Defending Religious Freedom

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, February 21, 2013

Defending Religious Freedom

Thank God for Rick Warren.

If you’re under the impression that religious freedom in the United States is mostly a Catholic issue, I don’t blame you. High-profile Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Dolan of New York, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, Cardinal George of Chicago and others have been the ones publicly articulating the rationale for religious freedom, the current threats, and the appropriate responses.

The media, for its part, has encouraged the impression that it’s a Catholic issue by referring to the “contraception mandate” in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) regulations. They conveniently leave out the fact that the mandate also includes free sterilization and free abortion inducing drugs, so-called “morning after pills” that can be used for do-it-yourself abortions months after the morning after.

But the gradual erosion of religious freedom in the United States is not just a Catholic issue. Any Christian who believes and wants to communicate “the whole counsel of God” should be up in arms. Yet, alas, most Evangelicals have been asleep at the wheel.

Most Evangelicals, but not Rick Warren.

On February 12, before a packed house at Georgetown University, the purpose driven pastor of Saddleback Church spoke about religious freedom with Dr. Timothy Shah of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs. At that event, Warren made it clear that where religious freedom is concerned, there can be no compromise.

Religious freedom is more than “freedom of worship,” he insisted, because religion is not just about private spirituality. Religion infiltrates every area of life and, thus, we must be free in every area of life. Jesus, he reminded the crowd, went about preaching, teaching, and healing, that is, evangelizing, educating, and providing healthcare. Jesus was concerned with spirits, minds, and bodies, the whole of life. His followers can be concerned with nothing less.

There are, said Warren, three roots to religious freedom. First, religious freedom is rooted in our nature as human beings. God created us with freedom to choose and since God does not coerce us into belief, we have no right to coerce each other.

Second, religious freedom is rooted in the nature of faith. Faith requires freedom. It’s not real faith if you’re forced. As Christians, he said, “we believe in conversion, not coercion.”

Third, religious freedom in America is rooted in the Constitution. There freedom of religion comes before freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to bear arms. If, asked Warren, I don’t have the right to believe what I believe, what good are any of these other freedoms? The answer, of course, is that without religious freedom all the other freedoms are illusory. “Freedom of speech” is an empty phrase if we are not free to speak out of our deepest convictions.

Warren commented that the Obama administration’s attempt to force employers to pay for free contraception, sterilization, and abortion drugs is one of many examples of how “little bites” are being taken out of our religious freedom. The struggle to put those little bites back in place, restoring a robust right of religious freedom, Warren predicted, “will be the great civil rights battle of the decade.”

And it’s a battle to which most of us are arriving late. Look at what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo thinks he can get away with. His proposed “Reproductive Health Act” would force hospitals and clinics that have religious or moral objections to abortion to perform abortions anyway. Counseling centers established to help women find alternatives to abortion would be forced to be as keen on abortion as adoption.

As the editors of National Review Online write, “Governor Cuomo’s bill is not about easing access to abortion — those bloody skids already are well-greased. The issue is political domination. The abortion party does not brook resistance, and it steadfastly seeks to ensure that everybody has a hand in its grisly business: taxpayers, employers, priests. All must be implicated.” And religious freedom be damned.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, scholar George Weigel asked at First Things, “Do you want to live in a country that cherishes and protects religious freedom in full? Or do you want to live in a country where religious freedom has been demoted to a ‘privacy’ right to certain weekend leisure activities?”

A combination of social hostility and government regulation has reduced religious freedom to “a ‘privacy’ right to certain weekend leisure activities” in much of Europe and in Canada. Thinking that it can’t happen here is fantasy. Freedom, as Rick Warren pointed out, is extremely fragile. And the defense of freedom — particularly religious freedom — is incumbent on us all.

Note: You can watch Rick Warren’s conversation with Timothy Shah here.

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