Religious freedom is at the core of America’s identity and heritage. The first generation of Americans could not have foreseen how important the First Amendment would be, not only to the practice of religion but also to its spread and inculcation deep into the culture. Freedom of worship gave religion per se a favored status in American society. It also ensured that there would be a robust competition between faith groups. This competition spurred the growth of religion among Americans, with the result that we have been both the most religiously free nation in the world, and also among the most religious people in the world.
Most people in today’s society would likely agree that religious freedom is a good thing. But why? Why defend religious freedom? Why allow religion to occupy a special place in American society? Why allow the Bible to be the basis for the presidential oath? Why allow the motto of the United States to be “In God We Trust”? Why post the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building? Why protect the liberty of every individual to practice and sustain their religious beliefs in public and in private?
Some say that religion has a practical value to society. Religion gives people a reason to be moral. So, religion is necessary to maintain a civil population. Others say that America is a Christian nation, and so, religion is necessary to maintain a Christian identity. Still others will use a legal argument, pointing to the First and Fourteenth Amendments and court precedents over the past 200 or so years.
But there is a deeper and more significant answer to the question of why religious freedom ought to be defended. That answer is found in theology. If America is to maintain religious freedom in the present and ensure it for future generations, then religious freedom must be rationalized on the basis of theological arguments.
But, an objector may say, to use a theological argument to justify religious freedom is not valid. The use of theological reasons to defend religious freedom, by definition, favors a particular religion, to the exclusion of others. If one is to use theology, well, which theology will one use? Christian? Muslim? Greek myths?
Our objecting friend raises a common concern, but he need not worry too much. There are two primary theological reasons which undergird and justify religious freedom. First, God exists. Second, every individual is accountable to God for the content of his beliefs and conduct. These two theological reasons can be agreed on by more than one religion, and they are not exclusionary in the slightest. Even a person of a non-monotheistic faith system can benefit from such reasons. It is not necessary for everyone in a society to agree with these two reasons in order to uphold religious freedom. It is only necessary for the government to live and operate by these two reasons.
Since Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century after Christ, arguments for religious freedom have been based on theology. They were not based on law, pragmatism, or sentimentality. But after the enactment of the Bill of Rights, theology has disappeared from discussions affecting the preservation of our first freedom. It is time to recover what has been lost.
Unfortunately, there is a significant obstacle in our path. That is, theology has never been taken all that seriously in American culture since the First Great Awakening of the 1720s-1740s. Theology is not useful, not practical. It is divisive, we are told. It belongs to eggheads who live in ivory towers, and don’t know anything about living Christianity out “on the ground.” The realm of theology is the church pulpit on Sunday mornings, and in the seminary classroom. The study of theology is a necessary evil, something to get us to missions, evangelism, church growth, social justice—the really important stuff!
The result of this way of thinking is that Americans do not know much about theology. Many people hold to theological commitments that are inconsistent, and thus fatally flawed. Others spurn theology because it is “a system,” and faith in God “isn’t a system.”
So, when religious freedom is threatened or undermined, many of us turn to arguments that are just easier to make. Arguments which rely on legal precedent, the First Amendment, the pragmatic value of religion, or the dubious assertion that America is a Christian nation, will only be so helpful. But religion, which is purely a theological enterprise, demands a theological justification—if it is to be protected.
We have work to do. Of all people, Christians need to get busy understanding their own theology. After all, it is Christianity that bequeathed to humanity the concept of religious freedom. If we want to hold on to our religious freedom for ourselves and for our children, we need to get serious about theology.