(NOTE: The Colson Center’s Warren Cole Smith delivered this speech on Oct. 9, 2017, to the second annual Values & Ethics Conference at Louisiana College in Alexandria, Louisiana. The theme of the event was “Religious Liberty: A National Treasure.”)
In 2009 Chuck Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George drafted The Manhattan Declaration to affirm “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.”
At that time, nearly 10 years ago, most Christians had no trouble understanding why life and traditional marriage were clear biblical principles, and why they needed defending in the public square. But “religious liberty”: Lots of Christians could not (and still cannot) say plainly what it is, and why it matters. Is it really as important as life and marriage? And is it really in danger?
The answers to these questions then, and now, are “yes” and “yes.”
In 2009, critics of the Manhattan Declaration focused on its call for greater religious liberty protections. A Los Angeles Times editorial called stories of religious liberty infringements mere “anecdotes of the sort radio talk show hosts purvey.”
However, less than a decade later, we see the words of the Manhattan Declaration as prophetic. The ability of Christians to live out their beliefs in their vocations and in the public square is under assault. As Alliance Defending Freedom’s Greg Baylor has already said, the legal cases are so many and so diverse that it would be irresponsible to call this groundswell merely the accumulation of “anecdotes.”
But I find that many Christians are still under-informed about these threats to religious liberty, and why they are important. In fact, I hear many Christians ask: Isn’t religious liberty really a political question? Why should Christians, who should be about spreading the Gospel, care about religious liberty?
Freedom in all its forms is at the center of the biblical story. God gave Adam the freedom to choose in the Garden of Eden. Moses told Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Isaiah 61:1 says God’s people are to “proclaim freedom for the captives.” Galatians 5:1 tells us, “It is for freedom that we have been set free.” Jesus Himself said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Freedom in Christ means much more than political or economic freedom. It means true spiritual freedom. But the message of the Gospel is one of redemption and restoration and has profound implications for the way we live together as human beings. The Gospel sets people free. Christians, of all people, should stand for freedom in all forms.
I would also make this point: Religious freedom does not merely mean Christians are free to believe, to preach, and to worship in the ways they see fit, though it does certainly mean that. It also means Christians can live their lives in accordance with the Gospel.
If the government with one hand says that a person can decide for himself what is or is not a violation of his conscience, but on the other tells a person what is or is not acceptable behavior, then it is the government that has established its own religion, and it is the citizen’s religion that is thereby abridged.
That’s why I want to share a few things you can do to make a difference in your communities regarding religious liberty.
Read the Manhattan Declaration. It is still one of the best short statements on the importance of religious liberty. More than a half-million people have signed it, and it remains one of the best short statements we have on religious liberty. You can find it here.
Know the facts about religious liberty cases. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a great source for news and facts about religious liberty cases. They post almost daily updates on important religious liberty cases at www.adflegal.org.
Know the Jack Phillips case. It is especially important to know the facts of the Jack Phillips case. Jack Phillips is the Colorado cake baker whose case the Supreme Court will hear this fall. Because the Supreme Court of the United States will hear this case, it will be a part of the public conversation for the next few months. He and his ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner recently appeared on the TV show “The View.” While I normally don’t recommend “The View,” I do suggest taking a look at this clip. You can find it here.
Get involved. Chuck Colson was fond of saying that “politics is downstream from culture.” Judges and elected officials are people, too. They read newspapers, watch television, and listen to the radio. They need to hear the voices of religious liberty advocates. So write letters to the editor, support organizations that protect religious liberty, and attend events that promote religious liberty in your community. The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” He’s right. Showing up matters.
When Chuck Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George wrote the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, they understood that religious liberty is not merely a political issue. It is a Gospel issue.
That’s why I close by quoting from the Manhattan Declaration itself: “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the example of Christ Himself and in the very dignity of the human person created in the image of God—a dignity, as our founders proclaimed, inherent in every human, and knowable by all in the exercise of right reason. Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.”
As Christians we should faithfully, even joyfully render unto Caesar what rightfully belongs to Caesar. But we should never, under any circumstances, render unto Caesar what rightfully belongs to God.
Thank you. God bless you.
Image courtesy of freedom007 at iStock by Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.