Public Square

Not Religious? Here’s Why Religious Freedom Still Matters.

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As I discussed last week, economic, political, and religious freedom are like a three-legged stool supporting a flourishing society. Take one leg away and the stool crumbles.

Today, let’s look closer at just how integral the moral/religious freedom “leg” is to the other two “legs”—political and economic freedom.

How the Moral/Religious “Leg” Undergirds Our Freedom

Any criticism of political or economic freedom is inadequate unless it takes into consideration the religious/moral/cultural leg of the stool. There are checks and balances provided on any abuses in the political or economic realm. These freedoms are not in a vacuum, but grounded in the soil of religiously-based moral values (i.e., biblical values).

For instance, Austin Hill and Scott Rae argue in their book, The Virtues of Capitalism, that there are five core values underlying a market economy:

  • Creativity
  • Initiative
  • Cooperation
  • Civility
  • Responsibility

All five are deeply grounded in biblical roots. Without these virtues, markets cannot flourish.

Similarly, Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus in their book, The Poverty of Nations, list thirty-five biblically based moral virtues that are encouraged by the free enterprise system and in turn help it function. Central to these virtues are honesty and truthfulness, which allow trust to be formed. If a society is so corrupt that people cannot trust one another and contracts are violated, then the court system becomes clogged and people will be reluctant or unwilling to do business.

Grudem and Asmus also list a cluster of biblical virtues that are necessary for work and productivity. These virtues include:

  • Thrift in time or money
  • Doing excellent work (as unto the Lord – Eph. 6:7)
  • Using one’s creativity to serve others
  • Developing innovative ways to unlock the potential of God’s creation
  • Biblical values also uphold marriage, a necessary condition to addressing poverty

By emphasizing such values, the Bible provides a foundation essential to free enterprise. Markets viewed from this angle are not “unfettered” or “unbridled.” Unless these moral values are deeply rooted in people’s conscience and character, free enterprise moves slowly or grinds to a halt.

Some have called this “capitalism with a conscience,” while others have argued for a triple bottom line—people, planet, profit. You might add a fourth value— purpose.

Likewise, religiously (biblically) based morality is the only sure foundation for society in general and politics in particular.

How the Religious “Leg” Requires Religious Freedom

While this religious/moral/cultural leg is referring primarily to religiously based moral values this is certainly not inconsistent with religious freedom. In fact, believers have good reasons to be at the forefront of defending religious freedom.

  1. Many of the first settlers in this country left England because their religious liberty was being threatened. You could call religious liberty and tolerance America’s first freedom.
  2. We do not believe that you can or ought to physically coerce someone else into religious belief, such as occurred during the Inquisition. We can defend people’s legal rights even when we believe them to be wrong. Scripture upholds a right to freedom of conscience even when people’s views are misguided (Rom. 14:23).
  3. We have good reason for desiring the non-establishment of religion. Generally, where religion has been established, it has become diluted and weak. Where it has been allowed freedom, it has thrived. Just look at the dwindling established churches (with a few exceptions) in Europe, England, and Scandinavia. Contrast this situation with the vitality (despite many imperfections) of non-established Christianity in America. When there is full freedom to persuade, the most attractive options gain the most adherents. There is a free market of beliefs and ideas.
  4. The best way to retain our own freedoms is to be defenders of freedom for others. Leslie Newbigin writes:

If we acknowledge the God of the Bible, we are committed to struggle for justice in society, justice means giving to each his due. Our problem (as seen in light of the gospel) is that each of us overestimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbor…. If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent, not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.

Unless believers become foremost defenders of religious freedom for others as well as themselves, they will not be readily heard when they proclaim the gospel. As I talked about in my book, True Truth, a precondition for recovering culture is that we are for justice, not “just us.”

Religious freedom grows out of this religious/moral/cultural foundation. Again, it is important to emphasize that both a political system and an economic system can only rise as high as the characters of those involved. Religious freedom can only be preserved when rooted in principled character, which is in turn rooted in a biblical foundation.


Editor’s note: Read more about the implications of a biblical view of freedom in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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  • Jerry Vreeman

    An articulate description of the religious 3rd leg of our culture. Yet, using the term “religious freedom” may not be accurate in your description. I spend considerable time in Asian cultures, particularly India. How would you describe the 3rd leg in a more generic way…including the religious roots/freedoms for Hinduism, Bhuddism, Islam, etc.? Is it Biblical roots alone, or something planted deep within the structure of humankind and our relationship with our creator that is the 3rd leg of a successful society?

    • Thanks for your comment and question, Jerry. Different religions have different assumptions about the concept of freedom. Some are conducive to religious/economic/political freedom and some are not. We would say that the teaching of the Bible is the most conducive and speaks the most clearly about religious/economic/political freedoms that lead to flourishing.

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