Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part III of VII)

20 Nov
“Rights talk” – a classic exploring  modern America’s obsession with rights.

“Rights talk” – a classic exploring modern America’s obsession with rights.

Part I
Part II
I know the Bible talks more about responsibilities than rights, but this does not mean that it does not know of “rights talk”.  For example, in Lamentations we read:

To crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to deny a man justice
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
the Lord does not approve. (3:35)

In Proverbs 31:8 and 9 we read:

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

First, it is helpful to note that the Bible often seems to conflate the “poor”, or “anawa” in Hebrew, with the “spiritually poor”, as is made explicit in the Sermon on the Mount (one wonders if the reasons for such a conflation might become more clear to believers in the near future)*.  That said, what rights is our neighbor truly in need of?

Pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, who some secular persons have said is the "curious case of a tolerant bigot".

Pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, who some secular persons have said is the “curious case of a tolerant bigot”.

I do think we can very much argue that it is a true, pure and lovely hope (a la Philippians 4:8) that all persons, in line with common Western and American sentiment, would be able to freely express themselves and become the selves they wish to be – even as we know that this hope cannot be fulfilled in all situations.   After all, what does our neighbor – what do all of us working together – truly need?  Well, as men like Roger Williams*, heralded defender of the religious believer’s sacred conscience** might have put it, the liberty to do the right thing!  (even though we must be clear that the Pilgrims, for example, were not seeking “religious freedom” per se, nor were they looking to give everyone else a choice of how to worship – listen to this excellent interview with historian Robert Tracy McKenzie by Albert Mohler).  Our neighbor, and we ourselves, need(s) a government that makes it easier, not harder, to be doing what we should be doing before God.  That is…

*Right worship.

*Right speech.

*Right analysis (press).

*Right assembling with others.

*Right pursuit of purpose (happiness).

Guiness: "I'm not a Polyanna".  True?  Hear him speak here.

Guiness: “I’m not a Polyanna”. True? Hear him speak here.

But even if they would do wrong, it is still ideal, many of us think, for persons to be as free as much as possible….  For all the concerns that we should have about false worship (yes, Christians should want all persons to worship Jesus Christ), it does seem reasonable to me that in the state, we would respect person’s “liberty of conscience”, where “freedom of religion”, for example, applies to all, as much as that is possible (no Aztec child sacrifice and other things of that sort).  That said, what about tolerance for other behaviors that have traditionally be seen as being immoral?

Many of us understandably sympathize with the idea that it is good for persons to be as free as much as possible… as long as they can do so without causing harm to others.  The way of putting such a libertarian-sounding position in responsible terms would be to perhaps say that it is wise for there to be some tolerance for wrongdoing – some room for the gradual release of steam – built into any way of political governance.  But that said, what kinds of negative behaviors should be tolerated – and when and where? 

The right to be wrong – to a limit… Or do will the U.S. pitch religious freedom and yet say “how low can we go?”

The right to be wrong – to a limit… Or do will the U.S. pitch religious freedom and yet say “how low can we go?”

How can any of us really know about the long term consequences of our human actions, especially in this age where our foulest thoughts and desires – which surely shape our choices of words and deeds! – can be temporarily satiated ever more anonymously due to internet access?  How can we know – in a world we increasingly realize is interconnected to the hilt – that we are not causing great indirect harm to our neighbor?  In America, we increasingly see more shameless greed, more feelings of entitlement, more disrespect for human life (not to mention other life – see here), more sexual license, more avoidance of sacrificial actions, and more disastrous government policies (gambling which preys on the weakest, for example).  Not only this, but there are things that used to be considered immoral and unnatural that are now celebrated (see here for a litany I made), the most recent example being the rapid collapse of the natural category of “sex” in favor of “gender” within our society (see the new Rolling Stone story on Coy Matthews here)  There is no doubt we are in need of much help.

Is Coy a boy?  Are you a bigot if you say "no"?  See here.

Is Coy a boy? Are you a bigot if you say insist that he is? See here.

We need help.


NOTE: in the original post, I got confused about Coy (see left).  He is a boy, even though he identifies as a girl.

* Some interesting  bits about Williams. He was reviled by some but in his time his ideas were always discussed.  His ideas got in the mix, and were almost certainly taken up by John Locke (according to Timothy L. Hall: “for Williams, the success of [Rhode Island] lay in finding some mediation between the eternally warring principles of liberty and license: ‘We enjoy liberties of soul and body but it is license we desire except the most holy help us.’”) – although many of the convictions that drove Williams seem to have gotten lost with Locke.

He was good friends with Jonathan Winthrop, who made it possible for him to be banished to Rhode Island instead of being sent back to England to face physical punishment and rot in prison.  He could have been one of the most powerful persons in Massachusetts if he had not shared his opinions… He was not being persecuted in Rhode Island, which he founded, and yet was asking for religious freedom for *others*.  He influenced Cromwell to make Massachusettts stop their plans to convert an indian tribe to Christianity by force.  That said, Williams was not opposed to Christian proselytization, but was definitely for it.  He believed persons were wrong and needed to be corrected.  He argued  that there were contradictory *readings* of Scripture – and that the state was incompetent to judge persons by the Scriptures.  The state had no authority to enforce the first table of the 10 commandments. (hear the historian John Barry talk about him more here – this is where I got much of the above info).

Here is a fascinating quote about him: “The price Williams paid for freedom of conscience was the de-Christianization of Christian America. To him, at least, this was not an exorbitant price, because he believed that Christian America had never existed and never would. He cared too deeply about God and the church to trivialize them with public professions of religiousness. Nevertheless, because his contemporaries could not accept that price, they labeled Williams a fanatic and forgot about him. He has few knowledgeable supporters in the present day for the same reason. He alienates Jeffersonian skeptics by the fervency of his faith and believers by the secularism of his political vision“. (165, 166, Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty, Timothy L. Hall)

** Please note I am trying not to whine about being persecuted.  To read about current cases of the kind of persecution we should be concerned about, I cite Gene Veith from yesterday:

Aspects of our faith that are so commonplace that we often take them for granted are serious crimes in other countries, bringing horrible punishments.  Yesterday we blogged about North Korea executing people for simply possessing a Bible.  In Iran, since Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, if you are a Muslim convert, receiving Christ’s blood in the wine of Holy Communion is punishable by 80 lashes.  Evangelism–that is, the crime of spreading Christianity–can mean 3 years and 8 months in prison.  Would we pay prices like that for our Bibles, for Holy Communion, for witnessing to our faith?

One commentator said:

“I would ask that people think about this story, the story from N. Korea yesterday and the dozens like them that we hear about throughout the year and the hundreds we never hear about before they start rambling on about how oppressed we are here in the USA.” 

I agree – and yet, let us not never be naive about the changes taking place around us.

Image credits: Roger Williams ( )


Posted by on November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part III of VII)

  1. whitefrozen

    November 20, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Are you familiar with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on the area of rights in the context of a Christian metaphysic?

  2. Nathan

    November 20, 2013 at 6:46 pm


    Know the name and it sounds intriguing. Can you say a bit more – or provide a choice quote?


  3. Nathan

    November 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks – will check it out.

    UPDATE – Yes, he’s right on here, I think.


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