Why religious liberty matters for human dignity

Even though it’s a hallmark of the American experiment, religious liberty is, perhaps, one of the most controversial issues in American life today. In the wake of several consequential Supreme Court decisions in the past few years, even some Christians have even branded religious liberty as “the right to discriminate.”

But if you, like me, care deeply about human dignity and the flourishing of all members of society, you should care about religious liberty. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, says, “The right to follow our conscience lies at the center of human dignity and is the core of every other human right.”

Why is this true? And why should Christians across the political spectrum fight for religious liberty? Here are three reasons:

1. Religious Liberty is  Connected to Human Rights

The right to believe is a vital aspect of what it means to be human. We are body, mind, and soul, with a rational ability that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Part of being human is to be able to believe, and to be able to choose what we believe.

In fact, in developing countries around the world, the presence of robust religious liberty protections are a key indicator of human rights and the lack of robust religious liberty protections are key indicator of a lack of human rights.

A state that coerces belief is, in essence, a state that is actively dehumanizes its citizens, trampling their God-given consciences.  It is saying, “You are not capable of forming your own ideas and opinions, we need to form them for you.”

Of course, religious liberty is not necessarily a blank check. There are deeply held religious practices that infringe the dignity of others. For instance, ancient Hindu practices demanded that widows be burned on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Some religions lead parents, by belief, to refuse life-saving treatment of their children. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice. These are examples of religious practices that violate the dignity of image-bearers, prey on the vulnerable, and violate moral laws. Robert George says:

“Grave injustice can be committed by sincere people for the sake of religion. The presumption in favor of respecting liberty must be powerful and broad. But it is not unlimited.”

This is where the language in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993 by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, is helpful. It requires the government to, if it has a compelling interest to violate religious liberty because it infringes on someone’s welfare, to do it by the least restrictive means possible.

2. Religious Liberty is Grounded in Christian Theology

Perhaps the clearest biblical passage about religious liberty comes from Jesus himself in a well-known interaction with religious and civil authorities, when he was asked, both by those loyal to Rome and by their revolutionary foes, about paying tax to the Roman emperor. Both parties wished to score a victory against the other and to trap this rising trouble-maker into making a damaging gaffe. Jesus famously answered them by asking for a piece of currency, holding up the coin bearing Caesar’s image and saying:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

By asking the question, “Whose image is on this coin?,” Jesus is making a profound statement about what it means to be human in a world ruled by God and a state ruled by a human. He is saying, Caesar is due your taxes because, as someone granted temporary civil authority by me, Caesar has the right to collect your taxes as he chooses. Currency is part of how a state functions. It bears its ruler’s image. In this sense, it belongs to him.

But, continues Jesus, you must “render ... to God the things that are God’s.” And this is the real force of his comment. Caesar does not have the right to demand everything from you. You were not made in the image of Caesar. You were made in the image of the One who sculpted Caesar, and you, from the dust of the ground; and who breathed into Caesar, and you, the breath of life. Therefore, your conscience does not belong to the state but to God. “Caesar” has no right to demand you believe what he chooses. God, your Creator, has authority over your soul.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is telling the state that it must protect, and not undermine, religious liberty. The right to choose what to believe is a critical facet of being made in God’s image. It is intrinsic to human dignity.

3. Religious Liberty Ensures a Vigorous Public Debate

Sometimes Christians confuse religious liberty with Christian favor. As a follower of Christ, I pray and work to see the gospel move through our communities, but I shouldn’t desire the state to put its thumb on the scale to advance what I believe.  And I should work for the religious liberty of those with whom I disagree.

In 1 Timothy 2, The Apostle Paul urged Timothy to pray for the civil authorities to give the church space to practice its belief without infringement.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

In a sense, when we work for religious liberty—even if that is simply by using our vote in a way that promotes or defends it—we are not merely working for our own dignity to be recognized by the state, but for the dignity of our neighbors. To stand up for the religious liberty of religions that Christians believe to be false is not to affirm the validity of such religions, but to affirm the humanity of their adherents in a way that allows space for them to choose to believe the gospel. I love what one our Baptist forefathers, Thomas Helwys, said about this:

“Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

Working for and speaking up for the religious liberty of other religions is also an affirmation of the gospel’s power. It reveals a confidence that Christianity can compete and win in the marketplace of ideas. It ensures a space for vigorous debate and trusts the Holy Spirit to do his work bringing people to repentance. Religious liberty either works for everyone or it works for no one.