U.S. news has been full of stories and debates about Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (also known as RFRAs). Controversial laws in Arkansas, Georgia and Indiana have received much attention in the past few weeks. North Carolina has a similar RFRA in the legislature now. Many Christians are concerned and want to know – How important is religious freedom? North Carolina Baptist leaders share their opinions.
• Nathan Finn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies and director of the Center for Spiritual Formation and Evangelical Spirituality: Historically, religious freedom has been a bedrock conviction among Baptists. In the past century, it has become a shared commitment among nearly every Christian tradition, including those that once curbed the religious freedom of others. More broadly, religious freedom is a basic civil right in our nation – indeed, it is one of the “first freedoms” enshrined in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For all of these reasons, I’m deeply concerned at the recent backlash against legislative proposals to protect religious freedom in states such as Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia. Opposition to religious freedom has rapidly become one of the most pressing issues in our nation.
Strong religious conviction of any kind – and especially traditional/orthodox Christian morality – is now viewed as intolerant to the degree it offers an alternative voice that challenges our culture’s idols of sex, money and power. North Carolina Baptists and others who care deeply about religious freedom cannot stand silent while our constitutional rights are undermined for the sake of celebrating anti-biblical sexualities, promoting corporate greed and endorsing amoral political correctness. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, we must remain faithful by offering a consistent, winsome and prophetic witness to biblical morality. And we must defend our constitutional rights to affirm those truths publicly, even if we find ourselves to be a moral minority in our increasingly decadent culture.
• Phil Ortego, pastor of Scotts Hill Baptist Church in Wilmington:
In light of the recent firestorm over religious liberty, many Christians wonder why this is so important and how religious liberty affects them personally. Let me answer this in three brief points:
Religious liberty has been the cornerstone of the American experience. From the very beginning the founders have stated the importance of religious faith in the foundation of our nation. James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution wrote, “We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.” John Adams wrote, “We have a government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” These were the overwhelming convictions of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Religious liberty is a catalyst for shaping the culture. Religious liberty is more than just having the opportunity to worship freely; it is the opportunity to live out our convictions in such a way that it impacts our culture. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of Christianity will change the face of the world.” Religious liberty not only allows us to worship freely, but to influence and shape our culture for Christ.
Religious liberty protects against government’s intrusion into religion. Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association speaks about a wall of separation between church and state. His intention was to protect the free exercise of religious convictions, but not to remove Christian principles from government.
Without such foundational principles guiding our leaders and our nation, Christians will no longer have the freedom to speak their convictions or to refuse to participate in activities that are contrary to their religious convictions without fair and equal treatment. Therefore, we must protect our religious liberties.
• Marty Jacumin, senior pastor of Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Raleigh: Our nation was founded on a belief of religious freedom for all people and has remained one of the key concepts that makes us a free people. As religious freedom erodes, the very nature of what it means to live in a free nation erodes with it.
• Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest: Religious freedom has always been one of the foundational rights in our society, and something that the founders of this nation deemed to be crucial. It is increasingly important in a day when the public square is in danger of shrinking. The simple request that the state protect the right to dissent on religious grounds has become more complicated, particularly as we navigate a fundamental disagreement over the definition of one word: marriage. We cannot walk away from the pursuit of biblical truth as expressed by our Lord through an inerrant Bible.
But just as I believe that the U.S. Constitution gives us the freedom and right to express belief, I also believe that the gospel frees us to love. We must continue to respect our neighbors and pursue civil discourse in an open public square. I will continue to affirm marriage as a covenantal, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman, but I also love every person regardless of their views or lifestyle and I am against any expression of hatred toward individuals. We can never stop standing for religious freedom, and we can never stop using that freedom in a way that honors our Lord. Our hope is in King Jesus. We must proclaim his gospel and extend His grace to others, grace that meets us where we are and transforms us into His image.
• David Ethridge, minister to young adults at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Raleigh: Religious freedom is of paramount concern because the questions it enables us to explore – origin, meaning, morality, and destiny – are of eternal significance. Religious freedom secures the right to ask these questions, live one’s beliefs about the answers, and attempt to persuade others to embrace those beliefs, all free of coercion and intimidation.
Baptists have historically championed the notion of “a free church in a free state” as the best environment for propagation of the gospel in our fallen world. By granting adherents of other religions – or no religion at all – the right to their beliefs, we secure for ourselves the freedom to proclaim the gospel of our Lord in the public square, “instructing our opponents with gentleness” in hopes that “God will grant them repentance leading to knowledge of the truth.” Because the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” Christians do not need the state to accommodate us over other religions, but only to give us the freedom to proclaim the gospel in word and deed.
• Clint Pressley, senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte: Religious freedom is at the heart of what it means to be American. The erosion of religious freedom happens to the cadence of goose-stepping jackboots in the distance. As believers, we will “go outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.”
• Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: Religious freedom is the bedrock of all civilly respected freedoms embedded in the U.S. Constitution and written into the Bill of Rights our founders required in order to support and pass our nation’s basic document in the first place. Religious freedom is called “the first freedom,” not as a matter of sequence, but as a matter of priority in relation to all other civilly respected freedoms. It was Baptists in the early years of our nation who most strongly insisted on including religious freedom in the Bill of Rights, and Baptists have continued to affirm its importance ever since.
Disputing the importance of religious freedom to common life in America is like disputing the importance of oxygen in the air we breathe. Removing or even diminishing its presence threatens the whole project and turns something very good into something very bad. It ruins the very thing that has enabled the American Constitution to hold a conglomerate of persons from disparate religions, cultures and convictions together over time. Diminishing religious liberty weakens the source of our national strength and leaves American common life vulnerable to disintegration.
The North Carolina Religious Freedom Restoration Act does nothing more than assure in North Carolina law what Federal law already guarantees at the national level. It merely keeps the coercive power of government from being used to force citizens to participate in or affirm behaviors God says are sinful and wrong. It does not deny access to services allowed by law, even if some regard them as sinful, and does not stop choices from being made with which others disagree. Rather, it only limits using government power in recognition that God transcends human government and people must be allowed to obey God rather than man.
• Rit Varriale, pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby: Do I agree with the general intent of the RFRAs? Most definitely. However, it is the pastors not the politicians, it is the pulpit not politics that should bring this change about.
Religious freedom does not come from government. Rather, religious freedom comes from God. Thus, when we look to the government to pass Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), we are in a very precarious situation as a Church. Do we not realize that a government that passes a RFRA can also take away a RFRA?
Religious freedom cannot be restored by a government. It can only be restored when the Church sets an example of religious freedom and courage to the larger society. If we look to the government to perform the courageous duties that only we, the Church, can perform, then we are setting ourselves up for continued failure.
Why are we looking to politicians, when we should be looking to the power of the Holy Spirit? Why are we shamefully obeying the rulings of dictatorial secular judges, when we should humble ourselves before the Judge of all the earth and engage in civil disobedience? If we believe in the separation of Church and State, why do we look to the State to stand up for our religious freedoms?
For Christ’s sake, it’s time for the Church to stand up and tell the government, “Push off! We don’t need your politics! We will obey God rather than men!”
Day of Action
April 28 is planned as a Day of Action in Raleigh to support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Visit livefaithfullync.com for information about a visit with Lt. Gov. Dan Forrest and gathering at the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh. N.C. Voters Coalition is sponsoring the event. RSVP at [email protected]. Visit facebook.com/events/914578678563862/.