The Wisdom of Religious Liberty

A disturbing trend has emerged in recent decades within the Christian community. That trend is an apparent desire to transform our government into a theocracy. Some say this is a reaction to secular attacks, which leave Christians feeling persecuted and marginalized. To some extent, I can sympathize with this feeling as I witness secularists’ efforts to exclude all vestiges of religion from the public square. But the trend toward theocracy is alarming and short-sighted, not to mention unconstitutional.

I suppose I should first explain what I mean by a theocracy because that term can have different meanings. At its pinnacle, a theocracy is a government directly ruled by a deity, such as the Old Testament Jewish nation. Of course the Jewish nation ultimately rejected this pure form of theocracy and begged for human kings to rule over them. This angered God, resulting in a form of a curse, where He declared

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

1 Samuel 8:4-22.

And so began the tragedy of the world, where man rejected direct authority from God and looked to man as his leader.

A second form of theocracy is where the people are ruled by a particular religious sect, such as we see in the Middle East, where the sectarian government imposes religious beliefs and practices on its people. This form of government is fully contrary to American beliefs of freedom.

But the Middle Eastern theocracy is not unique.  A hybrid theocracy was exemplified in Seventeenth Century Europe, where the Church of England was the State church. The Church of England became inextricably entwined with the British monarchy. Religious persecution by the church and State was rampant. This ultimately led to the Puritans fleeing to America in search of religious liberty. This persecution has been described as follows:

The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “enforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. . . . Beginning in 1630 as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship God as they chose.1

This was the backdrop for the religious freedoms our forefathers included in our Constitution. Without a long history lesson, our forefathers added what are called the “Establishment Clause” and “Free Exercise Clause” to the Bill of Rights, a group of amendments to the Constitution designed to protect individual liberties. These two clauses prevent the government from passing legislation establishing religion and protect the free exercise of religion. The text of these two clauses is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .

U.S. Const. Amend. I

The meaning of these two clauses have been subject to much debate and controversy over the years and have yielded varying judicial interpretations, but the bottom line is these clauses were intended to ensure that the people would be free to exercise and express their religious beliefs without persecution. To accomplish this, our forefathers recognized that religion must be free from government interference and sanction. This recognition led to the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from passing laws either favoring one religion over another or establishing a State church. The Establishment Clause was designed to protect against many forms of theocracy, such as the government passing sectarian laws and establishing a government-sanctioned church.

While most Christians today are not advocating for a pure theocracy, with God directly leading the Nation though sectarian leaders (such as priests), a large number of Christians advocate for a Christian government, where the government is free to pass theocratic or sectarian laws. In other words, Christians want the laws of the United States to reflect Christian values, which will be imposed upon the people. This desire completely undoes the religious liberty protections our forefathers fought to include in our Constitution, including the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The first question Christians need to ask themselves is “What is the best way to protect my right to freely exercise my religious beliefs?” The next question Christians need to ask themselves is, “Are my rights of religious liberty and freedom from government interference furthered by the government’s ability to pass sectarian laws or to favor one religion over another?” Many Christians never wrestle with the second question. Instead, they feel that fighting for Christian laws is the only way to protect Christianity from marginalization and persecution. They feel that otherwise secularists are given unequal seats at the table at the expense of Christianity.

The feeling of marginalization and persecution is understandable, as secularists appear almost at war with Christianity, with their seemingly unquenchable thirst to drive all of Christianity from the public square. Further, Christians feel threatened as their cultural influence seems to be diminishing, with dropping Church roles and social values quickly diverging from traditional Christian values. While these modern trends are a reality and frustration over them understandable, Christians need to step back and make sure they do not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

Below are several points for consideration:

1.  The Melting Pot.

I hesitate to quote President Obama because he has proved a lighting rod in “Conservative” Christian circles. However, he was spot on (though heavily criticized) when he stated the following:

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.2

This is immensely important. While frustrating to Christians, the United States is a melting pot. Our government governs people of many faiths, including those who claim to have no faith at all. Consequently, imposing sectarian beliefs on the people through legislation cannot be accomplished without persecuting or impinging the religious beliefs and freedoms of some group.

Constitutional protections are not for Christianity alone. Certainly our forefathers were primarily concerned about Christianity, but they did not limit freedom to Christianity alone. Thus, all religions and faiths fall within the Constitutional protections, including the First Amendment. This reflects the wisdom of our forefathers, who, based upon history and prior European experience, recognized that the people would not always agree with the government or any State sponsored church. Therefore, they protected themselves by protecting all religions, not just Christianity.

The First Amendment does NOT read (as some would have it): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion other than Christianity, or prohibiting the free exercise of Christianity . . . .”

2.  Protection from the Will of the Majority.

If our Constitution allowed the government to favor Christianity, such that it was free to pass Christian-oriented sectarian laws, whose Christianity would be enforced? Consider the widely varying beliefs of all the denominations of Christianity. Would our laws be Baptist oriented? Methodist? Catholic? Universalist? Again quoting President Obama, he once remarked as follows:

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.3

Look at same-sex marriage as an example. Some Christian denominations condone it while others do not. So, in response to that social value cultural shift, which branch of Christianity should prevail? The branch represented by a majority of Congress? If you are not represented by the majority, would you feel persecuted?

