Religious Liberty in Contemporary Evangelical Social Ethics: An Assessment and Framework for Socio-political Challenges

by Andrew T. Walker | Christian reflection on religious liberty is as old as Christianity itself. But unless it is rehearsed and given fresh expression and articulation in new contexts, it can fall by the wayside. Marx was believed to have said, “Take away a people’s roots, and they can easily be moved.

Evangelical public theology often lacks a systematic, theologically grounded social ethic concerning religious liberty. The resulting impasse is one where religious liberty lacks distinctly evangelical contours. Modern and contemporary religious liberty discussions have been ceded, almost exclusively, to political and legal philosophy. At the same time, religious liberty is a foundational principle for evangelical public theology because it addresses issues of how evangelicals enter the public square as a religious people. Additionally, a doctrine of religious liberty is vital for establishing the relationship between the church and state in society. Theological warrant is needed to establish a doctrine of religious liberty on evangelical grounds, and, correspondingly, the lack of consensus or framework around religious liberty jeopardizes the possibility of developing a truly evangelical understanding of religious liberty for public theology.

On a cold, rainy Friday night in October 2017, my wife and I and a few friends from church gathered for a night of worship sponsored by a Christian worship organization that works with local Christian artists in our town

At the end of the evening, the individual emceeing the night closed with an impassioned prayer wherein he expressed gratitude to God for the liberty to join together with other believers to worship Christ without fear of government harassment. There was palpable gratitude for the freedom to worship in this man’s voice.

This gathering did not have to be registered with the government, which is tragically the case in other countries. We entered and left in peace without even a hint of fear of whether we would be “exposed” as Christians. Upon leaving, I knew I would be free to utilize social media and share of the event’s details without fear of that post facing censorship. Moreover, that weekend, I would be free to go to church and hear a sermon on why Christians should seek to influence their culture, whether related to the sanctity of life, racial reconciliation, or any other issue of ethical controversy in the culture. While I am accustomed to sermons and prayers where gratitude to worship freely is often expressed, writing this dissertation while hearing a prayer to God giving him praise for religious liberty struck me anew; and it dawned on me that this dissertation was not just a rote academic exercise.

Something pivotal about my existence as a Christian, and my participation in a local body, is bound up with the liberty to live faithfully in accord with God’s call on my life, and my family’s life. Religious liberty is not the gospel. That night, however, I was reminded that my experience of the gospel assumes a freedom I so often ignore and at worst, neglect gratitude. Religious liberty fans the flames of personal holiness and proclamation. It gives breath to the life of a local congregation gathering together every Sunday to declare that Jesus Christ is king.

I was reminded and convicted that night of how trite, routine, and assumed religious liberty is in my own mind—that as an American, I know nothing other than 212 religious liberty. That is one of the challenges to religious liberty in an American context— that Americans grow so accustomed to it that they may not recognize when its pillars are slowly corroding.

Christian reflection on religious liberty is as old as Christianity itself. But unless it is rehearsed and given fresh expression and articulation in new contexts, it can fall by the wayside. Marx was believed to have said, “Take away a people’s roots, and they can easily be moved.” This report has been an exercise is exposing the roots of freedom found in Christianity. Christians need presented with arguments for the defense of their own liberty, but also the liberty of others—for securing the liberty of others ensures the security of our own. This need for ethical apologetics is true of every age.

At this writing, religious liberty in America is entering a new age beset with challenges and opposition that call into question a once sacred consensus. By grounding religious liberty in the horizons of eschatology, anthropology, and soteriology, my hope is that this contribution to the field of Christian social ethics can be but one resource helping to usher in a new era of Christian preoccupation with religious liberty.

May the Christian church return to its first love, a primal strength—a fortitude that turns the other cheek and confidently, under pressure, insist that no worldly scheme can push back the onward advance of Christ’s invasion—for Christianity needs neither the state nor the culture for its truthfulness and efficacy. The liberty Christians seek and the liberty Christians use is a liberty to seek a city that is not yet, and to allow those in the church’s midst to join it in the promise of its coming.

Any claim or pursuit of religious liberty must always be pointed back toward its telos: The advancement of God’s kingdom. In the spirit of our missionary faith, let each of us, like the Apostle Paul, go about “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with equipping Christians and local churches to address ethical issues facing society and the church. In his role, he researches, speaks, and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public policy, and the church’s social witness. This is a summary of his dissertation presented to the Faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree, Doctor of Philosophy back in May 2018