Public Square

Why Our Pastors Need To Read About Religious Freedom from the Founding Fathers

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What role should religion play in our lives outside of church, including our workplace?

While the founding fathers would have argued religion plays a critically important role, many today who are less influenced by Christianity or other faiths are not so sure. And as a four-year Barna study from 2019 concludes that would include a growing number of Protestant pastors.

What did the founding fathers know that our society seems to be forgetting?

Faith of Our Fathers

Os Guinness refers to what he calls in his book A Free People’s Suicide, the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He writes “freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom,” yet this idea seems to have been lost, even by the faithful.

As Guinness explains, the founding fathers clearly understood that a free society depends on the character of its people. Listen to John Adams in a letter to the Massachusetts Militia, in October 1798:

We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Even well after the founding generation was gone, this sentiment remained. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville writes in his book, Democracy in America, about his visit to America in the early 1830s:

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive one without the other…In France, I had seen the spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions, I found them intimately linked together and joined and reigned over the same land…Religion should, therefore, be considered as the first of their political institutions. From the start, politics and religion have agreed and have not ceased to do so.

Madison, Adams, and the other founding fathers strongly believed religious freedom was required to support public religious life and enable us to fulfill our obligation to God. Placing that freedom outside the reach of the coercive powers of the state was the only way to preserve its important purpose.

As Madison writes, “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate.”

A Warning Sign

The good news is that Barna’s study shows that the general public still has a definition of religious freedom similar to that articulated by the founding fathers, with 55 percent of those surveyed agreeing to the statement, “True religious freedom means that all citizens must have freedom of conscience, which means being able to believe and practice the core commitments and values of your faith.”

The bad news is that over the last five years, the “consensus around this definition has begun to break down.” The same thing can be said of practicing Christians who also seem to be feeling less confident about this definition.

While the report also stresses that U.S. adults believe religious freedom in the U.S. is on the decline, the big surprise in the report is the marked decline in protestant pastors’ concern about future restrictions to our religious freedoms.

Religious freedom is not just important for American Christians because it’s in the Constitution. Religious freedom is important because the principles that support it flow from God’s word and are designed to bless all people. True religious liberty provides the freedom to live and work within a Christian worldview seven days a week, fulfilling God’s call in our families, churches, communities, and vocations.

We must always remember that in Christianity, human liberty is both a theological and political ideal. As Lord Acton once said, “liberty is not a means to a higher political end, it is itself the highest political end.”

Art Lindsley points out in his new booklet, Be Transformed: Essential Principles for Personal and Public Lifethat scripture points to this end goal of human liberty by warning about large governments and suggesting that a limited government is more suitable for a fallen people.

Freedom, Virtue & Faith

There is a story (more likely urban legend) about Benjamin Franklin leaving the conclusion of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Seeing Franklin, a woman approached him and asked, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”

Indeed, if we are going to keep it, starting with the church, we must do a better job teaching everyone that “freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom.”

Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on May 15, 2019.

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