Few topics stir the pot of impassioned discourse among American Christians more than that of religious liberty – especially when we feel it is threatened. Trust me, I’m an advocate of liberty, religious and otherwise. I believe in it and defend it, not because it is an American ideal, but because I believe it reflects the reality God has created and the manner in which He has chosen to relate to us. From the beginning, God gave human beings the power of choice, and we continue to possess that freedom by His enabling grace. Since God does not force anyone to believe, but grants us freedom, I think it only sensible that we reflect that same value in how we interact as a society. However, our recent conversations about liberty and freedom, many of which have been marked by anger and fear, should raise questions about our true motivations and concerns. Before posting another angry blurb on Facebook about losing our rights, perhaps we need to step back and ask what we are truly defending and why.
Our first line of argument is usually connected to preserving the right to share the Gospel and the ability to fulfill our mission as the people of God. We commonly spout phrases like “our right to witness is being taken away” and “we’re losing the freedom to carry out ministry.” That kind of rhetoric might make us sound like great defenders of the faith, but in reality, it puts the Gospel in a position of subordination to earthly powers. I can’t help but think that those of the early church – not to mention many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world – would be dumbfounded by such statements. The power of the Gospel and the mission of the Church have never been and never will be dependent upon the rights granted by governments or courts. In fact, the Church seems to be most vital and dynamic in those times and places when religious liberty is not the law of the land. No earthly kingdom can stop the power of God’s Spirit from transforming lives and communities; the kingdom is coming and will come, despite court rulings, lawsuits, or outright persecution. For those who pray “Your kingdom come,” any suggestion that the witness of the Gospel is subject to the rights granted by this or any government is contradictory.
Diminishing the power of the Gospel is not the only contradiction brought to the surface when we launch into our defense of liberty speeches. If we are truly concerned about freedom and religious liberty as a principle to be upheld, then we must support it for all people – even those that disagree with us, those of a different faith, or no faith at all. It’s interesting that some of the Christians who yell the loudest about religious freedom will also scream the loudest in protest when a Muslim center or Buddhist temple is built in their community. If we demand religious freedom as a right, then we must be willing to extend that right to everyone. Defending the right of all to choose and believe as they wish does not mean that we agree with what they choose to do or believe. It simply means that we believe the kingdom of God is not one of coercion, but of choice. The God we serve is one of love and relationship, expressed in His granting of free will. As His people, we must reflect the same values. If we are not consistent, if we do not defend religious liberty for all people, then our motivation is not one of principle, but one of one self-concern and self-preservation alone.
And perhaps that is the hidden motivation in all of this that we would rather not confess. I cannot help but wonder if our angry protests related to religious liberty are not really about the principles involved, but rather a fearful reaction that is more about protecting ourselves. Maybe we’re not actually defending freedom for all, but desperately trying to maintain a privileged position and protect ourselves from the perceived persecution we don’t want to face. If that is the genuine motivation that drives us, then as followers of Jesus, we have missed the mark. How? Well, when did Jesus ever tell his followers to fight for their rights alone or protect themselves from persecution at all costs? In the context of conflict and persecution he called us to respond not by fighting fire with fire, but by turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who persecute us. In a world driven by self-interest and self-protection, we stand as a part of a kingdom that comes by the way of the cross, where those who find life are the ones willing to lay theirs down. If we are driven by a spirit of self-preservation, then we stand at odds with the values of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
It’s one thing to defend freedom and liberty for all; it’s another to selectively cry about it simply because we are worried about ourselves. In this climate of conflict, fear, and anger, we need now more than ever to embody the Spirit of Christ in our world. Before we enter into the conversation, let’s honestly examine our motives and make sure we are defending the principle of liberty and not just ourselves.