The Myth of Generic Religious Liberty

Last Sunday, I committed the cardinal social sin of "mixing politics and religion". But the truth is, it is logically impossible to mix politics and religion. Politics and religion can't be mixed because they can't be separated. Religion is always political, because every belief system has a particular vision of morality (what is considered good vs. bad) and produces a certain type of culture. Thus, the problem is not with mixing politics and religion but with trying to separate them. As we see in our own society, trying to separate politics from religion turns politics into a religion of its own with the all-powerful state as god. What we see happening in our society and politics is the bitter fruit of the Enlightenment myth of a religiously neutral (secular) government.

Just last week (12/28), President Trump issued an official Proclamation (click here) that commemorated the martyrdom of Bishop Thomas Becket and held him up as a champion of religious liberty, who dared to defy an authoritarian monarch. The Proclamation goes on to assert the universal right of religious freedom for all people: "If we are to continue to be the land of the free, no government official, no governor, no bureaucrat, no judge, and no legislator must be allowed to decree what is orthodox in matters of religion or to require religious believers to violate their consciences. No right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one's religious convictions.... America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts."

There is a lot to agree with in the Proclamation, but there is one major problem: All "religions" are treated as equal, and the state is seen as a neutral defender of generic religious freedom for people to follow whatever they believe in their hearts. Two key points are essential for understanding the problem with this way of thinking: 1) the current definition of "religion" has changed drastically over time, and 2) there are countless "religions" that we definitely should not defend or protect by public policy.

First, the Latin word religio was a technical term for Christian piety. It was a distinctly Christian virtue. At the time of the founding of the U.S.A, there was only one "religion"--the Christian religion. None of the other world belief systems were considered religions in the sense that we now use that word. Adherents to other sects were seen as heretics, blasphemers, idolaters, etc. They were not seen as "religious people". So, the "religious freedom" in our founding documents refers to freedom for all different sorts of Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, etc.) to worship and practice their religion (i.e. Christian piety) without persecution/interference from the government. In stark contrast, we now speak of all the "world religions" as if they're completely equal and all deserve the same sort of protection as Christianity. The founding fathers never advocated state persecution against blasphemers and idolaters, but neither would they have advocated for official protection by the state of anti-Christian faiths.

Flowing from this is the simple fact that most other world "religions" have rituals and cultural expressions that we should not want to protect. But if we say that all religious expression of any kind deserves protection by the government, we are trying to define religion as something that only happens in your head, in your heart, or in the privacy of your own home. But that's not how religion works. Religions are always externalized in some way. Cultus (worship) of any kind always produces a culture. Try a little thought experiment: Should the government protect groups that use hallucinogenic mushrooms in their rituals or practice genital mutilation of children? Should the government protect the "religious freedom" of someone who practices animal sacrifice for their rituals? What about human sacrifice like so many South American tribes formerly did? How can the government object to devout Muslims who follow the teachings of Muhammad by committing suicide bombings and the like? If the widow of a devout Hindu man wants to throw herself on his funeral pyre, shouldn't the government protect that religious expression?

Generic religious freedom doesn't work unless everybody--including Christians--agrees to keep their religion to themselves and not let it out into "public life". The "neutral" secular state must be the referee to keep all the religions in their corners. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his Obergefell opinion legalizing gay marriage, "I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools." As the Obergefell decision shows us very clearly, the secular state eventually becomes god and enforces its own anti-Christian religion and morality on society. There is no such thing as generic religion freedom to worship an undefined "God", but that is what virtually all "conservatives" have agreed to.

The unspoken rule of American "religious freedom" in recent years is that you can believe whatever you want as long as it doesn't offend or upset anyone else. Unfortunately, many Christians have bought into this view and have agreed to a privatized faith and a supposedly neutral public square. But this neutered gospel of private experience has no real good news and won't transform anything or anyone. This kind of theology doesn't bother the Devil one bit, and it certainly doesn't cause the aggressive liberals in our nation to lose any sleep. They're advancing their agenda with great success, while God's people are focused on trying to be socially acceptable and not hurting anyone's feelings. Obviously, this is completely contrary to Scripture and to the Great Commission. A cursory reading of the Book of Acts reveals a potent gospel that kicks the devil in the teeth, threatens tyrants, causes riots in major cities, and generally "turns the world upside down." 

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