Evangelical ‘Religious Liberty’ is Messed-Up

Dec 15, 2022 by David Fowler

Evangelical ‘Religious Liberty’ is Messed-Up
It seems to me the chief ground offered by Christian policy organizations for opposing the Respect for Marriage Act, namely, religious liberty, is demonstrative of a fundamental problem among the “Christian right.” I think it is time that “religious liberty” be re-examined, even if it means I am expelled from the club.
Religious liberty issues vex those on the political left and right, as well as the United States Supreme Court. The root cause lies in the difference between an objective and subjective view of religion that, in the case of Christians, goes to the very nature of the gospel. This sounds like a head-sy, abstract topic irrelevant to civil law, but I will demonstrate why it is vitally relevant. 

Definition of Terms

Subjective religion is a religion for the sake of the person. It focuses on religion from the perspective of the individual person or group of persons and his, her, or their needs.
Objective religion is religion for the sake of God. It will have certain consequences for persons, but those consequences depend in the first instance on the nature of that religion’s God and God’s purposes.
Subjective religion starts with man and works toward God. Objective religion starts with God and works toward man.

How This Difference Shapes the Gospel Preached

The governing principle for an objective gospel is found in the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?”, which is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The glory of God is the gospel emphasis. The one for whom this is true is saved. The unsaved do not care about the glory of God or see any objective or subjective value in it. 
Subjective Christianity makes the salvation of persons the chief end of God. Therefore, escaping the wrath of God becomes the gospel emphasis. 
Objective Christianity says God has come in the person of Jesus for sinners to make some of them His own.  Subjective Christianity says we come to Jesus who otherwise sits passively waiting for us to make a decision about Him. In the former, God’s act toward us is the predicate in the matter of salvation, and in the latter, our act of decision toward God is the predicate for our salvation. 

Why This Distinction is Important to Religious Liberty

Objective Christianity asserts that religious liberty is epistemological, not about our conduct. It is a liberty of the conscience before God (see John 8:32; 1 Timothy 1:5; Hebrews 9:14). That kind of liberty is predicated on God’s work of restoring right affections in the heart and then renewing the mind (Romans 12:2), not a person’s external acts such as what civil law allows a person to do. 
Subjective religion, being man-focused, puts the emphasis on what man does in relation to God, not what God does in relation to man. Thus, protection of certain virtuous acts by means of civil law is critical to subjective religion. 
Objective religion holds that religious liberty can be exercised in prison, even as was the case with Paul and Silas when praying and praising God in jail (Acts 16:25). It explains why Paul could send a run-away slave, Onesimus, back to Philemon as a slave. Onesimus’ value to Philemon was not monetary, but in his knowledge of God because Paul had discipled him.  
Objective religion explains why Paul could write the following (1 Corinthians 7:20-24):
Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.  You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each one remain with God in thatstate in which he was called. (emphasis supplied)[1]

Application to Respect for Marriage Act

The primary opposition I heard from evangelicals to the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) was about threats to religious liberty. One email I received from a Christian policy organization focused on the fact that Christians would not be able “to live according to their faith without fear of punishment.”
Laying aside the problem that fear is never to be a mark of how a Christian lives in any culture, it seemed to me the main concern of most evangelicals was not that the Act laid aside any objective reality concerning man and woman and the relationship between that reality and the nature of matrimony. Rather, it was protection from “persecution” if Christians live out their beliefs about the nature of the marital relationship.

The Religious Liberty Problem of Subjective Religion

When issues like the Respect for Marriage Act arise, subjective Christianity is confronted with this problem: It can make no objective claim to a right to protection (subjectively grounded rights are an oxymoron). For subjective Christianity to claim a right, all religions must be leveled. Yet Christianity makes the objective claim that is the only true revelation of God and, therefore, the only true religion.
Moreover, subjective Christianity naturally seeks to make virtuous acts by Christians as easy as possible because its focus is the subject (person), not God and His acts.

Rationalizing a Focus on Religious Liberty

It is easy for Christians to rationalize an emphasis on religious liberty rather than on objective truth claims about the nature of reality implicated by legislation when Christianity is of the external kind (subjective)—Christians must be able to act virtuously in public to be a witness to non-Christians. But this rationalization faces three obstacles. 
First, history shows that the response of Christians to persecution when acting virtuously is the greatest form of witness they can bear, because it objectively demonstrates the surpassing value of coming to the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). God used persecution to spread the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4) “from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” to fulfill the word of God (Cf Acts 1:8, 8:1, 11:19).
Second, objective Christianity asserts that God does not need an assist from human beings by means of a civil statute to protect His claim on the cosmos and all that is therein. For example, objective Christianity points to the Incarnation and God’s protection of the infant Jesus as proof of God’s sufficiency to secure His cosmic purposes. Herod was killing all the male babies in the region under a certain age to make sure Jesus did not reach adulthood (Matthew 2:16), but God made sure Jesus was not one of them! Man’s best efforts cannot thwart God’s purposes.
Third, objective Christianity says, “What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11; Cf Matthew 10:28) In fact, for the righteous, death can be God’s proverbial blessing in disguise (see Isaiah 57:1-2). The death of a Christian is “swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54); it is "swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4)!

What Subjective Christianity Produces in Culture

Christians cannot preach a subjective gospel and not expect that, over time, religion will be disconnected from objective beliefs, including those about human sexuality. 
Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when someone says, “You are free to believe what you want about God (subjective religion), but you are not free to deny other human beings their subjective sense of value and dignity.” That is the very argument made against Christians who do not want to recognize or support same-sex “marriage” in their business dealings. The argument is perfectly logical to me. 
It also explains why the protection of religion in non-discrimination statutes is interpreted so narrowly. The argument is that Christians are still free to believe what they want about God, and that is all those statutes protect, not conduct.
The point is this: When religion is subjective, we effectively wind up with no religion, because religion becomes objectively meaningless. And that, to me, is messed up. It is certainly not Christianity, because Christianity makes objective truth claims about God and the nature of all things.
As it turns out, political liberals are more right than the religious right think they are: True religion is, in the first instance, what one thinks about God. And nothing in the Respect for Marriage Act requires any Christian to believe something that is not true about God.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

[1] Some in our state have excerpted phrases from this passage to justify a certain understanding of civil liberty and derive a purpose for civil government that the passage clearly does not teach. Their focus is on the person and the relationships between persons when the passage’s emphasis is objectively on who one is “in the Lord” and his or her relationship to Christ.

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