Washington, 1 May 2015 (Ethics and Religious Liberty): About a year ago, I found myself seething, over a compliment. Someone in Washington political circles said, “It’s really amazing; you’re a real-deal born-again type, and yet you are really intelligent and thoughtful.” I rolled my eyes, because I have seen this before. When I showed up in Washington as an 18 year-old congressional intern, a colleague from Massachusetts said, “You’re from Mississippi and you sure read a lot; good for you!” In both cases, I simmered inside, because both compliments were really forms of ridicule.
In my mind, I was upset because I was protective of the reputation of evangelical Christianity. I thought: “Are you so ignorant that you’ve never heard of Augustine or Justin Martyr or Blaise Pascal or Carl Henry?” And, years ago, I thought I was protective of my home state. I thought, “Yes, I think maybe William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams read more than I do.” But in both cases, I was wincing at a personal slight. I’m a born Mississippian and a born-again Christian. When one insults these categories, one is insulting me—and I didn’t like it.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen an unprecedented and nasty turn in American culture against basic religious freedoms, freedoms that once were at the bedrock of the American consensus. In the years to come, we will be called upon to advocate for religious liberty and soul freedom for everyone, over and against a government and a media culture hostile to the very idea. In order to do that, though, we must learn to differentiate between persecution and insult, between religious liberty and freedom from ridicule. They are not the same thing.
Religious liberty matters because religious liberty is an issue of worship. The state is given the power of the sword to coercively act against threats to public order and justice (Rom. 13:1-7). The state does not have the power of the sword to regulate what is owed to God (Mk. 12:17). What God requires is not forced or feigned worship but that which flows from an open and pure conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 9:14). A state that forces a person to act against conscience is a state that has overstepped its bounds, a state that is attempting violence on persons at a Judgment Seat at which the state is not a party.
Moreover, in an American system of government, religious liberty is everyone’s problem because the state is accountable to the people, who are, ultimately, the governing authorities. A Christian, then, who doesn’t care about working for religious liberty is a Christian who is not only wishing to be persecuted, and to consign others to persecution, but is also a Christian who wishes to be, by his silence, a persecutor of others. This is contrary to the way of Christ (1 Pet. 2:12-17).
That said, there is always a temptation to conflate the right of soul liberty with the idea that we should be outraged when we are marginalized or ridiculed in the public square. We should fight this temptation.
When we work for religious liberty, we are working in the interest of the common good; we are not just protecting ourselves. We are working to keep ourselves from participating in the evil of a conscience-restricting coercive government. The apostles denied the authority of a decidedly non-democratic authority to intrude into such matters (Acts 4:19-20), much less should we expect it of a government with constitutional guarantees of the natural rights of religious freedom.
This doesn’t mean, though, that we should vent outrage when we are ridiculed or insulted or slighted by the culture around us. In fact, this impulse will leave us less equipped for contending for religious liberty. Behind our hurt at insults, after all, is a desire to be seen as “normal.” If people just saw us as we are, we think, they would see that we’re not as stupid or backward as they think. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus have such a concern. He is accused of drunkenness, of insanity, and even of demon possession, and through it all Jesus is frustratingly tranquil.
As a matter of fact, whenever Jesus is received well, he presses on with his strange talking until people are outraged by the weirdness or subversion of what he has to say (Lk. 4:22-28; Jn. 6:22-70). Jesus didn’t hide the strangeness of the gospel because he knew only a gospel strange to the course of this world can save us (1 Cor. 1:21).
We should seek to keep our conduct honorable “among the Gentiles,” as the Bible tells us (1 Pet. 2:12), but we shouldn’t chafe at being strangers and aliens to them (1 Pet. 1:11). When we are ridiculed and mocked, it’s probably a sign that people are starting to actually hear what we are saying. Our gospel isn’t safe and normal. Our gospel is a strange message of turned cheeks and bloody crosses and empty tombs, of coming judgment and of poured-out mercy.
Some will point out, rightly, that the ridicule is part of a cultural wind that brings with it religious liberty violations. That’s true. But we can combat bad laws with better laws. We don’t combat ignorant insults with better insults (Rom. 12:14-21).
If we are a free people in a constitutional government, we should expect our government to leave consciences free. We will work for liberty and justice, for all. But that means that we should also expect many free people to jeer at us as crazy or stupid. We will walk with Jesus and bear such reviling, without reviling back (1 Pet. 2:22-23).
As citizens, we should expect freedom of religion. As Christians, we shouldn’t expect freedom from ridicule.
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*Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
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