Article  Religious Liberty  Religious Freedom  Religious Liberty

Peace, love and religious liberty?

In September 2015, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University to speak about his candidacy.

Liberty, of course, is a symbol for conservative Christianity.

Sanders, meanwhile, is an avowed progressive whose views mimic European socialism. He’s pro-gay rights, pro-gay marriage and fervently pro-abortion. To conservative Christians, Sanders is positioned as far left as is possible on the ideological spectrum. So the presence of Sanders at Liberty is an odd sight.

But something unique happened at this visit. All reports indicate that Sanders was received with warmth, respect and kindness by the university.

The media narrative of Sanders’ visit would have one believe that the senator was offering himself as a sacrificial lamb to hordes of intolerant, conservative Christians who would relish humiliating him. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Sanders delivered a speech with no interruptions or mass protest. There was no jeering. No one held up signs denouncing Sanders. As far as I am aware, Sanders had no need for security or police protection.

Moreover, Liberty students received no trigger warnings prior to Sanders’ speech. Nor did the school provide campus “safe spaces” where students could seek calm and affirmation after being traumatized by leftist ideas.

Why is it that Christian colleges are allowing debate while liberal colleges stifle dissent? One would think that civil, open discussion would be the norm at college campuses across America, since colleges champion “diversity” perhaps more than any other value. But as we all know, secular college campuses aren’t bastions of tolerance or diversity. In fact, a new regime of intolerance is spreading. The answer to why Christian institutions can allow for strongly divergent viewpoints to be discussed by guest speakers, though complex, speaks to the very nature of what types of beliefs we have; and how we hold them often dictates how we respond to different beliefs. The answer also speaks clearly to why religious liberty and the common good are intricately bound up with one another.

Whether happening at the level of government, education or any other institution tempted with ideological extremes, any commitment to a worldview that sees itself as absolute—that is, as a lowercase “g” god—can become an enemy of conscience and an enemy of freedom. It is only when citizens understand that the demands of God are absolute—and not political ideologies nor their fellow citizens’ demands—that genuine liberty is possible.    

Religious liberty isn’t just about the freedom to believe in transcendent truths (though it is certainly about that). Religious liberty is also a fundamental principle that ties together the principles that underwrite free societies and allows differences of opinion the space to compete. Societies that allow for free speech, free association and free assembly are the types of societies that understand that citizens have beliefs and obligations that precede the demands and obligations of the state. This is why religious liberty is so central to building societies that aren’t only free, but understand that with freedom comes the corresponding duty of respect, kindness and a commitment to diversity. Debate and the free exchange of ideas can only occur in contexts that cultivate respect and a commitment to nonviolence. In short, a commitment to religious liberty is a commitment to the principles that make our life together as a diverse people, possible. Religious liberty is therefore a fundamental principle that contributes to the common good.

This gets at a major irony for Christians when discussing religious liberty and our advocacy for the common good. While Christianity makes exclusive and absolute claims, Christianity doesn’t believe that these claims can be accepted by way of coercion or forced acceptance. But why does liberalism, the worldview of peace, love and inclusion become ultimately illiberal and intolerant, often to the point of intimidation or violence? One answer might be that liberalism is an ideology, and Christianity is not. Christians live with the perspective of the ultimate. Most non-Christians, however, live with only the penultimate in view. For them, the here-and-now of contemporary life is driven by an absolutized ideology—whether Market Capitalism, Socialism, Darwinism or any other ideology taken to the extreme—that competes for absolute devotion. The Christian, however, has his or her views moderated by the eternal, which can allow for a different viewpoint knowing that God is the ultimate judge of all viewpoints.

Christians are committed to the common good. But we aren’t committed to the common good out of generic principles. No, as Christians, we have to view our deepest commitments about our advocacy for religious liberty and our love for our fellow neighbor from one essential angle: Because Jesus is Lord, there can be true freedom of conscience and religious liberty. The Scriptures give people the right to be wrong. But the Scriptures don’t allow these wrongs to go unaccounted for. God holds people ultimately accountable—not us, or governments. As John Piper noted, “Jesus Christ, the source and ground of all truth, will himself one day bring an end to all tolerance, and he alone will be exalted as the one and only Lord and Savior and Judge of the universe. Therefore, since Jesus Christ alone, the Creator and Lord of history, has the right to wield the tolerance-ending sword, we dare not.”

Other worldviews don’t regard this principle as inalienable. “Error has no rights” is often a refrain issuing from any non-Christian worldview taken to its logical conclusion. If religious liberty isn’t grounded in transcendence, then it becomes a tool of convenience that can easily be denied when those in power decide to do away with any dissent. If Jesus isn’t Lord, then something else will be, and the question is whether the ideology in question finds it beneficial to allow for diversity, which is no sure guarantee as history reveals. Idolatrous ideologies have no principled reason to respect religious freedom or conscience as something [1] If religious liberty is denied, the “common good” easily becomes the the province of whatever worldview has a majority stake in defining what is good. This is why it is necessary for Christians to advocate for religious liberty in the public square. We don’t advocate for religious liberty just for Christians as a majoritarian political doctrine, but in the conviction that true freedom means allowing our neighbors the right to freely exercise their beliefs with dignity—even when we think they are wrong and heaven is at stake! It is precisely because of an ultimate Judge that we cannot be the judge of anyone else (Heb. 9:27).

The stories are too numerous to list, but at many college campuses, when a Christian intellectual comes to speak, the results are far different from what happened at Liberty. Extra security is often necessary, but even that doesn’t prevent students standing up to angrily denounce the speaker as patriarchal, sexist or bigoted. These experiences have become routine and to some extent, expected, especially when ideologically-barricaded and coddled students are challenged. And that’s because ideologies that reject God’s judgment at their center end up becoming opposed to any belief that competes with their ideological stronghold. Liberty University, however, demonstrated the fruits that follow from an atmosphere where religious liberty is modeled and where respect, kindness and a willingness to engage with those who hold opposing views actually flourishes.

Notes

  1. ^ I’m indebted to professor Joe Rigney of Bethlehem College and Seminary for clarifying my thinking in the preceding two paragraphs


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