"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is taken from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Since the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the United States has been a country of religious freedom in which the creation of a state church is prohibited by the government. According to Thomas Jefferson, freedom of religion is "the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights." Is this true? Is the concept of religious freedom one that is supported by the Bible?
What is a biblical view on freedom of religion?
Ancient Israel was a theocracy under the Mosaic Law, which means they were ruled directly by God and its success as a nation was dependent on their obedience to Him. This was a special arrangement which didn't necessitate the inclusion of religious freedom, because God was their ruler. Later attempts at self-styled theocracy have ended as totalitarian disasters, such as medieval Spain and its descent into intolerance of other religions with the Inquisition. This was not a true theocracy, but a twisted result of mankind's power-hungry behavior.
The civic principles of religious freedom are in unity with biblical principles of religious freedom. There were Judeo-Christian values and biblical principles included in the founding of the United States, which is why such religious freedom exists there. Many governments rooted in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are overall intolerant of other religions. They may accept religious freedom in word, but not in practice. The former Soviet Union was an atheistic government and certainly proved itself to be strongly opposed to freedom of religious expression.
There are a few specific duties assigned to the government in the New Testament, which, put simply, are to punish evil, reward good, and provide justice (Romans 13:3–4). Notice that there is no mention of mandating a specific religion or type of worship. In fact, Jesus Himself did not even require that people believe in Him. Upon learning what it would require to follow Jesus, the rich young ruler left in sadness; Jesus let him go (Matthew 19:16–23). Jesus lamented that the Jews were unwilling to believe in Him; He didn't force them to do so (Matthew 23:37). Each person has a choice of whether or not they will believe in Jesus or someone/thing else, and they use their own free will to decide. Because God gave people freedom to choose their own belief system, so should we.
Freedom of religion recognizes the God-given gift of volition in man and is therefore inherently supported by the Bible. Because mankind was made in God's image, they were given the gift of freedom of choice (Genesis 1:26; Joshua 24:15). God knows that we will make mistakes, yet He has still endowed us with the freedom to make our own decisions. Because God has given that right to us, we owe that to each other, as well. Even if humans make the wrong choice, they should still have the right to choose.
The kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36), and no one comes to Christ unless the Holy Spirit draws him. This makes it foolish to entrust the government with decisions about what religion people should have (John 6:44, 63). Neither the will of man or the requirement of the government makes one a child of God. Salvation comes from a choice to put one's faith in Jesus Christ: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12–13, NKJV). Christianity is about relationship with God and no government can force that to happen.
Religious freedom is a crucial human right, and both history and the Bible exemplify that the government should not have a place in dictating a particular religion for its citizens. In the United States, we should be thankful that the framers of the Constitution recognized that, alongside liberty, justice, and equity, freedom of religion is a human right and is a concept supported by the Bible.
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