Does religious liberty apply to non-Christian religions? Someone told me this week that he had seen a Baptist writer question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious liberty “benefits.” Hearing that was honestly surprising, in that it would represent a direct contradiction of our confessional document and all of its predecessors. But beyond this there’s a broader question that’s important to consider: must a person who believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God defend religious freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike?
One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.
But isn’t this support for religious liberty a lot more complicated? After all, Moore would not argue for the liberty of Americans to steal. Who would? And yet, the Ten Commandments condemn not just stealing but also blasphemy and idolatry. In other words, Christians who take the moral law seriously should be opposed to false religion. In fact, down to the 1960s when Vatican II re-applied church teaching in favor of religious freedom, many bishops and cardinals had judged that “error has no rights,” meaning, civil government should not protect unbelief.
The way out of this conundrum for Protestants, at least, is to affirm the epoch-making significance of Christ, the end to the civil laws that regulated Israel in the Old Testament, and the pattern of church-state relations implicit in the New Testament — all of which adds up to a two-kingdom theology that differentiates the jurisdiction of the state from the authority of the church. Leave the word “wall” out and the separation of church and state doesn’t look so scary.
The good news is that the UMC still officially holds that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” in its Book of Discipline. Despite disruptive protests and political maneuverings, LGBTQ activists failed to change that fact at GC. Rogue clergy can still be disciplined for performing same-sex weddings and for engaging in homosexual activity.
Another positive move at GC was to withdraw denominational support from the Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition that advocates for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) strategy against Israel. In addition, proposals by anti-Israel activist at GC mandating the UMC divest its multi-billion dollar pension fund from Israel were soundly defeated.
But perhaps most encouraging, delegates at General Conference reversed the denomination’s long-established support for abortion. First, they voted 425 to 268 (61 percent to 39 percent) to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The UMC helped found the pro-abortion lobbying group in 1973, and two church agencies—the General Board on Church and Society (GBCS) and United Methodist Women (UMW)—still actively supported the group.
Aside from the foreign policy piece of this assessment, orthodoxy for many conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics means getting right with Jesus about sex and marriage.
Combine that then with Christian advocacy of religious freedom and the related argument that Christian citizens have as much of a right to bring their religious (read moral) convictions into the public square as others bring their racial or sexual identities with them, you may begin to see a further wrinkle in the Christian defense of religious freedom. If Christianity is synonymous with pro-life and heterosexual marriage (which I believe), what sort of freedoms do Christians who take their faith “freely” into the public square advocate for pro-choice or LBGT Americans?
At some point, the religious freedom claim begins to look like freedom for us and not for them. Which is another reason why Christians may want to develop arguments for freedom of religion less on faith-based grounds than on civil or secular ones.