By / Jun 29

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Citizenship and Religious Liberty Sunday. 

To see additional SBC event dates, visit

By / Jun 25

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the shocking collapse of a surf-side condo in Miami, the SCOTUS ruling on free speech, the coronavirus variant likely to cause the next wave, the drop in U.S. life expectancy, and the new family members introduced on Sesame Street. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jordan Wootten with “What’s the future of the global religious landscape? Three takeaways from the Pew Center projections,” Wendy Alsup with “4 ways to equip your kids to walk with friends who experience gender dysphoria,” and Josh Wester with “6 reflections from SBC21: Resolution, a new president, and a spirit of unity.”

ERLC Content


  1. Surfside Condo Collapse: At least 1 dead, 99 unaccounted for; 55 units involved In catastrophe
  2. SCOTUS rules for cheerleader in free speech case
  3. Teen cheerleader’s Snapchat brings Supreme Court clash over schools and free speech
  4. Delta variant likely to cause next wave
  5. US Life Expectancy Drops by Alarming Amount
  6. Sesame Street introduces family with two gay dads during Pride Month


Connect with us on Twitter


  • Love your church: This engaging book by Tony Merida explores what church is, why it’s exciting to be a part of it, and why it’s worthy of our love and commitment. | Find out more about this book at
By / Jun 25

Last week the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in favor of a faith-based foster care and adoption provider. In the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, all nine justices agreed that the city government of Philadelphia infringed on the free exercise rights of Catholic Social Services by refusing to renew that organization’s contract to serve as a foster care and adoption provider. But this ruling may have a narrow application and, as one Supreme Court justice noted, might not even provide lasting protection for Catholic Social Services.

Here is what this case might mean for religious liberty.

What was the Fulton case about?

Like many cities throughout the United States, Philadelphia works with private agencies to assist with foster care and adoption services. Catholic Social Services (CSS) is one of 30 agencies that work with the city by performing such vital tasks as vetting potential adoptive and foster families. Because the decisions of CSS are guided by their Catholic beliefs, the agency does not certify either unmarried heterosexual couples or same-sex couples. No homosexual couples have ever sought out their servies, but CSS says they would refer them to another agency if that were to ever happen. 

When the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out the policy of CSS to the city government, the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services launched an investigation. The department said CSS’s position was discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and demanded the organization either change its policy or lose the contract with the city. The commissioner even told representatives of CSS it should follow “the teachings of Pope Francis,” that “times have changed,” “attitudes have changed,” and it is “not 100 years ago.” After that meeting, Philadelphia canceled CSS’s contract to provide foster care referrals to the city. 

Two Catholic women who were certified through CSS, Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s unlawful exclusion of the Catholic agency.

What were the legal issues in the case?

According to the original lawsuit, three legal questions presented in this case were:

  1. Whether free-exercise plaintiffs can only succeed by proving a particular type of discrimination claim — namely, that the government would allow the same conduct by someone who held different religious views (as two circuits have held) — or whether courts must consider other evidence that a law is not neutral and generally applicable (as six circuits have held).
  2. Whether Employment Division v. Smith should be revisited. (In that case, the court ruled, it has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from complying with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct the government is free to regulate.)
  3. Whether a government violates the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster-care system by taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs.

Many advocates of religious liberty were hoping the Court would focus on number two and use this case to overturn the Smith decision. 

What is the significance of the Employment Division v. Smith case?

In the years prior to the early 1960s, U.S. federal courts only allowed exemptions for religious objections if such exemptions were explicitly allowed by statute. In the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner the Court changed this standard and adopted the constitutional exemption model, under which sincere religious objectors had a presumptive constitutional right to an exemption because of the Free Exercise clause.

The Court thus began to rely on the standard of “strict scrutiny” when the law imposed a “substantial burden” on people’s religious beliefs. Under this strict scrutiny standard, religious objectors were to be given an exemption, unless denying the exemption was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. This lasted from 1963 to 1990, when the court rejected the constitutional exemption regime and reverted back to the statute-by-statute exemption in its ruling on Employment Division v. Smith. (As a result of the Smith decision, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), which gave religious objectors a statutory presumptive entitlement to exemption from generally applicable laws, subject to strict scrutiny.)

In their comments on the Fulton case, several justices (Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito) said they wanted to overturn the standard set by Smith. But in his ruling, Chief Justice Roberts said, “This case falls outside Smith because the City has burdened CSS’s religious exercise through policies that do not satisfy the threshold requirement of being neutral and generally applicable.”

How will this ruling affect future religious liberty cases?

Although the ruling is a victory for religious liberty, the Fulton decision is unlikely to have broad ramifications on other cases. The basis for the court’s ruling is a clause included in contracts by the City of Philadelphia that give city officials the power to grant certain exemptions. The city government said it has never given out such an exemption and had no intention of providing one to CSS based on their religious beliefs. As Justice Alito wrote in his concurring opinion, all the city has to do to make it legal for them to discriminate against CSS and other faith-based providers is to strike that exemption language from its contracts: 

This decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops. The City has been adamant about pressuring CSS to give in, and if the City wants to get around today’s decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power. If it does that, then, voilà, today’s decision will vanish—and the parties will be back where they started. The City will claim that it is protected by Smith; CSS will argue that Smith should be overruled; the lower courts, bound by Smith, will reject that argument; and CSS will file a new petition in this Court challenging Smith. What is the point of going around in this circle?Because the ruling was based on such narrow grounds, the Fulton decision is unlikely to have a long-term impact on similar cases. For religious freedoms to be adequately protected, the Supreme Court will likely need to overturn the standard set in Employment Division v. Smith.

