If someone says the word Freedom, what comes to mind?
Is it “We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?” That’s a good answer, to be sure.
Perhaps it’s a slogan, like “live free or die”, “born free”, or “the best things in life are free”. Maybe it’s that scene in Braveheart when William Wallace cries “FREEDOM!” as his final word. These, and a thousand other quotes, songs and movie clips may spring to mind when you think of “Freedom”.
What about freedom as it relates to religion?
You could default to the political angle opining about cultural change, and the forbidding of Christmas pageants, or Crosses, about businesses being bullied into violating to their convictions, Chaplains barred from mentioning the name of Christ, and so on.
Or, maybe religious people have been a real source of grief. Maybe you’ve encountered those who excel at emphasizing your sins and failings, but really suck at offering love, compassion or hope. Those who think themselves superior to people they call different. Or others who have used the church to gain power, prestige, or personal gain. If any of these have been your experiences, you may struggle even to imagine freedom and religion as compatible terms.
It might be that you have bought into the cynicism of (so called) “New Atheism” and believe that all religions restrict freedom in every meaningful way. Maybe you don’t even differentiate between Jihadis and Jesuits, Wahabis and Wesleyans, but throw every expression of religion together into one heap.
You might sport a “science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings” bumper sticker. You might see beheadings by zealots as the ultimate flower for which every religion contains the seed. These more cynical views can only be magnified when a stand has been taken (on religious-moral grounds) concerning some aspect of life you consider “none of their business”.
However friendly or hostile you might be to religion, there is an important aspect of religious freedom you probably have not considered.
Has anyone suggested to you that faith — specifically faith in Jesus Christ — was not some fragile thing whose freedoms need to be protected, but is instead the source of real and meaningful freedom as we understand it today?
Looking at the sorry state of today’s Church, this could be really hard to believe, but don’t forget, even in the Apostles’ day, believers were forever missing the point of what it meant to be Christian. Why do you think so many letters of correction were sent out to the Churches? (We now call them “Epistles”.)
The record of Jesus in the gospels — his authentic friendships, gentleness to repentant sinners, the way children loved him, but the pompous hated him — is hard to reconcile to the stuffy rules-lawyers cluttering so many churches today.
Fortunately, being a Christian is not about keeping rules. It’s more about our inability to keep the rules. We cannot be “good enough”. “Trying harder to be good” will lead either to pride or despair, neither of which is the life Christ means us to live. It hinges on humbly admitting your inability to be perfect, and accepting the moral rescue Jesus offers.
The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle (yes, they needed to be corrected on this point) to the Galatians says it this way: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened to a yoke of slavery.”