Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

One of the biggest problems facing Christians in the United States is a decreasing tolerance for religious viewpoints. More precisely, there is a decreasing tolerance for people actually living out the religious viewpoints that they claim to believe.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.

Part of the growing pressure on religion is the fallacious assumption that religious thinking is somehow in a different category than non-religious thinking. This assumption is based on a naturalistic worldview that assumes that anything religious is inherently fictitious and therefore arbitrary.

The denigration of religious freedom because of a dismissal of religion as a category fails to recognize the significance of freedom of conscience. It threatens the ability to live in a pluralistic society because it values one totalizing worldview over all others. Opponents of religious freedom think that infringing on the conscience of believers will make the world a better place, but they fail to recognize that religious freedom is simply a subset of freedom of conscience.

The Unfounded Assumption

Making the unfounded assumption that religious thought is somehow inferior to supposedly non-religious thought allows people to argue there is no valid basis for declining to purchase potentially abortion inducing drugs or distribute them to others. When someone makes the assumption that religious thought is purely fiction, then there is no basis for not preferring the supposedly non-religious thought that is dominant in society.

By this way of thinking, religion is just make believe. Therefore, if someone bases a moral determination about a medicine which terminates a pregnancy on that religious foundation, there is no reason to honor that belief. After all, morality based on the make believe doesn’t really count, does it?

But this sort of argumentation—more often assumed than stated—begs the question.

In other words, instead of considering whether someone may have a legitimate basis for choosing not to purchase drugs that may end the life of a child, it merely states that any grounds that do not support unrestricted abortion are illegitimate because they have a religious foundation.

There are several problems with this sort of argumentation.

What’s Wrong With Discarding Religious Reasoning

First, it is incorrect to assume that only religious arguments can oppose abortion. For example, using a basic Kantian categorical imperative, an argument can be made that abortion is wrong because if everyone killed their children, then the human species would die out. Unless that is a desired end, then there is a case to be made in opposition to abortion on non-religious grounds.

There are other cases than abortion inducing drugs in which arguments made on religious grounds could be made on non-religious grounds. The fact that many irreligious people have accepted the dominant worldview that truth is merely a social construct limits the number of people making reasoned arguments contra the current societal consensus. However, unless one assumes that the dominant social construct is always correct, there is little reason to reject all other thinking (religious or otherwise) based on the popularity of post-foundational epistemological assumptions.

Second, simply because an argument has a religious foundation does not necessarily mean that is invalid. In order to rationally hold that belief, one would have to first prove that the religion itself is invalid. While some are convinced that all religion is false, the vast majority of humans in the history of the world (including most currently living) do not agree.

However, the invalidity of religion is exactly what so many contemporary moral arguments in the public square simply assume. This allows people to reject arguments they find inconvenient based on the genetic fallacy, without considering the merits of the opposing position or whether there may be legitimate grounds for dispute. In other words, religion is false, therefore any arguments based on religious principles must also be false, therefore do what popular opinion in society demands.

This is Too Important

If these were merely internet chatroom arguments about the existence of God or the eternal nature of the human soul, then the fallacious argumentation wouldn’t be as dangerous. But the problem is much more significant.

The coercive power of the United States government has grown to the point that it is impacting life or death decisions. The current administration’s regulations that require the purchase of drugs that may cause the termination of pregnancy make a huge moral statement and place a grave moral burden on many believers.

This issue is not one of trivial concern, since it is literally a life or death issue. Those that hold that terminating a pregnancy is a moral evil have reasons for objecting on the deepest level to purchasing or distributing the means by which a life is unjustly ended.

But arguments that hold that abortion is wrong are most often framed in religious terms. In the contemporary social milieu, the assumption is often made that religion is fiction, therefore religious arguments are unimportant. Therefore, any accommodation for faithful religious practice that excludes the purchase and distribution of abortion inducing drugs is invalid.

This sort of argumentation is narrowly circular and fails by being insufficiently self-reflective.

What if every religion isn’t false? What if every belief system isn’t merely a social construct? What if the question of life and death is so important that there needs to be room for dissent, especially in favor of not contributing to needless deaths? What if the social construct that assumes that religion cannot represent truth is incorrect? What if religious and supposedly non-religious thought are in the same category?

These questions are typically not asked, nor permitted to be asked in public debate. Supposedly non-religious thought has gained the ascendency in popular discussions and religious liberty has been pushed into the corner. And yet, religious liberty is nothing more than freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience requires that we do not coerce behaviors when there is a reasonable basis for objection. This is what allows someone who is a non-religious, consistent pacifist to be excused from military service. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the person’s thought, but freedom of conscience requires us to leave room for those who have reasonable objections to live consistently with their convictions. There are cases to be made for exceptional circumstances, where someone might need to be coerced, but those are exceptions to a general practice.