By / Jun 21

What does the future of Christianity in America look like? Better yet, what will the global religious landscape be like in a couple of decades? As secularism broadens its appeal and more and more people are religiously unaffiliated, we may find ourselves struggling to answer these questions. Or, we may simply be fearful of the answers.

A recent report titled “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” published by the Pew Research Center, outlines more than six years’ worth of data collection, coalescing their research into a document projecting the world’s religious makeup in 2050 and the trends that lead there. While the authors of this report are quick to admit how fickle some of these projections may be (due to potential factors like war, famine, disease, and others that cannot be accounted for), nevertheless, there is much in “The Future of World Religions” that should grab our attention. 

Here are three takeaways from the Pew Research Center’s report.

1. More religious, not less

If you are paying attention to Western religious trends, you may assume that the global religious trajectory is consistent with what we seem to be experiencing in the U.S., a wayward procession toward secularism. But you would be wrong. Even now, if we were to peer out beyond our own geographic context (and some would argue, even within our own), we would find that the world is not becoming irreligious but more religious. Pew researchers project that this will not only continue, but will surge in the coming decades.

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion (the report refers to this group as ‘the unaffiliated’) – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France,” the report states, “will make up a declining share of the world’s population.” Of course, because the global population is forecast to increase by 35% from 2010 to 2050, the raw number of religiously unaffiliated people is projected to increase, as we would expect among virtually every religious group. However, “their share of the global population is projected to decrease” from 16% in 2010 to 13% in 2050.

What this means, fundamentally, is that people, despite our technological advancements and “progress,” still possess a deep-level “ache” that goes unrelieved without some sort of transcendent remedy. There are questions that atheism and/or secularism (or any other false worldview, for that matter) simply cannot answer. Religion is not losing global influence. On the contrary, it is growing, and picking up steam. And while religious adherence grows among many faith traditions, Islam is projected to grow most rapidly. 

2. The continued growth of Islam

“By 2050, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.” 

There is not a religious group that is projected to experience more rapid growth in the next several decades than the Muslim population, both worldwide and here within the United States. From Middle East-North Africa to the Asia-Pacific to Europe and North America, Islam is forecast to grow both numerically and in its share of each region’s total population. If Pew’s projections hold, Christians (31.4%) and Muslims (29.7%) will make up a nearly identical percentage of the world population, totaling an estimated 60% of all people on earth

While Christians will undoubtedly find this news distressing, we should view these predictions not as something to fear but as an opportunity. After all, these are projections, not certainties. Who’s to say that Christians can’t win to Christ those who are searching, those who are spiritually hungry, and those who are seeking a remedy for their “aches” rather than losing them to another religion like Islam or to the hopelessness of atheism? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, what if the church set out to upend these projections?

What would this take? Well, for one, we’d have to stop all the in-fighting and get serious about the Great Commission. And, certainly, we’d have to take the Great Commandments, the very words of Jesus, seriously — to love God with all that we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we can do that, Lord willing, the Pew Research Center might just have to make significant amendments to their report. 

3. Christianity’s net losses

By far, the most distressing projection included in Pew’s report as it relates to Christianity is what they call the “Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050.” According to their projections, no religious group will lose more adherents to “switching,” or leaving one’s faith tradition for another belief system, than Christianity.

“Over the coming decades, Christians are expected to experience the largest net losses from switching. Globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity, while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated” (emphasis added). If you do the math, that is a projected net loss of more than 66 million people, exponentially more than any other group represented in the report. 

While the report isn’t concerned with answering this question, it would be negligent of us not to ask “why?” Is it because those leaving will have found Jesus’ teaching “hard” (John 6:60) like we read in John’s account of the gospel? Is it because we will have practiced some sort of Pharisaical hypocrisy, driving them away from the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 23:13-15)? Or, will they have “gone out from us” because “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19)? Regardless, this projected seismic “switch” will be a tragedy if we do not resolve to prevent it. 

The thing about projections is that they don’t come true until they come true. May we work with all the strength God gives us to see to it that these 66 million who are expected to desert Jesus never actually do. 

Perseverance in the face of projections

Regardless of what any report might project, the church of Jesus Christ is assured of its perseverance. 

Will Christianity always maintain its majority in global population numbers? I don’t know, maybe not. Will American culture continue to secularize? According to this report, it looks that way for the next 30 years or more. Does this put Christianity and Christ’s church in jeopardy of ceasing to exist? By no means!

