Preserving Religious Liberty

A vintage flag of the United States of America on white with copy space

Preserving Religous Liberty

by Dr. Matt Davis, MBU Executive Vice President & Corporate Counsel

Physical, legal, and cultural attacks on religious liberty dominate the headlines. Accounts of violence and treachery serve to keep in our consciousness the truth that freedom never comes without sacrifice—and it will not be preserved by passive admiration. Our Savior purchased our spiritual freedom with his blood on the cross of Calvary. With God’s help and through many sacrifices, the Founding Fathers carved out a nation with a freedom to worship God that is unique in the world. Unless Christians understand the biblical basis for universal religious freedom, we stand in danger of surrendering the essential foundations of faith in society.

False Promises from a False Source

Today, many Americans, including those in prominent positions of power and authority, believe that “Freedom is the unoriginated birthright of man and it belongs to him by force of his humanity.”[1] President Obama, quoted here from a speech given in 2009, was himself quoting Immanuel Kant who taught that reason alone is the source of morality.[2] Consider the impact of his words. He is saying that our freedoms are not endowed upon us by our Creator as inalienable rights. Instead, they are universal entitlements. No need for sacrifice. No need for struggle or conflict. Indeed, no need for defense.

Many believe that freedom will simply and inevitably emerge as a society evolves—totally apart from God or the work of His people. This subtle change in the fundamental definition of freedom and its source leads quite logically to the secular recasting of America’s historic foundation as articulated by President Obama himself:

"One of the great strengths of the United States is [that]—although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."[3]

The secularization of fundamental human rights changes their basic nature. For example, our first freedom—the freedom of worship described in the Bill of Rights as the right to “free exercise of religion”—has frequently been redefined and rearticulated as the “freedom to believe what you want.” Notice the difference? Believe what you want. But if your beliefs manifest themselves into practices we disapprove, you will be silenced, punished, and ultimately exterminated.

Most recently in its Obergefell v. Hodges opinion mandating the legalization of homosexual marriages, the majority of the Supreme Court gutted the protections of religious liberty in its feeble attempt at reassurance:

United States Capitol building silhouette and US flag at sunrise - Washington DC

The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.

As Justice Roberts pointed out in his dissenting opinion, “The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

This political doctrine of separating private belief from public activities is called “Fundamentalist Secularism,” and it is a major emerging threat to religious liberty as it expands in global popularity.


Threats to religious liberty are amplified by the dominant post-modern mindset reflected in every realm of society, from education to news media, to entertainment, and even to some religious groups that completely reject any concept of absolute moral truth. The post-modern thinker believes that each culture constructs its own reality and each is as valid as another. It is therefore impossible for a post-modernist to insist that another community change, even when its regime is violating the basic civil rights of its citizens.[4]

A tragic example of this principle in action is found in the fact that, having freed Iraq of its dictatorial tyrant, when it came time to establish a new constitution for a free and democratic society, the Bush administration failed to secure a guaranteed protection for universal religious liberty. The new Iraqi constitution thus establishes Islam as the official religion of the state and includes no meaningful protection for the universal religious liberty of its citizens. Sectarian violence continues to ravage the nation to this day with Christians and other minority faiths persecuted and driven out.[5]

This is the environment within which Christians contend for the faith today. We must reassert the universal and biblical nature of religious liberty. We must insist that all cultures, our own as well as others, respect the rights of all faith groups and protect their right to practice their faith as they choose, including their right to engage in religious speech with which they may vehemently disagree.

Universal Religious Liberty Defined

What is meant by “universal religious liberty?” Universal religious liberty is the proposition that every human has a universal right to freely worship (or not worship) God according to the dictates of his own conscience without coercion or punishment by government or other citizens. The United Nations provides a fairly helpful articulation of universal religious liberty as a basic human right: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”[6]

Early Baptist Leaders

Baptists have always been in the vanguard of the fight to establish and preserve freedom of religion for all. Early Baptist leaders certainly understood that the Scriptures taught of a right of freedom to worship—even for those who chose to worship contrary to their Baptist convictions. “Liberty of Conscience” first appeared as a term in the Confession of Faith of 1612 by John Smyth, a principal leader in the Baptist church of Holland:

“That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Romans 13), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is king and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James 4:12).”

Roger Williams, the Baptist leader who established the Colony of Rhode Island, famous for harboring and protecting religious dissidents of all faiths, said in 1644:

“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 anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries, and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God.

“God requires not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”[7]

United States' Constitution and Declaration of Independence on a flag background

In 1773, Isaac Backus, an early American, Baptist preacher, offered a similar opinion:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything contrary to his word; or not contained in it; so that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.”[8]

Liberty of Conscience has historically served as a primary basis by Baptists arguing for universal religious freedom. Consider the argument of Colonial Baptist preacher, John Leland in 1791:

Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the Day of Judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.[9]

Our Baptist forefathers fought and died defending our right to know and serve God today. My prayer is that you will commit yourself to love, cherish, and defend this freedom so it may be preserved undiminished for the generation that follows.

[1] President Barrack Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany (June 19, 2013)

[2] Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Ethics (1796) “Freedom is the alone unoriginated birthright of man, and belongs to him by force of his humanity; and is independence on the will and co-action of every other in so far as this consists with every other person’s freedom.”

[3] This philosophy is seen quite clearly in the opinion of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the BIA’s decision to refuse asylum to Chinese Christian, Xiaodong Li, “While we may abhor China’s practice of restricting its citizens from gathering in a private home to read the gospel and sing hymns, and abusing offenders, like Li, who commit such acts, that is a moral judgment not a legal one.” Xiaodong Li v. Alberto Gonzalez, 420 F.3d 500 (5th Cir. 2005) vacated after significant political pressure and negative publicity forced the BIA to reconsider.

[4] The Constitution of Iraq states:    “First: Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation:

  1. No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam
  2. No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy.
  3. No law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution.

Second: This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.”

This substandard type of guarantee is generally referred to as “Religious Toleration.”

[5] United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18

[6] Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644)

[7] Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day (1773)

[8] John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, And, Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable by Law; Or,The High-Flying Churchman, Stripped of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yaho. (1791)