Does religious freedom offer any value to Christian apologetics? It may seem like a strange question. Shouldn’t religious freedom embrace all religions? How could religious freedom offer anything to Christian apologetics? Would not the attempt to link religious freedom to Christian apologetics serve as a back door to assert the supremacy of Christianity over other religions?
Here I am at the Southwest regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Ft. Worth. I have disembarked from the john-boat that is the Houston campus of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I teach) and have climbed aboard the aircraft carrier that is the main campus of the seminary (where I am a guest). Tomorrow, I give a paper on the question of whether or not there is any apologetic value of religious freedom to Christianity. Here is a link to the entire paper, if you are interested in reading it.
The short answers to the above questions are–yes, indeed religious freedom is valuable to the apologetic effort because it shows one way in which Christianity has had an overall beneficial impact on human civilization. Religious freedom in the West was originally an idea articulated by Christians and justified in the Scriptures. Thinkers such as Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, William Penn, Isaac Backus, and John Leland were each champions of the idea of religious freedom, and used Scripture as a basis for the idea. Each of these thinkers were persecuted for their advocacy for religious freedom. Helwys died while in prison because of his conviction in 1616. Because religious freedom is so closely linked to Christianity, it shows how Christianity has pragmatic relevance to individual and corporate human existence.
But what about the notion that attempting to find apologetic value in religious freedom is disingenuous? The point of religious freedom is not to validate every religion. Rather, the point of religious freedom is to provide an environment where representatives from every faith commitment can have equal access to the public square, and can exercise their faith freely without external compulsion. Just because you advocate for religious freedom does not mean you become a relativist. You are still free to hold to your convictions as strongly as ever. You just do not deny anyone else the same right.
I’m looking forward to hearing the papers which are going to be presented here on the aircraft carrier. Should be fun!