Freedom from Us

Today the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that could drastically alter jurisprudence under the Establishment Clause. If the petitioners win in this case, we could be living in a legal reality where states may be forced to use public funds to support religious instruction in schools. As I was thinking about this case and how it blurs the line of separation between church and state I recalled a phrase often used by conservative religious liberty advocates. “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The statement is a common refrain of conservative evangelicals who are clamoring for more religious political influence. They like to cite the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear explicitly in the Constitution, and David Barton has made a whole career about stretching the truth as far as possible (so far that it breaks most times) to make the argument the Founders based this government directly on the Bible. I believe that this idea is wrong. Freedom of religion by definition must mean freedom from religion or there is no freedom of religion at all. There are several ways to address this fallacious statement. We could examine and debunk it from historical or political angles. But I think it is just as important (if not more so) to talk about why freedom of/from religion is the lynchpin upon which the gospel rests.

The Bible is replete with implicit messages about the importance of choice. In Jos 24:15 Joshua says to the children of Israel, “[C]hoose for yourselves today whom you will serve…” In 1 Kings 18:21 Elijah says to the people, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” In Rev 3:20 God says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” God is not a God of force, or compulsion. God with all of His omnipotence says to us instead in Isa 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” How cool is that? God’s not trying to force us into a relationship, and He wants us to know that this thing that He’s offering us makes sense. He wants to reason with us. God is not trying to force Himself on us. He does not want to make us choose Him. He stands patiently at the door, knocking, hoping that we will answer and let Him in. Now does it make any sense that a God who would say we are free to choose Him once we hear His reasoning would then turn around say that you can’t be free from Him as well? This is the risk that God has taken in giving us freedom. Notice what Elijah says to the people at Mount Carmel. Elijah’s problem is not that the children of Israel have made the wrong decision; the problem is that they had not made a decision.

What conservative evangelicals do not seem to recognize the simple fact that if you have freedom of religion, it means you have the freedom to reject all religion and be free from it. All of those choices are on the table. If they aren’t then there really isn’t any choice at all. Here’s the fascinating part of it all – those who would attempt to use the power of government to force people to live as God designs, or use the government to force people to bear the burden of their own imposition upon the consciences of others are actually working at cross purposes with the very God they say they believe and follow. As well-meaning as the motives may be, it seems that we can get so busy fighting for God that we forget to check whether God ever asked us to fight for Him (or fight for Him this way). And in the process we present a picture of who Jesus is that could not be further from the truth, actually leading people to choose freedom from religion. It’s a shame though, because I don’t think many of those people want to be free from religion or from Jesus – they just want to be free from us.

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10168
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I don’t know that this article accurately portrays the realm of choice. Choice has limits when it comes to harming others. Freedom does not mean businesses can discriminate by excluding particular people from their businesses. Government can’t make you worship but it can require you to make a cake for a LGBT wedding if you think it is religiously wrong. If your faith makes you be a racist the government can make you do things that are uncomfortable to your sense of faith. People of faith don’t have the right to be free from the equality requirements of those who have a faith different than theirs. I don’t know why the author misses this point. Injustice is not a legitimate choice.

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We have just completed a study (sabbath school lesson 2019) on the reforms of Nehemiah, who was over zealous in compelling Israel at the cost of severe discipline to fall in line with him. Unlike Joshua and Elijah, he would not allow people to choose. So we have a bad example from the Bible history itself of the denial of religious freedom.

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Elijah killed the prophets of Baal when their sacrifice didn’t work. More of giving the chance for a wager than a sense of “live and let live.”

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Yeah, as much as I agree with the spirit of this piece, I think the problem comes with trying to fit these modern, liberal themes of equality and personal freedom with a Biblical text that is full of themes which are opposite. Yahweh did NOT believe in or advocate for the kind of freedom we generally believe in today. Unbelievers within Israel were not free to live within the society, they were violently killed at Yahweh and Moses’ specific instruction (Leviticus 24). I tend to think that the violent and xenophobic religious folks today have quite a bit of Biblical support for their views. That may be part of why these attitudes are so hard to eradicate. When people feel their bigotry and injustice is in line with God’s wishes, it is hard to convince them otherwise…

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The CAKE MAN was willing to make the cake and put the frosting on
it. What he refused to do was CATER.
He was OK with the Bride and Groom’s friends PICKING UP the cake
and TAKE IT to the church or place of the reception.
What THEY wanted was the Government to FORCE him to CATER
the wedding.
A HUGE difference.

