Religious liberty is the first freedom mentioned in the first amendment to the Constitution—and for good reason. The freedom to live according to conscience is central to our history and to who we are as Americans.
Yet not long ago, a New Mexico Supreme Court justice told a Christian photographer and her husband who were charged for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment event that they were “compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives” adding “it is the price of citizenship.”
Folks, something has gone very, very wrong.
In his new book “The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today,” my friend and one-time BreakPoint editor Jim Tonkowich lays out what has gone wrong, why it has gone wrong, and what we can do about it.
Religious liberty has its roots in the early Church, he explains. In an age where the Roman government mandated some worship and banned other worship, Christian thinkers like Tertullian bravely argued that religious liberty “is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.”
With the Christianization of the Roman Empire and eventually of Europe, the idea of religious freedom was, sadly, ignored. And even after the Reformation, the idea of freedom for all religious believers—or at least for all Christians—was slow to reemerge.
Over time, however, the seeds that were sown took root again.
Roger Williams, who founded Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636 as a haven of religious liberty, read Tertullian. So did Thomas Jefferson who, along with James Madison, championed religious liberty in their home colony of Virginia and later in the formation of the U. S. Constitution.
Tonkowich points out something that may surprise you: there has never been a “Golden Age” of religious liberty in America. Almost from the start there were disputes. Did religious liberty apply equally to Anglicans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, Jews and others?
Are there limits to religious liberty? And what are those limits? How do we determine them? And what are legitimate religious objections to national, state, and local laws?
In “The Liberty Threat,” Tonkowich guides us through these questions. He also explains the often confusing “wall of separation between church and state”—where it came from, its history in law, and how, as he puts it, the “metaphor became a monster.”
After surveying the threats to our religious liberty, Tonkowich adds a plan of action. “In response to the threats to religious liberty,” he writes, “let me suggest a seven-part plan: understand life in our fallen world, understand the dangers of losing religious liberty, get informed, pray, force the question, evangelize, and, if need be, suffer.”
“Religious liberty,” Tonkowich points out, “is the canary in the coal mine of all our freedoms.” It is the first freedom—first in order and first in importance. If it disappears, our freedom of speech, assembly, the press, and association are not far behind. And in fact those freedoms are already under assault as well.
As Jim Tonkowich points out, all is not lost. But it will take concerted action by Christians and others to reverse the negative trends. For that we will need to understand the issue. “The Liberty Threat” is a great place to begin. It lays out the arguments in a way that’s easy to understand, and as we authors like to say, “It’s a good read.”
— by Eric Metaas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.
Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries