The Rabbit Hole of Religious Freedom

Freedom of religion is something most of us would probably consider a good and necessary thing, although we are frequently prone to inconsistency. Why does it seem like so many political leaders want freedom of religion until it comes to faiths or worldviews that are contrary to their own? What foundational beliefs lead us to consistency or hypocrisy when it comes to such a freedom?  We can actually track the origin of freedom of religion, as we understand it today, back to reformation-era Christianity. It primarily springs out of two fundamental doctrines: the doctrine of Imago Dei and the doctrine of Monergism.

Imago Dei is widely held by Christians today but is not exclusively “Christian”, as it gets its origin in the book of Moses. Imago Dei states that mankind is one race created in the “image” of God, which is what gives mankind its inherent value above that of animals, plants, or other created things. We are the product of intentional divine craftsmanship and therefore have objective purpose and beauty. Our worth is bestowed upon us by our designer and not our physical appearance, status, or whatever contribution we bring to society- a homeless drug addict or prostitute is of just as much value as a CEO or members of the royal family. This doctrine is, therefore, the basis for moral law (as understood by Christians) and has lofty implications. For example, things like murder, abuse, and objectification are not wrong because “we don’t like it” or “it’s not nice”, they are not only wrong because they harm something of worth but primarily because they are an assault on the image of God, and even an attack on God himself.

A recent historical example of this doctrine’s application was in the civil rights movement. Dr King argued that “all individuals, as children of God, are equally valued in as much as they are birthed with an inherent dignity that ultimately represents the requisite for the bestowal of just and fair treatment.” One cannot help but hold that this view must stem out of an intellectually honest understanding of the doctrine of Imago Dei. That being said, history is full of people whose actions don’t jive with the value system they claim to uphold. For example, for white “Christians” to approve of or participate in the buying and selling of slaves (as seen in our not-too-distant past) they would first have had to deny passages both in the Old and New Testament that condemn slave trade and secondly find a way to deny the doctrine of Imago Dei. In fact the idea that humankind is multiple “races”, distinguished by skin color, is neither found nor implied anywhere in Scripture; and one must begin there to land anywhere near the realm of racial superiority. The New Testament is painfully clear that the entire human race fits in one of two categories- we are either in Adam or in Christ. There is not now, nor has there ever been an excuse for racism or the mistreatment of human beings in the church of Christ. According to the book of James, if we show partiality or favoritism to one over another based on things like social class, status, ethnicity, etc., we blaspheme God and are “convicted by the law as transgressors”. For the sake of this post, however, we are concerned primarily with implications, consistencies, and origins of thought rather than abuses and hypocritical acceptance of the idea.

”This doctrine sharply contrasts the naturalistic worldview that says our existence is unintentional or accidental and that we have no objective value, beauty, purpose, or worth.”

This doctrine sharply contrasts the naturalistic worldview that says our existence is unintentional or accidental and that we have no objective value, beauty, purpose, or worth. Indeed if one outright denies this doctrine, the implications can be disastrous. What does it do to one’s self esteem if they accept that they are just an accident of the universe with no purpose? Is it any real surprise that our youth have an epidemic of identity crisis? If we don’t know what we are how can we expect to know who we are or how to live, for that matter? Sure the idea that you determine your worth or purpose might sit well with a privileged few that are more conventionally talented or more intellectual; but overall it should be easy to see the negative effects outweighing the positive (of course the effects are irrelevant to what is true). A more relevant way denying the Imago Dei relates to this topic is that it tends to push us away from individual liberty and towards societal common good, and this seems to be a social trend. If we are a product of chance, our individual worth is subjective. Speaking on the matter, Hillary Clinton said “We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society”. If you agree with this statement, let me ask a rhetorical question to push the matter: if the Nazi’s scientific experiments had led to a cure for cancer, could you really call them bad guys? I mean if their atrocities ended up helping more people than it hurt was it really wrong? If the cost a few million people losing their freedom and lives ended up saving tens of millions of lives, isn’t that a positive? Now I’m not suggesting that the denial of this doctrine will make someone heinously licentious or a mass murderer or anything of the sort, but the reality is that all ideas have consequences, and we mustn’t be afraid to push and challenge our ideologies and worldview. Poet Propaganda writes

“If human behavior is just what protoplasm does at this temperature, then there is no need for humanitarian effort, because these atrocities weren’t wrong, It’s just the universe weeding out bad genes”

I have not the hubris to say that no such explanation exists, but I do have yet to hear an intellectually satisfying argument for the existence of morality if naturalism is true. Richard Dawkins adequately summed up some of the implications of naturalism when he said “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. There are, assuredly, many shades of grey between the Imago Dei and naturalism- my intent is not to set up a false dichotomy between the two but to take opposing ideas farther than many do.