The first-century church, under the threat of its Roman overlords, would not have been on the favorable end of any projections. I am certain that Christianity’s eventual extinction would have been the recurrent prediction in that day. But here we are, continuing to persevere, because we do not live by the words and projections of man, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And the Word that has proceeded from the mouth of God has clearly stated that not even “the gates of hell will prevail” against his church (Matt. 16:18). 

We should take Pew’s projections seriously, but let’s not allow them to drive us to despair. Instead, let’s be driven to carry out our mission. Those hungering for some sort of transcendent answer to their aches, those flocking to Islam, and even those disillusioned by their experience of Christianity — whatever the source of that disillusionment —let’s echo the words of Philip in the gospel of John when he said to Nathaniel, “Come and see” (John 1:46). And let’s bring them to Jesus.

By / May 24

In America, religious liberty is often called our “first freedom.” Yet religious liberty today seems to be under constant threat. But why?

What is religious liberty? To whom does it “belong”? And why is it important for our society, generally, and more specifically, for the mission of the church? Andrew T. Walker, author of the recent book, Liberty for All, spent time answering these questions.

Walker’s book deals thoroughly with religious liberty and will help you make sense of why it is so important. Furthermore, it will help shape your efforts toward preserving this “first freedom” for subsequent generations. 

Religious liberty is a term we hear thrown around a lot today. And though the term is used often, our culture seems to lack a consensus on exactly what it means.

How would you define religious liberty? 

There are two main ways to think about religious liberty: (1) As an intrinsic property where individuals (and their communities) should be free to come to conclusions about religious convictions voluntarily; and (2) as an extrinsic property where individuals (and their communities) should be free to live out the implications of their faith in every arena of life. Religious liberty helps secure a forum for authentic gospel proclamation. It is a forerunner to authentic gospel acceptance. It is the pathway for authentic gospel ethics.

What are some of the biggest challenges and/or threats to religious liberty in America today? 

The biggest challenge to religious liberty is its politicization as a culture war issue rather than as an issue central to the experiment of constitutionalism. Because religious conservatives are on the defensive in an increasingly secularizing society, it has become a tool to retreat to, which is both a necessary safe harbor but not a sufficient safe harbor in the long run. To possess religious liberty is to possess the opportunity to make arguments, which should seek to persuade or at least invite goodwill disagreement. Where even goodwill disagreement is impossible, religious liberty will not be sufficient in the long run when measured against a secularizing society that defines reasonableness in exclusively secular terms.

You say that religious liberty in our society “has been sadly situated as a culture war issue,” when what it needs “is an apologetic arising from Christian conviction.” What do you mean by this? 

When Christians talk about religious liberty, it is more often done in the context of it being a constitutional guarantee. While some biblical arguments have been made for religious liberty often by appeals to isolated texts, there has really been no concerted effort to tie religious liberty to biblical theology, or to situate it as a foundational pillar to public theology. That’s what my book attempts to do — to make an argument that religious liberty has theological coherence within the full-sweep of the biblical canon that is a prerequisite for how we understand our place in, and engagement with, the world.

If religious liberty is a principle founded in the Christian faith, does this mean that it should only be extended to professing Christians? In other words, who “qualifies” for the exercise of religious freedom? Why? 

The argument I make in Liberty for All is that when we understand the themes of eschatology, anthropology, and missiology, we come to understand that religious liberty is an essential component to life in this age, which necessarily means it applies to all, religious and nonreligious alike. 

Just as one example to anchor biblical thinking: We live at a time where not everything has been brought under the reign of Christ in a climactic sense. If we are living in a time between the ascension of Christ and the second coming of Christ, what are we to do with non-Christians who do not believe like we do? Banish them? Make them second-class citizens? Religious liberty helps address the interim period the church finds itself in and how it should relate to non-Christians.

Should Christians advocate for the religious liberty of other faith traditions, then? What might be some eventual consequences of not doing so? 

Yes. If we treat our liberty in an American regime as uniquely superior to others or more deserving because of Christianity’s history in America, we will find ourselves isolated and alone if and when Christianity falls out of favor. We all hang together or hang separately, so to speak, when it comes to religious liberty, and that’s because our rights are reciprocally ordered within our constitutional regime.

You talk in the book about where a government’s jurisdictional lines are drawn (or should be) when it comes to matters of religious liberty. Why does a government not have the authority “to declare what is or is not Christian,” for instance, and what might be some of the consequences when it attempts to exercise that kind of authority? 

Because, simply, declarations of what is true religion or false religion has not been authorized or delegated to the government according to Scripture. Government is a temporal institution not fit to make pronouncements on religion. Moreover, we should not want it to do that, especially in those environments where Christians are in the minority. When a government believes it can make such pronouncements, it is a government that is over-stepping its bounds. It is the opposite of a “limited government.” Practically speaking, it’s also futile. England has an established church, but its status in the culture is limited almost exclusively to the ceremonial. When church and state ally themselves to one another, what results are dead churches fueled by nominalist religion.

You argue that “the internal logic of the gospel recognizes and even demands religious liberty.” Can you expound on this? 

Succinctly, to truly believe the gospel means that one voluntarily believes the gospel, which presupposes a context where there is no coercion or penalty for conversion. Moreover, to truly believe the gospel, it must be grasped sincerely and by the individual compelled by the gospel’s message. The state is thus entirely ineffective at effectuating belief within the person. If that’s the case, religion should not be something attended to by the state.

