I have donned my fire-proof underwear and I have on my flak jacket. After all, I’m going to venture into some very dangerous territory here. After all, if you want a volatile mix, it is the mix of religion and politics. Mark Twain had some good stuff to say when he said:
In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing
I will confess, right up front, that there will be points in this post that I will be applying some generalizations and stereotypes. Therefore, don’t start pointing fingers and shouting about “Not all <fill in the blank of the commenter’s particular group> are like that.” I already know that, but when talking about viewpoints and such, there are certain representative characteristics that are fairly common (but not necessarily universal) that come up. I can’t talk about each individual person because I don’t know each individual person. So, here we go.
You see, when it comes to the discussion of “religious freedom” in the United States, there are a lot of little arguments and such that go on as to what “religious freedom” actually means. There are a lot of nuances, a lot of different perspectives, and a lot of different ways of talking about it. I can’t necessarily group people into easily labeled groups (despite my saying above that sometimes there may be stereotyped groups… it’s really not that easy) because there are so many mixes of the different perspectives that it blows the mind thinking about it. So, I’m going to take certain stances and refute the viewpoints individually.
Religion is Personal/Individualized
There are folks who make the declaration that religion is a personal affair and that any attempt by anyone else, either individuals or social structures, to impose a religious (or non-religious) view on a person is a violation of that person’s “religious freedom”. The funny thing is that both devoutly religious folks (Christians primarily) and non-religious folks (atheists and agnostics, mainly) hold this view so we can’t necessarily say it’s a view of Christians or Jews or atheists alone. There is a broad range of people who take this “personal” stance. This gets expressed many times in political discussions of a ”non-interference” idea. No one should impose their views and so any time any political party, candidate, or whatever makes an expression of something that even remotely smacks of “religion”, these folks get all up in arms. “You can’t tell me what to do!” An additional nuance to this is a “live and let live” attitude. “You let me do my thing, I’ll let you do your thing, and we’ll all be happy”
Religion is Separate
Another view is that somehow religious activities and actions based upon religion are relegated only to those contexts that are explicitly religious such as a church, mosque, temple, or other such venue. If I am an CEO of a corporation and hold certain values and views, my expression of those views either in word, in deed, or in policy within that role of CEO is out of consideration. The CEO is not a “religious” person and the corporation they run is not a “religious” organization so anything that comes from religion is not protected in those venues. In our society, then, this means that any policies or actions that CEO enacts within their corporation are not protected as “religious” because the context is not a “religious” context and, therefore, are ineligible for that protection. Feel free to do your religious based stuff with the rest of your life, but when it comes to being a politician, a CEO, a software developer, a manager, a gas station attendant, etc., you need to conform to the rest of society, even if it goes against your personal religious beliefs.
Because I know how things go in blog posts, I want to make absolutely clear that the two views that I’ve described above are generalizations and stereotypes and I realize that they over-simplify things into very specific categories. There are a lot of shades of nuance in either of these views and probably there is not any person that specifically agrees with these two points at face value but hold some reservations. So, my assertions are artificial constructions to make an attempt at refuting these specific extremes and, in the process of doing so, even refuting the spectrum of nuance. So, put away the pitchforks and tar, I know there’s more than this going on. So, on to my refutations.
The Problem Defined
The problem with the two views expressed above is that they assume that, when it comes to faith, specifically Christian faith, that somehow your faith can be compartmentalized away from all other aspects of your life. In truth, both these views (and, I suggest, all related nuances) have this same flaw in attempting to separate the faith-based/religious life from all other areas of life.
For the first view, the only way this view can be preserved is if we all lived in our own individual bubbles and never interacted with each other. Additionally, all our actions and activities would need to be self-contained where anything I do would need to be so atomic that it would have no impact whatsoever on anyone else. This is impossible with the rare exceptions of hermits living on some mountain in the Himalaya or other similarly remote location. Religion or non-religion (which is a religion in itself), if it is really something that a person believes in, will have an influence in the things they do in their lives, even in their relationship to others.
