The dedication page of Luke Goodrich’s new book Free to Believe – The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America reads, “For the Church.” The book is a love letter to Christians in the United States and beyond. Why does the church need an epistle subtitled, “The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America?” This book is desperately needed at precisely this moment because religious freedom is poorly understood and under assault across America. If it is lost here, can it thrive anywhere else?
Many Christians, especially evangelicals, may not realize just how much has been lost in recent years. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of religious liberty because it dealt with the fundamental human obligation to pursue transcendent truth and follow the precepts of one’s faith. Hence, the Bill of Rights forbids the federal government from establishing a national religion or infringing on individual rights, while recognizing the free exercise of religion as foundational for the exercise of other individual and community liberties. As Religious Freedom Institute President Thomas F. Farr has written, the Founders advanced free exercise equality: the rights of individuals and communities to practice their beliefs in private and to exercise their religious convictions in public, including in civil society, economic enterprise, politics, and law.
Unfortunately, there is tremendous confusion in America on religious freedom today. On the one hand, there are a small number of revisionists who believe, contra the Founders, that religious liberty applies only to Christians in America. Far worse, though, are claims that religious liberty is just a front for bigotry, particularly when it comes to treatment of people who identify as LGBTQ. For example, in 2016 the chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, created by Congress to protect the civil rights of all Americans, issued the following statement: “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ [are…] code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, [and] Christian supremacy.” This position was endorsed by most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates at a live televised debate in October 2019.
Into this milieu, Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, offers Free to Believe. Goodrich has argued and won multiple US Supreme Court cases, including well-known lawsuits defending the religious liberty of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby. However, Goodrich does not begin with an emphasis on winning. In fact, he reminds Christians that our first goal is faithful witness rather than political wins. The entire book is oriented around this important principle.
Goodrich’s book is written especially for Christians, but not only for Christians. Where to begin? Goodrich writes, “First we need a theology of religious freedom.”[i] Later he deals with contemporary issues, such as sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policies and abortion, concluding with proposals for action. Goodrich disentangles cultural and polemical arguments about “church and state” to focus attention on a biblical argument for religious freedom. He writes, “religious freedom is a basic issue of biblical justice, rooted in the nature of God and the nature of man.”[ii] He further notes:
Simply put, human beings are created for relationship with God, and God desires relationship with us. But a relationship with God can never be coerced. It must be entered into freely. So God Himself has given human beings freedom to embrace or reject Him.[iii]
Goodrich has a good deal to say about justice, freedom, and human nature, emphasizing a broad and deep approach to religious liberty consistent with the approach of Christians from St. Paul to William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King Jr. Critics may respond, “But aren’t there limits to religious freedom?” Goodrich rejoins, “The limits of religious freedom are based on government’s duty to protect other rights… based on government’s responsibility to uphold justice for all people.”[iv] Goodrich is right in pointing out that the vast majority of the time the problem is not too much religious liberty, but rather the use of government power to squash the lived convictions of religious people.
That being said, Goodrich also notes that there are times for appropriate government involvement, and such examples are typically mundane but nonetheless important, such as laws about zoning, parking, traffic, and noise. Government is an important arbitrator, for instance, when a youth group has high-decibel music playing late on Friday and Saturday nights, or weekend traffic and parking patterns affect residential neighborhoods.
An important contribution of Goodrich’s book is his three arguments (described below) for persuading skeptics about the value of religious liberty. This is no idle exercise: surveys suggest that an increasing number of theologically and morally conservative Catholic and evangelical youth have nonetheless bought into the idea that religious liberty has been a smokescreen for racial discrimination in the past and anti-LGBTQ hate today. These arguments are not just being presented on secular university campuses and in the mainstream media: Christian students are expressing support for them in youth groups, Sunday Schools, and social media.
First, Goodrich contends that religious freedom benefits society. A free society is buttressed by individuals and groups that exercise compassion and charity for their fellow citizens, as directed by their faith. What would we do without the Salvation Army, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Prison Fellowship, and a multitude of other organizations, large and small, that lovingly care for the needy? Religious liberty also lowers social tensions. Countries that make the highest demands for religious conformity, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, end up having the highest levels of social tension. This observation helps explain why Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for violent extremism that is not just directed abroad, but also inward on its own government. In contrast, religious freedom, when properly secured in law, fosters pluralism for the vast majority of citizens, whether they believe or not.
