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City of Churches painting by Paul Klee

Why Religious Freedom is a Matter of Biblical Justice

John Huleatt

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  • Nancy

    “The Freedom to practice one's faith is too precious a treasure to allow it to be wasted advancing agendas that are at best tangential to the call we receive.” Brian, Religious Freedom is a matter of Biblical Justice because only The True God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Declares what is Good, and thus only The True God can endow us with our unalienable Rights, including our unalienable Right to Religious Liberty. Following The Christ, The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Light) Of Perfect Love can only serve for The Common Good, thus by serving The True God, all persons will experience “a privileged place in society”. The Treaty Of Paris, The Treaty that ended The Revolutionary War, was declared “In The Name Of The Most Holy And Undivided Trinity”, because our Founding Fathers recognized our Judeo-Christian principles could serve for The Common Good. The erroneous notion that private morality and public morality can serve in opposition to each other, and are not complementary, has led to grievous error in both Faith and reason. Slavery, the destruction of a beloved son or daughter residing in their mother’s womb, and the reordering of our beloved sons and daughters according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, in order to justify acts, which, regardless of the actors, or the actor’s desires, objectify the human person, and demean the inherent Dignity of every beloved son or daughter, can never be reconciled with Christianity, which affirms the inherent Dignity of the human person, who, from the moment of conception, is Created In The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter, Wildaniled by God, The Most Holy And Undivided (Blessed) Trinity, worthy of Redemption. The Beckett Fund, no doubt, is doing their best to defend Religious Liberty, which is under attack around the globe, including in our Nation, which professes to be “One Nation, Under God”, and thus “Indivisible,With Liberty And Justice For All”.

  • Nancy D.

    But it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised by it or expect a privileged place in society simply because we’re Christians.” “We are the sons and daughters of a Militant Church, which does not admit and include error, but combats error and defends the truth. A Church that wants to win souls and all of society for Christ.  A Church that separates itself from those, in the inside, who profess a different religion. A Church that we entrust to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, so that with Her Angels She protects it...” “Behold, your Mother.” -see Rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2019/09/de-mattei-schismatic-synod-on-amazon. And thus, from The Beginning, The Catholic Church, Founded By Christ, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, has always existed “to win souls and all of society for Christ”, not through the use of coercion, but through the reflection of Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Love. Love, which is always rightly ordered, to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, is not coercive, nor is it possessive, nor does it serve to manipulate, for the sake of self gratification. To “render onto Caesar, what belongs to Caesar, and to God, what belongs to God”, is necessary to obtain Eternal Salvation, even in a pluralistic society that desires to deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage. “Who do you say that IAm”, has always been the question, for only Jesus The Christ, The Way, The Truth, And The Light (Life), Of Perfect Love, can answer the question, “Who am I, why am I here, and where am I going”, as only Jesus The Christ, Has Revealed, Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, that no Greater Love Is There Than This, To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved. 34] A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another." [John 13:34]

  • Brian Dolge

    I am always disappointed by the proponents of "religious liberty" who seem so dedicated to defending the right of "religious people" to keep others out, out of their schools, out of their businesses, out of their insurance plans; yet they so rarely strive to bring others in. A quick survey of the Beckett fund website shows they are not involved in the defense of the members of No More Deaths who were convicted of leaving food and water in the desert, despite their defense that their faith required them to "welcome the stranger , feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty". These are people in jail explicitly for following their Christian faith, yet no religious paper mentions them, no "religious freedom" lawyers are appealing their case, they are represented by the ACLU and written about in the Washington Post. Where was the Beckett fund in the case of Domineque Ray who was executed without the benefit of clergy simply and explicitly because he was a Muslim? Did the Beckett fund defend the pastor in Florida who was arrested for distributing food to the homeless in violation of a city zoning code? All too often the protectors of "religious freedom" are found defending the marginal interests of the comfortable and powerful while those doing the work of Jesus among the poor and unpopular are left to fend for themselves. I do not pretend to know if the Little Sisters of the Poor have such a finely honed moral code that they will be destroyed if forced to participate at 4th or 5th hand in the occurrence of an abortion, but I know the world would be a better place if the treasure and toil that the Beckett fund expends on them and the various florists and schools that wish to avoid associating with homosexuals were instead directed to caring for "the least of these". If church leaders feel they cannot in good conscious obey a law requiring them to carry a certain type of insurance or allow a certain person to teach in their schools, their stance would gain more respect if they made their arguments from inside a jail cell. Such epistles worked well for Dr. King, Henry David Thoreau, and a guy named Paul. The Freedom to practice one's faith is too precious a treasure to allow it to be wasted advancing agendas that are at best tangential to the call we receive.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Luke Goodrich’s excellent new book Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America. Goodrich is a senior attorney at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and many of the cases he discusses in the book are ones he litigated. Primarily through stories and examples, he gives valuable practical and biblical guidance on why Christians should care about religious liberty for all and how to weather current culture wars.footnote In a space that is increasingly tending towards politicization and slogans, Goodrich’s balanced, accurate, and thoughtful perspective is much needed. From conversations with members of my own church community, students I teach, and fellow citizens of many faiths or none across the country, this book is overdue.

