Lesson 8: Freedom of Religion

Cake for a gay weddingAny talk about church and politics after the Enlightenment has to look at the expectation that governments will protect freedom of religion. You get an idea how important this became when the founders of the US made their first amendment to our constitution the right to freedom of speech and religion. Since then, the role has moved steadily from protecting to providing this freedom.

We are presently experiencing a crisis, not because the challenges are that different, but because modern technology gives great power to all players. Everyone and everything is so interrelated in our society that no one can escape the effects of government legislation. Communities can be liberated with extreme speed. At the same time, individuals and small groups can resist and push back with great effect.

You see that in the 2009 Washington Declaration when Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox individuals claimed their freedom of religious belief is denied when government enacts laws permitting abortion and same sex marriage. Medical workers who oppose abortion find they are forced to participate in some procedures they find immoral. Business people who feel marriage should be confined to heterosexual couples are compelled to provide services to same-sex weddings. Tension developed when other church bodies claimed not enacting these laws restricts their religious freedom. Now more than ever, efforts to promote freedom for some are regarded as denial by others.

The same power is evident in the free speech disputes on college campuses. One side champions the freedom to say just about anything about anyone. The other asserts its freedom to silence those whose speech could bring harm to them. Modern technology grants both efficient means to achieve their goals. Special interest groups can use social media to organize and keep in immediate contact with their followers. Protesters can gather a crowd quickly and easily. The speed and ease seem almost more important than the message as media readily spreads lies as well as information, hate as well as admiration. And if things turn violent, both sides have powerful weapons of destruction.

This situation that enables the spread of freedom also threatens its demise. Civil rights groups develop techniques that use national media to show the ugliness of prejudice and segregation. They effectively use national law to overcome local practices. However, hate groups also use very efficient techniques to get what they want and that might include accepting tyranny.

The church is forced to play politics first to preserve its own freedom, but just as much to provide freedom for other individuals and groups. We find ourselves in the paradox Martin Luther captured in his famous statement: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” Freedom does come at a cost: the willingness to suffer until all are free.

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