“Thou shalt not encroach upon the religious liberty of your fellow citizens” is not something you will find in the Bible.
The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, a broader concept than freedom of worship. It covers the right to live a faith-based life in the public square.
Is this a biblical idea or a humanistic opinion with no scriptural foundation?
What Scripture Says about Conscience
In 2009, Princeton professor Robert George, Baptist theologian Timothy George, and evangelical ministry leader Charles Colson agreed in the Manhattan Declaration that,
Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.
The Bible may not comment specifically on religious liberty, but it does have a lot to say about conscience. We have a conscience because, “in the beginning,” God wrote his laws on Adam’s heart. Paul explains this in Romans 2:14-15, saying,
They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and not, right and wrong (The Message).
We were created in the image of God. Even though we are now fallen images, warped and damaged by sin, our conscience still has an instinctive knowledge of the true God and an understanding of right and wrong. This is why Paul says that we are without excuse – in our rebellious nature, we intentionally exchanged the truth about God, truth we know intuitively, for a lie.
This universal sense of right and wrong has been called Natural Law. It has been expounded upon by many of the early church fathers, including Augustine and Aquinas, and many subsequent philosophers.
Natural Law in the largest sense is what can be seen from observing human behavior. It is valid for everyone across all societies. Murder, theft, adultery, dishonoring parents, and lying are all recognized across the world as being destructive to the common good.
Natural Law should be considered part of God’s common grace, his desire to pour out certain blessings benefiting believer and non-believer alike.
A word before diving deeper into Natural Law: even though God wrote his law on our hearts, Natural Law alone is not enough for us to know how to live based on God’s design and desire. Even in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, God comes to Adam and Even and gives them their job description. (Gen. 1:28) God tells them what they can and cannot eat in the Garden.
This special revelation is necessary over and above Natural Law. Today we have special revelation in the form of Scripture. Paul confirms this when he writes,
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work. (II Tim. 3:16-17, J.B. Phillips New Testament)
When properly understood, Natural Law and the special revelation of God’s word never contradict one another. Both have decisively shaped Western jurisprudence.
Is Religious Liberty Biblical?
Sir William Blackstone, an English law expert, argued that English common law had its roots in God’s law. Blackstone’s views influenced many of America’s Founders; Jefferson’s appeal to the “law of nature and of nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence is a reference to Blackstone’s thought.
Recognizing the importance of both natural law and the Bible, Blackstone noted in one of his writings that,
Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.
The law of God, whether written in his creation (Natural Law) or in the Bible (special revelation), are never in conflict. Blackstone goes on to say that God’s law is absolute. Any law of man to the contrary is of no effect.
God the Creator, who is the supreme authority over his entire creation, appoints lesser authorities to rule in certain areas. (Rom. 13:1-7) Government is one example. Paul explains that civil authorities are appointed by God for the support of public order and the common good.
We must always remember that the rule of civil magistrates over us is not absolute. Only God’s moral law binds our consciences. We are to obey God even if it means disobeying lesser rules in certain situations. (Dan. 3:1-30)
H.L. Mencken, normally a strong critic of religion, wrote an essay in 1926 called “Equality Before the Law.” In it he declared,
The debt of democracy to Christianity has always been underestimated…. Long centuries before Rousseau was ever heard of, or Locke or Hobbs (sic), the fundamental principles of democracy were plainly stated in the New Testament, and elaborately expounded by the early fathers, including St. Augustine.
Mencken could see it. The founders could see it. Blackstone, too, and the early church fathers. Yes, religious liberty is biblical.