Freedom of religion is simply freedom of conscience built on a reasonable basis that is not purely naturalistic. Just as those who believe that eating meat is murder should not be forced to purchase meat for the office barbecue, those who believe terminating a pregnancy is murder should not be forced to buy abortion inducing drugs for their employees. Similarly, those who believe that some religious services denigrate their religion should be permitted to decline participation in those services.

Religion is not another category of thought from non-religious thinking. At least, it is not for those who actually believe what their religion teaches.

This raises an important concern. Couldn’t someone falsely claim their conscience did not allow something simply because of personal dislike or bias? Yes. However, just as we must allow for some abuse of the welfare system to occur so that a necessary safety net is available for those that actually need it, we need to allow for some abuse of freedom of conscience due to irrational and unjust biases.

This is part of the tolerance needed to live in a pluralistic society. There needs to be room for people to disagree with us, even if we don’t like the basis of their disagreement. This is especially true when it comes to issues of prime significance, like desacralizing religious ceremonies and issues of life and death. If people are not free to disagree in those significant issues, then there really is no room for freedom of conscience.

We need to learn to disagree with respect, but there needs to be room for open disagreement if we are to have any legitimate freedom at all.

Immigration and Unbiblical Reasoning

Politics brings out the worst in people. It really does.

A picture of the Alabama Baptist newspaper taken from Twitter. The author's name was smudged intentionally.

Sometimes it also brings out the worst people, but that is another topic for another day.

At times, politics can cause people to speak up who shouldn’t because they haven’t given time to fully vet their ideas or allow someone else to help them think through the implications of their reasoning. This if forgivable when someone is at the open mic at a townhall meeting—we’ve all said things poorly when we were on the spot. However, when you write something for publication—perhaps in the state Baptist newspaper—it should really be carefully considered by some friends so you don’t say anything foolish.

Recently a pastor in Alabama wrote an ill-conceived letter to the editor of the Alabama Baptist newspaper where he demonstrated a ridiculous level of biblical ignorance.

The letter is a call to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. I happen to disagree with a wholesale restriction of immigration based on religious grounds. However, I accept that other people can get to a different answer than I do within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. That question is not the point of this post.

It is the letter writer's reasoning that is both dangerous and questionable. It displays a blatant ignorance of clear Scriptural teaching.

The Position and Argument

The basic position: “I am against allowing the refugees the rights to America’s soil and my neighborhood.”

He uses several points to support his argument:

1.           The Old Testament called for putting the Canaanites under the ban because of the impact of intermingling with idol worshipers on the people of Israel.

2.           The Syrians are not the author's neighbors because they don’t “value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”

3.           Allowing Syrians into the country will destroy our children’s future because (at least these) Muslims hate Christianity and America.

4.           The increase of an American Muslim population will not lead to a growth in or of Southern Baptist Churches.

I don’t think I am misrepresenting his arguments as they are written. See the article in the picture in this post.

America and Israel

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the position to exclude all Syrian refugees is acceptable. Even so, his basis for the argumentation is unbiblical and in danger of subtly conflating America with Israel, if it doesn’t do that overtly. This is bad hermeneutics.

With regard to God’s call for the Israelites to be the instrument of divine judgment on the Canaanites, and not to intermingle or intermarry with them, the letter writer gets the biblical facts right but the application wrong.

America is not Israel. Post-1948 Israel is not identical to the Israel of Scripture. The idea that God’s command to destroy the Canaanites or not to settle near them or make alliances with them applies to contemporary Christians in a religiously plural nation-state is unquestionably false.

I don’t think the author is calling for the extermination of non-Christians living nearby, but even seeking an underlying principle in the passage that there is a Christian mandate to pursue religious homogeneity through political means is unsupportable.

Christians should participate in the political system, but Christianity is not a political entity. Nowhere did Paul (for example) call for such an application of the OT law for contemporary believers because many of those commands were part of the civil law, which was given to the nation-state of Israel for a specific purpose at a specific time.

By introducing this as support for a ban on immigration of individuals from a particular religious tradition, the writer is introducing a strange hermeneutic that would be very difficult to apply consistently.

Are You My Neighbor?

The author didn’t have to make it all the way to the Bible to eradicate the error in his letter regarding who is his neighbor. VeggieTales would have sufficed. However, had Pastor the man chosen to consult his Bible before making a statement on politics in public, he would have discovered that Jesus already gave a pretty clear indication of what constitutes a neighbor.

Luke 10:25-37 is Jesus’ explanation, by way of a parable, of who someone’s neighbor is. Without going into full-blown exegesis, I can say with confidence that Jesus utterly rebuts the notion that, to use the words from the Baptist newspaper, “My neighbors are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.”

