The United State has been a good host country for Christians in many ways. We have been given a great deal of freedom that Christians in other countries have not received. In many ways, the United States has set an example for the rest of the world of what true religious freedom should look like. In fact, the United States was arguably the first nation on earth to practice genuine religious freedom, envisioned primarily by James Madison, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson (discussed halfway through this interview with historian and professor Daniel Dreisbach). Before the founding of the United States, other countries, at the best of times, had only exhibited a kind of "religious tolerance" that permitted those who were not of the official state religion to practice their beliefs without being forced to convert.
But the United States set a standard in two important ways: 1) in insisting that there would be no official state religion or church, requiring no one to be part of any particular religion to be eligible for government office; and 2) even more importantly, putting forward and practicing the conviction that every human has an inalienable and basic right to freely practice his religious beliefs - a right that is so central to human existence and identity that the state may not interfere with it. In other words, we established the conviction that a person's worship and obedience to God was so important and natural that the state had no authority to even govern or regulate it. The conscience and private convictions of the individual were above the authority of the state. This represented a sphere of human thought and conscience that the state had no legitimate right to invade. The claim of God upon the conscience of an individual overrules the right of the state to claim authority over the individual.
This idea of religious liberty, as an aspect of human existence immune from government interference by natural right, is described here by law professor Michael Paulsen:
So understood, it is not a right that human authorities confer on those whom they rule – a dispensation. That would be, subtly and ironically, inconsistent with the very liberty the State purports to confer. It would be an assertion, at some level, of the priority and supremacy of the State and not God: the State, in its beneficence, grants the exercise of religion – the strivings of individuals and groups to discern and fulfill their duties to God, in good faith, as they understand them – a certain amount of leeway. But the nature and extent of such freedom is, on such a view, ultimately for the State to judge.
The state-conferred-dispensation view, which I think is the dominant view today, is not really religious liberty, in the sense of freedom of religious exercise from ultimate State control. It is a cipher, or shadow, or parody of religious liberty. At bottom, what justifies religious liberty – the only thing that makes it at all sensible as a liberty distinct from other liberties – is some shared sense that true religious obligation is more important than civil obligation and that, consequently, civil society must recognize this truth. Religious liberty is the legal duty of civil society to defer to the plausibly true free exercise of genuine religious faith.
That is the only conception that can fully justify the idea of constitutional protection of “free exercise” of religion – protection of freedom of religious conduct in opposition to the State's typical commands. The same premises support a related aspect of religious freedom (embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment): Because God's commands, rightly perceived, trump the State's commands, it makes no sense to say that the State can determine what God's commands are and whether an individual or group has rightly perceived them. The State may not in this respect, or any other, set itself up as the arbiter of religious truth and enforce its determinations as law. The State is presumptively incompetent authoritatively to determine what God does or does not command. At least, that must be the operating premise if the right of religious freedom is not to be a chimera.
Christians, this is the concept of religious freedom that we believe in and have been fighting to protect. As things unfold in the months and years to come, let us remember that this is where we want to be in a democratic nation. Paulsen notes that this pure idea of religious freedom - of the superiority of God's claims upon the conscience to any claims made by the state - is not the dominant view today. Yet it is still a strong view that has powerful legal support. Only three years ago, every justice of the Supreme Court - the same justices now sitting - voted unanimously to uphold this view that the state has no authority or competence to judge the sincerity and validity of religious belief. (PDF here)
So there is no reason whatsoever to give up on the ideal of religious freedom in the United States. The voices that have been raised lately, even in major news publications, to call for increased restriction of Christian belief and practice are a bit hysterical and unrealistic. They do not represent the settled convictions of many justices and judges, let alone the citizens of the nation. We have every reason to stand firm in insisting on true religious freedom. But as people push back against us and rattle their sabers, let's not let that heritage and privilege become our security and resting place. We don't need religious freedom to be secure in Christ. No change to the laws of this country can take away our home or our identity.
Rod Dreher sums this up well, acknowledging the resistance and hostility we are going to have to fight through: "Conditions are about to get much worse for us. We must reflect soberly on this fact, and act wisely, but decisively. Just over a decade ago, Robert Louis Wilken, writing in , said that the greatest danger facing the Church is forgetfulness. That is, in our post-Christian culture, we are rapidly losing memory of what it means to be a faithful Christian. 'Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin,' he wrote. 'At this moment in the Church's history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life.'"
Take courage, dear friends, and first and foremost, seek the good and the strengthening of our true kingdom.