The Value and Limits of Religious Liberty (Acts 5:27-32)
By Matthew L. Skinner
Disagreements about whether and how a society should respect people's "religious liberty" are nothing new. But, in case you hadn't noticed, they seem to be growing louder.
Conservative presidential candidates have increasingly invoked "religious liberty" as a way of expressing their objections to same-sex marriage. Controversial bills that echo the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act are working their way through the legislative machinery in states including Missouri and Georgia. And if you thought the Supreme Court's 2014 decision in the Hobby Lobby case brought a final resolution to legal questions about the Affordable Care Act and women's access to birth control, think again.
Spurred on by strategies designed to connect the concept of "religious liberty" to specific hot-button social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, many of today's most audible debates fall along familiar partisan divides. Polling from a year ago showed that, among all Americans, 27% favor a business having the freedom to deny service to potential customers based on the owner's religious beliefs, while 55% oppose it. Among Republicans, however, 56% favor such a freedom and 30% oppose it.
Who ever guessed Americans could be so attuned to the moral dilemmas of the bakers, florists, and wedding planners among us? Did you notice the furious pushback from people in his own party when Republican presidential candidate John Kasich made a commonsense appeal for tolerance, saying, "If you're a cupcake maker and someone wants a cupcake, make them a cupcake"?
Before any of us chooses sides in these disagreements, we should investigate the roots of "religious liberty" a little further.
The truth is: all Christians, no matter what their political leanings might be, have a stake in questions about when people should follow their conscience and resist oppressive edicts. Even when we disagree about what qualifies as an unjust law or an oppressive ruler, still the larger question of "religious liberty" demands attention from anyone who claims to follow Jesus.
Why? Because you can't say your faith excuses you from scrutinizing political realities when your religion's central symbol is an instrument of capital punishment, a cross. At Christianity's center we encounter a blunt reminder about humanity's habit of oppressing and victimizing.
It's not just Jesus who suffers. There are plenty of reminders about times when faithful action runs afoul of a society's priorities. For example:
- April 3 marks the celebration of Agape, Chionia, and Irene, three sisters executed in Thessalonica in the early fourth century on account of their Christian faith.
- Anti-Hitler conspirator, pastor, and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.
- Martin Luther King Jr., whose faith fueled a ministry of prophetic critique and action, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
- More recently, Christians in China and other places endure bald hostility from their own governments.
For better or for worse, resistance and its repercussions are familiar themes in Christianity. The New Testament explores them frequently.
The New Testament's book of Acts tells a story about leaders in the earliest days of the Christian church who were forbidden to speak publically about Jesus Christ. After being arrested, according to Acts 5:27-32, the Apostle Peter and others refused to cease their activity. They announced to the ruling officials in Jerusalem, "We must obey God rather than any human authority."
Why are churches reading this particular story now, during Easter? Because at its core, Easter is about thoroughly subjective claims: Christians declare that they have somehow encountered the risen Christ. Like most religious claims, this one can't be verified by reason or science. It comes down to a question of conscience.
Biblical authors didn't write about Jesus' resurrection because they thought they would convince anyone beyond the shadow of a doubt that it happened. The Bible speaks about the resurrection because its authors knew that encountering the Divine compels people. These encounters also change people.
Those kinds of changes can lead to wonderful outcomes. They can also generate conflict.
Other religions know these conflicts well, too.
Another truth is: not only Christians have a stake in issues related to "religious liberty." Christians are hardly the only people who may experience conflicts when they endeavor to live authentically and according to their religious understanding.
If that line from Acts -- "We must obey God rather than any human authority" -- sounds familiar, it should. Other people said similar things long before there ever was a Christian church:
- "I did not think [the king's] proclamations were strong enough to have power to overrule...the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods." (Antigone, in Antigone by Sophocles, lines 453-455, fifth century BCE)
- "Men of Athens, I honor and love you, but I will obey God rather than you." (Socrates, in The Apology by Plato, 29D, fourth century BCE)
- "We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors." (seven Jewish martyrs defying the decrees of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, in 2 Maccabees 7:2, second century BCE)
Antigone, Socrates, the Maccabean martyrs, and the Apostle Peter -- be sure to note what else they have in common. Their scripts all end with drastic consequences. All of them die because they resolve to be true to their conscience.
