The First Amendment of the Constitution recognizes the fundamental right of freedom of religion. It prohibits Congress from favoring any one religious group or restricting the free exercise of religion. Over the U.S.’s brief history, this right has endured many challenges and qualifications, but even today much of what the Founders established remains intact.
Generally speaking, religious liberty refers to “immunity from civil coercion that forces institutions or individuals to act contrary to sincerely held belief system (i.e. religious) convictions.” In essence, religious liberty means people can live out their religious convictions without fear of punishment or persecution from the state or private actors.
In recent decades, however, as the culture wars have expanded, the freedoms granted in the First Amendment have come under serious assault. Modern threats to religious liberty come from many sectors of society — from radical Muslims supporting Sharia Law, from totalitarian secularists attempting to push religion out of public life and to suppress freedom of conscience, and even from a few Christian groups attempting to reshape the federal government into a theonomic “Christian” society.
The danger posed by these groups is largely from their confidence in the state’s ability to control the conscience, but they fundamentally misunderstand human nature and the state’s role in restraining evil. Given the reality of sin, both in individuals and institutions, an entity of violence like the state cannot possibly be the arbiter of ultimate questions of meaning — questions that religions, by nature, have always tried to answer.
Religious liberty is, therefore, a good thing on this side of eternity and an important freedom for Christians to support, but what are the biblical reasons for doing do?
In a previous article, we learned about the biblical purpose of government, but does the Bible provide reasons for limiting governments, particularly in the realm of religion? Simply put: yes. The clearest example in the New Testament is when Jesus responds to some Jews trying to trick Him with a question about paying taxes to Rome (Matt. 22:15-22). Jesus holds up a coin and asks them whose image is on it, to which they answer, “Caesar.” What follows is one of Jesus’ most iconic lines:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
With this response Jesus revealed that some matters belong to Caesar and some matters belong to God alone. Church and state hold distinct roles and spheres of authority in civil life. The state should not interfere in matters of the Church, and vice versa. In matters legitimately belonging to the state, people should submit to their governments (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
For example, the Church has no authority over issues like criminal punishment or how civil laws are enacted. Church matters, though, would involve the selection of its own leadership (Matt. 10:10-4; Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:3-9). The state has no authority over such things. In matters belonging to the Church (or conscience), people should submit to God (Acts 5:29).
Still, there are areas of civil life that invite controversy over matters of religious expression. As a result, it is not always easy to determine “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s.” Nevertheless, the basic principle of religious liberty is apparent in the existence of these distinct realms of authority.
Religious liberty is also apparent in the nature of the Kingdom of God. Just before He is crucified, Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then His followers would fight for the Kingdom through military or political power like everyone else (John 18:36). Instead, the Kingdom of God is established by changing hearts and minds through the power of the Gospel, not through worldly means. The Kingdom of God expands only by genuine repentance from sin through faith in Christ, which military or political coercion can never accomplish.
There are several other passages that lend support for religious liberty. Consider that during His lifetime, Jesus chose not to assume authority over civil matters (cf. Luke 12:13-14), nor did He compel belief in Himself (Luke 9:52-55). Consider also that the apostles did not coerce other people to believe in Christ. Rather, they commonly taught and reasoned with people, demonstrating from the scriptures why everyone should repent and believe in Jesus (Acts 17:1-15; 18:26-28; 19:8-10; 28:23).
On several occasions the Bible even commends individuals for disobeying the state out of obedience to God (Ex. 1:15-21; Josh. 2; 1 Kings 18:4; Daniel 1, 3, 6; Matt. 2; Acts 5:29; Rev. 13:14). These examples do not by themselves provide a complete framework for religious liberty, but they at least lay the foundation for the separation of political coercion from religious belief and practice. When the state fails to respect this separation, disobedience is justified.
Theologian Wayne Grudem sees several practical implications of this biblical foundation that form a framework for religious liberty in modern society.
First, governments should not compel religious belief or practice. Second, Christians should actively advocate for religious liberty for everyone, not just Christians. Third, governments should remain generally neutral in their treatment of religious groups and not favor one denomination or religion over another.
And finally, since the realm of religious belief and conscience do not belong to the state, the state should not use its power of taxation and coercion in ways that would give advantage toward any specific group. Policies of favoritism would not only threaten religious minorities but would encourage inauthentic conversion into the favored group. Biblically informed Christians should prefer neither outcome.
Freedom of religion, however, does not mean the total “separation of church and state” nor complete neutrality on moral and social issues. Although buttressed by notable Supreme Court cases, both of these notions — complete separation and total neutrality — stem from a secular conception of religion at odds with American history and biblical principles.
Freedom of religion does not preclude the government from supporting religion in a benign and general way so long as each religious group shares access to the same benefits (i.e., tax-exempt status, chaplaincy in the military, etc.). True freedom of religion, therefore, means the state should treat all groups equally and respect their right to practice their faith peacefully.
Sadly, many forces throughout American society are willing to question these fundamental rights, which is why freedom of religion, speech, and conscience find themselves at the forefront of the new culture wars.
It is, therefore, all the more important that Christians understand the foundations of these rights and why they are crucial to maintaining a free society. Without them, religious individuals and institutions are much worse off.
More importantly, genuine conversion to faith in Christ cannot be coerced by the state. It can only come from a changed heart because true faith is a matter of the conscience, where God alone holds authority. Therefore, for the sake of the Gospel, Christians should advocate for freedom of religion and its corollaries, the right of free speech and conscience. These freedoms are not simply novel ideas for modern society. They have their foundations in a biblical worldview, and those foundations are worth defending.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.