To get back to the task at hand, Imago Dei was fundamental to the philosophical concept of classical liberalism (focusing on the freedom of the individual), western liberal democracy, and is  fundamental to the concept of natural rights, as presented by enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. On Locke, Oxford’s Jeremy Waldron writes “It is sufficient to consider John Locke’s grounding of human rights in the idea of the Imago Dei to recognize the momentous implications of the concept for modern thought.” This framework of philosophy weaved its way throughout western thought for centuries and greatly affected thinkers who would pen great American documents like the Declaration of Independence- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. Again we can see how the rights we take for granted are philosophically rooted in the presupposition that human dignity is bestowed upon us by our designer, not earned by merit or given to us by our parents, society or government.

The second doctrine that so heavily influenced our understanding of religious freedom is the doctrine of Monergism. Monergism is exclusive to the Christian faith however it is safe to say that the majority of professing Christians in the west do not affirm it (though this was not always so). Monergism, in a nutshell, teaches that God is the only active party in conversion to Christianity; that it is God who opens the eyes of the individual who will be, by God’s immutable will and irresistible grace, converted. Proponents of Monergism would argue that this is the most historic and Biblical way to view conversion, and that it was lost over the age of Roman Catholic corruption to resurface again with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. This view contrasts the doctrine of Synergism (more commonly held by Western 21st century Christians) which holds that one’s conversion to Christ is accomplished actively by both God and man, that is, that man has an ultimate say in whether or not he “accepts” Christ.  These may seem like small differences in the practical but, like the doctrine of Imago Dei, the implications are deep.  If one affirms Monergism, they acknowledge that they have no ultimate power to convert someone or make them believe, so any effort to coerce someone, indoctrinate them, or force them to accept and believe in Christ is ultimately vanity. If one, instead, confirms Synergism, it is easy to see how, if taken far enough, this could lead away from religious freedom and towards indoctrination, even if done with the purest of intentions. Many may rightly ask “If you believe Monergism then doesn’t that make evangelism also futile and meaningless?” yes and no, but mostly no. Although God doesn’t need anyone to convert anyone, he chooses to use crooked sticks, that are his followers, to make straight lines. First of all Jesus commanded his disciples to preach the Gospel and make disciples, so not doing that is in direct violation to Christ’s command. Secondly, one who has been converted has been changed. Part of that change is a love for the Gospel; love for the Gospel will result in the spreading of it. Lastly, spiritual descendants are the blessing that is attached to the covenant promise in Christianity, as physical descendants were the blessing attached to Abraham’s covenant. With that being said, someone who proclaims to be in Christ but does not promote the Gospel will inevitably miss out on “the blessing” part of the covenant. (Yes, the blessing is spiritual descendants, not a nice house, new Benz and a comfortable life).

“Williams considered any effort by the state either to dictate religion or to promote any particular religious idea or practice as forced worship.

As previously noted, Monergism became the dominant way Christians understood salvation, arguably at the time of Jesus, but unquestionably starting in the era of the Protestant Reformation. Georgetown’s David Little writes “The Protestant reformers, especially Anabaptists and Calvinists, would make a significant contribution to the growth of religious freedom. Free church Anabaptists, like the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, opposed all coercion in matters of religion, implying a radical separation of church and state.” While most historians refer to what came out of the reformation as “religious tolerance”, true religious freedom was not far behind.  Roger Williams, the seventeenth century Puritan theologian and founder of Rhode Island, was actually the first credited with the application of religious freedom to all groups and ideologies. He is largely considered to be the father of “Separation of Church and State”. Before Williams, certain worldviews and religions had been exempt from this freedom or tolerance- atheists and Catholics, for example, were not included in the ideology of Locke. Williams writes “It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries.” His understanding of these doctrines was fundamental to his ideology in addition to the religious persecution he himself had suffered. “Williams considered any effort by the state either to dictate religion or to promote any particular religious idea or practice as forced worship. He declared, “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.” Indeed, Williams called Constantine (the emperor who accepted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire) a worse enemy to true Christianity than Nero (the greatest persecutor of Christians and considered by many to be “the beast” or “the antichrist” spoken of in the latter part of the new testament), because the subsequent state support corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian church.”

To put these doctrines together, if we consistently uphold the doctrine of Imago Dei, we have no choice but to treat all people with worth and dignity. When we additionally uphold salvation by Monergism, the freedom of religion will naturally follow, as we understand that conversion to Christianity is not by the will of man, by force, indoctrination, or cohesion, but by grace alone. The idea of the state dictating religion is not only useless but fundamentally impossible- as Williams observed it only leads to corruption and perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel says that God became a man, lived a perfect life on behalf of those who would believe in him, and died an excruciating death in the stead of those who would follow him. Martin Luther called this “the great exchange”- when we are saved by God we are credited with the life Jesus lived, and in exchange our sin and wickedness was placed on Jesus on the cross. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not by sacrifice, good works, or merit.


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