At Work

Religious Liberty vs. Religious Tolerance

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Cultural upheavals often occur in the most surprising contexts. Who expected that a clash between sexuality and religious liberty would be focused on a restaurant company mainly known for its chicken sandwiches?

– Al Mohler in an article for the CNN Belief blog

Just when I thought the religious freedom argument could not get more bizarre, on Friday I read Wesley J. Smith’s blog in First Things.

Smith describes the legal brief filed by the Department of Justice in Newland v. Sebelius. The case concerns a Catholic family, the Newland siblings, who own Hercules Industries. The Newlands are “seeking court protection against being forced by the government to provide free contraception and sterilization surgeries to their female employees.”

Smith summarizes the government’s argument as follows:

  • Seeking profit is a wholly secularist pursuit.
  • Once we go into business, we lose our religious freedoms in the context of those activities.
  • All who engage in such secular undertakings must accede to the precepts of secular ideology.
  • The government establishes these precepts through the passage of laws and promulgation of regulations.

This current assault on religious liberty is a far cry from the ideas put forth by the Founders. The Founders saw religious liberty as one of the bedrock principles of the United States.

It was James Madison who suggested the term ‘religious liberty’ to George Mason, chief architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. In the first draft, Mason used the term ‘religious tolerance.’ ‘Religious tolerance’ was understood as permission given by the state to practice religion.

The problem with religious tolerance was that what the state gave, it could take back.

Madison argued that religious liberty was a natural and unalienable right. It was possessed equally by all citizens, and must be beyond the reach of civil magistrates.

This was a revolutionary idea designed to protect and promote a vital role for religion in public life.

The term ‘religious liberty’ was adopted by the other states over the next ten years. Eventually it was written into the first amendment of the United States Constitution, as one of the cornerstones of our Bill of Rights.

My friend Daniel Dreisbach is a professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University. He suggests that religious liberty is the one unique thing to emerge from the American Experiment. He told me once that,

There was a consensus among the Founders that religion was indisputable to a system of republican self-government. The challenge the Founders confronted was how to nurture personal responsibility and social order in a system of self-government. In response to this challenge, the Founders looked to religion and morality informed by religious faith to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner and thereby promote social order and responsibility.

A clear illustration of this concept can be seen in George Washington’s Farewell Address, delivered in 1796:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable supports.

Now that we’ve looked at the difference between religious liberty and religious tolerance, let’s return to Newland v. Sebelius. It would seem that the First Amendment is being rewritten before our very eyes. Religious tolerance is being substituted for religious liberty.

We at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics believe that religion and morality are still vital to social order and political and economic prosperity. That is why the arguments being made by the Justice Department are so alarming. Our objective is to help Christians integrate their faith and work, and understand why it is so important to bring those beliefs into the public square.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be blogging on this topic to explain why we as Christians have a Biblical obligation to live all our lives, including our work, under the Lordship of Christ.

What do you think? Is religious liberty being replaced by religious tolerance today? Leave your comments here.

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