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Let the Word of the Lord run freely

Religious liberty is essential to the spread of the gospel and the fight for truth

The Roger Williams statue at Roger Williams Park in Providence, R.I. Wikimedia Commons

Let the Word of the Lord run freely
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Even with important victories for religious liberty at the United States Supreme Court, recent events eclipse those gains and point to the fragility of religious liberty. In an increasingly secularized and neo-pagan culture, liberty of conscience will remain embattled.

During the last weekend of July, Marcus Schroeder was arrested for reading from the Bible as a form of protest during a Pride event in a public park. Technically, he was booked for improper use of sound amplification, but the video of his arrest is difficult to watch, especially considering that while Schroeder was reading from the Bible, a group of drag queens across the park lawn engaged in sexualized behavior at what was marketed as a family-friendly Pride event.

Schroeder’s case joins a continued cultural hostility towards public manifestations of Christianity that contradict the prevailing moral headwinds in our society. Indeed, a lawsuit is pending against several Christian institutions of higher learning because they have the audacity to refuse to admit LGBTQ students who will not adhere to basic doctrinal and moral commitments of orthodox Christianity. The Guardian, a liberal British newspaper, ran what can only be described as a hit piece against the Alliance Defending Freedom, calling ADF a “shadowy, well-funded rightwing legal organization” that seeks to “roll back abortion rights, to demonize trans people, and to peel back protections afforded to gay and queer Americans.” In that Guardian article, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights charged ADF with trying to force “a certain type of religious view at the center of American life.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in 303 Creative, a predictable fury against religious liberty arose across the political landscape. Indeed, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., chastised First Amendment protections, stating that “you’re free to discriminate as long as you do so under the guise of religious liberty.” Darcy Hirsh, the senior director of policy and advocacy for the Interfaith Alliance, made similar comments, arguing that “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom is not just unconstitutional, but antithetical to our values.”

It will fall to Christians to make the persuasive case for religious liberty, and not merely in the halls of the Supreme Court but in our streets and to our neighbors.

Yes, Christians can and should celebrate legal victories for religious liberty. But, as Natan Ehrenreich argued, “Threats to religious liberty remain alive and well.” Indeed, it will fall to Christians to make the persuasive case for religious liberty, and not merely in the halls of the Supreme Court, but in our streets and to our neighbors. Religious “nones” naturally possess an ambivalence to religious liberty, not understanding what will happen if this fundamental human right succumbs to the critique that it is nothing more than a pretense for discrimination and power.

In fact, it was Roger Williams—the 17th century advocate of religious liberty and founder of Rhode Island—who grasped the importance of making the case for claims of conscience. While he did not live in a context of secularism and cultural hostility to Christianity, he did write at a time of widespread opposition to religious liberty. Williams made a crucial argument that bears repeating for the challenges we presently face.

Williams believed that liberty of conscience created conditions conducive to the pursuit of truth. “He that is a briar,” Williams wrote, “that is, a Jew, a Turk, a Pagan, an antichristian today may be, when the Word of the Lord runs freely, a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow.” Williams was responding to fears that disestablishment would lead to social and religious chaos. He argued that without liberty, volitional assent to the true, the beautiful, and the good was made nearly impossible. Coercion wrought, at best, hypocrisy and fear. At worst, it encouraged violence.

This kind of vision seems a far cry from our present context where the public manifestation of the Christian worldview on matters of marriage, gender, and abortion is deemed beyond the pale of acceptable views. It is simply too offensive. Bake the cake for a same-sex wedding, or get out of business. Open your college’s doors to the rainbow revolution, or we will shut you down. Stop reading the Bible in a park, or we will have you arrested. Without religious liberty, the freedom to think and pursue the truth will vanish. Christians, even if we stand alone, must make the case for religious liberty.

Cory D. Higdon

Cory D. Higdon (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. His research focuses on the history of religious liberty in Colonial America and has been featured in the Journal of Church and State, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Public Discourse, and Providence Magazine. He has presented at numerous scholarly meetings including the American Society of Church History and the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his family reside in Louisville, Ky.


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