Second, Goodrich argues that religious liberty protects other civil liberties and limits government tyranny. A political system that respects religious freedom recognizes allegiances to an authority beyond the state. The Chinese Communist Party is cracking down on Christians, Muslims, and other faith groups because it rejects any form of authority beyond itself. Religious freedom is often called the “first freedom” because its application in society is connected to a host of other rights: freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, freedom to own or rent property, freedom to raise one’s children in one’s faith (including parochial education), etc. Religious freedom helps to establish firm limits on government’s reach into the lives of its citizens and the organizations of civil society.
Third, he makes the case that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. It is rooted in the fundamental human search for truth and meaning. It is also protected under US organic laws such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance, as well as decades of law until the 1950s. Moreover, religious liberty is expounded in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[v]
In Part II, Goodrich shifts attention to the “unique challenges” religious people face in the United States today, including efforts to ban religious symbols and language from the public square and a variety of SOGI policies that are not meant to provide basic equality, but to punish anyone who does not accord with the new LGBTQ orthodoxy. Part III goes on to provide helpful advice on how to think about these issues and what steps churches and faith-based organizations can take to protect themselves in the current, torrid political environment. Goodrich counsels them to tighten their hiring practices and clarify their organizational charters. He also urges Christians to consider political involvement in order to change laws that may affect individual and institutional religious practices and to cultivate relationships with people of other faith traditions who likewise want to practice their faith freely. He insists throughout that Christians are not to take these important steps in order to win out of fear but rather to be faithful to God.
I highly recommend this book. It contains a great deal of reflection on biblical examples and New Testament admonitions to love and service. Goodrich privileges Christian witness over winning in order to challenge believers as to their motives and attitudes. Congregations should read and discuss this book as a community. In short, this is a readable, useful guide for churches, and I recommend that pastors and priests get the book and organize learning sessions around its key ideas.
Does the book have limitations? I’ll mention two. The author takes for granted, as do many Americans, that instead of Congress reigning supreme in our political system, the courts will always be the final arbiter of the law. In other words, there is an assumption that religious liberty battles will play out almost entirely in the courts. But courts typically follow, rather than lead, culture. Brown vs. the Board of Education and other cases upholding civil liberties and civil rights typically aligned with the changing sentiments in American society and in some cases were a response to state or federal legislation.
Sadly, even federal laws promoting free exercise equality and religious liberty, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), can be emasculated by the courts. But it is also true that key legislation provides the foundation for much of today’s law, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Political conservatives, in particular, should pursue a dual strategy: one judicial and the other legislative. As vital as litigation is, legislation protecting the conscience rights of medical and mental health professionals and organizations, religious adoption and foster care agencies, faith-based schools and universities, and more is also critical for securing religious freedom.
Second, religious liberty continues to be attacked as a front for bigotry, particularly when it comes to protecting individuals and institutions that affirm biblical teaching on marriage, sexuality, family, and gender. The courts are important, but they are the emergency option: the last stand. Principled Christians must make pro-religious freedom arguments in our churches, youth groups, para-church organizations, and schools as well as in the public square. We must reevaluate and renew how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are taught. My organization has done this by developing instructional materials on America’s tradition of religious freedom, which is all-too-often left out of the latest textbooks. We must amplify the message of principled pluralism and toleration, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, in our films, books, and other media. We must exercise religious freedom and prove that we can disagree vigorously and publicly, yet civilly, with our opponents. And we must advocate for the freedom of everyone, including our opponents, to make their case.
Religious freedom is not about the lowest common denominator of inter-faith dialogue and does not mean anything goes. Rather, religious freedom calls for respecting and protecting the deepest, most important commitments a person makes and allows people of faith to share, debate, and practice their religion without becoming a target of violence, coercion, retaliation, or the use of state power. I am honored when my Muslim neighbor cares enough about his faith and my soul that he shares his faith with me. Likewise, I want to share the most important thing in my life—the good news of Jesus Christ—with him. I do so because I care about him and firmly believe in the Gospel. Religious freedom protects our fundamental right to engage one another in this way and to seek to live faithfully in every area of life.
Religious freedom has been from the beginning, and remains, good for our churches, our communities, and America.
[i] Goodrich, p. 232.
[ii] Goodrich, p. 21.
[iv] Goodrich, p. 28.
[v] Article 18 of the UN’s ICCPR commits signatory states to agree to the following:
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.