Religious liberty, of course, is not merely a dynamic between citizens and their government, but also between citizens and their neighbors. As you argue in the book, for the Christian, religious liberty “is integral to the advancement of the gospel.”

How does religious liberty relate to the mission of the church? 

When we share the gospel, are we going to go to jail when doing so? When someone purports to accept the gospel, will they be guilty of violating a blasphemy law? How you answer that question reveals the inevitability of some sort of religious liberty regime, whether for good or ill.

Since religious liberty and the mission of the church are so closely tied to one another, what can Christians be doing now to ensure that this “first freedom” of ours endures in American society?  

The best thing we can do is study, learn, and retrieve a tradition that is so central to the Baptist experiment in North America. Baptists have largely overlooked how religious liberty is one of their key distinctives. That’s one of the goals of my book — to recover the Baptist distinctive of religious liberty.

By / May 4

Before leaving on his missionary journey to India, William Carey, one of the architects of the modern mission movement, told his friend Andrew Fuller, “I will go down, if you will hold the ropes.” Fuller, of course, helped raise the funds to build the institutions that made mission possible. Holding the ropes is an apt metaphor for the relationship between religious liberty and mission: religious liberty facilitates mission by giving space and fostering the ideal conditions for the mission of Christ to continue. The mission of God does not wholly depend on Western ideals of religious liberty inasmuch as it is aided where religious liberty exists. Asked in the reverse, What Christian would want to create obstacles for the announcement of the gospel? No one, of course.

To “hold the ropes,” so to speak, is to facilitate mission. This runs contrary to much of modern Christian discourse that seems to lust after martyrdom status, insisting that any demands for “rights” such as religious liberty run contrary to the witness of Christ, who forsook his rights and died on a cross. When Christians feign sanctimony about discarding “rights,” they reveal a facile understanding of the common good and its connection to an ethic of reciprocity for all citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike. Since religious liberty is ordered to the common good, it is never about special pleas for one group but about identifying one’s liberty as bound up in the broader political community’s exercise of those same equally distributed rights. Those who criticize defenders of religious liberty for making it a culture-war issue and possessing martyr envy will likely someday learn that were ancient Christians to choose between Rome and America, they would have chosen the First Amendment.

While martyrs witness powerfully to the paradoxical nature of the kingdom’s advancement through weakness, this witness does not elide Christians’ responsibility to make their context ripe for gospel acceptance. It is one thing to accept an increasingly marginalized status within a society; it is another to seek it out, believing that social isolation and ostracization are required for faithfulness. Oliver O’Donovan has criticized Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder for idealizing “catacomb consciousness,” the idea that only a church on the margins can retain purity and distinctiveness. For O’Donovan, there is no inherent virtue in the church being driven to the margins. Yes, the church can do excellent work when removed from the center of power, but to romanticize marginalization is to invite a degree of persecution that most Christians in history would have wanted to avoid. To say that Scripture promises persecution is neither to invite it nor to bask in it but to accept it as a part of faithfulness. We should caution against valorizing marginalization as an exclusive measure of faith. Historically, persecution can root out religion, but the mustard seed metaphor in Scripture also suggests that growth can be faithful (Matt. 13:31–32).

Living the “peaceful,” “quiet,” and “dignified” lives that religious liberty makes possible is not in tension with God’s desire that “all people . . . be saved and . . . come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:2, 4). In fact, they seem to be complementary. We pray for political tranquility for the sake of gospel advance. To be sure, Christ promises to build his church (Matt. 16:18–19), so we can be confident that no barrier will stand in its path, but wanting to remove barriers is not contrary to this New Testament teaching. There is no virtue in embracing a martyr complex that impedes the gospel’s advance and jeopardizes the work of ministry by inviting hardship. Consider Paul. A Roman citizen, Paul did not shy away from asserting his rights as a citizen (Acts 22). Instead of seeking out a martyr’s death so that the purity of the gospel could be realized, Paul appealed to his political context and the legitimacy of political rule to ensure the gospel’s spread. He did so in particular by appealing to his Roman citizenship and to the political rulers of his day. For Paul, appeals to earthly citizenship were not in opposition to his heavenly citizenship. The former is subordinate to the latter. Paul’s life testifies to the legitimacy of political rule, and also to the need to constructively relate to political authority in such a way that it is not in opposition to the advance of the gospel. 

It would seem that a state limited in its scope makes the enlargement of God’s kingdom more possible. A government that refuses to totalize its jurisdiction and works within its limited confines is acting justly. By refusing to amass or aggrandize power that does not belong to it, it more ably allows for the mission of Christ to succeed. Thus, a limited state is not merely within the province of a much-hackneyed political conservatism but is a faithful steward of the authority that derives from God (Rom. 13:1–7). Governments that allow religious freedom to prosper, whether consciously or not, are at least indirect participants in the unfolding drama of redemption. One hopes that a government, even a pagan one, “would maintain conditions appropriate for believers leading a specifically godly life in government supported civic-peace.” We should hope all government provides the conditions where a fruitful Christian life can be lived without political consequence or threat. In not allying itself with any one religion in particular, and by not impeding the mission of the church, the state is ordered in accord with the service it is to render to God as his “servant” (Rom. 13:4). A government that puts as few obstacles as possible in the way of its citizens being able to freely respond to the call of salvation is doing what God intended the state to do. Advocacy for religious liberty, especially via lobbying and petitioning government, must be seen as a rope-holding activity that ensures that ministry can occur within a given political community.

