When Religious Freedom Destroys Religious Freedom


Religious freedom is a hot issue in Australia today. Many Christians are concerned about it, and some commentators claim this concern impacted our recent Federal election.

Here in the West, we’ve had religious freedom for many centuries. Classical western liberalism has formulated a doctrine of religious freedom that’s been accepted by both Christians and non-Christians (at least up until recently!). Indeed, Article 18 of the UN’s International Convention on Civil and Political Rights upholds religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

But according to American author and theologian Jonathan Leeman, this modern understanding of ‘religious freedom’ is problematic. In his book,Political Church—The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Leeman argues that the secular definition of religious freedom contains the seeds of its own destruction.

That is, modern ‘religious freedom’ may well undermine Christian religious freedom.

It sounds ominous, especially as we grapple with religious freedom here in Australia. But Aussie Christians would do well to understand his concerns:

1. Who Determines The Limits of Religious Freedom?

In a secular framework that ignores God, ‘religious freedom’ becomes up for grabs and open to abuse.

The problem, as Leeman observes, is that modern notions of freedom of religion depend on ‘freedom of conscience’—a publicly accessible stand-in for religion (after all, both the religious and non-religious can agree to the existence of a conscience that should be as free as possible).

But if ‘freedom of conscience’ is the goal, then whose conscience determines the limits to freedom of religion? If there is no commonly accepted higher (or transcendent) standard of right and wrong, then how are boundaries set for religious freedom (or any freedom)?

Leeman writes:

Defenders [of freedom of conscience] quickly assert that, of course, no one advocates religious freedom or conscience “without limits.” But this misses the point. Where will those limits come from? Establishing limits requires some worldview or religion to draw them, which means that someone’s religion must work covertly in the background. [1]

When freedom of religion was originally devised in the West, the underlying worldview was some form of Christian theism.

But what happens when Judeo-Christian limits to religious freedom are no longer in the background, informing religious freedom?

‘[R]eligious freedom’ or the ‘free conscience’ begins to protect all kinds of things that the original architects never intended and to prosecute the architects for some of their religion-driven practices.

For example, there used to be a consensus here in Australia that ‘religious freedom’ included the right of religious schools to operate on the basis of their religious teachings, even in the employment of staff. But such a consensus no longer exists: a bill was introduced by Penny Wong last year that would have removed the right of religious schools to only hire staff who upheld their religious ethos. But—and here’s the crucial point—the Federal Labor party speak of the importance of religious freedom. Religious Freedom, however, no longer means what it used to mean, due to a shift in underlying ideology.

But the other side of politics is not immune from wanting to redefine religious freedom. Federal Liberal politician, and former Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson was recently asked on ABC’s Q&A about religious freedom in Australia (with reference to anti-discrimination legislation). His response is worth quoting in full:

‘…Australian anti-discrimination legislation, which is often the basis of these concerns, was designed at a time where freedom of religion transcended the rights of other minority groups within the community, particularly LBGTI Australians. And I think we need to look and review at that law, to improve it, so that everybody’s rights are protected, rather than just trying to tinker with the existing laws.

Wilson sounds fair and reasonable—who could be against protecting ‘everybody’s rights’? But his point is clear: the current definition of religious freedom is unacceptable, and its limits will need to change. The limits, of course, will be driven by a worldview other than Christianity. [2]

In other words, religious freedom is starting to mean something other than what Christians might want it to mean.

Wilson sounds fair and reasonable. But his point is clear: the current definition of religious freedom is unacceptable, and its limits will need to change. Religious freedom is starting to mean something other than what Christians might want it to mean.

2. Modern Religious Freedom is Reduced to a Battle Between The Religious Conscience vs. The Non-Religious Conscience

But why should a religious person’s conscience be more important?

If religious freedom is driven by secular conceptions of ‘freedom of conscience’, then it increasingly becomes a battle of consciences. To take a famous example from the United States, the Supreme Court affirmed in 1992 that the right to abortion is grounded in “the right to define one’s concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” [3]

But as Leeman points out, ‘the right to define one’s concept of existence is another way of saying ‘freedom of conscience’. [4]

And so, the battle lines are drawn:

Christians argue against … court-ordered demands to provide services to same-sex weddings, claiming that these requirements burden their conscience. But in so doing they merely pit one conscience’s burdens against another’s…And why should the believer’s conscience count for more?’ [5]

Where to From Here?

If the underlying ideology driving modern religious freedom is shifting away from Judeo-Christian assumptions, then religious freedom laws aren’t as likely to defend a Christian’s religious freedom.

Does this mean we give up on speaking for religious freedom?

Not at all. Not least, because we’re commanded to pray for it (1 Tim 2:1-4): it is a public good (when biblically defined).

But we need to beware of accepting non-Christian definitions and assumptions about religious freedom. Instead, we should clarify the underlying ideologies that drive terms like ‘religious freedom’. And as the opportunity arises, we should question these ideologies, and show why the Christian worldview makes for a better foundation to public policy, including for religious freedom.

Originally published at akosbalogh.com

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church—The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 88.

[2] We will have to wait to see what the recommended changes will look like. As it isn’t a biblical view of humanity that is driving these changes, religious freedom will likely be watered down, rather than strengthened.

[3] Leeman, Political Church, 89.

[4] Leeman, Political Church, 89.

[5] Leeman, Political Church, 89.