Religious Liberty as Idolatry?

This has proven a week of historic proportions for the United States Supreme Court. Or, histrionic, depending on whom is asked.

Tuesday in a lightning flash news cycle, the Supremes struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A Minnesota state representative called Justice Clarence Thomas an "Uncle Thomas". Rep. Ryan Winkler later deleted the tweet saying he did not know "Uncle Tom" is a racist comment. Paula Deen responded with nothing, on the advice of counsel (no, not really).

Wednesday the Supremes struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. Clinton has since repented of signing the bill, if not much else. The law restricted federal benefits to marriage between a man and a woman rather than any two married people. Thus in states where gay marriage has been legalized benefits available to heterosexual couples were denied to gay couples.

The court's decision on DOMA did not legalize gay marriage in all 50 states in the same way that Roe v Wade legalized abortion regardless of a state's existing law. That said, you can bet that legal challenges are currently being lined up in states where gay marriage is not legal. Within a scant few years one or more of them will make it to the exalted docket of the Supreme Court where a challenge will take place. Between now and then more states will accede to gay marriage ballot initiatives until only a handful remain with laws to be overturned.

Although the justices did not line up exactly the same, the common thread in both of these cases is states rights. In the DOMA case they viewed the federal government as acting unfairly in decisions made by states. In striking article 4 of the VRA 1965 they acknowledged that some states were being treated differently.

The states affected by VRA were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. To make it more confusing there are a handful of cities, counties and townships within those states that were exempt from the law. Additionally there are a few dozen cities and counties in which the law applied while not applied to the entire state. How there is a no problem in the entire state of Michigan with the exception of Clyde Township and Buena Vista Township is beyond me. The Wikipedia entry on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is very informative.

Just how restrictive was section 4 of the Voting Rights Act? Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston said, "If you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, you've got to go through the Justice Department." Since other states have no such requirements the court saw this an unfair to the states, counties and townships that did.

Most, if not all, of the states involved have elected minority officials and representatives, including the national level. Responses to the court's decision ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.

My social media was abuzz with the second decision, but not so much the first. Warnings about loss of religious freedom were frequent. Concerns about free-speech erosions have been frequent as well. Will we come to the point that to criticize homosexuality or gay marriage will be "hate-speech" left unprotected by the constitution? Even worse will we who believe homosexual activity to be a sin be classified as "enemies of the human race?" (It is worth remembering our decades long battle against abortion-on-demand remains a battle because First Amendment rights have not been abridged on either side. Debate rages on fully and–mostly–freely.)

Whether freedoms for those opposed to gay marriage are abrogated remain to be seen, but are within the realm of distinct possibility. And, do not expect too much tolerance from those who have touted it for years. History does not reveal a sterling record when the formerly oppressed vault into power.

Of equal concern to me is the elevation of religious liberty to a mythos of which Christians should be wary. While our Founding Fathers enshrined religious freedom into the constitution, our Savior did not. In fact, Jesus was born, lived and died in an era when religious freedom was not absolute. (Religious freedom is not absolute in America being affected by the whims of congress, but that is for another time.)

While religious freedom is appreciated it is not part of what followers of Christ should expect at any particular point in history. It could be argued that religious freedom is a primary contributing factor to the morbid obesity of the church in the U.S. Beware lest our rabid pursuit of it lead to possession of a godliness in which is no power to deny (2 Tim 3:5).

Jesus neither commended us to long for religious freedom or to strive for it. It is pretty much the opposite, in fact.

"If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you." John 15:18

"Remember the word I spoke to you: 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." John 15:20

"We labor, working with our own hands. When we are reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure it;" 1 Corinthians 4:12

"But if anyone suffers as a 'Christian,' he should not be ashamed but should glorify God in having that name." 1 Peter 4:12

We are not told to seek suffering, but its presence should come as no surprise. We are also instructed to make sure our suffering is for good that we have done, not for evil. In other words, let us suffer for being like Jesus rather than for being stupid.

I am not saying I would enjoy being persecuted. I am not saying America would be a good place to live with an atmosphere of persecution. ("Hey, y'all come to our cookout! Just leave your pitchforks and hammers at home…").

I am saying that holding up "religious liberty" as the highest desired end is a biblically untenable position. If we promote such we may create an idol of the very freedom ostensibly designed to focus us on God.

Marty Duren is a former pastor, Christ follower, husband, father, writer, social media strategist and general provocateur who lives in Hermitage, TN. His blog, Kingdom in the Midst can be found at