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Hello,

First off thanks for reading. Second, reread my last paragraph. You’ll find I actually agree with you and this post is a criticism of people who close off the idea of choice in order to support discrimination and oppression.

Jason

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Hello,

First, thanks for reading. I think you raise an interesting point which is not really in the wheelhouse of this piece but is connected. I would argue that there is a difference between a nation in covenant with God and the nation states we have today. Hence the choice that God gives to be in covenant in the first place is the choice that we should focus on, not the lack of choice once you’ve bound yourself. Furthermore, the New Testament paints a very different picture of choice once the Jews are living in a world where they don’t have a nation of their own. So the “themes which are the opposite” that you mention exist in contexts very different from ours and so what God says about choice I think holds important parallels for us. The only way you could argue against it is to argue that America is in a covenant relationship with God. Conservative evangelicals make that argument for sure - it’s just not true.

Jason

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Hello,

No one mentioned the Masterpiece case here (I assume when you say “CAKE MAN” you’re talking about Jack Phillips), but I can’t let bad facts stand. Here is a quote from the Supreme Court opinion (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-111_j4el.pdf)

…Craig and Mullins visited the shop and told Phillips that they were interested in ordering a cake for “our wedding.” Id., at 152 (emphasis deleted). They did not mention the design of the cake they
envisioned.Phillips informed the couple that he does not “create” wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. Ibid. He explained, “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same sex weddings.” Ibid. The couple left the shop without
further discussion.

I don’t know where you heard that he was willing to make the cake, but that is not accurate.

Jason

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Thanks.
It was several weeks after the episode that I had heard on the radio
that information,

While I enjoyed the article, I always get a bit uncomfortable when a spiritually-minded piece is used to take a particular group or political party to task, as this does. The reality is we can also find ways in which Democrats act in a manner designed to breach those walls of separation (namely in actions where the gov’t controls what an institution does with hiring and firing for example).

Having said that, I am full-throated agreement on this form of religious liberty. When I was 15, we got Religious Liberty magazine from church and they had a cartoon where a teacher is saying to her class “Senator so-and-so is introducing legislation to allow prayer in public schools, since the Senator is here, Johnny would you please lead us in prayer”. Then you see Johnny, a blond white kid start to say “honorable Buddha, in the great beyond…” and the Senator says “hold it!”. I’ve never looked back from my interpretation of religious freedom, which is substantially different than the current Republicans.

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Yes, now in our American culture we have children of many
world religious groups attending in the same classroom.
Some kids have no religious training at home.
Having a moment of silence would be OK before beginning
for the day, but nothing more.
Even different CHRISTIAN groups address prayer in various
ways.

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something tells me that this “religious instruction” won’t be islam, or even adventism…and this really is the problem with this kind of initiative, as this article rightly points out…at one time, when the vast majority were generic christians of some kind, it may have made sense to have some kind of religious instruction in schools…but now, things are so pluralistic, unless every religion is given equal time, which is impossible, no particular religion should be given any time…otherwise we really do infringe on the constitution’s call for a separation between church and state, and as we all know, the constitution is under enough stress already with the current administration…

of course the problem with defaulting to no religion in schools and other publicly funded venues is that the non-religions of the world win out, which is no doubt what the plaintiffs are reacting to…

i actually wouldn’t be surprised to see the plaintiffs win in this case…john roberts, samuel alito, sonia sotomayor, clarence thomas, and brett kavanaugh are all catholic…neil gorsuch was raised catholic, but is a practicing episcopalian…and of course RBG, steven breyer and elena kagan are all jewish…it’s unrealistic to expect SCOTUS to rule completely outside of a religious lens…

Jeremy…what exactly are “non-religions of the world”?

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I live in Indiana where there is a voucher law that gives money to parents if they want to attend a private school, even a religious one. I don’t know if there has been a SCOTUS challenge. but the law remains on the books.

There was a case taken to the SCOTS re a Lutheran teacher and another about a playground in Missouri, where the church won its case.

If he Montana law is allowed, it will not be so severe as Hines thinks. It has not been bad in Indiana.

But there is this idea of freedom from religion, in a way meaning I must be free from any impact of religion on my life. This intersects with freedom of expression. Does freedom from religion mean that the FCC must not allow religious broadcasts? Or the promotion of Christianity or Buddhism is prohibited, or just Christianity? Is proselytizing forbidden? Is opposing gay marriage unallowed?

