Is the Demise of Today’s Version of Religious Liberty Needed?

Jun 14, 2019 by David Fowler

Barronelle Stutzman with red roses
Barronelle Stutzman is a florist in Richland, Wash., who is alleged to have violated that state’s law prohibiting her from refusing services to persons based on their sexual orientation. This week, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the judgments of lower tribunals against her, and now she is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to accept her appeal and reverse the decisions against her. But I sometimes wonder if a victory for religious liberty is, in the long run, the best thing for those who profess to be Christians.

It pains me on several levels to write that last sentence.

Why Thinking a ‘Religious Liberty Victory’ Would Pain Me

On a personal level, it pains me, because I’ve met Ms. Stutzman. She is a kind, gentle, sweet-spirited person. I don’t want to see her business bankrupted or even her income suffer because of this dispute over the law.

It pains me because I do believe in religious liberty, though a more nuanced understanding of it in accord with our Founding Fathers than that for which many Christians advocate today. And this is why I think a victory on religious liberty grounds (as opposed to one based on freedom of speech/expression) may not be helpful in the long run.

Religious liberty is a colloquialism that hides from Christians an important truth: There can be no religious neutrality from God’s perspective, which is the perspective from which Christians are supposed to operate.

The Christian Myth of Religious Liberty as Neutrality

The first reason that is true is found in God’s declaration to the Serpent after seducing Adam and Eve into their rebellion against God, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15, NKJV). That is not neutrality.

The second reason is that religious neutrality is the cultural embrace of a polytheism, and God is not neutral in that regard, either. Read Acts 17:16–32. Paul’s message on Mars Hill to a polytheistic culture was, “Truly, these times of ignorance [in the past, prior to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension] God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). It was not the modern-day evangelistic call to come forward if you happen to be interested in having your better life now or if you want to get control of X in your life; it was literally a command from God.1

Of course, Paul’s audience did not appreciate his message on Mars Hill, and it’s not tolerated today, either, even by many in evangelical churches and in their pulpits. People, including many professing Christians, like their liberty more than they like the biblical message of a sovereign creator God to whom His creatures and such liberty as He gives them are subject.

Given these facts, it is impossible, as I’ve written before, for religious liberty to work as an organizing principle within the social order.

Why The Emphasis Today on Religious Liberty?

But the sad thing to me is that many Christians of all stripes, though certainly not all, have retreated from the biblical position of advocating for laws that reflect what they believe to just defending and arguing for religious liberty.

Exhibit A is the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities recently leading the charge for accepting (and eventually accepting) the fairness-for-all proposal, because the proposed inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in federal law as a protected class carved out an exception for its members.

No doubt, some accept retreat to a supposed safe harbor of religious liberty because they believe they just need to hold out a wee bit longer because Jesus is going to rapture them out of here.

For others, retreating to religious liberty is either consciously or subconsciously a lot easier and a lot less costly in terms of lost friendships, diminished communal approval and acceptance, and deprivations of material wealth than challenging in the first place the enactment of the law from which they now clamor for a religious exemption.

I suspect those costs are in the back of the minds of many in the first group, too. Perhaps they believe they can escape the rich young ruler’s dilemma and plight (Mark 10:17–22) if they can just hold out a bit longer. Unlike him, they may be able to keep their “stuff” here and get to heaven to boot!

If Ms. Stutzman wins on religious liberty grounds, I will be personally happy for her. But if her victory perpetuates among Christians the belief that religious liberty is the saving bulwark against a God-denying culture carrying out its God-denying precepts with all its attendant consequences, then it will only have delayed the Christian’s understanding of the true nature of the conflict that exists in this world and the deceitfulness of the man-centered philosophy of religious liberty being espoused.


1. I get that the thought of God commanding us to repent sounds like the mad, angry, dictatorial kill-joy caricature of God that many have and that is often bellowed from pulpits. I get not liking the sound of that at all! But if preaching is all thunder and lightning about God’s wrath against sin and sinners and devoid of the incredible news that God freely offers to all the provision He has made out of His great love to bring peace between us and the inestimable worth of being in a present and eternal relationship with the most glorious of all beings, then that caricature is justifiable. See Thomas Chalmers’ The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. In keeping with Chalmers’ sermon, it just may be that loss of the perceived protection for religious liberty will so strip us Christians from our affection for the things the world offers in place of the glory of God, that we will return to our first affection—the love of God—as the church at Ephesus was exhorted to do (Revelation 2:4).
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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