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Freedom without choice is no true freedom at all

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It is not often I am surprised by comments that are generated by my columns in The Christian Post. Over the years I have read, as you would imagine, literally thousands of various opinions, agreements and disagreements with the ideas I have articulated and the arguments I have made on literally hundreds of issues.

So, imagine my surprise at being taken aback by some comments generated by my column, “The Extraordinary Meaning of July 4th for America and the World,” I frankly thought that praising the Declaration of Independence and its meaning would not have been terribly controversial.

However, several of our readers took exception to my praising the unique birth of human freedom published on July 4, 1776.

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One reader declared:

“It was never the founders intent to promote irresponsible freedom. The freedom we enjoy in our Constitution and supporting Declaration of Independence was formulated within the context of reverence and submission to God on an individual basis. In those times it was the one true Christian God.”

Another critic goes even further, assuming that I am glorifying “this ‘FREEDOM’ even though it blasphemously proclaims that it is …a human right to worship ANY gods, that it proclaims … right for each to define good and evil in their own eyes. It is clear that you have placed the ‘light of the torch of FREEDOM’ above the LIGHT and 1 Truth of the 1 & only God.”

Imagine my surprise. My first response is that our forefathers bequeathed us a great and noble thing — an understanding that our freedom and our rights came from our Creator and that God created us with the right to govern ourselves according to His revelation of Himself and His character to us.

However, He also gave us, beginning with Adam and Eve, the freedom to choose right from wrong, understanding that wrong choices would bring disastrous consequences.

My question to my critics is this: “What would you have in place of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom? Would you have the Founding Fathers dictating to us which particular God (Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or Deist) we must worship and the manner in which we are to perform that worship?”

After all, nine of the original 13 states had tax-supported state churches and our forefathers did not follow their lead.

True freedom leaves a man or a woman free to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences without interference from the civil magistrate. Our second president, John Adams, said in 1798, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John Adams, “Letter from John Adams to Massachusetts Militia,” Oct. 11, 1798.)

Adams understood that our Constitution was based on Judeo-Christian values combined with Enlightenment ideas of self-government.     

If most people did not obey the law voluntarily because they were aware they were responsible to Divine authority, then the “light” hand of our government would allow liberty to turn to license requiring even more restrictive state power to ensure order.

You cannot force people to be pious or devout. And, you have no right to coercively interfere with another man’s relationship with God. As the great Baptist Roger Williams put it so eloquently in the early 17th century while facing the state church in Massachusetts Bay, for any man to coercively interfere with another man’s faith is “soul-rape.”

All attempts by government to dictate religion always ends in disaster, conscience abuse, and dictatorship. And after all, God never wants coerced worship. He gave Adam and Eve a choice. He gave His chosen people a choice. He could have forced them to obey. He did not. He wanted a voluntary compliance and loving worship.

As the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian Christians to “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Eph. 5:2)

In the early 17th century the English Baptist Thomas Helwys wrote The Mystery of Iniquity in which he informed the King of England, James I, that he was just a man and should have no coercive control over another man’s relationship with his God, thus authoring the first published plea for religious freedom in the English language.

As John Adams predicted, as America has become less religious and less decent, liberty has turned to license which has led to more government and less freedom.

However, the answer is not for any one group to try to impose what they believe the correct religion is on the people. The last thing that anyone should want is government-sponsored or government-mandated religion. The experience is like being embraced by a python which squeezes all the life out of you. The empty cathedrals of the state churches in Europe bear stark testimony to that truth.

Our Declaration and our Constitution free our people to be God-honoring, Bible-believing followers of Christ, but also allows them to go their own way. That is the two-edged sword of freedom.

The confessional statement of my personal faith tradition, Southern Baptist, The BaptistFaith & Message, puts it quite eloquently and succinctly: “God alone is Lord of the conscience and He has left it free from the doctrines of man which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.”

This statement makes a critically important distinction. While we shall be free from the dictates of man, we are responsible to God. “Human beings are not really autonomous. We will one day answer to God for our beliefs, actions, thoughts and words.” (Charles S. Kelley Jr., Richard Land, R. Albert Mohler Jr., The Baptist Faith & Message, 2007), pp. 163-164.

Freedom is a God-given right. He gave us the ability to choose right over wrong, and even after the fall of man He redemptively acts to empower us to choose the right through the life-giving power of His Son.

Genuine and true Christianity has flourished under the freedoms set in place by the Declaration and the Constitution, like it has in no other milieu. Government should be an umpire, or referee, making sure everyone plays fair, with no cheating in attempts to intimidate or suppress minorities. The government should not be a judge, a sponsor, or a censor for one religion over another or no religion over religion. This leaves men free to pursue the truth according to the dictates of their own consciences.

Will this mean competition for hearts and minds in the marketplace of ideas? Yes. What’s the problem? I did not see Elijah avoiding a confrontation with the prophets of Baal. He said, “You pray to your gods and I will pray to mine, and let’s see whose prayers get answered.”

Let us go forward with the confidence of Elijah. We serve the one true God, the one who answers prayers.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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