To use another metaphor, religious liberty is like brush clearing. Untamed terrain needs to be cleared in order for it to be properly cultivated and brought to order. Religious liberty clears a path so that the work of ministry can go forth. In this sense, religious liberty is a context-specific tool that catalyzes mission. To clear brush for a missionary to function as they ought is to cooperate in the mission of God. All of this activity is directed toward living God-honoring lives in every domain of life and advancing the message of salvation.

Where the nexus of religious liberty meets mission and soteriology is the concern for impending judgment. According to Stott and Wright, “The God who is Lord of history is also the Judge of history.” From this sentence arises an urgency, since the current era in which the church finds itself is not eternal. A coming judgment over this era awaits. The reality of this future judgment serves as the backdrop for why religious liberty connects with mission. According to Baptist theologian Jason G. Duesing, “As those living in an era of religious liberty between the time of Christ’s ascension and his certain return, the knowledge of what awaits us on the last day should serve as a warning to all outside of Christ that the freedom to worship other gods without the judgment of the one true God will come to an end.”

Even more foundationally, a focus on the theological underpinnings of religious liberty and the mission of God fosters a greater awareness of the church’s own rationale for advancing religious liberty in society: humanity’s destined judgment. As I have sought to make clear throughout this book, it is eschatological judgment and our reason-using and truth-seeking nature that make religious liberty intelligible from a Christian perspective. The promise of judgment and the accountability of the person before God make sense only within a horizon of mission and the attainment of salvation. Christians insist on the necessity of religious liberty so that persons untainted by coercion can make voluntary professions of faith. It is correct to infer that religious liberty is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a means and a tool that the church utilizes to accomplish its mission with efficiency and effectiveness for the sake of the gospel.

This is why religious liberty is an urgent task of Christian ethics. As a social ethic, it informs a critical nexus that conceives of religious liberty as both useful and necessary for mission. An ethic of religious liberty is intrinsic to mission. Religious liberty is therefore foundational to the church’s public theology since it serves as a firmament to the gospel’s advance. It is, as it were, a grand corallary to Christian ministry in the present era. Christianity prioritizes religious liberty as an evangelistic tool. Where Christianity has any influence in society, a milieu of religious liberty ought to follow from Christian teaching when Christians apply their doctrine to society and seek to influence it.

Those heralding the gospel will exercise every tool at their disposal to see the mission of God advance. Moreover, the “historical situation” that Henry references is consequential to understanding that Christian mission is always historically situated, and “situatedness” is not a missionally insignificant category. Christians should desire to inhabit contexts that make gospel proclamation and evangelistic efforts more fluid and reject circumstances that create obstacles to gospel advancement. We should wish this not only for ourselves but also for Christians around the globe.

If Christians care about mission, they should seek to elevate religious liberty in their public theology. Christians should do this not because Christian mission is necessarily contingent on religious liberty but because religious liberty aids Christian mission in its ultimate task of seeing individuals reconciled and redeemed. Understood through an evangelistic lens, religious liberty is appreciated by those who seek to advance the gospel for its utility but not its ultimate necessity.

Religious liberty is not simply a political doctrine that Western Christians enjoy while living in liberal democracies. It is not merely a construct designed to aid religious difference. Religious liberty is a principle that Christians from all corners of the world should prioritize, because it impacts gospel advancement and social tranquility; it forges a connection between the urgent task of mission and the opportunity to take that mission outward.

Most foundationally, however, religious liberty understood from the interior of biblical logic is a principle integral and internal to the gospel itself and essential for the church’s mission in society. According to Barrett Duke, “The doctrine of salvation itself contributes to our understanding of God’s design for religious liberty.” The soteriological moment is an individual event, and faith cannot be coerced. The gospel hinges on a free response. This is not to say that salvation is individualistic. We are saved into a community. But entry into that community comes from individual assent. Thus, an authentic faith assumes an uncoerced faith. A Christian account of religious liberty as mission thus assumes a doctrine of justification by faith alone, insisting that individuals enter God’s kingdom individually and conscientiously self-aware of an expressed faith. No one can attain someone else’s salvation for them, and neither can someone’s salvation be negated by another.

Christian advocacy for religious liberty in society is not pursued primarily to shore up or preserve the reigning political order. It is not pursued under the auspices of “rights,” as important as rights are. Religious liberty must be imbued with theological gravitas. As Michael Hanby argues, concern for only the juridical or political benefits of religious liberty as a social practice neglects the “deeper freedom opened up by the transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection.” From this vantage point, religious liberty goes beyond the horizons of law and culture to the awakening of our world to the reality of the ascendant Christ. Hanby says that an outsized focus on the political import of religious liberty leads us to neglect its purpose in light of mission.

