Public Square

Why Religious Freedom Matters for Our Work

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For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

– Galatians 5:13-14 (ESV)

There is a great scene in the movie Braveheart were William Wallace is trying to marshal his troops to fight the great English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. He asks the solders, “What will you do?” One answers, “We will run and live.” Then Wallace responds with this well-known quote:

Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live – at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!

Today we fight another battle for freedom – religious freedom. Only this one isn’t on the fields of Stirling Bridge; it’s in the halls of the United States Supreme Court. But like the Battle of Stirling Bridge, this debate has implications for all of our lives – including the way we understand our work as a religious activity.

This is why we at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics joined with thirty-six leading Protestant pastors, theologians, scholars, and other Christian organizations in filing an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in support of Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

We realize that religious freedom is not an isolated liberty, but one that encompasses everything we do.

Anthony Gill suggests that while it may be difficult for any government to truly control the private thoughts of any individual (freedom of conscience), it is very difficult for Christians to live out their faith in all areas of life if they are not granted a number of other civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, the right to own property, and equal protection under the law.

Gill goes on to write,

These civil rights, in turn, require rule of law and an independent judiciary capable of enforcing that law in a transparent and fair manner. All of these things—rule of law, civil liberties, checks and balances on power—are hallmarks of our American system.

America’s Founding Fathers understood this, which is why religious freedom is the subject of the First Amendment to our Constitution. All of the other amendments flow from and support the first.

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 had to 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.

At the heart of the Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties case is a misunderstanding of the Christian view of work. It is the attempt to replace the religious liberty guaranteed us by the First Amendment with religious tolerance that would have jurisdiction anywhere outside of the walls of the church.

This is the government’s argument:

  • Seeking profit is a wholly secular 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 the promulgation of regulations.

The Justice Department is trying to redefine the First Amendment in such a way as to restrict a Christian’s right to fulfill his or her biblical and vocational calling in any job outside the church. This has huge implications because for every Christian, work is a religious activity.

What do you think is the connection between religious freedom and the biblical doctrine of work? Leave your comments here.

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