As Goodrich explains in my favorite chapter, “How Christians get it wrong,” too many Christians frame the issue the wrong way and fail to understand that religious freedom is an issue of biblical justice. When we neglect the right of all people to freely seek and follow ultimate truth, we work against God’s desire for “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Goodrich writes that many Christians fall into one of three “camps,” which he calls the Pilgrims, the Martyrs, and the Beginners. (He focuses on Christians in the US, but his insights apply well beyond this country.)

Pilgrims want government to preserve a privileged place for Christianity. They claim that religious freedom for Christians has always been core to our national identity. And they believe that because Christianity is true, government should not restrict it. Some even claim government should promote it or at least honor Christianity’s historical and cultural contribution to this nation. Put simply, the Pilgrims view is that Christians deserve a special place in society.

Goodrich points out the various flaws of the Pilgrim approach. First, it’s unbiblical: Jesus told us we would be persecuted for our faith (John 15:20). Goodrich writes, “[t]his doesn’t mean we should desire persecution or be indifferent to it. But it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised by it or expect a privileged place in society simply because we’re Christians.” The Pilgrim approach is also historically inaccurate. It ignores this country’s sad legacy of persecution against religious minorities often at the hands of religious majorities (Puritan vs. Quakers, Protestants vs. Catholics, Christian colonists banning Jews from voting or holding office). Further, welcoming government preference of Christianity is dangerous because a government that privileges a church will soon want to control it. A church that depends on the government cannot avoid corruption and compromise in return for political security.footnote And Pilgrims who rely on the government to support their faith tend to grow fearful and belligerent when they feel this support threatened. These emotions fan the flames of the culture wars and, as Goodrich points out, “can alienate nonbelievers from Christianity and from the idea of religious freedom generally” because religious liberty seems “a thin disguise for trying to maintain Christian dominance.”

Martyrs – understandably tired of fighting the culture war battles – take the opposite approach, counting religious persecution as a blessing. A timely example of such “Martyrs Malaise” is this blog post by my good friend Charles Moore, who recommends indifference to the cause of religious freedom. Although it’s true that nothing can stop God’s work, Martyrs vastly oversimplify the issue, claiming that persecution strengthens the church and disparaging religious freedom as a tool for maintaining political and cultural dominance.

Martyrs get it just as wrong as Pilgrims. Scripture teaches us to expect persecution not as good but as evil that God can use for his purposes and that he will ultimately avenge (Revelation 6:9–11). Like the Pilgrims, Martyrs lack fidelity to historical accuracy and context. For example, Goodrich points out that the “famous line about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the church comes from a document in which Tertullian demanded that the Roman governors stop persecuting the church.”footnote In other words, it is advocacy against persecution by an astute leader who is not afraid to defend the life and faith of his fellow Christians from state injustice. In fact, throughout history, persecution has often hindered Christian ministry and decimated churches including in China in the ninth century, Japan in the seventeenth, and Iraq today.footnote By contrast, faith flourished in times of tolerance: “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31). Some have suggested that church growth leads to persecution, not the inverse, and point out that studies fail to corroborate the Martyr argument. Finally, Martyrs’ acceptance of religious persecution can easily slip into cynicism or apathy about an injustice that is growing worse as religious restrictions rise around the world (see the most recent data from the Pew Forum and Open Doors).

