In Biblical principles of religious liberty I began with the phrase “In our current climate.” I decided some people might immediately think of Donald Trump and the current government, so I want to clarify. There are some issues that the President has waded into – e.g. promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment – but that was not foremost in my mind. Three examples of what is foremost in my mind are:
- The assault on Christian individuals to compel their use of their artist talents in ways that violate their consciences – such as the Oregon case with Sweet Cakes by Melissa, the State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, and so on.
- The dust-up in Atlanta when the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia fired the city Fire Chief – not because of his inability to do his job, but because of his published religious beliefs, and the lay preacher fired from his job as a director of Georgia Department of Public Health not for job inability – but regarding his sermons.
- Last but not least, the apparent turn of some Baptists and evangelicals against the ideal of religious liberty for all. For example, editor of the Baptist Christian Index, Gerald Harris, opposes full religious liberty for Muslims. Numerous Southern Baptists (and others) scored the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and International Mission Board for signing an amicus brief in support of Muslims in Basking Ridge, New Jersey who were trying to build a mosque – inciting a debate on Muslims, Religious Liberty and Spiritual Adultery. We Baptists as a whole, I believe, have become lulled to sleep on religious liberty through hundreds of years of enjoying it! Do we understand why we promoted religious liberty? How to avoid spiritual adultery while doing so?
According Philip Wogaman, absolute religious liberty is defined as “the internal freedom to believe and worship as one pleases.”[i] We advocate that without restriction. Absolute religious liberty is sometimes “qualified” in both the freedom to express one’s faith or to act in accordance with one’s beliefs without restraint. Activities that a government deems harmful to other people under its supervision may cause them to limit or restrain the liberty to act.[ii] This might be summed up by saying that the right of conscience/right to believe is absolute and inviolable; while the right to practice is not absolute in reference to government regulations (polygamy and human sacrifice are not allowed under the U.S. vision of religious liberty). The Religious Freedom Restoration Act also recognizes this and seeks to strike a balance between religious liberty and government interest, providing that the United States can burden “a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
In situations like the internal problems in the Southern Baptist Convention with the ERLC and IMB, all should promote, support and defend religious liberty, while understanding that on some of the details of how to accomplish that they may have to “agree to disagree”. In cases like Arlene’s Flowers, interested individuals (such as the complainants) and the government should give the widest latitude possible to conscience. In hiring and firing, employers should not apply religious tests that do not relate to that employment.
[i] Philip Wogaman, Protestant Faith and Religious Liberty, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1967, pages 182–90.
[ii] (1) In speech, for example, slander or incitement to illegal action being considered harmful to the general welfare of all citizens, the words are restrained and not considered “free speech” or “freedom of religion”. (2) In action, murder being considered harmful to others, religious human sacrifice is restrained by the governmental authority in most countries. An individual may be free to believe human sacrifice is required, but restrained from acting in that form of worship – or punished if that form of worship is acted upon.