Does religious liberty apply to non-Christian religions? Someone told me this week that he had seen a Baptist writer question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious liberty “benefits.” Hearing that was honestly surprising, in that it would represent a direct contradiction of our confessional document and all of its predecessors. But beyond this there’s a broader question that’s important to consider: must a person who believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God defend religious freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike?
One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.
When we say—as Baptists and many other Christians always have—that freedom of religion applies to all people, whether Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying that religion should be free from state control because we believe that every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The government’s power is limited to the coercive power of the sword (Rom. 13:1-7). The state can do all sorts of things with that sword, some lawful and some wrong. What the state cannot do is regenerate a soul. A religion of external conformity can happen by state decree or by cultural pressure. That’s the kind of religion we see among some of those who heard Jesus. They found him credible but they would not follow him “so that they would not be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the glory that came from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:42-43).
If that’s all the religion you want—people who will mouth words they don’t believe—then, yes, the state can serve up whatever religion you can cobble together the votes for, just like any other government program. Just don’t call that the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). And the Bible tells us how people come to conviction of sin and new life in Christ, not through government power but by the “open proclamation of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2).
By shutting down houses of worship, or by any other act, the state cannot make a person a Christian. All the state can do is make people pretend-Christians, one birth short of salvation. Again, if all you are concerned about is a form of godliness, then perhaps this is the option for you. If you want to see people come to Christ, though, you do it by openly preaching and debating the claims of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, not by forcing people into hiding through the brute force of Uncle Sam.
Religious liberty is never an excuse for violence and crime, nor has religious liberty been so construed in American history. The United States government should fight, and fight hard, against radical Islamic jihadism. But the government should not penalize law-abiding people, especially those who are American citizens, simply for holding their religious convictions, however consistent or inconsistent, true or false, those convictions are.
Some would say, based on their reading of the Koran, that non-violent Muslims are inconsistent Muslims, the equivalent of cafeteria Catholics. The government’s job, though, is to punish evildoers for evil-doing, not to decide who is most theologically consistent with their professed religions.
The state must also protect citizens from the state itself. A government that can regulate worship and conscience is a government that can do anything. One can’t claim to be for “limited government,” while at the same time proposing that the government be in the business of regulating worship and conscience.
Like other freedoms, there are limits to how our freedoms can be exercised, and government has an obligation to protect its citizens from violence and harm. It should carry out this obligation faithfully. But the state also has an obligation to protect citizens from the state itself. Stripping a religious community of civil liberties is an act of aggression by the state against its citizens.
Moreover, the idea that religious freedom should apply only to Christians, or only to religious groups that aren’t unpopular, is not only morally wrong but also self-defeating. A government that can tell you a mosque or synagogue cannot be built because it is a mosque or a synagogue is a government that, in the fullness of time, will tell an evangelical church it cannot be constructed because of our claims to the exclusivity of Christ. Those voices (though a distinct minority, to be sure) that claim to be Christian but seek to restrict religious freedom for others are perhaps unknowingly on a campaign to destroy religious liberty. They would set the precedents that will be used to destroy churches, and they will give the opponents of religious liberty the charge that the issue isn’t about freedom at all but about seeking government approval of one’s religion.
If Jesus is right about his gospel, we do not need the power of bureaucrats to carry out the spiritual mission of the advance of the gospel. Roger Williams stood up for the right of an unpopular minority in early New England, the Baptists, not to christen their babies. But he explicitly said such freedom ought to extend to “the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish” consciences as well since we are not to extend God’s kingdom by the sword of steel but by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
There is precedent in the Bible, of course, for a religion using the state to force people to externally conform to it. Those examples, though, are those of Nebuchadnezzar, and of the Beast that John saw rising out of the sea (Rev. 13), not the church of Jesus Christ. Religious freedom means religious freedom for everyone, including those who reject our gospel. We plead with our neighbors to be reconciled with God, as long as it is still the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5-6). We want that change to happen the only way it can: by the Spirit’s enlivening power, not by some city council’s roll call vote.
External conformity, backed up by government power, is easier to achieve than Great Commission gospel advance. It also leads nowhere but to death.