Public Square

Is Religious Liberty Biblical?

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“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.

Natural Law

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.

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  • Lately, when religiously conservative Christians refer to religious liberty, conscience, and natural law these days, they are referring the controversies surrounding the legalization of same-sex marriage. And their references here is almost always a reference to either an expectation or perception that their rights are being violated. But never once have many of these same Christians thought that by opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage, that they were infringing on the religious liberties of others, namely those who had no religious qualms about practicing same-sex marriage.

    Some religiuosly conservative Christians will then point to natural law as the standard we sould use to decide on the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the problem that arises here is whose version of natural law. The nonChristian will look at nature and say that homosexuality exists there. And science will be even more precise by adding that homosexuality exists in approximately 1,500 species and provides benefits to these species. Such shows that the Christian referal to natural law as the basis for prohibniting same-sex marriage is, in reality, a backdoor religious argument.

    Finally, the recent efforts to pass religious freedom acts also focus on the same=sex wedding issue. How can the gov’t have the right to force christian businesses into selling its goods and services to same-sex weddings? What we have here is a collision of rights. W have the rights of the same-sex couple regarding their ability to obtain goods and services in a Capitalist economic system vs the freedom of religion and association rights of Chiistian business owners. And what is tragic here is that the arguments used by those who believe that Christian businesses should have the right to refuse to provide goods and services to same-sex weddings use the same logic that supported some Jim Crow parctices. What follows is our responsibility to repair the damage done, by such logic, to the reputation of the Gospel.

    • Tactical Bob

      “The non Christian will look at nature….”

      Not the best argument. Natural law as understood by the philosophers is not the same as the state of nature, which, in deference to Mr. Hobbes, renders life nasty, brutish, and short.

  • The concept of religious freedom as we know it—the freedom to worship any god, or no god—is of recent origin, a product of Enlightenment philosophers. Up until recent, Christian nations thought nothing of restraining anything thought antagonistic to the Christian order. Any excesses were usually due to the state allying itself with an exclusive Christian sect.

    Jefferson bemoaned the fact that in his day, children could be removed from parents by the state if it could be shown they were instructing their children contrary to clear Scripture. This seems consistent with the notion of Truth. A gun is real, and no sane government will allow a person to shoot another on the pretext that the offender does not believe the gun is real.

    Contrary to what Jefferson naively espoused, propagating blatant religious error did harm individuals, especially children and the mentally weak, in respect to God. Religious error would’ve even broken Jefferson’s leg or picked his pocket if enough people were misled. Witness the communist governments of notoriety.

    It’s interesting to note that with the rise of the concept of religious liberty, there has been a corresponding decline in preaching the LORD’s command, “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” Regardless of what God seems to overlook in the present, we need to make known to those around us that there will be no religious freedom on Judgement Day.

  • Is religious liberty biblical? Men have the power to reject God but not the right. Christianity is the only lawful religion for it is the only true religion.

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