If we cannot see beyond the juridical meaning of religious freedom to the freedom that the truth itself gives, how then can we expect to exercise this more fundamental freedom when our juridical freedom is denied? Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods— including religious freedom.

In other words, the church does not take its marching orders from protections afforded it only by the procedural rules of liberal democracy. The locus of Christian advocacy for religious liberty is the advancement of Christian mission, followed only then by its constitutional legitimacy. The practice of religious liberty is the expression of the church’s mission under the sovereignty of God. In that, the church possesses a freedom of its own constitution. The church, by definition, ought to be a free society living in response to the call of God.

This focus on mission is not meant to undercut or devalue the political and social benefits that accrue when religious liberty graces society (the next chapter argues that Christian advocacy for religious liberty should result in practical social benefits). But implications that follow from Christianity’s primary justification for religious liberty should not blur nor erase the urgency with which Christians advocate for its centrality in Christian social ethics and public theology—the advancement of God’s kingdom resulting in the salvation of sinners.

Religious liberty exists because it issues from a place of sincere urgency, emanating from sober conviction about the judgment awaiting humanity. Any practice of religion that fails to uphold liberty as a critical element of its doctrinal system only pretends to be authentic. Halfhearted religion works as a “kind of inoculation or prevention against sincere religion.” Only religions so adamant about the judgment of God will seek the freedoms to advance that message for the sake of humankind. Heartfelt convictions will always seek the liberty to be proclaimed.

Content taken from Liberty for All by Andrew T. Walker, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing

By / Apr 28

This week, Jeff Pickering, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, and Travis Wussow are honored to welcome Gayle Manchin, Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to discuss USCIRF’s recently released annual report.

Comprised of nine commissioners, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal body that is principally responsible for reviewing the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and making policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. The president and leadership of both political parties in the Senate and House of Representatives appoint USCIRF Commissioners.

Guest Biography

Gayle Manchin is an educator who has worked in Marion County Schools at the secondary level, on the faculty of Fairmont State University in Developmental Education, and was the Director of the university’s first Community Service Learning Program. From 2005-2010, Gayle Manchin served as West Virginia’s First Lady. She was appointed by the Governor to serve as a member of the State Board of Education, where she also served as President. She also served for one year as West Virginia’s Cabinet Secretary for the Office of Education and the Arts. At the national level, Gayle Manchin has been President of the National Association of State Boards of Education. She was appointed by then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Federal Improvement for Post-Secondary Education Board in 2010. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of The Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. Gayle Manchin has spoken at the state and national levels on the challenges of rural education, poverty, and student achievement. She holds a Master of Arts in Reading and a Bachelor of Arts in Language Arts and Education from West Virginia University, and a master’s specialization in Educational Technology Leadership from Salem International University.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Apr 23

On April 20, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2021 annual report. As the report mentions, USCIRF was created as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). USCIRF “is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the U.S. Department of State, that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.”

The recommendations in USCIRF’s report are based “on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents.” The report, which in its current form is 108 pages long, assesses religious freedom violations and progress during calendar year 2020 in 26 countries and makes independent recommendations for U.S. policy for both the Biden administration and for Congress.

The report’s primary focus is on two groups of countries. The first group includes those countries that USCIRF recommends the State Department should designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). IRFA defines CPCs as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom, such as torture or prolonged detention without trial. The second group are countries that USCIRF recommends the State Department should place on its Special Watch List (SWL). The SWL is for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom that are ongoing and egregious. In addition to these groups, the report also includes USCIRF’s recommendations of violent nonstate actors for designation by the State Department as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs). 

In this year’s report, USCIRF recommends 14 countries to the State Department for designation as CPCs. Ten countries were previously designated as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Four other countries are also recommended to be added: India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam. 

The report also recommends 12 countries be included on the SWL. Two countries—Cuba and Nicaragua—had previously been included on the list. The 10 other countries recommended for inclusion are Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. 

Finally, seven nonstate actors are recommended to be designated as EPCs: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Taliban.

The ERLC is deeply committed to advocating for religious freedom around the world. In 2019, we released a short film titled “Humanity Denied: Religious Freedom in North Korea.” The film features defectors from North Korea as well as church leaders and human rights activists in South Korea. China has increased its persecution of Christians, Uyghur Muslims, and other ethnic and religious minorities. This is extremely concerning, and the ERLC has been calling on the U.S. government to hold China accountable for their religious freedom abuses and to counter China morally.

In addition to country-specific advocacy, the ERLC has also worked on initiatives to fight against blasphemy laws and the rise of anti-Semitism. We are dedicated to advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed around the world and to fighting for the rights of our persecuted brothers and sisters.