Goodrich’s third category is the Beginners, Christians who are unsure about religious freedom or who just haven’t thought about it much at all.

Thankfully, Goodrich doesn’t just diagnose our failings; he spends most of the book telling us how to get it right. He calls religious freedom “a basic issue of biblical justice, rooted in the nature of God and the nature of man.” As he explains, God desires a genuinely loving relationship with us so he gives us the “freedom to embrace or reject Him” (See Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 3:20). All humans have an impulse to seek truth and goodness and live according to what we find. At its deepest, this innate longing for “transcendent truth, for ultimate good, and for eternal beauty” is a longing to find and follow God. But we can’t embrace truth authentically unless we do it of our own free will. So, as Goodrich puts it, “when the government tries to coerce us into embracing its version of truth – or forbids us from embracing our own – it is going against our very nature as human beings. It is treating us as less than fully human.” As humans, and especially as Christians, we have a responsibility to defend all people from government’s attempt to usurp the place of God.

Contra the Pilgrims, the church must remain independent of the state. But it also should not remain quiescent like the Martyrs in the face of governmental injustice. Goodrich calls the church back to true Christian witness to government, much as Anabaptists have taught for centuries. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. restated this ancient instruction beautifully: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”footnote (See also Foundations of our Faith and Calling: the Bruderhof, section 12: “The church must witness to the state, serving as its conscience, helping it to distinguish good from evil, and reminding it not to overstep the bounds of its God-appointed authority.”) As an Anabaptist in the Twenty-First Century, I agree with Goodrich that we must advocate for the rights of believers to live out our faith and for the rights of non-believers to seek faith.footnote

How exactly should we go about defending religious freedom when even believers have a hard time responding to the contentious issues of our time? Goodrich provides some practical guidance for today as well as drawing lessons from biblical heroes.

Perhaps his most instructive example is the apostle Paul. Paul’s responses to persecution ranged from fleeing (Acts 13:50–51; 14:6; 17:10, 14) to demanding his legal rights (Acts 16:37; 22:25). Notably, when he experienced religious freedom, Paul capitalized on these opportunities to teach freely, and his ministry flourished (Acts 18:9–11, 18; 19:10; 28:16, 30–31). Paul tried to respond to each threat and opportunity in whichever way would best further God’s purposes. Sometimes that meant submitting to mistreatment, and at other times it meant defending the Christian cause before the authorities or the populace. Like Paul, we must focus on fulfilling God’s purposes. As Goodrich concludes, “our calling is not to respond to the religious freedom challenges ahead. Our calling is to respond to Jesus.”

City of Churches painting by Paul Klee

City of Churches by Paul Klee, 1918

Footnotes

  1. Goodrich addresses popular contemporary ideas on religious freedom rather than chronicling its history. Readers who are also interested in exploring the historical and theological roots of religious liberty should try Robert Louis Wilken’s recent book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom.
  2. Constantine is traditionally blamed for initiating the fusion of church and state, but we shouldn’t forget the role of those Christian leaders who compromised their witness in order to secure his patronage. See also Russell Moore’s piece “Why Theocracy Is Terrible,” in which he warns that those who seek earthly power by claiming to represent God “are always, in every situation, oppressive because they wish to use God’s glory and God’s authority without God.”
  3. See T. Herbert Bindley’s translation of Apologeticus.
  4. Already in 1859, John Stuart Mill called the Martyr view “one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), 23.
  5. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 47.
  6. Even ignoring the gospel mandate to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39), Christians have a self-interested reason to protect the religious freedom of non-Christians. As Pastor Martin Niemöller pointed out in his oft-quoted poem “First they came...,” if we don’t speak out when others are persecuted, no one will be left to speak for us when our turn comes.
Contributed By

John Huleatt is General Counsel for the Bruderhof.

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