Consider if Muslims became the majority of America (Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world), would the government’s ability to pass sectarian laws threaten or protect Christianity? What protects the Christian from government imposed Sharia Law?

I would argue the Christian is better served by prohibiting the government from passing sectarian laws. Then the individual Christian is not subject to persecution by the will of the majority in Congress. Hence the wisdom of our forefathers.

3.  Kingdom Building.

Christians expect the government to do the work of the Church. The societal shift away from Christianity and traditional Christian values is largely due to the failure of the Church to spread the Gospel and minister to the people as instructed in the Bible. The Church is responsible for shaping culture, not forcing Christian behaviors through government legislation. The Church must be focused on Kingdom building instead of erecting barrier walls between the Church and the world. To accomplish this, the Church must demonstrate the love of God.

In order to demonstrate the love of God, the Church must follow the example of Christ. And what did Christ do? He dined with sinners.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:10-13.

Christ did not go into fellowship with sinners with guns blazing and judging them for everything they did wrong. No, He served them, dined with them, and loved them. Certainly Christ never condoned any sin, but He went for the heart first.

Consider Christ’s interaction with the adulterous woman:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

John 8:1-11.

In this interaction with a sinner, we don’t see Christ condemning the woman for her sins or naming every sin she had ever committed. Nor do we find Jesus encouraging the teachers of the Law and Pharisees to punish the woman for breaking the Law. Instead, Christ had compassion for the woman. Christ knew how to build His house. So should the Church.

The Church should be spreading God’s message and building relationships with the world instead of forcing laws on people before they know the love of of God. Forcing God’s Law on people before they have a heart for God is counterproductive to Kingdom building. The Bible is clear that sin springs into life in response to laws. Before the Law was given, man didn’t know what sin was. But as soon as man was told not to do something by the Law, sin seized the opportunity afforded by the Law and put sinful desires in the mind of man.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Romans 7:7-13.

The point here is that forcing Christian behavior through government legislation does not grow God’s Kingdom. In fact, this can be destructive because the world naturally will be repelled by these sectarian laws, which ultimately drive a wedge between the world and the Church. Consider the gay rights movement. The more the Church fights these rights, the more the world views the Church as hateful and bigoted. This puts up a barrier between gays and the Church.

In contrast, how would Christ approach the sinner? There are no examples of Christ lobbying for Christian laws to be passed by secular governments. Instead, we find Christ relationship building among the people. Winning the hearts of man is how the Church will transform culture and build God’s Kingdom. That is living out the example of Christ.

4.   Everyone Comes from a Position of Faith.

One of the most common objections I hear from Christians is that all beliefs come from some point of faith (even Atheism).  Therefore, so goes the argument, it is impossible to keep all faith out of legislation and government. Because of this reality, banning sectarian legislation is impossible because it would essentially ban all legislation.

I agree that all beliefs come from some point of faith and, therefore, could be defined as religion, assuming one’s definition of “religion” is something to the effect of ‘faith in a higher being or in things unknown or a belief set in general.’ [An alternate definition in Merriam-Webster for “religion” is “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group]. The problem with this line of thinking is, while sounding great philosophically, it totally guts the First Amendment. When drafting the First Amendment, our forefathers were thinking about traditional religion, Christianity in particular, where laws of conscience came from higher beings or a deity.  This is reflected in the the writings of James Madison, who penned the following (as an example):

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? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?4

A similar sentiment was observed by Thomas Jefferson:

The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.5

As these two forefathers noted, our right to exercise [traditional] religious beliefs was off limits to government. Instead, the government was to limit its powers over us to matters that could be injurious to us. In other words, the government’s role is to protect the people from injuries, such as murder, theft, assault, etc. Matters that pose no harm to others should be left to the freedom of man. As Jefferson noted, religious beliefs and exercise do not injure others (and to the extent they do–such as animal or human sacrifices–the government could then place limited restrictions]. Because religion is a matter of conscience, it should be left between God and man.

In the legal world, we have standards of statutory construction. One of those (greatly simplified) is that an ambiguous provision shall not be interpreted in a manner that eviscerates the statute as a whole. Applied here, one should not read into the First Amendment an ambiguity, the effect of which is to render the First Amendment impotent.

5.  Don’t be Short-Sighted.

Christians need to avoid myopia. While it may feel great to be fighting a perceived battle for God, one must be cautious that in doing so one doesn’t get tripped up by naïveté. The struggle between the spiritual forces of good and evil is very real, and evil will take every opportunity to get between God and man, even while masquerading as an angel of light. [2 Corinthians 11:14-15 (“And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. “).] America has unparalleled freedom for Christians to exercise and express their faith. Oh how Satan would love to chip away at that! And one easy way is for him to convince Christians that they need to reject the current government that has made America thrive and replace it with a theocracy.  Just look at what Satan accomplishes with theocracies in the Middle East. Oh how he would love the opportunity to bring that here.

