Religious Liberty: The Government Doesn’t Own Us

When I spoke at Southeastern Baptist Seminary last month, I also participated in an interview with Bruce Ashford.  These remarks on religious liberty are excerpted from that interview.

On temptations to curtail religious liberty.

“That’s one thing I observed on the campaign trail. This is West Tennessee that we’re talking about, where I was running [for office]. Part of my logic [was] that these are people who will be very interested in religious liberty.

“But that having been said, I would very regularly get people saying, ‘I’m totally with you on religious liberty, but what about the Muslims?’ I told them, if we embrace this concept of religious liberty, then we also will tolerate the Muslims to build their mosques and to live their lives….’

“Gary Johnson recently said that religious liberty is a ‘black hole,’ meaning that he thinks it authorizes just any unlawful activity. But that’s not really the case. If you look back to the founding fathers and their understanding of religious liberty, the idea [was] that people are entitled to the free exercise of their religion as long as they don’t essentially threaten the peace and safety of the community. So cutting people’s heads? That’s out. Sacrificing virgins? That’s out. Throwing the girls in volcanoes…. But, within the bounds of what we understand as the normal life of religious people, that should be accommodated.

God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything.

“Now, why should we request religious liberty? Well, first of all, if we embrace religious liberty, we are implicitly saying that the government does not own us. We’re kind of taking that Caesar’s coin view of things. Yes, God has given Caesar some things to do. God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything. Some things belong to Caesar. Some things are God’s and jealously guarded as such. And when you embrace religious liberty, you’re saying that, ‘Hey, Caesar, you don’t get it all. Sometimes I’ve got to obey the higher law.’ And it’s better if you acknowledge that.

“And, look, human beings’ integrity means that [we] live according to [our] beliefs. So if the government is going to interfere unnecessarily with you doing that, then it is truly oppressing you. It is oppressing your conscience. It is trying to force you to live in accordance with a code that you do not hold. And there’s something terrible about that….

“John Courtney Murray, the great Catholic theologian, did a lot of work in religious liberty back when it wasn’t popular for Catholics to do so. He said [that] you need to look at the religion clauses in the first amendment as articles of peace. That these are clauses that if we learn to respect them, then we can live in harmony with each other. We don’t have to stamp on each others’ beliefs and force each other to conform in ways that are unnecessary. In that way, it’s easier for us to live together. And in a pluralistic society, that’s even more important.”

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