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Religious Freedom

What it is, why it’s threatened, and how to respond Christianly

George P Wood on October 22, 2019

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Religious freedom is one of America’s most cherished values. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and protected by a thick web of statutory laws and judicial decisions. The same holds true at the state level.

Yet religious freedom is also one of our nation’s most contested values. Many American Christians believe religious freedom is under attack. According to Luke Goodrich, they’re not entirely wrong.

“We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought,” Goodrich writes in the Introduction to Free to Believe. “Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”

Goodrich knows whereof he speaks. He is a lawyer with Becket Law, a leading nonprofit, public interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths — “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as Becket lawyers like to say. He was part of the legal team that won four major Supreme Court cases in as many years: Little Sisters of the Poor v. AzarHolt v. Hobbs, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. He also is an evangelical Christian, and in Free to Believe, he aims to prepare Christian readers for “the battle over religious liberty in America,” in the words of the book’s subtitle. He does this by answering three questions:

“Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”
  1. What is religious freedom?
  2. What are the most serious threats?
  3. What can be done?

In Goodrich’s definition, “religious freedom means the government, within reasonable limits, leaves religion alone as much as possible.” It is, in other words, an expansive but not absolute right. As a general rule, government must leave religion alone; it should step in only “to protect other rights.” Just as the right to free speech does not entail the right to libel and defame others, for example, so the right to exercise religion does not license child sacrifice. Government must “balance many competing rights.”

Religious freedom is worth protecting, Goodrich argues, because it is a secular good. It “benefits society” through the promotion of good works, the protection of dissenting opinions, and the reduction of social tensions. It “protects our other rights” by limiting the scope of governmental action. And because it is “rooted in human nature,” it is a“fundamental human right,” intrinsically worth protecting.

But religious freedom is not merely a secular good. It is a spiritual good, too. Goodrich argues that religious freedom is “rooted in God’s original design for humanity — in the way God created us (for relationship with Him) and in the way God relates to us (giving us freedom to embrace or reject Him.” A genuinely loving relationship is non-coercive. Because even God does not coerce religious belief or practice, neither should government. Consequently, “religious freedom is a basic issue of biblical justice, rooted in the nature of God and the nature of man.”

Having defined what religious freedom is, Goodrich turns to the five most serious threats to it: religious discrimination, abortion rights, gay rights, Islam, and the naked public square. My guess is that you are probably acquainted with some of the current clashes revolving around these threats. These clashes center around questions such as:

  • Can a religious organization use religious criteria for hiring and firing employees?
  • If a law requires businesses to provide contraceptive coverage to employees, but religious business owners believe some of those contraceptives actually induce abortion, can they refuse to provide them?
  • Can religious florists, bakers or photographers refuse to provide goods or services to an LGBT couple getting married?
  • Should the law accommodate Muslim religious practices, and if so, to what degree?
  • Are religious symbols permissible on public monuments or public property?

Goodrich argues that the answer to each question is, or should be, yes. He has litigated several cases before the Supreme Court that arrived at affirmative answers. But neither the Constitution nor federal and state laws guarantee that the religious freedom side will win every legal contest. Remember, religious freedom, while expansive, is not absolute, and U.S. courts must take up cases that involve balancing the rights of the religious with others who claim a contrary legal right.

The section on threats to religious freedom is the longest part of the book. I won’t further describe those threats here because you’re probably already acquainted with them. What these chapters will do is deepen and complexify your understanding of the relevant legal issues, even as they clarify the case for religious freedom in each instance.

This is essential reading for any Christian who is concerned with the state of religious freedom in America today. Indeed, I believe Free to Believe is the best Christian primer on American religious freedom currently available.

Knowing what religious freedom is and what threatens it, Goodrich concludes Free to Believe with suggestions about how best to advance its cause. He is a lawyer, so litigation is obviously on the table. But Goodrich is also an evangelical Christian, and it is as one Christian to others that he offers this important word of wisdom: “before we address what we’re going to do about religious freedom, we need to reconsider what type of people we’re called to be in the midst of religious freedom conflicts. Only if we become those people can we ‘win’ religious freedom fights in any meaningful sense.” In other words, “We’re called not to win but to be like Jesus.” Win or lose, we must imitate our Lord.

Goodrich goes on to outline seven biblical principles that American Christians find difficult to live out, even though our brothers and sisters around the world do so in environments with far less religious freedom:

  1. Expect suffering (Matthew 10:16–25).
  2. Rejoice when it comes (Matthew 5:11–12).
  3. Fear God, not men (1 Peter 3:14–15).
  4. Strive for peace (Romans 12:18).
  5. Continue doing good (1 Peter 4:19).
  6. Love our enemies (Luke 6:27–28).
  7. Care for one another (Hebrews 13:3).

As someone who is deeply committed to religious freedom, I believe we should be vigilant about threats to it in America and abroad. And to be honest, those threats often feel like they’re growing.

Even so, I believe Goodrich is right. The ultimate question is not how much religious freedom we have, but how well we freely use the religion we have. As the apostle Paul enjoined Christians at an earlier time and in another place, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).

If you’re looking for a long-term solution to America’s contests over religious freedom, I’d suggest that loving, humble service of others is the best place to start.

Book Reviewed

Luke Goodrich, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2019).

This review will be published in the November/December 2019 issue of Influence magazine.

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