It is past time for Christians in America to rediscover our glorious heritage of religious liberty. What is religious liberty? The inalienable right to live out one’s faith according to the dictates of one’s conscience as long as doing so does not infringe upon the rights of others. It is not religious toleration. Religious toleration is a different concept entirely. Under religious toleration the state functions as the totalitarian gatekeeper of religion. In other words, a government that merely embraces religious toleration is operating as a de facto state church. George W. Truett explained, “Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle” (East Steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 16, 1920).
Religious oppression and religious toleration are related approaches that both constitute a form of religious slavery. The state is sovereign and religious people, and their assemblies are vassals of the state. Many state overlords see religion as a tool to be wielded for governmental purposes and control of the masses. The Roman empire embraced religious toleration as good for public morals but one that must be appropriately regulated. Believe what you would like and you will be tolerated as long as you are willing to affirm, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
But that is an affirmation that no faithful Christian can make because Caesar is not Lord—Jesus is Lord. The early church refused to accommodate religious toleration because it functionally denies the lordship of Caesar over Christ. The church does not need, and should not want, validation by the state. Members of the early church were committed to being good and faithful citizens, and they were guided by Jesus’s admonition, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (Matt 22:21).
No world country in history has ever built a commitment to religious liberty into its civil structure like the United States of America. Baptist evangelist John Leland wrote,
It was left for the United States of America, to give the example to the world; to draw the proper line between church and state, religion, and politics. Yes, from the beginning of Christianity, down to the close of the eighteenth century, A.D., it never prevailed among a people, of any considerable consequence, but they would either punish or pamper it almost to death: either to proscribe it, or make it a principle of state policy. To say that the government of the United States is perfect would be arrogant; but I have no hesitancy in saying, that the Constitution has left religion infallibly where it should be left in all government, viz: in the hands of its author, as a matter between God and individuals; leaving an open door for Pagans, Turks[Muslims], Jews, or Christians, to fill any office in the government, without any religious test, to make them hypocrites: securing to every man his right of argument and free debate: not considering religious opinions objects of civil government, or any ways under its control: duly appreciating that Christianity is not a scheme of coercion; but only calls for a patient hearing, a dispassionate examination and a rational faith” (The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene, “Nimrod, Moses, Christ, and the United States” [New York: G.W. Wood, 1845], 426-428).
Leland and his friend Thomas Jefferson believed when a religious group bowed before the state, eventually, it became an arm of the state, and then a parasitic dependent of the state. A church that submits to such an arrangement ultimately serves the state, rather than the Lord, and will inevitably become the adversary of free churches, which witness to the world, Jesus alone is Lord. Jefferson wrote, “The rights of conscience we never submitted to them. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others” (Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” ed. Merrill D. Peterson, [New York: The Library of America, 2011], 285).
Baptist preacher Isaac Backus declared,
We view it to be our incumbent duty to render unto Caesar the things that are his but also that it is of as much importance not to render unto him anything that belongs only to God, who is to be obeyed rather than any man. And as it is evident that God always claimed it as his sole prerogative to determine by his own laws what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported, so it is evident that this prerogative has been, and still is, encroached upon in our land (Wm. J. Mcloughlin, editor: Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism, Pamphlets, 1754-1789, ed. William G. Mcloughlin, [Harvard University Press, 1965], 317.)
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution established the principle of religious liberty in our nation and was a rejection of mere religious toleration. Religious liberty has been dying a slow death in recent years, and tragically religious leaders have largely been ambivalent. Religious toleration confines one’s faith to their thoughts whereas religious liberty is a commitment to live out one’s faith in every walk of life. Perhaps, the steady erosion of religious liberty that we see taking place will awaken a new generation of Leland’s and Backus’s in the church and Jefferson’s in the political world to defend our first freedom.
With an increasingly hostile government much is at stake. If Christians today are silent when the religious liberty of any faith group is threatened, we are handing the state a noose that will eventually be tightened around our own necks.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today.