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Religious liberty is in the news a lot these days, but do people understand what it is and its place in American life? In the run-up to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention partnered with LifeWay Research to commission a survey on how Southern Baptists, particularly pastors, are thinking about religious liberty.
The survey, which included 1,097 respondents from all regions of the United States and had a 2.9 percent margin of error, found that Southern Baptist pastors have a heightened awareness to religious liberty’s importance but are also aware of its potential dethroning in certain sectors of culture.
Approximately half of those surveyed “agreed” that people in their community clearly understand the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Nineteen percent “strongly agreed,” while 32 percent “somewhat agreed.” It also indicated that upwards of 41 percent of those surveyed felt their community lacked a clear understanding of the religious freedom protections recognized by the First Amendment.
While it’s certainly encouraging from a glass-half-full perspective that over half of respondents said religious liberty was understood by their community, the other half indicates that religious liberty — because it is not understood — can easily be “defined down,” as Ross Douthat has put it. Indeed, lately the opponents of religious liberty express an understanding of religious liberty that views it in terms of “freedom to worship” inside one’s religious sanctuary. Rightly understood, however, “freedom of religion” entails the free expression of religious faith and practice in every dimension of one’s life.
In the survey, pastors expressed concerns regarding conflicts between religious freedom and the move toward same-sex marriage in many parts of the country. Eighty-five percent of respondents expressed a heightened concern that Southern Baptists who run businesses may be forced to offer their services for same-sex ceremonies. These concerns are not unfounded, as some businesses have been brought to heel by the government for refusing to use their creative talents for same-sex ceremonies.
Likewise, 78 percent of the pastors said they are concerned the government may try to force Southern Baptist churches to use their facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies;
Pastors were also presented 20 ethical issues and asked to pick the 5 “most important” to their church. Forty-nine percent indicated religious liberty was important — it was ranked fourth, behind marriage, sanctity of life, and family life in general.
I asked ERLC president Russell D. Moore about his reactions to the survey. More than anything, he stressed that the survey is a reminder that religious liberty should be a matter of urgent concern for pastors and church leaders, not simply First Amendment attorneys and public policy advocates. He offered this statement:
The fight for religious liberty for all people happens in courtrooms, in houses of Congress, in embassies all around the world, but these are not the most important arenas of this struggle. Ground zero in the fight for religious liberty is the local congregation.
Religious liberty is an inheritance paid for with the sweat and blood of our Baptist forebears in England and in Revolutionary-era America. These Baptists fought for this freedom not because of their politics, but because they believed in the New Testament doctrine of the lordship of Christ over the conscience, a lordship we cannot surrender to any human authority.
Religious liberty is grounded in our understanding of the Judgment Seat of Christ, where each person must give an account, and in our understanding of the distinct roles of the church and the state as taught to us by Jesus and his apostles. We have no authority to coerce others in matters of religious conviction, nor can we shackle future generations with a state that oversteps its bounds in matters of soul freedom.
Moore further said the future of religious liberty would require pastors to preach on the freeness of the gospel, on the social meaning of the image of God, and of the implications of the kingdom of God for citizenship in the present age.
“We cannot reference religious liberty simply on a special citizenship Sunday sometime around the Fourth of July each year,” he said.
Moore is right. If religious liberty is to be rightly understood as America’s “First Freedom,” American Christians must take deliberate effort to communicate this vital principle for all persons — whether Christian or not.
Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, told me that the findings indicate that Southern Baptists must re-commit to explaining religious liberty’s significance not only to Christians, but also to society more broadly.
“Only one in five pastors strongly agree that their community clearly understands the protection of religious liberty,” McConnell said. “If pastors’ perceptions are correct, then Americans are not seeing the value of religion to society. Living out one’s Christian faith should make society better, otherwise there is no reason citizens should limit their other freedoms to protect it.”