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. — Russell Moore, ERLC-SBC
And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. — The Revelation
A paradigm shift had taken place by the time our nation declared its independence from the motherland. Enlightenment thinking had so permeated the times, that it was leading prominent political thinkers to look at life from an almost exclusively individualistic point of view. The Rights of Man became the focal point of political discussion, not the common good. This starkly contrasted with the former manner of political thought which took on a more communal view and had generated such political terms as “the commonwealth.”
A concurrent phenomenon was also taking place at the same time. As Thomas O’Brien Hanley pointed out in the opening pages of The American Revolution and Religion: “There was a positive aspiration to a Christian state stirring simultaneously with the political ferment, both movements ultimately fusing in the Revolutionary War and the era which it created.” It was at this time as Hanley puts it, the Christian state replaced the Confessional state. A government was established with the explicit intention of facilitating diversity of Christian understanding — freedom in Christ — rather than the overarching State imposing a solitary view on all.
The then emergent Baptists played a prominent role in this transformative time due to their increasingly substantial presence in the colonies and perceived confinement under the Confessional state’s rule. This perceived confinement rendered them highly susceptible to the emergent political concept of religious liberty as an inalienable right. They swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. This is understandable since no one likes to be persecuted. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to hear present day Baptists such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission continue to espouse the same traditional view.
But can Religious Liberty as an inalienable right stand the test of God’s Word?
To answer this question we must first define what is meant by Religious Liberty. A common definition is that Government should not interfere at any point or in any way with an individual’s religious views or practice. All individuals should be religiously free. In this definition, Religious Liberty is directly related to the relationship between Government and the individual. No mention is made of the community at large. This is where the problem lies.
Romans 13 is the most comprehensive statement on Government in all of Holy Writ. Looking at it we can see a few things:
1. Governments are established by God.
2. Government Authorities are “his ministers.”
3. Government by nature is a religious institution.
4. Government is to be viewed by us as a good thing.
5. Government is to restrain others from doing us harm.
6. Government is to punish evil “doing,”not evil “thinking.”
7. Government is a moral-based entity
From Romans 13 we can can see that Government has a communal perspective, “it is a minister of God to you for good.” That is, good to you in Rome collectively*. How is it a minister of God to their good? By restraining individuals from doing them harm. Many will rightly see the goodness in government restraining an individual from causing them physical harm. Can we not see that it is also good for them to restrain individuals from doing others much more serious spiritual harm? Note that Government is not about punishing belief. It is about punishing those who act on evil belief, and thus seek to harm others, although they may not see it this way. As a Christian father, you may gladly let a Muslim friend stay in your home. But if that Muslim friend starts actively trying to seduce your children away from Christ, I would expect you to quickly intervene. Likewise, this should be the expected practice of Government in the matter of religion. It should be expected to restrain those who would promote damnable heresies or the worship of false gods, and thereby drag others with them to Hell. This is simply to punish evil doing, not evil believing. “Drive out a scoffer” we are told in Proverbs 22:10, “and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.”
All said, it should be clear that biblically, individuals should not unequivocally be free from government restraint in the area of religion. As members of a community they are expected to do good to others, not harm. They are to be restrained from evil doing. Religious Liberty, therefore, is most definitely not an inalienable right.
* The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written exclusively to the collective body in Rome. It was not a letter to an individual.
“[T]o all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:7