Now, it may be that the people who live in the geographical region surrounding the letter writer indeed fit his description. However, the ethical mandate to care for the neighbor applies to people that don’t look like us. Therefore, the author is dead wrong when when he says that helping refugees “is not a matter of loving your neighbor.”

Again, there are different ways of doing this that don’t involve allowing immigration to the U.S. But at no point can a Christian affirm the truthfulness of the Bible and and properly affirm such a statement as it stands.

The Hatred of Muslims

The third argument is that we shouldn’t let Syrians in because of their “unknown background but known hatred for Christianity and America.” Letting them in will be bad for future generation because they “will destroy any future our children may have.”

First, not all Syrians are Muslims. That may not be true in the long term, based on the reports of slaughter and persecution of Christians by ISIS. However, this assumption is just factually wrong.

Second, all Muslims do not hate Christianity and America. This is like saying that every Christian acts like a member of Westboro Baptist Church. Or like saying that every Christian (or any Christian) thinks that people should be stoned for adultery.

It is aggravating when atheists and others make stupid accusations about Christianity based on the actions of sub-Christian groups like Westboro Baptist Church. I argue that WBC’s actions are not representative of what the Bible teaches. And yet, the people at WBC believe they are doing what God wants them to do because they misread the Bible. Still, I deserve not to be judged for WBC's bad theology.

Similarly, when atheists ignore hermeneutics and argue that contemporary Christianity is bound to the OT civil law, it is frustrating. They often lack the nuance (or concern) to read Scripture through the lens of the Christian tradition. Their argument is annoying because it misrepresents my position due to their ignorance.

If this misrepresentation is unacceptable to us as Christians, we should be careful about similarly misrepresenting others, including Muslims.

I do not deny that acts of terrorism have been perpetrated by Muslims. I do not deny that those violent Muslims believe they are interpreting their holy writ properly. I do not deny that I can read pieces of their scriptures and come to the conclusion that Islam is an inherently violent religion. However, I am also not steeped in their tradition and hermeneutics, so I’m not qualified to adjudicate who are the normal Muslims and who are the crazy fringe. I am capable of discerning by comparing it with the Bible that it is a false religion that does not save, but for me to make absolute statements about the political nature of Islam in its present expressions is inappropriate.

In fact, many Muslims vocally decry the violence of the Muslim extremists.  To be fair to them (just as I’d like the atheist to be fair to me as a Christian) I should accept the fact that Islam has diverse manifestations and I should not, based on my inexpert Koranic hermeneutics, reject all Muslims from entering into the U.S. due to their religion.

A third rebuttal of this point is a simple call to common sense and a hope for religious liberty. We cannot have religious liberty for some and not for all. By arguing for excluding Muslims from American based on their religion, this pastor is feeding the anti-religious bias that is growing in the U.S.

All religions are not equally true, but if religion is to have a place in our society we cannot pick and choose who gets favors and who doesn’t. That is exactly what the non-establishment clause of the Constitution was designed to protect against.

Exclusion for Church Growth

The last argument in the letter is that allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. will increase the number of mosques and not SBC churches.

He is likely correct here. If there are more Muslims in the U.S. (recognizing that many of the Syrian refugees are, in fact, likely to be Muslim) there will be more mosques. And, they are unlikely to build or plant new SBC churches.

So what?

The argument that we should expand immigration because it will bring the nations to hear the gospel in the U.S. is weak. It is likely true if Christians are living faithfully, but it is a shaky foundation for a political decision.

The refugees are likely to bring their religion with them to a new country. But that in and of itself is not a reason to ban them from entering.

This goes back to a fear of legitimate religious freedom, which necessarily results in plurality of (but not necessarily within) religions. It also points toward the misconception of America and a Christian nation analogous to Israel.

America is not a new covenant incarnation of old covenant Israel. Certainly there is a strong heritage of Judeo-Christian thought in the U.S. that we all benefit from. I do not deny that many of the Puritans intended to build a theocratic society and likened their settlement to Israel.

However, the founding documents of the United States were not inspired by God. We do not have a charter to bring Christianity to the world through political means. In fact, to do so is to abuse our government and to seek the sort of Messianic kingdom that Christ expressly refused to establish during his sojourn on earth.

In short, the final argument is his weakest, but the most revealing. He displays a sub-Christian nationalism that conflates Christianity with America and misapplies the gospel to political rather than spiritual redemption.


As I have said, I think there are legitimate ways to arrive at an immigration policy that excludes victims of the ongoing violence in Syria. I recognize there are legitimate concerns for mass immigration based on recent events in Europe. (On the other hand, I think that Alan Noble’s recent article in Christianity Today helps to explain a way forward that accounts for those concerns.)

Arguing for restrictive immigration policies is one thing, but the writer shreds his Bible and puts himself in an untenable position with his reasoning. His conflation of American nationalism and Christianity is a more dangerous concern than potential religious influence of Syrian refugees.