November 2018 – It has been observed that, in the Bill of Rights, religious liberty is literally the “first freedom.” Of the five rights listed in the First Amendment, religious liberty is listed first. The wording is simple, yet sublime: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ...”
With growing controversies over immigrants and refugees entering the U.S., both legally and illegally, Christians have struggled to answer this question: Does this first constitutional freedom apply to religions other than Christianity? There are good reasons to answer yes.
A right to disobey?
Most Christians are probably happy to include religious freedom among the collection of “natural” rights in the Declaration of Independence, rights that are according to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In one of the most well known sentences in the English language, author Thomas Jefferson famously stated:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Ironically, this creates something of a paradox for the Christian who is loyal to God. On the one hand, the believer sees religious liberty as something that allows the mission of the church to proceed unhindered by government opposition.
On the other hand, it would appear that the Christian is also saying the God of the Bible has granted to every person the “natural right” to worship a false god, a million gods, or even the devil himself.
Religious liberty for all?
However, the answer to the paradox explains why the founders instituted religious liberty in the first place. They understood religious liberty as something congruent to the biblical teaching of “free will.”* That is to say: (1) because God has granted people free will, they can decide for themselves what God, god, or gods they will serve; (2) because they are free before God to worship whomever they choose, our Bill of Rights guarantees freedom safe from government coercion; (3) because true Christian conversion requires a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ, allowing Christians to proselytize and allowing unbelievers to reject the gospel is actually the most biblical approach to take.
James Madison, one of the most influential Founding Fathers, said in his tract Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785):
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.
The trigger for Madison’s tract was a bill he opposed in the General Assembly of Virginia that would have created from the state treasury a subsidy for Christian preachers. At the time, many were warning that piety and religious observance in Virginia were waning. The solution: government should promote the gospel so the detrimental trends could be arrested.
Not only should government not prefer one religion over another, Madison argued. Religious freedom must be available to everyone. He said:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?
It is reasonable to argue that a freedom which one Christian treasures for himself might also be a freedom that another Christian – or even a pagan – might equally treasure.
Coerced to become Christian?
It seems axiomatic for evangelicals today to assert that one can be forced to become a Christian. True, a person can be coerced to confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord – or to demonstrate any number of outward signs of “conversion.” But Paul makes clear in Romans 10:10 that authentic outward expression must accompany faith in the heart for there to be true salvation.
Madison asserts that this is precisely why religious liberty must be granted to all:
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man. …
Thus, the rebel who rejects the gospel is answerable to God; he is not and should not be answerable to the state for that rejection.
Moreover, the state cannot do what only the church, through Christ, can do – produce true converts. If the state attempts to empower government “magistrates” to coerce Christian conversion, Madison said, it becomes “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”
Against the darkness
It’s important to recognize that Madison is not arguing against Christians “voting their values.” Instead, he is declaring that government must not officially – and thus with coercive power – promote one religious view over another.
The Judeo-Christian worldview is part of the foundation of America. We should seek to convince our fellow citizens that the only way for our society to thrive is for Christian principles to be the bedrock of civic and cultural life. In fact, it is quite biblical for Christians to warn non-believing Americans that God blesses nations for doing right in His sight and judges nations for committing evil (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
Followers of Christ are called to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), and it is no exaggeration to state that, without that cultural influence, decay and darkness will ultimately triumph.
Nevertheless, while it is important for Christians to protect and promote religious liberty, both for themselves and for those with whom they disagree, it is equally important to remember that followers of Christ should not help false religions with their work. For example, they should not aid in the construction of Muslim mosques or otherwise contribute to the spread of Islam.
We believe that God has spoken through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), and those who deny this are of “the spirit of error” and “the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:1-6). New Testament writers were severe when warning against cooperating with false religions. In 2 John 10-11, the apostle emphasizes that false teachers should be neither welcomed nor aided:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this [gospel] teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
Whether all earthly freedoms are granted to us or are denied, the Christian’s first allegiance is to Christ the King and His kingdom.
*For those who point to Scriptures such as John 3:1-8 and conclude that sinners are free to choose Christ only as the Holy Spirit changes their heart, this substitute might be preferable: For those who are granted the grace to become born again, religious liberty is a blessing that allows men and women to follow that conversion impulse with minimal hindrance from the government.
For more studies on freedom of religion in the U.S., consider The Bible: America’s Source of Law and Liberty, America’s Providential History, and other books and video resources by Stephen McDowell. Founder of Providence Foundation, McDowell is a highly esteemed historian who chronicles the nation’s Christian roots. Visit providencefoundation.com or call 434-978-4535 for more information.