ERLC is grateful for the work of the USCIRF and encourages all Christians to support the work of this advisory body. We can also use this report, as we do resources from the Joshua Project and Operation World, as a prayer guide for the nations and for persecuted Christians around the globe. Here are four ways, recommended by Casey B. Hough, that Christians can use USCIRF’s annual report in daily prayer for the nations:

  1. We can pray for the endurance and faithfulness of Christians who live in the countries listed in the report.
  2. We can pray for those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ because of the difficulties that missionaries encounter with the government.
  3. We can pray with gratefulness to God for the religious freedom that he has granted us at this time in history.
  4. Finally, we can pray for God to use the efforts of USCIRF and other international organizations to quell the religious freedom violations that exist around the world so that the gospel might advance without hindrance (Col. 4:3).
By / Apr 12

By now the situation involving Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church, which is just outside the city of Edmonton, has gained the attention of many evangelicals in both Canada and the United States. Back in February, Coates turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after the church violated public health restrictions related to COVID-19. Authorities in Canada then took the extraordinary step of holding Coates in jail for 35 days for an infraction “that is not punishable by jail time.”

At the time, the ERLC called the actions inflammatory and inexcusable and called for Coates’ immediate release. And though Coates has now been released, the situation has only gotten worse.

Needless escalation

On March 22, Coates was released from jail (as the ERLC also covered here). The criminal charges against him were dropped. And Coates returned home to his family and resumed worship activities with his church. It is worth noting that Coates’ objections to the health orders were never arbitrary. Coates and GraceLife hold “the religious conviction that the whole congregation must meet together during one service . . . [and] could not in good conscience follow the Emergency Health Orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, which restricted building occupancy to 15% of a building’s fire-code capacity.”

With the terms of his release, Coates had another court date set for May related to a health order violation. But before that trial could take place, and mere weeks after Coates was released from jail, officials in Canada further escalated tensions in the matter.

As Christianity Today reports, on Wednesday of last week “Health officials in Alberta, Canada, made the decision to ‘physically close’ [GraceLife Church] until its leaders agree to finally comply with coronavirus regulations.” To exclude worshippers from the building, authorities erected temporary fencing around the property and used police vehicles to block access to the parking lot. 

These actions were particularly egregious and incendiary. Religious freedom is a fundamental right in Canada just as it is here in the United States. As John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said in response to these efforts to deny access to the church’s property, “Freedom of conscience and religion is the first fundamental freedom listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is listed first because it is one of the key bedrock principles on which Canada is built.” Carpay went on to say, “The government has so far refused to justify the limits on worship and gathering. Health orders are inconsistent, differing from province to province, and arbitrarily created by one public health official who is under no obligation legally to advise the legislatures of the science and rationale which supposedly are the basis of the orders.”

Protestors respond

In response to these aggressive and provocative actions, hundreds of protestors showed up outside of GraceLife’s facility on Sunday. The crowd assembled outside of the erected barricade to demonstrate against the state’s authoritarian efforts to prevent a Christian congregation from gathering for worship. According to multiple reports, a significant number of police officers—possibly hundreds—responded to the scene to counter the presence of the protestors. And it shouldn’t be missed that in making these inflammatory moves, local officials actually fostered an environment for people to get together en masse, creating a moment that actually could lead to further spread of the virus.

Conflict between the protestors and police was minimal. At one point, some protestors attempted to take down the fence, but that was quickly halted as police and other protestors worked together to restore the barricade. Most importantly, on Sunday night the church released a statement through the Justice Centre to clarify that its congregants were not present and did not participate in the protest that read in part: 

GraceLife Church appreciates the public outpouring of support to fully open churches in Alberta. Grace Life Church congregants were not at the protest that occurred on Sunday, April 11, 2021 near the Church’s facility. GraceLife Church recognizes the place for peaceful protest within the context of a democracy.

GraceLife Church has no control of our Church or grounds at this time. The Church grounds are fully under the responsibility and control of the RCMP and Alberta Health Services. The closing of the GraceLife facility has understandably resulted in significant public outrage and caused even larger crowds to gather in one place. Albertans have a constitutional right to assemble, associate, and worship. By taking the measures the government has, while the matter is still pending before the Courts, the Alberta Government has created an even more divisive situation.

Moving forward

The sight of temporary fencing, police vehicles, and countless law enforcement officers on the perimeter of a church property is jarring. It should be. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious international concern. But the freedom for churches to worship Christ is of perpetual, not to mention eternal, concern.

Throughout the pandemic, the ERLC has counseled churches and government officials to view one another as partners and allies in the fight against coronavirus. In many places, conflicts between houses of worship and public officials have been marginal or nonexistent. In fact, there are countless examples of churches and religious organizations stepping forward over the last year to meet critical needs in their communities, from providing childcare for essential workers, to providing food and housing assistance to people who lost their jobs, to manufacturing PPE that was in short supply, to serving as vaccination sites. And these are but a few examples of churches operating as partners, cooperating with governments to advance the common good in a time of immense difficulty.

But to respect the lines of authority and responsibility of both the church and the state, the ERLC has also encouraged government and public health officials to issue guidance rather than mandates related to COVID-19 for houses of worship. We believe pastors are best equipped to lead their own congregations and that government can best serve churches and secure its own interest of protecting public health by providing adequate resources and information for pastors to make these decisions. 

In the case of Coates and GraceLife, authorities in Alberta have repeatedly and needlessly escalated tensions through provocative action. Jailing Coates for more than a month was unconscionable. Barricading the church property further demonstrated the government’s animus and hostility. And the police presence from this past Sunday provoked and inflamed tensions, eroding public trust in this moment.

