Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Reality Check: Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is not a Christian value.

There, I said it.

Now, let’s be real about it: religious freedom is certainly a value held and promoted by many Christians. It is also a benefit that, when conferred on us by the occasional society that looks favorably on the faith (or simply neglects to single it out for special persecution), has made preaching the gospel a whole lot less painful for those who preach it. If I could have religious freedom or not have it, I would certainly prefer to have it.

Nevertheless, these things in themselves do not make religious freedom our inalienable right, and they should not remotely encourage us to seek to spread it around.

We often think of there being a multitude of religious positions but in fact there are only two: God’s view, and a million differing variations on the satanic, rebellious alternative. It is not without reason that the famous statement “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” was made in the context of the accusation of demon possession. Put simply, there is Christ and there is anti-Christ, with no gradations of any real substance in between.

You cannot make a case for religious freedom or even religious tolerance from the books of Old Testament history or from the Law of Moses. The evidence is simply not there to be produced. Quite the contrary.

The Old Testament and Religious Freedom

Consider for a moment the provisions of God’s law relating to aliens and strangers. God has a tender heart toward people in need, wherever they might originate. Like orphans and widows, the alien was to be cherished by Israelites who respected and valued God’s word. Free food was to be set aside specifically for poor and needy immigrants. The gleanings of vineyards were to be left for them. Israelite civil law did not discriminate against them. On no account were aliens and strangers to be oppressed or mistreated. Whenever native Israelites were given a day of respite from their labors, the resident sojourner got to rest right alongside them. The foreigner in Israel was to be loved “as yourself”. Wow.

To the extent that these principles of a just society have found their way into our own modern, Western laws, that is all to the good.

What is not quite so often commented on is that with these privileges and equal treatment came considerable responsibility and not a few conduct restrictions that might have rankled with the average Edomite, Moabite or Egyptian traveling and living with God’s people. If leaven was found in the house of a sojourner during the seven days of Passover celebration, he was to be cut off from the people of Israel just as any native Israelite would have been put out of the congregation. No excuses were made for him because he was ignorant or came from another culture. And if he wanted to keep the Passover, all the males in his household must be circumcised before that could happen. The principle of equal requirements cut both ways. Living among God’s people was not just a privilege, it was also a responsibility.

An immigrant who broke the Sabbath was in as much trouble as any Israelite who did the same thing. On the Day of Atonement, celebration was not optional for sojourners, whether acting in faith or simply following the crowd. They had to obey the same dietary laws as the people around them, or else be cut off from Israel. All the laws regarding appropriate sexuality in Israel applied equally to native Israelites and folks who were “just visiting”, with the same provisions and exactly the same penalties for violation. If an immigrant practiced the religion of the Canaanites he was to be stoned to death just as any native Israelite would be, notwithstanding the fact that it might be the religion in which he was raised. If an alien or stranger ever blasphemed the name of Jehovah he was to be stoned by the entire congregation. In fact, the first ever person stoned for blasphemy was a half-Egyptian traveling with the people of God.

There was no religious tolerance in Israelite law. None. When Israel initiated its own “religious freedoms”, God called them an abomination.

The New Testament and Religious Freedom

Moreover, when we move to the New Testament, we find religious freedom equally absent from our Bibles. John the Baptist was executed for applying the morality of the Law of Moses to the sexual proclivities of a secular monarch. The Lord Jesus himself was crucified because of the envy of religious Jewish leadership. The disciples locked their doors when they gathered “for fear of the Jews”. From the earliest days of preaching Christ crucified and risen from the dead, the powers-that-be arrested and conducted an inquisition of the disciples. Stephen was stoned, Saul ravaged the church from house to house, imprisoning believers, and the secular authorities killed James the brother of John with the sword. The members of the church in Jerusalem fled their homes and resettled elsewhere. Later, Claudius commanded all Jews to leave Rome.

Institutionalized Judaism was to the early believers a synagogue of Satan, and the unbelieving Gentile authorities were not much more accommodating. Thus, a Christian in the first century could claim no rights or freedoms with respect to his faith. His enemies were on every side.

One of the more significant themes in the teaching of both Christ and the apostles is the blessedness of persecution for righteousness’ sake. “Rejoice”, “be glad” and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial”, wrote Peter.