Obviously things are different for us, who enjoy the benefits of civil society. Nevertheless, these ancient stories remind us that not all religiously-based conflicts are the same. Not all claims of "religious liberty" have the same legitimacy.
Not everyone who insists on expressing their "religious liberty" is experiencing persecution.
America's current disagreements about the applications and limits of "religious liberty" are not rooted in a doubt about whether this liberty is a good thing in principle. Instead, they stem from how we determine which specific concessions are truly warranted and just.
Consider the differences among the issues. For example, in a free, tolerant, and pluralist society:
- Can county clerks justifiably claim they operate "under God's authority" and deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples?
- Should communities of faith use their houses of worship to provide sanctuary to undocumented political refugees?
- Must a Muslim flight attendant choose between serving alcohol to passengers or being fired?
- Should pacifists be exempt from military conscription?
- Will Sikhs be allowed special procedures when the TSA screens them and their turbans at airports?
Each debate around those questions follows its own logic. The video that accompanies this article, which highlights a couple of different ways someone might construe and contend for "religious liberty," demonstrates the need to consider these matters with nuance and not to toss around the expression "religious liberty" loosely.
Evaluating the Issues
For those of us fortunate enough to live in places where laws and social contracts grant us wide-ranging freedoms, a couple of considerations should frame these debates.
First, we do best at articulating and respecting "religious liberty" when multiple faith traditions work cooperatively and advocate on behalf of one another. We have grounds for being apprehensive whenever a lone religious group or individual demands some sort of freedom or exemption that other groups are not willing to support. Similarly, there is good reason to distrust people who demand rights for one religious community while smearing other religious groups.
Second, our goal must be liberty and justice for all. Some attempts to preserve "religious liberty" for certain people end up denying legally protected freedoms to others. When one's demands for "religious liberty" carry the potential to oppress or disempower another individual or group, we might reasonably suspect that religious tyranny and bigotry have sneaked in the back door.
When Jesus' followers asserted their religious liberty (really, their obligation to God) in the book of Acts, they were not demanding a right to do whatever they wanted, without consequences. They recognized their choices would have repercussions, as did Socrates, Bonhoeffer, and the Maccabean martyrs.
For Christians, at least, holding fast to one's conscience and religious conviction proves to be life-giving when a believer's actions and attitude model themselves on Jesus Christ. His authentic devotion to God compelled him to act in ways that would empower others, even though it meant forsaking his own comfort and prerogatives.
The kind of religious liberty Jesus embodied was not a weapon to brandish. It is a determination to devote oneself to others' well-being.
Eric Barreto and Greg Carey read an early draft of this piece. Their feedback helped me clarify my ideas. Thanks to them.
Bible Study Questions:
1. Given what Acts 5:27-32 says about God and what God has done through Jesus Christ, what would it look like for Peter and the others to "obey" God? How would you describe their obedience?
2. When the New Testament speaks of "freedom" it typically refers not to personal autonomy but to our liberation from the things that harm us and corrode our relationships with God and other people. What does this mean for how you understand what it means to live faithfully to God?
3. Consider what's in the news and the debates named as examples in this article. What is a specific issue or appeal related to "religious freedom" that you consider most important? Is there one that strikes you as insincere or groundless?
For Further Reading:
Matthew L. Skinner, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).
Southern Poverty Law Center, "'Religious Liberty' and the Anti-LGBT Right," 11 February 2016.
Eugene Volokh, "When Does Your Religion Legally Excuse You from Doing Part of Your Job?" Washington Post, 4 September 2015.
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