You know how it goes. ``Hey, this is a free country. I can believe anything I want.''
The response usually comes in the middle of a discussion about religion—usually when some Christian is showing the absurdity of someone's religious belief. The appeal to religious freedom is supposed to end the conversation.
Religious freedom is beside the point in most of these conversations. The question is not whether or not a person has the right to believe whatever he wants, but whether or not what he believes is true. The appeal to religious freedom betrays a mindset that sees no higher than the laws of the land. Because the law gives religious liberty, it does not mean, therefore, that all religious beliefs are of equal value or are true.
A Practical Compromise
American religious liberty is simply the result of compromise. At the time of the Constitution, very few religious bodies believed in absolute religious freedom. The Roman church didn't. The Lutheran's didn't, nor did the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, nor the Congregationalists of New England. Only the Baptist and Quakers, both of whom relegated the state to the realm of Satan, advocated religious liberty, and they were much in the minority.
But for the exceptions mentioned above all believed in established churches, but only their own. This is where the catch was. None of them possessed the political power to establish their church by law, although the Congregationalists for a time succeeded in New England, as did the Anglicans in some places. Even in Maryland, Lord Baltimore advocated religious freedom, not because of dogma, but because he wanted to attract settlers to his colony.
Because of the lack of uniformity in religion and the democratic nature of the colonies, the rulers were faced with, what to them, were two unpleasant choices: widespread persecution and oppression of dissenters, or religious toleration. They opted for the second because of expediency, not conviction. Even then the choice was made grudgingly and with much pain. As late as the War for Independence some of the colonies still had established churches, and in many others certain churches had favored status. But in America the churches, even the Anglicans and Roman Catholic churches, had lost the stomach for persecution, for the rack and the stake. The only thing left was toleration and compromise. They decided that it was not the state's job to decide what was true in religion.
Some think that the jury may still be out on this, but others think it to be one of the best compromises in the history of the church.
It's Beside the Point
When the Christian believer presses his friends about religious ideas, the appeal to religious freedom is beside the point and ludicrous. The individual who trusts in the civil compromise and refuses to make the decision about what is true in religion is a fool. No one denies that in America you can worship Hormel Vienna Sausages if you choose, but you do not become a wise man for doing so.
Pastor C. W. Powell
Trinity Covenant Church
6050 Del Paz Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80918
Webpage: Trinity Covenant Church