In early 2012 when the Obama administration first announced that the Department of Health and Human Services — as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — would force employers to provide contraceptive and abortifacient drugs to employees at no cost, alarm bells rightly went off among both Catholics and Protestants. Despite an accounting gimmick the administration tried to pass off as a so-called exemption, federal officials are still pushing business owners who object to abortive medical procedures to provide abortive drugs in their health insurance plans. Even as we write, the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby — a private, for-profit business — are challenging the government’s mandate.
Meanwhile, the rise of the same-sex marriage issue will continue to put private citizens in an untenable position in states where same-sex marriage is legal. While politicians promise to protect religious rights of clergy (promises that in a similar situation in Canada proved to be empty), non-clergy citizens are being sued for choosing to not provide services to homosexual couples based on their religious convictions. Non-profits, like Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, have had to close their doors for not placing children for adoption in same-sex-parented home. 1
So it’s with good reason that Christians and conservatives are collectively crying foul at encroachments on religious liberties in the United States. Though these cases usually get scant coverage from mainstream media outlets, they represent bureaucratic posturing against the right to religious liberty.
Religious liberty has historically been considered America’s first freedom because of its prominence in the minds of America’s founders and its enshrinement in the first amendment to the Constitution. But there is another reason religious liberty should be put in first place: historically, when a society begins restricting religious freedom, coercive restrictions on other liberties follow. When we fail to speak out against seemingly small incursions against religious liberty we cede ground, little by little, to those who would like to see religious liberty curtailed.
Religious Liberty Was a Founding Principle of the U.S.
Upon its founding, the United States was not religiously united. Comprised of colonies with established churches ranging from Congregationalist to Presbyterian, Baptist to Catholic, religious freedom and tolerance were extended only as far as each colony’s established denomination would allow. Persecution of dissenters was not unheard of. Baptist evangelist John Leland became fast friends with deist Thomas Jefferson in the early days of the American Revolution because Jefferson advocated for religious freedom denied to Baptists in New England. Baylor University historian Thomas S. Kidd explains:
The link between Jefferson and Leland indicates that at the time of the founding of the United States, deists and evangelicals (and the range of believers in between) united around principles of religious freedom that were the keys to success of the Revolution and that aided in the institution of a nation. The alliance of evangelicals and deists was fragile and hardly unanimous, but it proved strong enough to allow Americans to “begin the world over again” as Tom Paine put it. 2
The American founders understood, though, that important as religious liberty was in itself, if a government actively restricted religious freedom, it ultimately would act tyrannically in other areas as well. Religion would be a means by which the state would try to control the people. 3 In other words, if the state is willing to encroach upon the sacred sphere of churches, what would stop it from encroaching upon other spheres where it has no place? Kidd points out that deists and Christians alike united around five key points when staking out a position on religious liberty during the revolution:
- State-sanctioned churches should be disestablished
- A creator God was guarantor of fundamental rights
- Human sinfulness posed a threat to the polity (especially via the power of the state)
- A republic needed to be sustained by virtue on the part of ordinary citizens
- God/Providence moved in and through the work of particular nations 4
Nowhere else in the world has the effort to secure religious liberty been so robust.
Modern Threats to Religious Liberty
In the West governments have rarely taken up wholesale movements against religious liberty. In the former Soviet Union officials routinely knocked down doors of religious persons, interrogated them, encouraged children to report their parents’ religious activities, and generally terrified religious people or turned a blind eye to their suffering. Such stories still are regularly reported in China today. But when religious persecution comes to America, it will more likely than not be through choking bureaucracy. 5 This is why bureaucratic moves like the Health and Human Services Contraception Mandate — enacted by unelected officials — are so alarming. According to religious freedom experts Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, other tipoffs of government restriction include particular religions being forced to register with the government; 6 limits on the freedom to worship; foreign missionaries being inhibited in some way; and regulations against proselytizing. 7
And then there is the tyranny of the majority. Especially with the advent of the Internet and social media, nasty rumors spread more rapidly than they ever have before. Negative stories planted in the press about controversial religious leaders spread like wildfire, causing a dip in public support for religious freedom. A study undertaken by the First Amendment Center in 2000 found nearly 73 percent of Americans agreed that “the freedom to worship as one chooses […] applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are.” Only seven years later, that number had dropped to 56 percent. 8 Even if these dips are temporary, they give political cover to those who wish religious liberty as our founders conceived it was a thing of the past. This makes defense of the First Amendment all the more important.
Why Religious Liberty Matters
Religious liberty is the key freedom for sustaining a free and virtuous society. Grim and Finke have found direct correlations between religious liberty and political freedom, freedom of the press, and economic freedom. Stunningly, the researchers found that religious liberty and the overall well-being of society are inextricably linked. When religious freedom is abridged, gross domestic product goes down, inflation increases, fewer foreign companies invest in that country, and democracy itself erodes. 9
Restrictions on religious liberty destroy a nation. If anything is clear from the 20th century, it is that religious restrictions and state-sanctioned secularism eventually lead to tyranny and bloodshed. Even a nation as unconcerned with basic rights as China is now slowly acknowledging this: China’s Religious Affairs Bureau has even publicly acknowledged that state-sanctioned atheism isn’t working. 10
The American founders’ hypothesis certainly appears to be right: apart from its inherent value, religious freedom secures other liberties and enables human flourishing by checking the power of the state.
So What Now?
In the U.S., at least, the conversations surrounding the HHS mandate, same-sex marriage, and rights of conscience seem to be growing more polarizing, not less. That means religious liberty proponents — of whom Christians have the most reason to be vocal — need to discover ways to get the word out to their fellow citizens, urgently and credibly. We must not remain silent. Winsomely explaining why religious liberty is so important is a mission-critical priority.
Christians may be unique in our ability to communicate this message. When Jesus said we ought to pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s but pay to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17), he was effectively limiting the role of the state. In order to preserve religious liberty, the Church will need to assert its responsibility to do things only the Church is equipped to do. America’s founders intentionally limited government’s power in religious matters. They understood, as British political leader, historian, and author Lord Acton (best known for his statement, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” 11), wisely noted, “Liberty of the Church in the State involves authority of the Church in her own sphere — all liberty means the free exercise of authority in whatever is its right sphere.” 12
- “New York Hospital Agrees to Protect Rights of Pro-Life Nurses,” Thomas Messner, The Foundry Blog, The Heritage Foundation, February 17, 2013.
- Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books: 2010, New York) 6.
- Ibid, 51.
- Ibid, 6-8
- Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press: 2011, New York) 33.
- Ibid, 36.
- Ibid, 39.
- Ibid, 59-60.
- Ibid, 207.
- Ibid, 203.
- Lord Acton’s letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton (1887). See John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 13th and centennial ed. (Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company 1955), p. 335. Lord Acton’s English name was Sir. John Dalberg-Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL).
- Correspondence between Lord Acton and Richard Simpson, October 6, 1862, quoted in Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality: Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol. II, edited by J. Rufus Fears (Liberty Fund: 1988, Indianapolis), 611.