Religious Freedom: Freedom for what?

Posted by on Nov 22, 2017 in Blog | 2 comments

The topic of religious freedom has been getting a fair amount of air time lately – and validly so. The often bitter debate over gay marriage has led to the fear of enforced conformity of opinion, with non-compliance seeing a quick accusation of (and possible prosecution for) hate speech or something similar.

Baptists (the denomination I am aligned with) were some of the early champions of religious liberty. Having been persecuted for their religious convictions (sometimes being drowned with the cry, “If they want water, they shall have it”), they were deeply conscious of how much suffering the absence of religious freedom causes. To their great credit, they sought religious freedom not only for themselves, but also for those of other religions, in the 17th century speaking out in support of the Jewish community in New England who were in danger of having their synagogues closed by the authorities.

Baptists valued religious freedom for many reasons, but a key one was that they were only interested in beliefs which were genuinely held – and that meant that faith could never be compelled. An old ditty expresses it well, “Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still”. They were conscious that outward conformity tells you nothing about what is actually going on inside of someone, especially if fear of repercussions for a belief is the motivator of the behavior.

As we ponder what religious freedom means today, we should remind ourselves of some key principles.

Rights and responsibilities belong together.

My right to religious freedom does not release me from the responsibilities that any form of freedom brings. I am not free to say or do anything, and then excuse myself with the claim that it relates to a religious belief I hold. In other words, religious freedom cannot be used as a shield to defend me when I do the unacceptable. To quote an extreme, many religious faiths in the past encouraged child sacrifice  – a distinctive of the ancient Hebrews being that they never imitated their surrounding neighbors in doing this. Should someone embrace one of these ancient faiths, they can’t claim that religious freedom entitles them to resume the practice of child sacrifice.

While extreme examples help to establish the point (religious freedom cannot be completely unqualified), we need to recognize that the real debate often starts around practices which are considered inappropriate, offensive and possibly dangerous. In some countries they might be considered illegal, while being permitted in others – for example female circumcision which we in Australia would (rightly) label genital mutilation, and have declared illegal, but which continues to be legally practiced in many countries. What can or cannot be permitted can become a matter of some complexity. At times we might dismiss something as shockingly poor taste (but legal), at others times we may be sufficiently incensed to declare it illegal.

While we should be willing to defend religious freedom, it is important to note that not all forms of faith are noble or defensible. It’s why I wrote my book “When Faith turns Ugly” – which explores the area of toxic faith and how to avoid it. Even while defending the principle of religious freedom we should be striving to ensure that the faith we promote is wholesome and life serving. We should become sensitive to signs that faith is in danger of turning toxic (for example, if it requires unquestioning obedience; it defends the indefensible; it gives its leaders unchecked power and authority; it is inherently suspicious; it shames and discards those who dare to differ; it disallows questions… and there are many more). So even while defending religious freedom we should be actively working to tidy our act up. We should not assume that we are always in the right, and must be willing to listen to those voices which speak against us – even when they seem shrill and exaggerated. A Christian virtue is humility and the willingness to examine ourselves. We might conclude that many (perhaps even most) accusations are false, but we will not exempt ourselves from the process of looking inward and asking hard questions.

More constructively we should ask what we want to use religious freedom for. For too long the Christian church has been on the back foot. Society thinks our favorite word is “no”. It’s time to build a new reality. Actually, our favorite word is “love” – God’s love leading to our love of God, love of the neighbor and stranger, and love of God’s good creation.

And our deep love of the Scriptures should lead us to think deeply (very deeply) about the underlying principles that consistently spring out of scripture. We should ask how these work out in a rapidly changing world.

In a world that is grappling with what it means to be human (and isn’t the rapid advance of artificial intelligence forcing us all to ask this question?), we have a life serving contribution to make. And the contribution is not saying “no” – but is likely to be found by completing these sentences,

  • Because we are all made in the image of God, we will…
  • Because we are called to steward God’s good world, we will…
  • Because we are the body of Christ in the world, we will…
  • Because Jesus said we will be known by our love, we will…

When we move into this realm we move the debate from “we want religious freedom for the sake of our group” to “we want religious freedom because we have so many gifts to share, and need to be free to share them.”

Of course, we already have a remarkable level of religious freedom. So let’s use it to do good…

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.

    36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

    To continue this reasoning, if we are a ‘slave’ to anything we are not free.

    The arguments in the present ‘debate’ seem to be political grandstanding for a ’cause’ they little understand.

    Just saying …


    We shouldn’t be afraid to speak God’s word (Truth) because when we do we can move mountains. This whole thing on plebiscite seems to try and silence Christian beliefs, however we shouldn’t be quiet , we should speak out in Love. God’s word is Truth, sharper than a two edged sword.

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