Roots of Religious Liberty

  In talking about religious liberty, as we are doing in this series, it's important to understand how our concept of religious liberty came to be. The American Founders set out to do something remarkable: to guarantee maximum individual freedom consistent with maintaining the social order. And they succeeded; the American government has been called an experiment in ordered liberty. In sharp repudiation of King George and the notion of a "divine right of kings," the founders introduced a concept of limited government grounded in Christian Reformation principles -- especially Samuel Rutherford's principle of Lex Rex, that is, the law is king. The balance of freedom and order they established is rooted in a recognition of transcendent truth that provides pre-political foundations for religious liberty. The constitution they wrote reflected the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence -- "that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." And it reflected the separate spheres of Church and state, another Reformation principle; that is, the state exists for the protection of order, the church for the redemption of the people. That's why the very first freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights stipulates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." When Jefferson spoke of a wall of separation between church and state -- a phrase much misunderstood today -- he was explaining to a group of Connecticut Baptists that, as President, he could not interfere with Connecticut's already established state church. That "wall of separation" did not ban religion from public life - if anything, Jefferson's wall banned the state from keeping religion out of the public square. Religious liberty has always been indispensable for preserving a free society. It's the bedrock individual right on which all others rest -- which is why the challenges to it today are so dangerous. As recently as 1952, the courts recognized the importance of religious freedom. In Zorach v. Clauson, the great liberal justice, William O. Douglas, wrote that our Constitution and form of government presuppose a Supreme Being. And he further warned that neutrality toward religion would eventually lead to pervasive hostility toward religion. In the 1960s we saw existentialism make its way onto American campuses and into popular thought. It undermined any moral appeal to transcendent truth. And without transcendent reference points for truth, moral relativism found a foothold in the law. By 1963 prayer and Bible reading were removed from the schools. And in 1996, in the case of Romer v. Evans, the Court in effect held that religious opposition to special privileges for homosexuals constituted bigotry. Today, public expressions of faith are under fire. Christians can't peacefully protest at abortion clinics; prayer before sports events is outlawed; and we can't display nativity scenes or pro-life images in public places. We need to make the case that preserving religious liberty is not just a matter for Christians -- this experiment in ordered liberty relies upon government defending freedom of conscience. And threats to religious liberty imperil not only the Church; they undermine the American way of life itself -- a fact important for your neighbors to understand.


Chuck Colson


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