Many in the American church care deeply about religious freedom. We support political candidates who defend it, and we donate to organizations that champion it. It’s fair to say that, for a significant number of Christians, religious freedom is a big deal.
But how many of us have stopped to carefully consider why we support religious freedom? Is it just a selfish desire to ensure our comfort? Do we merely want to avoid the difficulties we’ll encounter when government officials oppose what our faith requires? Is it all about us?
I certainly don’t think so. Defending religious freedom is not, and must not become, a self-seeking quest to shield us from inconvenience and trials as we practice our faith. Rather, it must be part of fulfilling the church’s call to love our neighbors by righting fundamental assaults on our common humanity.
Scripture stresses the importance of our reasons for acting. God promises to evaluate the motives behind our conduct (Prov. 16:2; 21:2) and ultimately to “disclose the purposes” of our hearts (1 Cor. 4:5). Even vital spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting aren’t pleasing to God when done for the wrong reasons (Matt 6:5–18). Whenever we act, Paul writes, we mustn’t seek only our “own good” (1 Cor. 10:23).
These exhortations remind us to check our hearts as we endeavor to defend religious freedom. If we are in it only for ourselves and our worldly comfort, we’re sorely missing the point.
Religious Freedom and the Imago Dei
If mere self-interest isn’t a reason to defend religious liberty, what ought to spur us to action? The key to answering comes from understanding the imago Dei—the biblical truth that we’ve all been created in God’s image.
Countless books have been written exploring the implications of our status as God’s image-bearers. Whatever else image-bearing might entail, it surely means God has given each of us inherent abilities that reflect some of his own characteristics (albeit imperfectly). Foremost among these are our capacities to reason and understand (God is a rational being) and to fellowship with God and others (the three persons of the Trinity have eternally been in relationship). These features of the (now tainted) image of God in humanity reveal that we were made for him.
Indeed, the picture of what God created humanity to be confirms this point. The beautiful picture of our first parents walking and conversing with God in the cool of the day illustrates that, above all, God created us to know and have a relationship with him.
And because knowing and following God is the essence of religious practice, the public exercise of religion is innate to humanity. It is what we were built for.
Religious Freedom for All
So whenever the government (or some other oppressive actor) restricts individuals from living in relationship with God, it denies those people the freedom to live an authentically human life—or put in legal terms, it strips them of a fundamental human right. As God’s people called to care for the downtrodden and oppressed, we should be impelled to come alongside these fellow image-bearers in love.
Since the freedom to know and follow God is foundational to our humanity, it belongs to both Christians and non-Christians alike. This is not to say that all religious beliefs are equally true (they aren’t), but rather that all individuals must have the freedom to worship God and live peacefully with what they believe he’s calling them to do. Nor is this to say that religious freedom gives people the license to do anything they want, like physically harm or kill others. Undoubtedly, religious freedom has limits. But within these bounds, all are entitled to share in its benefits.
John Calvin, when discussing the image of God in man, penned a great reminder to those working to defend religious freedom today:
We are not to consider [what] men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. . . . Say that [a man] does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.
Why then should Christians sacrifice our time and possessions to protect religious freedom? We should do so for the sake of loving and serving our neighbor. We should do so because we are upholding a freedom that God has given to all.