Must, if I do not believe in gay m marriage, I partake in one if my business is doing photography?

Liberals say I’m discriminating against gays, conservatives that I am practicing my religious freedom. But liberals then say I am showing intolerance of others views, and should be forbidden from doing so. Or does doing so trigger a person from being accepted, and such actions are discriminatory by their very nature?

Expressing a view against gay marriage in Berkley will get you beat up. Is that discrimination?

I think they based it more on the Bible than on Locke.

This is a difficult statement. The laws of our land have a religious basis, Moses, Christianity, etc. The founders were by and large Christians, so looked to there as a source for law. They believed that we could not have order if there were not religious among us (Adams). Just how far should we go so that one must have freedom from religion? The gay guys that went into the cake shop were confronted with religious objections to their lifestyle. Should our laws be such that they never have to face that again? Was the baker limiting their religious freedom? Are Christians amiss in pushing for their own ability to express religion as they see it? Or are they being discriminatory and intolerant?

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Separation of church and state allows individuals to choose without coercion what religious expression or spiritual beliefs to hold. Morality and ethics are not a result of religion, they rise from a culture of freedom.

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Thank you for bringing this interesting and important topic to our attention. I would like to point out several issues that may be overlooked when considering where we draw the line between church and state.

The voucher system is not designed to cause the government to support or teach any particular religion (public school curriculum will not change) but to give parents greater control over the education their children receive. Currently wealthy parents are able to send their children to private schools, the voucher program enables parents of less means to have the same opportunity for their children. Because the parents are in charge of who makes the decision of where the child goes to school the government is not promoting a specific religion. The parent may choose a non-religious private school, a Christian school, a Muslim school, a Buddhist school etc. as long as the school meets the academic requirements of the state.

But a subtler point to think about is what constitutes religion and worship? It is a law (design protocol like gravity and thermodynamics—how things work) that by beholding we are changed. We actually change neurobiologically and characterologically based on what we read, watch and ultimately believe. This is known as the law of worship, in psychiatry and psychology it is called modeling.

With this in mind we realize that education is more than just learning facts, it shapes minds, hearts, and characters. Thus the worldview one is taught has significant impact on who one becomes.

One definition of religion is a system of beliefs that provides a philosophy for life, giving life meaning, direction, purpose and a framework of explanation of the natural world and origins of life. Godless origins of the universe would fit into this category and thus there really is no true freedom from religion. Only freedom to choose one’s religion i.e. one’s worldview belief system.

The problem with many however is they want to fraudulently teach that a godless origin of life is not a religion and then force children to be indoctrinated into this godless philosophy which ultimately corrupts character.

True freedom of religion is when people have the choice to believe as their consciences dictate and educate their children in harmony with their beliefs, without financial coercion from the state. Thus the voucher program gives parents the authority to choose which philosophical worldview they want their children educated through, rather than allowing the state to indoctrinate them into the religion of the state—that which is currently promoted by the political party in power.

So, it seems to me the way to promote genuine freedom is to allow parents to decide where their children receive their education.

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Well said, Dr. Jennings
Tim, if you still do campus ministry work (forums ect.) we would be interested. My email is [email protected]

The real problem with the case before the Supreme Court as referenced by the author has to do with a relatively small tax credit ($150) that the state of Montana did not allow for people who sent their kids to religiously sponsored schools vs. private schools.

This rather inadvertent circumstance is being used as a platform to promote a far more financially favorable situation where parents could receive higher or unlimited tax credits when they send their kids to a ‘parochial’ school (or a non-religious private school), if they prevail in court. It does not take much imagination to guess what groups are behind this case.

Ultimately this could further decimate the national public school system and could make access to a good education even more remote in some states for those without the means to send their children to any kind of private school. And if they prevail, I bet the Johnson Act will be the next thing to go.

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Dr Jennings, So schools that take state funds, but practice racial discrimination should be allowed?

The south is rife with examples of the problems of the legacy of slavery, separate but equal, relating to education. The voucher systems are a method to allow discrimination, using tax dollars. If a school/group holds a belief that racial integration is immoral or against the “closely held religious belief”, should they be allowed to take from state funds via vouchers and discriminate based on race? If no, how about based on a religious basis, you must be religion X, or LGTBQI+ people? Where do we draw those lines…

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