6.  The First Amendment does not Banish Christianity from the Public Square.

Lastly, Christians must be aware that while the First Amendment keeps the government from interfering in religion, it does not prohibit Christianity in the public square. In fact, it guarantees the right of Christianity to be exercised and expressed in the public square.  This is where the secularists get it very wrong. Our forefathers were very devote Christians (at least most of them were).  They never envisioned or intended for Christianity to be snuffed out in public. That would cut contrary to the Free Exercise Clause.

So, what does this mean? Well, Congress can pass no law that prohibits people from expressing and exercising religious beliefs in politics. The First Amendment places restrictions on government, not on its people. Therefore, the First Amendment does not prohibit the individual’s religious practices and expression.  It prohibits the government’s intrusion into religion, establishment or favoring any particular religion, and establishment of a State religion.  So, the secularist’s usage of the First Amendment as a club against Christians is just as wrong as Christians ignoring the First Amendment and seeking a theocracy.

So what does this look like in practice? As an example, a politician is perfectly free to express his religious beliefs in campaigns and in support of legislation. Politicians can rely on their faith to guide their policies.  A politician can be pro-life and pro-environment because these positions are consistent with God’s Law.

So where is the limit to this freedom? An illustration of how the First Amendment could be violated is if Congress passes a law that is based exclusively on religion. For example, if Muslims took a majority of Congress and they decided to pass laws consistent with Sharia law, such as might require women to wear burqas.  That would be a clear violation of the First Amendment. Such a law would clearly favor and even establish one sect over another. But if religious beliefs serve as guiding principles and do not cross the line into sectarian intrusion, the balance is struck.

In conclusion, Christians who fight for a Christian government or even particular laws based exclusively on Christianity are short-sighted and risk undoing the very religious freedoms they enjoy. Plus, forcing Christian behaviors through legislation can inhibit Kingdom building, which is one of Chistians’ primary responsibilities. Instead of a theocracy, Christians should model the love of Christ and shape culture as opposed to reacting to culture with a legislative whip. And Christians need to learn how to return Christianity to the public square in a winsome and Constitutional manner. As the Pope recently criticized Donald Trump, Christians should build bridges between the Church and the world as opposed to erecting walls between them.

1 https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html

2 https://sojo.net/articles/transcript-obamas-2006-sojournerscall-renewal-address-faith-and-politics.

3 Id.

4 James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.

5  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17, 157–61.

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6 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Religious Liberty

  1. Your liberties were formed out of a more purely Christian worldview and based on liberties that are considered God given and therefore inalienable.
    Do you propose knocking this pillar out from under your liberties all together?
    We need a word for the atheist equivalent of theocracy.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. About knocking down pillars, not at all. You are right that the American concept of liberty (and our legal framework in general) was gleaned from Christianity. No denying that. And these pillars are continued by the Church’s Kingdom building in America, which shapes the culture, which maintains the pillars. However, unless our Constitution is changed, while religion may guide policies, the government cannot legislate religion. Therefore, government cannot maintain Christian pillars on purely sectarian lines by the force of law. The reason we are seeing laws diverging from traditional Christian values is because the culture is changing due to diminishing Christian influence. But this is not the fault of the Constitution but of the Church. A positive of the First Amendment is it protects religious liberty. A negative of the First Amendment is that the laws are subject to the will of the people and cannot be forcibly maintained along sectarian lines, which allows our laws to diverge from traditional Christian values. While it may be frustrating to Christians to see laws drifting, can you really say it would be better to have a Christian theocracy? Because that is what it would come to if we upended the First Amendment. Also, the First Amendment does not forbid a Christian worldview–in fact, it protects it. The biggest threat to a Christian worldview would be the repeal of the First Amendment.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed. The maxim “The will of the people is the law of the land” is good, but only so long as the people are good.
        The will of the people needs to influence policy through representation, not the other way around.
        The Church is failing to influence society.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Public square” is not the issue. We aren’t trying to drive all religion out of the public square. We are trying to end official expression of religious beliefs. That leaves plenty of room for public expression of religiosity, just not under the guise of government entities.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. By “official expression” do you mean that public officials are prohibited from expressing religious beliefs? Or just that the laws themselves cannot contain religious expressions? I wholly disagree that the Constitution prohibits the former. The latter would require more fleshing out. What the Constitution prohibits is Congress passing a law that establishes religion. That doesn’t mean laws cannot be influenced by religious beliefs, otherwise the entire American government would be undone, as it is based on Judeo-Christian values. What the Constitution does prohibit is Congress passing laws establishing a national religion or church and passing sectarian laws (such as Sharia Law).

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  3. Theocracy, direct and indirect, died at the cross. It won’t be revived until the millennial reign of Christ. Believers should study the secular Roman culture in which the first-century church thrived if they want to understand America as a ‘melting pot.’ I’m sick of American “Christian” nationalism. Still, we’re not here to build God’s kingdom (he does that) or even transform culture. We’re here to preach the gospel. Period.

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