But is it something Christians should be concerned about? Should we care about religious freedom?
Thoughtful Christians give a variety of answers to this question: some are more concerned about it than others. And so, given this trending topic, I thought it would be a good time to release research I’ve completed on Religious Freedom, as part of my Master’s degree.
I recently finished a Project that examined whether there was a theological basis for religious freedom. It’s a sizeable document (14,000 words too many for this blogpost), but I’ve shared the Introduction to it below, which gives a brief snap shot of my research:
Religious Freedom is increasingly fragile in Australia, and across much of the Western world. Many commentators have pointed out that the strongest challenge to religious freedom is coming from the push for gay rights and same-sex marriage. Albert Mohler writes:
Already, religious liberty is threatened by a new moral regime that exalts erotic liberty and personal autonomy and openly argues that religious liberties must give way to the new [sexual] morality, its redefinition of marriage, and its demand for coercive moral, cultural, and legal sovereignty.’
This raises obvious problems for sincere Christian believers, who hold to the traditional Biblical teaching on human sexuality: will Christians be penalised culturally, if not legally, for believing a view many now think is bigoted?
Religious freedom, however, is not just a Christian issue: any religion that does not succumb to the new sexual morality is likely to experience pressure. Furthermore, if religious liberty is weakened, then other basic liberties are also likely to be weakened. As Andrew T. Walker argues: ‘When the state can deem codes of conduct or membership statements to be rooted in irrational prejudice, it diminishes the ability of citizens to associate or to organise for a cause.’
At this point, many Christians may point out that Jesus did not have religious liberty, nor did he expect his followers to have it (John 15:20). The early church did not have it, either (e.g. Acts 5:40-41; 8:1; 12:1-5). We have experienced religious liberty in the West for approximately the last 200 years – but since it is not a biblical expectation, should we be concerned about its erosion?
This project addresses this question of whether Christians should be concerned about the creeping incursions upon religious freedom. It does this by exploring whether there is a cogent theological justification for supporting or advocating for such a freedom.
In answering this question, we must first define the term ‘religious freedom’. The definition used in this project is taken from Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is as follows:
- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
In summary, Article 18 prohibits substantial societal burdens on religious exercise, unless society (usually through its government) can show a compelling interest in burdening religious freedom.
In terms of method, this project surveys the relevant theological views of Augustine, Oliver O’Donovan, and Roger Williams. These theologians were chosen because they have much to say about political theology, and – at least in the case of Augustine and Roger Williams – their political theology has had enormous influence on both Christians, and wider western society. Moreover, we wanted an ancient, early modern and modern theologian so as to cover distinct periods within church history, and thus distinct views of political theology. We believed these distinct views would provide complimentary perspectives that could be tied together to gain further insight into religious freedom, and its potential theological justification.
We devote a chapter to each theologian, and first examine their distinct contribution to an understanding of the Christian’s relationship to society. We then explore how their particular theological views might be used to justify freedom of religion. Finally, we evaluate whether the various proposed justifications for freedom of religion have drivers or potential drivers behind them with a meaningful basis in a biblically founded theology.
Augustine’s theology highlights that religious freedom involves allowing people the freedom to worship the true God without undue government coercion. This benefits both the worshipper, and wider society, which is helped when Christians practice their faith (e.g. by helping the poor).
O’Donovan’s theology emphasises that Christians are to actively seek the good of their neighbour, including in the area of religious freedom.
Roger Williams’ theology points out that the role of government is separate to the role of the church, and that government must not coerce people for exercising their religion, except for the sake of public order.
After exploring the views of the three theologians in their respective chapters, the project will conclude by integrating their views. It will be argued that there is sound theological justification for religious freedom, and thus Christians should be concerned about its erosion.
 Of course, it is non-existent in many countries around the world.
 Jason G. Duesing et al., First Freedom – The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty (2d ed.; Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2016), 170.
 One thinks of the backlash faced by Coopers Brewery earlier this year for one of their products appearing in a video made by The Bible Society, where same-sex marriage was discussed and questioned – cf. Paige Cockburn, “Coopers Brewery Distances Itself From Bible Society’s Same-Sex Marriage Video, Faces Backlash,” n.p. [cited 14th June 2017]. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-14/coopers-brewery-not-involved-gay-marriage-video/8351894.
 Duesing et al., First Freedom, 150.
 UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3aa0.html [accessed 9 June 2017]
 This is similar in many ways to legislation adopted in the USA. Cf. Ryan Anderson, “Indiana Protects Religious Liberty. Why That’s Good Policy,” n.p. [cited 1st June 2017]. Online: http://dailysignal.com/2015/03/26/indiana-protects-religious-liberty-why-thats-good-policy/.