Religious liberty can be a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. Secular individuals view it as a religious idea while religious individuals view it as a political idea.
In a time of great misunderstanding about one of America’s great political legacies, if we were going to boil religious liberty down to its most basic meaning in a form that everyone, religious and non-religious, would understand, how would we do that?
I would suggest that religious liberty is about “Three A’s:” Adoration, Authenticity, and Authority.
Why these terms? Well, aside from the helpful alliteration, everyone, whether secular or religious, has categories for each of these words that I am about to explain. Everyone, whether secular or religious, relies—unconsciously or consciously—on these three terms to help bring meaning to their own lives. And as I’ll explain below, each word is crucial to understanding why religious liberty is vital to basic freedoms.
Left unexplained for why it matters for everyone, Christians asking for religious liberty is like secularists asking for the right to not believe in God. At present, it seems like we do not understand one another, or worse, do not want to understand one another. This is a problem, because if Christians fail to communicate what religious liberty is about (or even understand it themselves) in ways that those who don’t share our convictions can understand us, it’s likely that religious liberty will get lost in translation and continue in its decline.
1. Adoration: Who or what do we worship?
Adoration means to adore, to worship or venerate, or to give our highest devotion, praise, and love to someone or something. Everyone adores. Whether it’s a favorite sports team, a hobby like traveling, or God, everyone has something at their core that drives them; that contends for their attention and affections; and that helps anchor their lives and give it meaning.
Who or what we worship is the source of our ultimate meaning. So we might rephrase the question of “What do we worship” to “Where is ultimate meaning found?” Is ultimate meaning found in the State? Religion? Entertainment? Science?
An important question follows: What right, if any, does someone or something (like the State, for example) have to prevent someone from engaging in adoration or worship? Very little, in fact.
Unless what guides someone’s deepest convictions causes genuine harm to society, society should let people be as free as possible to pursue ultimate meaning and truth.
If someone’s liberties to find meaning in life should not be restricted, neither should the liberties that ground the ability for someone to find that same meaning in God.
2. Authenticity: What is true living?
Imagine, for one moment, that a state passes a law that requires someone to believe something that goes against what their conscience teaches them or requires them to act in a way that violates their ethics. Not only would the state be overreaching, but a person will experience deep inner conflict. Being coerced into acting on or believing in what someone believes is wrong creates disturbance and does not promote human flourishing. It is akin, for example, to making the oppressed believe that their oppressors are virtuous. That would be inhumane.
Living authentically requires the free exercise of God-given faculties that make living authentically possible. So the artist who creates beautiful masterpieces is not simply drawing or painting, but creating an image that is a reflection of the creativity and beauty inside them or that is observed externally. Whether moral expression, aesthetic expression, or creative expression, a presumption toward liberty assures human happiness should be sought after and unhindered.
The question is: Will a person be able to engage in the activity that gives them the greatest meaning? Perhaps someone thinks that the thrill-seeking of mountain climbing is what makes them happiest. A person who finds delight and joy in mountain climbing will want as few obstacles as possible in their way in order for them to get to engage in the act that fulfills them. Or, if an individual’s religion teaches them, for example, that orphaned children are to be cared for, society should not take action that makes living out the obligations that follow from someone’s deepest convictions more difficult.
Religious liberty is about authenticity because having the opportunity to act on what drives someone’s motivations ensures that someone’s deepest convictions aren’t restricted and that a person is living truthfully to one’s conscience.
In most instances concerning religion, it is through adoration or worship that people obtain a code of ethics and morality necessary for living. Everyone has a code of ethics and morality regardless of whether they consider themselves religious or not. In fact, religious liberty protects the atheist as much as the religious. Each of us has deeply held convictions and moral codes which we prioritize and use to dictate all of our actions, words, and decisions. Religious liberty protects all of us.
The skeptical reader might respond, “So, are you saying that someone has the right to be wrong in what they value as authentic conviction?” Yes, and no. Religious liberty, ultimately, is not about a license to do anything that seems right as though relativism is acceptable; it is ultimately about exercising a God-given conscience toward God-honoring ends. As John Henry Newman once wrote “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” For the conscience to apprehend a duty, and to respond to it appropriately, results in authentic living. Furthermore, no one is making the claim that the right to authentic living is an absolute right at all costs. Where governing bodies reach legitimate conclusions that someone’s expression of authentic living is causing harm to himself or herself or to society, the government has the right to object.
3. Authority: Who has ultimate judgment?
Even non-religious people believe someone, something, or some ideology has ultimate say over life’s meaning. The nihilist responds that the highest authority is simply non-existence. The atheist responds that rationality is the highest authority. The hedonist pleads for pleasure’s highest authority. The Darwinist says that nature’s systems and processes are the highest authority. A North Korean citizen believes that Kim Jong-un is the highest authority.
Not all claims of authority are equal. The fact that Western civilization is in the throes of a crisis of authority indicates that people have very different ideas on what is authoritative. But still, everyone has an authority. And because society is imperfect, an era where competing claims of authority challenge one another is normal and to be expected. The question that is hard to answer in a liberal democratic context is whether someone’s view of authority is truly ultimate. Why? Because who has the authority to say what is truly good or bad; or to judge between competing understandings of right and wrong is up for debate as people reason about what is true.
What we do know is that when government props up any one ideology or any one religion as the official position against all others, freedom is squelched, human happiness deteriorates, and societies live in deep, irresolvable conflict. This is why religious liberty is about a free-market of ideas that allow competing interpretations of authority to freely compete for people’s acceptance. Religious liberty allows the various authorities we subscribe to to test their credibility and legitimacy against one another.
Regardless of where you locate your ultimate authority, it is important to be able to allow that authority to exist in our lives unencumbered to the extent that no harm results.
But moreover, thinking theistically, the founders of America understood that God’s authority over government’s authority was superior; and that government should not try to play the role of God, or get in the way of man’s response to God. Consider these words from James Madison:
It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.
Madison’s comments are helpful because he reminds us that before we are citizens of the state, we are subjects of God. Madison’s statement is also a reminder that it is the duty of government to be deferential to the conscience claims of its citizens.
The clash continues…
The explanation offered here does not settle the dispute on religious liberty. It actually helps expose why society is so fraught with conflict. Why? Because everyone has their own version of orthodoxy—of a guide to live life by—that can easily conflict with, undermine, or parallel another person’s orthodoxy. I’m not pretending to try to sort out who should win over who in a fallen world, but to point out that in a pluralistic society, striving after common denominators that allow everyone to experience as much freedom as possible is the desired end.
Furthermore, I am not saying that a person is free to do whatever he or she pleases because of adoration, authenticity, and authority. What I am saying is that all of us operate according to these concepts knowingly or unknowingly, and establishing what they are and why they matter helps us sympathize with others who approach and understand these concepts differently.
Christian societies birthed the ideas of the inviolability of conscience and religious liberty with the help of the Enlightenment focus on individual rights. The question for today is whether Enlightenment principles taken to secular extremes that reject Christian moral ecology can continue with the birthright handed down from Christianity, and produce an ecosystem of liberty. And that is still waiting to be seen.