Hanging on the wall in my office is a framed set of letters written by a man named Jeremiah Moore. A relative told me that we are related, but whether we are or not by blood, I certainly think of him as a spiritual forebearer. This man was a pastor and church planter in colonial Virginia, and a tireless advocate for religious freedom. In these letters, he’s engaging a public official, pressing him on his commitment to religious freedom, making sure this candidate understands the importance of it to Moore’s fellow Baptists. He made it clear that he believed that this candidate for office deserved a vote only if he pledged to articulate a strong defense of religious freedom, and pledged to use the power of his office to promote and strengthen religious freedom.
The candidate answered back, strongly affirming his commitment to religious freedom. This man would go on to be elected to the office he was seeking, the presidency of the United States. This candidate, Thomas Jefferson, would go on to become one of our nation’s great champions for religious freedom.
I love looking at these letters because it reminds me that Christians in every generation of this country have prized religious liberty—the way we as Baptists must continue to go about our work today.
Remember, not a faithful pastor among us would permit Thomas Jefferson to teach a Sunday School class in our churches. This was a man who was heretical in his beliefs. But our Baptist ancestors were diligent to work alongside those whom they considered outside the Christian faith in order to secure freedom of conscience for the entire nation.
These believers understood something that often gets lost in our modern debates: Religious liberty cannot be a partisan or parochial issue precisely because it is our “first freedom,” the foundation of all civil liberties. Religious freedom matters for all Americans, and that is why Christians should be the first and strongest advocates for soul freedom, not just for other Christians but for all Americans.
One reason Baptists have historically fought for religious freedom for all, not just some, is that our understanding of humanity and society is anchored in the doctrine of the image of God. We believe that every human being is made in the image of a creative, Triune God, and that this image-bearing quality applies not only to Christians but to everyone. Being created in the image of a God means that human beings have inherent dignity. This dignity expresses itself powerfully in the capacity that we all have to form beliefs and live our lives according to those beliefs. This makes religious freedom a basic, and non-negotiable, human right—a right we get from God, not from Uncle Sam.
The Revolutionary-era Baptist preacher John Leland repeatedly included Muslims (“the Turks,” as he called them) in his list of those included in the sorts of religious freedoms he was demanding from the politicians of his time, politicians like Jefferson and James Madison. This was despite the fact that there were virtually no Muslims to speak of in the colonies or in the new republic. Leland included them specifically and intentionally anyway. He wanted to make it clear that his concept of religious freedom was not dependent on a group’s political power. He chose the most despised religious minority of the time, with no political collateral in his context, to make the point that religious freedom is a natural right.
The governing authorities have a responsibility, given by God, to protect the population from violence, and to punish the evildoers who perpetrate such violence (Rom. 13:1-7). But this authority is a limited authority. The government cannot exalt itself as a lord over the conscience or a god over the soul. This is why even “Christian” theocratic projects have inevitably failed throughout history. In dictating to the conscience, the civil authorities seek to fill the role—and assume the power—of God himself.
This is why Baptists have held to the separation of church and state. It’s not hard to understand why that term might cause some nervousness for Bible-believing evangelicals. Over the last several decades, secularizing forces have claimed to be acting in the interest of separating church and state when what they were often trying to do was create what Richard John Neuhaus called a “naked public square,” a society in which religious belief is an alternative to full citizenship. As Neuhaus rightly pointed out, achieving such an environment is impossible because human beings, made in the divine image, are naturally religious.
People like Thomas Jefferson and John Leland did not believe that the separation of church and state was intended to create a “naked” public square. Instead, they believed that the “wall” between religion and the magistrate existed to clearly define where the rights of government ended and the human rights of citizens began. Jefferson and Leland disagreed strongly in terms of what they believed about God, but they were able to work together for religious freedom because they agreed about one thing: the government wasn’t God.
If we miss why religious liberty matters, we will fundamentally misunderstand how to advocate for it. For a long time, many evangelical Christians have had a narrow vision of religious liberty, due largely to the fact that we have faced so few real challenges to it. This has often caused Christians to see religious liberty as a who-has-the-most-votes issue rather than what it really is: an image-of-God issue. Thus, many critics of Christianity have alleged, not without reason, that “religious liberty” for evangelicals is simply code for Christian privilege. Combine this with the sad spectacle of some evangelicals perpetually claiming to be “persecuted" because the signs at the department store say, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.” The result is an evangelical advocacy of religious liberty that isn’t taken seriously by the broader culture.
When we advocate for religious liberty, we are acknowledging that there are important issues that are not resolved by the state or by free markets. A state that can pave over the conscience without a compelling interest in doing so, is a state that is unfettered to do virtually anything. We are citizens of the state, yes, but the state isn’t ultimate. A government that arbitrarily silences religious convictions or exercise is a government that severs us one from another by silencing proper pluralism and trades pursuit of the truth for bureaucratic enforcement. That is morally wrong and counter-productive, whether attempted by theocrats or neocrats.
As an evangelical Christian, I could not disagree more strongly with Islam. I believe that salvation comes only through union with Jesus Christ, received through faith. As part of the church’s mission, we believe we should seek to persuade our Muslim neighbors of the goodness and truth of the gospel. The gospel is big enough to fight for itself and needs no government assistance. The gospel fights not with the invincible sword of Caesar but with the invisible sword of the Spirit.
A government that can shut down mosques simply because they are mosques can shut down Bible studies because they are Bible studies. A government that can close the borders to all Muslims simply on the basis of their religious belief can do the same thing for evangelical Christians. A government that issues ID badges for Muslims simply because they are Muslims can, in the fullness of time, demand the same for Christians because we are Christians.
Jesus commanded his followers to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Yet the conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept into the federal treasury by government fiat. Ultimately, religious liberty and freedom of conscience matter for me because I believe all my neighbors—Christian or not, religious or not—are created in the image of God.
Let’s stand up for the religious liberty of all Americans. Let’s defend the inalienable rights and human dignity of those whom we seek to evangelize. And let’s work with others across religious and racial lines to advocate for our first freedom, and the right of everyone made in God’s image to be citizens with conscience.
This article first appeared in an issue of the ERLC’s Light magazine. You can view it or subscribe online.