The Supreme Court of the United States of America has created bewildering confusion about where the line should be drawn between church and state. Sometimes public displays of the Ten Commandments are acceptable and other times they are not. Sometimes prayer is okay and other times it is unconstitutional. Sometimes a cross is legal and other times it must be removed. Nativity scenes are allowed here, but not there.
Why is religious freedom so difficult? Are decades of conflicting legal rulings evidence that religious freedom does not work? Are we in danger of losing a precious liberty for which so many have suffered and died?
After centuries of cruel oppression and harsh violence in the Old World, people came to the New World hoping to build a better life, one with liberty and justice for all. Even so, some people brought Old World ideas with them to America and oppressed their fellow citizens because of their religious differences. And even though we now have an amendment to the Constitution that guarantees our religious freedom, after more than two hundred years we still struggle.
Despite these persistent difficulties, religious freedom in America is truly ground-breaking and not something that we should abandon. Religious freedom is fundamental. Our cherished political liberties rest firmly on the foundation of our religious freedom. Without religious freedom there would be no political freedom.
It is true, Enlightenment philosophers made important contributions to the great American experiment in liberty, but religious freedom was and is the vital underpinning for political liberty. And religious freedom was championed by Christians who built the house of freedom on the firm foundation of God’s word. Specifically, the teachings of Jesus provide the basis for providing religious freedom to everyone.
Jesus revealed two cornerstone principles that undergird a uniquely Christian concept of religious tolerance and freedom. First, Jesus practiced religious freedom by allowing individuals to accept or reject his message without coercion from him, from religious institutions or from the state.
On one occasion a rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus instructed him to go beyond following commandments and to sell his possessions, giving the money to the poor, and becoming his follower. The man could not bring himself to leave his riches and so Jesus, although he loved the man, allowed him to walk away. Jesus respected the man’s God-given freedom to make up his own mind.
Proponents of true religious freedom who came to America insisted on laws that kept religious and state institutions from punishing people for their religious beliefs and practices, or lack thereof. They insisted on laws that protected people from religious and state institutions that would force them to support any particular religious organization. They wanted everyone to have freedom to practice religion, or not, based on their own personal beliefs, not someone else’s.
Jesus’ second cornerstone principle is that two kingdoms co-exist in this age, both endorsed by God: Church and State. Jesus made some powerful enemies who constantly tried to trick him into saying something that would allow them to bring legal charges against him. In one such attempt they questioned him about paying taxes. After asking for a Roman coin and pointing out whose inscription was on the coin, Jesus told them, “Give the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God” (Matthew 22:21).
When Jesus was on trial he faced Pilate, the local Roman governor. Pilate had been told by Jesus’ enemies that he was a dangerous threat to the government. In his interrogation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus said yes, but of a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that does not fight like this world’s kingdoms; a kingdom that instead relies on proclaiming God’s truth.
Jesus refused to use the power of the state, or any coercion whatsoever, to force people into submitting to his message against their will. After all, forced conversion is not true conversion. But Jesus also recognized the authority of the state to impose and enforce law and order, even to the point of his own execution (unfairly, I might add). He saw a clear division between Caesar and God, the state and the church.
Christians in America fought for religious freedom that is based on Jesus’ understanding of two kingdoms. The state has no God-given right to govern the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens. The church has no God-given mandate to enforce law and order. Or, from a positive perspective, the state should concern itself with law and order and the church should focus on religious beliefs and practices.
The state is allowed the sword of physical coercion in its task of enforcing law and order. The church has a sword, too, but not one of physical violence or political coercion. The sword of the church is the word of God. The power of God’s people is in proclaiming God’s truth.
So, is religious freedom still important? Perhaps for those of us who have never really endured violent religious oppression it is impossible to measure the true value of religious liberty. Perhaps Americans have grown somewhat complacent about the great worth of our freedoms because we have no memory of the stockades, the jail cells, the fines, the bloodshed.
Or, maybe Americans take religious freedom for granted, failing to entertain the notion that it really could be lost. But there are no guarantees that religious freedom gained will be religious freedom retained. The confusing court cases in the U.S. over the past few decades are evidence that our religious freedom is still a work in process, still open to conflicting interpretations by various groups who represent divergent points of view.
Ironically, despite their passionate belief in freedom, followers of Jesus have often referred to themselves as slaves. But the master is not the state, a political leader, or even a religious leader or institution. The Master is Jesus. It may seem counter-intuitive, but true and eternal freedom comes through following and serving the all-powerful and all-good Lord.
Religious freedom is precious, but in reality it has come and gone throughout history and its future is precarious. Nevertheless, a true and lasting personal freedom is available to anyone, whatever the direction of political or legal trends may be. Let’s not give up on protecting our religious freedom, but let’s not forget that our greatest liberty of all comes by God’s grace through our faith in the Crucified One; and no human lawmaker can take that away.
Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, August 2013