” and the freedom that (Lord Acton wrote) “secures the rest” is in danger of being dislodged from its central and time-honored place in American life.
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 (i.e., not just in our homes).
Next Steps on Religious Freedom
Discussions we had at last month’s symposium will spur research projects from the scholars who attended and others, and we will publish two books to help equip and engage Christians to make a difference in the area of religious freedom.
More educational material and marketing will be needed to help our project reach a larger audience of Christians in schools, churches, and in the marketplace. Would you keep this religious freedom project in prayer and consider joining us in this effort financially?
We appreciate your prayers and support. We look forward to sharing this research and the progress of the project along the way.