In recent years, debates surrounding religious liberty have become some of the most heated in American politics. They have become major campaign issues, been the focus of countless legal battles, and have been passionately considered in legislatures across the country.Despite the level of attention these debates have garnered, many Christians still fail to recognize the gravity of the underlying issues, often dismissing them as a continuation of the wearisome “culture wars.” These clashes concerning religious liberty, however, are perhaps some of the most important issues of our day because their outcome could threaten the ability of future generations to accomplish our highest calling: to freely practice and share the Gospel.
In this four-part series, NC Family will attempt to describe the nuts and bolts of the current religious liberty landscape by:
Before digging deeper into these topics, we’ll tackle the basic question of what religious liberty is, how it is being threatened, and why that threat must be answered.
What Is Religious Liberty and How Is It Being Threatened?
In one sense, religious liberty is an extremely simple ideal that is easy to communicate and understand. It is the right of an individual in public and private to express, worship, live and work in accordance with his or her beliefs and conscience. This right is recognized in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from establishing a state religion or prohibiting a citizen’s free exercise of their religion. The vast majority of Americans in this country participate in this freedom without question or serious challenge. On a daily basis, millions of Americans worship together, express their faith in a variety of different ways, and earnestly live out their deeply held religious beliefs.
In another sense, religious liberty is an impossibly ambiguous ideal that is difficult to communicate succinctly or to fully comprehend. This uncertainty is born from the fact that, while there are almost no limits on the freedom to hold and express religious beliefs in America, there most certainly are numerous limits on the freedom to practice those beliefs. An individual, for example, is completely free to hold the religious belief that paying taxes is sinful. That individual, however, is not free to put that belief into action by not paying their taxes.
This tension between freedom of belief and freedom of practice has been agitated in recent years by substantial social change, which has altered long-standing cultural norms. Increasingly, Christians find themselves in situations where the culture around them holds drastically different beliefs about, among others, the sanctity of human life, the meaning of marriage and sexuality, and the definition of sex. As a result of this, Christians have begun to see the freedom to practice their beliefs in the public square challenged. This has led to conflicts over school prayer, access to resources on college campuses by campus ministries, religious exemptions from nondiscrimination policies, conscience protections due to beliefs over the sanctity of human life, and the list goes on.
The Framework Will Influence Generations To Come
Although some may view these conflicts as small in comparison to the challenges facing the country, how they are addressed will go a long way in establishing the legal and political framework for similar conflicts in the future. It is this framework that is of primary importance, not just the specific issues at hand. Ultimately, it is the framework that will affect future generations long after the current “culture war” issues have changed.
To put it another way, we are currently determining the formula for how this country will handle instances when sincerely held religious beliefs differ sharply with culturally dominant beliefs. We often become fixated on the variables of that formula, yet it is the formula that will remain when the variables change. For this reason, Christians should come together around the issue of religious liberty. Regardless of whether we all agree about today’s variables, it is vitally important that we do all agree and work to protect the freedom of every American to live according to their sincerely-held beliefs, even when the surrounding culture is hostile to those beliefs.
This conflict is not about continuing the “culture wars,” of past generations. It is not about safeguarding political power or cultural influence. It is not about gaining a “license to discriminate.” This conflict is about ensuring the freedom of future generations to practice and share the Gospel freely. It is about “standing up for potential future Christians and people who are not part of the church right now.” It is about ensuring the freedom for our children and our children’s children to unreservedly go forth and make disciples of all nations.