Government officials have a duty to promote public health and safety. But that duty is in service to a particular end, namely, protecting the ability of citizens to live their lives and enjoy their freedom, including the freedom to worship. The pandemic has called for certain necessary restrictive measures, but this sort of antagonistic behavior and ongoing harassment of a peaceful congregation is unwarranted and indefensible. Through these actions, the government has made adversaries of citizens for the simple offense of religious worship. There is no excuse for this kind of hostility or aggression.

Officials in Canada must demonstrate reason and good will. Deploying masses of law enforcement officers to ensure Christians are unable to gather for worship represents neither. Because the freedom to worship is fundamental, the lessons and mistakes here transcend the current moment and any concerns about the pandemic. Alberta’s government should remember Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and de-escalate this conflict.

By / Apr 2

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a number of challenges to religious liberty. In recent days, there have been several major developments related to religious freedom on both the domestic and international fronts. Below we’ve highlighted three very positive developments spanning from Canada to Scotland to Washington, D.C.

Pastor James Coates released after 35 days in jail

James Coates, the pastor of GraceLife Church outside the city of Edmonton, Canada, has been released after 35 days in jail. Coates was charged with violating public health restrictions related to COVID-19. 

The most outrageous aspect of Coates’ situation is the fact that his “provincial infraction” earned him significant jail time despite being an infraction “that is not punishable by jail time.” Though he has been released and had his criminal charges dropped (pleading guilty to a “health order violation” instead), questions and frustrations remain concerning Coates’ unjust treatment by Canadian authorities.

In response to Canada’s mandate that in-person attendance at church services be limited to no more than 15% capacity, and that congregants wear masks while social distancing, Coates maintained his conviction that “whole congregations must meet together during one service.” When his congregation did not comply with Emergency Health Orders authorized by the Alberta Health Act, this set in motion Alberta Health Service’s overreaching and inequitable response, which ultimately resulted in Coates spending more than a month in jail. 

As the ERLC argued in February, the decision to jail Coates over COVID-19 restrictions was unduly punitive and a significant overreach of government authority. Coates has another court date in May. Christians should pay close attention to how this case unfolds, praying for a favorable outcome that recognizes Canadians’ right to religious freedom, even amid concerns for public health.

While the pandemic has warranted various precautions for the sake of public health and safety, the implications of this case, in particular, transcend present concerns and could have a significant impact for the future of religious liberty in Canada.

Numerical cap removed from Washington, D.C., churches

In a significant victory for religious liberty, Judge Trevor N. McFadden recently struck down the numerical cap applying to houses of worship in the nation’s capital. Notably, Washington was the last remaining city in the United States with a numerical limit on indoor religious gatherings.

Beyond removing the 250 person limit imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, McFadden’s ruling also effectively raised the capacity limit applied to such gatherings to 40%. Under Bowser’s previous directive, worship gatherings in Washington were limited to 250 persons or 25% of the facility’s capacity, whichever was fewer.

While houses of worship in Washington are still required to practice social distancing, McFadden’s ruling will allow churches there to welcome hundreds of additional worshippers to their services. Coming just ahead of Easter, the loosening of such burdensome restrictions is certainly welcomed news.

Throughout the pandemic, the courts have provided an effective backstop for religious freedom protections. As Mark Rienzi, President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, “Most of the country has now stopped discriminating against religious worship — either losing in court or voluntarily changing the law — because there wasn’t evidence that worship was more dangerous than many other allowed activities.” 

This ruling from McFadden is one more positive step in the fight to defend religious freedom.

Scotland’s churches to open immediately

Judge Lord Peter Braid in Edinburgh recently ruled that the mandatory closure of churches in Scotland was unlawful and ordered that houses of worship in Scotland be allowed to open immediately. The ruling came after a group of 27 church leaders in Scotland “launched a judicial review at the Court of Session” making the case that the country’s government had exceeded its authority by closing churches in response to the pandemic.

Noting the complexity of protecting both the right to worship and public health and safety, Lord Braid said, “I have not decided that all churches must immediately open or that it is safe for them to do so, or even that no restrictions at all are justified. All I have decided is that the regulations challenged in this petition went further than they were lawfully able to do, in the circumstances which existed when they were made.”

Even so, the ruling is a significant victory for Christians in Scotland who have been denied the right to gather for worship. Christians in Scotland and elsewhere recognize the very serious nature of the threat posed by COVID-19. At the same time, the Christian worship gathering is much more than a recreational activity for believers. It is both a command of our Lord and vital spiritual practice, the absence of which does actual harm. Lord Braid affirmed as much in his ruling, “It is impossible to measure the effect of those restrictions on those who hold religious beliefs. It goes beyond mere loss of companionship and an inability to attend a lunch club.”

We celebrate this victory with our brothers and sisters in Scotland as they once again gather together for worship.

Additional resources

Explainer: Should the government jail pastors for violating COVID-19 restrictions?

Explainer: Religious liberty and Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s lawsuit in Washington, D.C.