This week we are taking a deeper look into “religious freedom.” Yesterday, we introduced the American problem as a conflict of freedoms, and tried to define what freedom looks like from a Christian perspective.
Here is where we landed:
A Christian perspective of freedom is always about using our freedom and energies for the freedom and flourishing of others, even (or perhaps especially) those who are despised, “other,” and pushed to the margins.
Religion often consists of a long list of rules designed to control people’s behavior, and has very little concept of freedom. Jesus gives us a vision of true freedom by saying we only understand freedom when our freedom is used for the flourishing of others. Freedom needs boundaries, but there needs to be actual freedom within those boundaries. Too many boundaries and control lead to the problems we tend to associate with religion.
In Christian circles, religion has become a bit of a straw man. Many talk about how Christianity is not a religion because of the stark contrast between Jesus and the system of the 613 laws. Others are very firm about Christianity being a religion, but want to show how religion is an important aspect of what it means to be human. They argue religion helps give context to the deepest human longings, and that Christianity best answers these questions and longings.
And that is just Christians.
Religion is also a despised word in our culture. Tim Keller had an excellent talk in 2013 about the historical and cultural objections towards religion leading to the current view in our culture today.
There are three philosophers who contribute to the view: Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. A quick summary is that these three believe religion makes people….
….self-righteous (due to anxiety and fear),
Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche often get labeled as the enemies of religion, but they actually bring valid critiques. One or all of these critiques are usually taken up when someones says they are anti-religion or claim Christianity is not a religion.
Even more interesting, is that Jesus makes the same critiques of religion. Look throughout his ministry and you see his harshest words and many of his parables directed at those who try to dominate and abuse power, are self-righteous because of their anxiety, and marginalize people through their religion.
Where Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche fall short is the alternatives they offer. Often their solutions are simply different versions of their critiques. What Jesus offers is a better alternative to self-righteous, exclusive, and dominating religion.
At the cross, Jesus fully embraces his true identity, shows what real righteousness looks like, humbles himself for the good of others, includes all of humanity in his loving embrace, and gives up all of his power to be crushed by the powers that be. The alternative Jesus gives to the critiques of religion is a way of life defined by self-sacrificial love.
If we want to call Christianity a religion, it is a religion marked by self-sacrificial love.
Which brings us to the only time in the Bible the word religion is mentioned:
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27
Widows and orphans were the most marginalized people in their culture.
If religious freedom in America is the ability to practice our religion without government interference, this means Christians are supposed to be free from government interference to self-sacrificially love the most marginalized people in our culture.
This means Christians need to be taking good, hard looks at who the marginalized in their culture are. It means paying attention to whether or not our actions as Christians are marginalizing people. And it means when we discover who those marginalized people are, we need to be moving toward them in love.
So, religious freedom rightly defined means the government has no right to tell a Christian they cannot self-sacrificially love the marginalized.
Self-sacrificial love means we give away our freedom, power, influence, time, talents, and energy for the good and flourishing of others. It does not mean that we leverage our position in society to exclude, dominate, and marginalize others. If a question arises about freedoms colliding, the Christian answer is always that your freedom is more important than mine.
What many of the religious freedom conversations in our country boils down to is people think their way is superior to another person’s way. Therefore they see no reason why their superior way shouldn’t be government regulated. This results in people trying to use power to coerce and impose their views on others.
Using coercion and power to impose our views on other is the bad kind of religion. It is self-righteous, anxious; it excludes and dominates. This is not and cannot be what the Christian religion is all about. Further, imposing our views on others has nothing to do with freedom. Freedom is about flourishing, not about controlling behavior.
If Christians want to claim religious freedom, they should proclaim that while they have the freedom to do whatever they want, they realize true freedom is found when we are broken and poured out for those who are most marginalized in our world.