Religious Freedom and Christian Citizenship
July 1, 2017 | View PDF
“Freedom and responsibility are not mutually exclusive, but rather, mutually complimentary.” Both are Biblically based ideas and necessary practices as we Christians understand our relationship to God and our fellow man. The prophet Micah verbalized it this way, “He has showed thee, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)
We hear voices on the extreme ends of the spectrum of discussion in our culture range from religion being the enemy of a free society to those who would impose serious restrictions on every person whether a believer or not. The point I wish to make is not simply to find a place in the middle without controversy. Instead, I want to lift up the unquestionable truth that religion has been and is an integral part of what makes America the country it is, as well as the truth that faith provides the foundation for the best citizen possible.
First, let’s review how we got to where we are. To put it simply, our government sought to provide a free church in a free state. That means that the government cannot dictate the life and mission of the church. Specifically, we believe the individual is competent in himself to relate to God and doesn’t need the state to dictate how that relationship should be. Hence the wording of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” In recent years it seems the interest of some people and some courts has been to pay more attention to the first phrase and not the second. The two phrases about religion, neither to establish it by the state nor to prohibit its free exercise, are intended to be like the famous picture of scales equally balanced.
Most of us are familiar with the name of Patrick Henry. You may not know that he is considered to be the main author of this precious amendment. He is an integral part of our history on both counts, freedom and religion. He gave voice to the conviction of every freedom-loving person when he said, “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I do not know what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
No doubt he was a champion of liberty. Patrick Henry was also one of the earliest and most influential advocates of basic God given rights. For example, he defended persecuted preachers in colonial Virginia. So atrocious was the persecution of those preaching a free Gospel that Patrick Henry came to the courthouse in Fredericksburg, VA and pled the case for them. It was from that event which led to the formation of a statement of religious liberty in the colonies and later in the Constitution of the United States of America.
Furthermore, the very fabric of the concept of freedom comes from our religious belief that God created man alike. It is from that belief that we value human freedom. We believe that every man has a soul and is accountable to God. That also means we believe he ought to have the opportunity to choose whether to relate to God. The fabric of our government gives and protects that right. There would never have been a constitution which guaranteed that freedom without Christian faith. Nowhere else has it ever been articulated as specifically as in our own governing documents.
As liberty is our history and heritage, there is also something else we value as believers. That is Christian citizenship. Not only did Micah voice our responsibility to our fellow man, Jesus said that we “are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” We believe the Gospel ought to permeate every area of our lives including our politics and policy. This can be done without stepping on others choices who may not believe because we believe in a democracy. “We believe in the separation of God and government, but not Christ from culture or faith from life.”
So how it is we can do both? How can we be salt and light in our world? “How do we recognize we live in a pluralistic society which respects the neutrality of the state and at the same time refuse to be neutral about the truth as we understand it, injustice as we see it and the Gospel as we believe it?”
There are no simplistic answers which answer every situation. We are not helped by criticism of those with whom we disagree. If putting others down builds us up, how are we different from the world’s way of winning? In other words, how do we properly exercise our faith in this religiously hypersensitive culture and not violate the teachings of Christ about how we treat our fellow man?
To this question let me offer two observations. First, we must avoid the attitude that the end justifies the means. Christians are never released from the importance of our mission and message. “Our goal is redemption and reconciliation, not just winning at any price.” Our language must be different from unbelievers and our motives and methods must not be deceptive. Someone said, “Let’s practice Christian integrity as much as we practice Christian zeal.”
Second, Christianity must not be identified or tied to any particular political program or cause. We must be absolutely clear. No party has a corner on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly there are political issues which have moral and Biblical implications. To those Christians should speak and seek to influence culture. It is our right and responsibility to vote according to our conscience. However, we must be careful not to make eternal judgements about those who disagree with us.
It was Lincoln who said in 1862, “The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to be in accordance with the will of God…God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” We must be careful not to try to make God the champion of our causes instead of our becoming the champion of His cause or assuming we are the only ones who could know His will. “We should not deny passion in debate or moral consideration in political decisions. Neither is it to deny the possibility of knowing and doing the truth.” Yet we must be extremely careful in recognizing our innate prejudices and presumptions which are born more out of pride of self than Christ-like stature.
It’s not easy to practice Christian faith in the public arena. But that’s what Christ called us to do. Maybe the prophet Micah understood it from his perspective when he so wisely worded it for us. What is appropriate privately and personally is also necessary in our public lives as well. “What does the Lord require of thee? Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It matches so well the New Testament which teaches us that integrity, charity and humility are the hallmarks of a Christian’s walk with his Lord. “In the interaction between religious liberty and Christian citizenship, these virtues must be lovingly embraced, deeply believed and doggedly practiced.”
In closing, join with me in remembering these words from the old hymn,
“God of Grace and God of Glory.” Set our feet on lofty places; Gird our lives that they may be, Armored with all Christ-like graces In the fight to set men free. Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage That we fail not man nor Thee! That we fail not man nor Thee!