There is no religious freedom to be observed in the New Testament, either at law or in the expectations of believers. True faith can be very, very expensive. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as “religious freedom”. If, as I have, you have experienced convenient social ambivalence to your convictions most of your life, count yourself fortunate or unusually blessed.

It’s sure not because you are laying claim to some God-given right.

Religious Freedom in the West

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees both freedom of conscience and religion, including specifically the “right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practise or by teaching and dissemination”. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” All Western countries have similar provisions in their founding documents.

These protections are lovely in principle, but we have begun to see evidence that the lofty values espoused in the Charter and its ilk are far from boundless, and are easily trumped by other considerations such as the public health, conflicts with other laws on the books, and even the personal feelings of sexual deviants.

The reality is that religious freedom and tolerance are chimerical things, subject to the whims of jurists and the spirit of the age. Claiming them as personal protections on the basis of what may have been intended when they were enshrined in our Western legal traditions is generally a losing argument in a court of law.

Not everyone agrees, of course.

Objections That Have Been Raised

1/ Apples and Oranges

The usually solid GotQuestions argues that freedom of religion is indeed biblical:

“First, God Himself extends a “freedom of religion” to people, and the Bible has several examples. In Matthew 19:16-23, the rich young ruler comes to Jesus. After a brief conversation, the young man ‘went away sorrowful,’ choosing not to follow Christ. The salient point here is that Jesus let him go. God does not ‘force’ belief in Him.”

However, it can easily be seen that this argument is not at all on point. The “rich young ruler” was not promoting some false religion or an alternative to Christ. He was not promoting anything at all; he was simply failing to live up to the implications of his own beliefs. Nobody needs either a legal or theological defense for that. Nor are absence of belief and unwillingness to practice a faith the sorts of things either the Charter or First Amendment purport to defend. They are designed to protect positive expressions of faith, not the negation of it.

We are talking about apples and oranges here.

2/ God Allows Choice

Okay, let’s try again:

“Freedom of religion respects the image of God in man (Genesis 1:26). Part of God’s likeness is man’s volition ... [I]f God allows us to choose, we should allow others to choose.”

There is a certain truth to this, but it can easily be seen that it absolutely does not apply without limitation, nor does it ever apply to expressions of contrary and false theological opinions among the people of God. God does not allow limitless choice, nor are Christians counseled to allow limitless choice within the areas over which we have been given authority.

Unlike the nation of Israel, we do not live in a theocracy, so of course it is not within our purview to enforce our own practices and rules on the irreligious. But no sane evangelical church would allow a Wiccan, a Mormon or an atheist to take their platform on a Sunday morning to promote alternative worldviews. Nor, assuming we have a lick of sense, would we send our children to be educated by them because “God allows us to choose, so we should allow others to choose.” And what does it mean that an elder “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive”? That doesn’t sound much like allowing our children to choose without any limitations at all, does it? Young children may of course choose to practice something other than what they have been taught; they should not be allowed to do so in the family home or without disciplinary consequences.

No, the principle of limitless freedom of choice cannot be derived from God’s gracious example. To the extent that we are entrusted with the protection of the truth and in the measure that we have control over the message, we are required to preach it faithfully and contend for the truths of the gospel. This remains true even if the naysayers are fellow Christians of good standing.

3/ The Religion-Relationship Argument

“Freedom of religion acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who changes hearts, not the government (John 6:63). Only Jesus saves. It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship. God does not desire an external form of worship but a personal relationship with His children (Matthew 15:7-8). No amount of government control can produce such a relationship.”

This is yet another apples and oranges argument. Of course only Jesus saves. Of course it is the Holy Spirit that changes hearts. But unless you are Post-Millennial, the question before us is not “Should the governments of the world mandate Christian practice?” (a matter over which we have little or no control at all), but rather “Should Christians permit false religions and false teaching to be granted equal time in situations where they have some measure of God-given authority?” — which is to say in the churches, in our homes, in our summer camps and in the schools and organizations we finance and manage.

Additionally, if we take the right to vote into consideration, we might reasonably ask the question, “Should Christians in a pluralistic society vote for or promote boundless freedom of religion” — which, if taken to its logical conclusion would include practices like female genital mutilation, honor killing, self-flagellation, impaling, baby-tossing, finger amputation, firewalking and even human sacrifice — “just so we can enjoy a measure of religious freedom ourselves?”

The obvious answer to both questions is “Of course not.” It would be rank unfaithfulness to God.

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