If God is the giver of the fundamental human right to religious liberty, then no merely human power may rightly take it away. Baptists refer to this right as “soul competency.”
What does “soul competency” mean? Various terms have been used for this concept, such as soul freedom, freedom of conscience and soul competency. Basically it means the God-given freedom and ability of persons to know and respond to God’s will.
Baptists believe that God gives people competency-that is ability- to make choices. Human beings are not puppets or machines. Baptists emphasize that this ability is not a mere human characteristic, but a gift from God.
If you take God out of it, this right becomes a merely human assertion. If it is humanly discerned and granted, then other human beings can infringe upon, impugn, imprison, or redefine it.
The French Revolution was based on moral claims, but they were man-made and thus literally unfounded, not God-given. This is one reason the French Revolution deteriorated into the Reign of Terror, and the American Revolution did not.
The twentieth century bore horrific witness to how a purely secular, religion-free worldview inevitably leads downhill to soul imprisonment. Note, for example, Josef Stalin’s brutal annihilation of tens of millions of his own citizens, Mao Tse-tung’s even bloodier Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia’s killing fields under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. This is not to deny that religion also has bloodstained hands, as the violence of the Inquisition, the Christian-Muslim wars of the Crusades, and the long history of deadly Protestant-Catholic conflicts demonstrate all too well.
When corrupt religion takes on an unholy power, it manifests the same impulse to crush soul freedom: to seek to control and imprison the soul by denying the right of individuals to make up their own minds. Terrible things have been done in the name of religion, but not the kind of religion I profess, nor the kind of religion that most people of faith in America want for our society. Still, the overwhelming majority of the worst atrocities against human beings in the twentieth century were committed not in the name of religion, but in the name of consciously atheistic or secularist ideologies such as Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. In these systems, either God is subordinated as a prop for the ideology, or there is no God; the only absolute is the state.
Without an understanding of transcendent authority, it is not possible to sustain or support soul freedom. If anything goes, then moral relativism can-and often does-devolve into violent power struggles.
Philip Schaff warned that a society without respect for the importance of religion in society is without respect for the responsibilities that come with human freedom. True liberty is a positive force, regulated by law; false liberty is a negative force, a release from restraint. True liberty is the moral power of self-government; the liberty of infidels and anarchists is carnal licentiousness.
The American separation of church and state rests on respect for the church; the infidel separation, on indifference and hatred of the church, and of religion itself. The infidel theory was tried and failed in the first Revolution of France. It began with toleration, and ended with the abolition of Christianity, and with the reign of terror, which in turn prepared the way for military despotism as the only means of saving society from anarchy and ruin.
As a nation and as a people, we have been given tremendous resources. We have enjoyed tremendous privileges. With those undeserved resources and privileges come tremendous responsibilities to use them in a way that honors the God-given, universal rights of human beings.
One of the ways in which we can do that is by seeking to expand the boundaries of freedom-including soul freedom. As a Christian, I believe this to be a divinely ordained mandate for human society. It is not necessary to be a Christian, however, to affirm soul freedom as a universally recognized human right.
America’s legacy of freedom is rooted in religiously informed convictions. The freedom we have been given is the same freedom to which all human beings-not just Americans-are entitled. The great “self-evident” truths of the Declaration are universal truths. All of us have been created equal. All of us have been endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. It’s enough to make even an atheist in a foxhole whisper, “God bless America.”