For the second view, this requires some sort of schizophrenia on the part of the person to become a completely different being depending upon where they are and what they are involved in. It denies any aspect of the personality and psychology of the person and relegates life to only what we do and not how we feel, what motivates us, how we view the world, etc. As much as personality assessment tests have their flaws in trying to measure what kind of person you are, there is some truth to them in that they attempt to describe the person by what goes on in the darkness behind the eyes and not just the actions a person does. I can’t stop being Rob. I’m Rob at work, Rob at church, Rob at home, etc. Faith is not just a role you play for a few hours every week at your local place of worship. It defines who you are.
A Faith Based Refutation
When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded with a description from the Old Testament which describes the whole person. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” is the answer according to the Matthew account. In Mark, we see “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. Both of these point out that, when it comes to our love response to God, nothing is left out. Every part of our life is involved in it. It means that when I’m a father, I love God in what I do as a father. When I’m a CEO, I love God in what I do in the board room. When I’m driving on the highway to and from work, I love God in how I treat my fellow commuters.
For those who hold to some concept of faith being a personal thing that no one can interfere with, that negates the whole person. You are not an atomic individual with no impact on the world around you. Everything you do, to some degree, affects someone else for good or for bad, either directly where you act specifically with another person or indirectly where your attitudes (molded by your private thoughts and actions) impact those around you. There is a level of responsibility and accountability necessary in society where what you do involves some scrutiny from outside. So, yes, people can tell you what to do because, somewhere along the line, your actions impact them or others.
For those who hold to the concept of faith being something that is separated from other areas of life, they don’t understand what faith really means. Faith, from a biblical perspective, is not just something that you do for part of the time or with part of you. It is a complete life reorientation. Everything you do is centered around this new way of looking at things and at living. If you see faith as separate and choose to live differently at work than you do at church, you’re not really living out a faith. If you see faith as separate and therefore don’t see any conflict in asking someone to act one way as a CEO and another way as a person, you’re not thinking about faith properly. A person who is truly a person of faith cannot make that separation. The person cannot divide their life into those compartments and, because of this, will find any coercion by outside organizations to compel them to act counter to their faith a serious conflict to be faced.
Biblical Religious Freedom
So what does religious freedom look like, then, for this person of faith? First of all, what it is not is a right that can be given (or taken away) by any earthly power. While the US Constitution does describe some aspects of what the government can do or not do with regards to religion, whether or not this amendment exists does not alter what a person of faith does. The reason being is that such people of faith do not view religious freedom as some sort of liberation from oppressive powers that are preventing their exercise. They see religious freedom as the freedom to be the person God intended them to be. It is freedom that they get, not from an earthly power, but by the grace of God.
Before Jesus died and gave the way forward, people were trapped in the cause and effect rule of law. You sin, you have consequence. You are trapped in this endless cycle. There is no freedom because sin rules your life. They are such strong chains. What God did through Jesus was replace this entrapment to sin to a different sort of “slavery”. As a person of faith, you are bonded to a new way of looking at things, a transforming power that rules your life. Instead of being trapped in the way you are, you are now free to be what you can be. Paul describes a lot of this in Romans, explaining how this law of grace is a different sort of way of being.
When it comes to being a person of faith, God has given you a power to be completely free from that cycle of consequence. It’s a long process, a transforming process, but you no longer feel that entrapment. Your past doesn’t hold you back. In fact, even things in the present cannot stop you. If you truly are following Jesus, you will do what is right and righteous no matter what some 200-year-old piece of parchment says (or does not say). This is risky business as many people of faith have found out over the centuries. It means death, torture, exile, ridicule, poverty, oppression, etc. All our wonderful comforts we have are on the line when we act as people of faith because, in truth, those who don’t follow Jesus won’t understand.
So, to say that I can do what I do in my personal life without thought of impact of others is not freedom that comes from God. It is an entrapment of the sin of selfishness where you are looking out for yourself and not looking out for those around you. To say that my life is separated into different roles is not freedom that comes from God. It is the sin of hypocrisy where you claim a life in Christ but choose to live that life differently depending upon the situation.
Here in the USA, we claim to fight and stand for religious freedom. But the only true religious freedom comes in living out your faith, following Jesus in all parts of our lives, and maintaining a perspective that when we chose to follow Jesus, everything is committed to that cause. Even if the government around us decides to do things differently, it doesn’t matter. We are free. Our faith makes us free. Richard Wurmbrand discovered this in a Romanian prison. Even in solitary confinement, he was free to worship, to love God, and to be who God wanted him to be.
You are free. All you need to do is act like it.