The religious war on freedom

New data from a Barna study affirms the age-old admission that some people support religious liberty only for themselves.

By Bruce Gourley

What is the enemy of religion? While evil is often the answer, a poll focused on religious liberty in America and released this month by the Barna Group points in a much different direction.

When asked if all citizens should be allowed freedom of conscience, more than 86 percent of all respondents answered affirmatively. Yet this apparent nearly universal embrace of religious freedom for all is entirely at odds with the responses given to certain other questions.

Respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement, “No one set of values should dominate the country.” Only 37 percent of evangelicals voiced agreement, while 73 percent of millennials (18-28 years of age) affirmed the inclusive statement.

Respondents were also asked if “Traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the U.S.” While 54 percent of evangelicals said yes, only 21 percent of millennials agreed.

The takeaway from the Barna poll is that in practice, evangelicals want to limit the freedoms of non-Christians, a conclusion reflective of the history of the theocratic-tinged American Christian Right. This selfish view of freedom is contrasted with millennials, who are committed to freedom for all.

Considering that evangelicals (100 million strong, representing roughly one-third of the population) are largely conservative and are politically, socially and culturally powerful, their opposition to equal freedom for those outside their clan is understandable. But who are the young people who dare to advocate for equal freedom for all?

According to a recent survey of millennials, more are “nones” (religiously unaffiliated) than are Catholics or white evangelicals or white mainline Christians. The majority of these young people describe modern-day Christianity as hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay. In short, they see religion waging a war on freedom, and in response they are increasingly siding with freedom by distancing themselves from religion.

While the “nones” are emerging as a new development in American life, the evangelical, Catholic and Muslim war on freedom is an ages-old conflict that shows no evidence of going away.

Evangelicals are but the new kids on the block when it comes to bullying others. Their faith forebears -- Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Anglican Church, the Pilgrims, the Puritans -- of the 16th-18th centuries were relentlessly devoted to persecuting dissenters. Baptists held the distinction of being among the worst of heretics, a people believed by proper Christians to be non-Christian – “nones” in today’s terminology.

Yet the favored faith groups that emerged from the Protestant Reformation were themselves inheritors of a long legacy of anti-freedom ideology. Upon the merging of church and state under the emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity (soon under the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church) declared war on dissenters. The Church Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, fueled by politics, obliterated freedom and unleashed the death penalty upon non-conformists (heretics).

For the next thousand years, the basic choice in Christendom was to submit to Church authorities or risk persecution, imprisonment or death. While in more modern times the Roman Catholic Church no longer employs the death penalty, the Church continues its efforts to deny religious freedom to those (Catholic or not) who do not agree with the Church’s magisterium.

Meanwhile, Muslim nations harbor a long history of demanding conformity and uniformity of society and culture to Islamic scripture. In much of the African and Eastern world today, Islamic law governs nations, while infringements of religious law often warrant harsh punishment, including execution.

As Martin Marty and Scott Appleby document in their massive The Fundamentalism Project, conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholic authorities and conservative Muslims battle freedom with common weapons: inerrant holy texts and mandated human creeds, strict sexual codes, patriarchy and suppression of women, punishment of improper belief and behavior and a black-and-white worldview.

Baptists, of all people, in their traditional incarnation are intimately familiar with the long-running war on freedom. But whereas early Baptists chose to fight Christian efforts to suppress freedom, today’s “nones” are opting for an entirely different strategy: the exercising of their freedom by abandoning institutional religious faith -- and often faith altogether.

The Baptist leaven in the American experiment eventually yielded the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing religious liberty for all; the very concept that today’s conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholic authorities and conservative Muslims, in practice, often oppose. Now, the rapid growth of “nones” is moving America in the direction of a less religious, and concurrently freer (some might say secular), society.

Left unanswered is where conservative evangelicals will dig future ideological trenches, how far Roman Catholic authorities (led by a pope who has already backtracked on Vatican II reforms) will reach into the past to suppress dissenting voices and (outside of Christendom and America) the extent to which Islamic-governed nations will resort to physical persecution and executions in order to enforce proper faith and action among the citizenry.

And yet, perhaps an effective counter to Christians and Muslims who war against freedom is the unchurching of America’s young people. When deprived of majoritarian status, power and privilege, religious groups historically (including Baptists) have often embraced freedom for all, modeling Christ’s command of loving neighbor as oneself. Today, the “nones” forsaking formal church is not altogether different from early Baptists’ rejection of official Christendom.

For the sake of future generations, here’s hoping that freedom-loving Baptists and freedom-driven “nones” will seek ways to work together to help bring an end to the religious war on freedom.

This commentary appears in the January 2013 issue of Baptist Studies Bulletin and is used here with permission.

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