WASHINGTON (BP) — Conservative Christians should recover the proper use of the term “separation of church and state” in defending religious liberty against government interference, Russell D. Moore said at an evangelical conference in the country’s capital.
Evangelical Christians also should advocate for the freedom of Muslims and adherents of other religions in order to limit state power, said the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Moore made his comments Sept. 10 at the Evangelical Leadership Summit, the first such conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He spoke as part of a panel discussing the impact of religious liberty on economic and political freedoms.
One of the reasons religious liberty for all people is important is because of its value in limiting government authority, Moore said.
When Americans have the kind of freedom that enables them “to argue with one another, that signals not only to the government Caesar is not God, it also signals” the same message to citizens, he said.
That is why conservatives “need to reclaim … a term that we long ago tossed overboard — the ‘separation of church and state,'” Moore told the audience. That term “does not mean secularization,” he added. “It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience …”
Conservative evangelicals have largely abandoned the use of “separation of church and state” in recent decades as strict separationists championed it in advocating for a public square largely bereft of religious presence and influence.
To defend religious freedom, evangelicals need to advocate “as loudly for those issues that are irrelevant to our own as we are for those that are relevant,” Moore said.
“There is no reason why a conservative evangelical ought ever to ignore a situation where a city council is zoning a mosque out of existence,” he said. “Objecting to this does not mean that one is agreeing with Islam. It means that one does not believe in giving the power to the mayor and the city council to hand down theological edicts and also recognizing that those who have that power to drive people out of town on the basis of what they believe will in the fullness of time drive us all out.”
A lack of religious freedom does not result in a “purely secular state,” Moore said. “It means that we have a more religious state and a state that is dictating religious terms.
“If you give to the government the ability to differentiate between what religious convictions are really and truly important or not, then we will wind up with a state-established religion in which the government says a vague concept of the divine is all that really matters and all of your particularities can simply be wiped away like a building being plowed away by eminent domain in order to build a new business.”
The panel discussion took place as religious freedom takes hits in many parts of the world. Widespread persecution of Christians and other religious adherents — including executions — is rampant in such countries as Iraq and Nigeria. Research shows 5.3 billion people, or 76 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom from the government or groups in society, said panelist Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
In the United States, “threats to religious liberty are mounting,” said Tim Shah, a co-panelist with Moore. Among the examples in this country are the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate, which fails to provide adequate conscience protection for religious individuals and institutions. Also, government officials have acted against bakers, florists and photographers who have declined to provide their services for same-sex weddings.
The status of religious liberty in this country is “very bleak,” said Shah, the associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Shah predicted, “[I]t won’t be long before great religious institutions in this country are stripped of their tax-exempt status … and we will be in a very different social, legal and political environment, I think, in about 10 years.”
The case for religious freedom for all people needs to be made for the good of society, Shah said.
“It’s not petty to fight for what may seem like relatively small issues and dimensions of religious freedom, because if we don’t fight for the small ones, we are really in big trouble,” he said. “It’s not unimaginable … the level of distrust may become so great that we will not recognize our society in a generation. So we all need to make common good arguments for religious liberty, not because they’re good for our team but because they’re good for the entire body politic.”
Moore said of religious liberty in the United States, “[T]he sense of alarm is rising, and the sense of working together is rising, but it’s a long haul.”
Many evangelicals “who believe themselves to be spiritual and pious” are not helping, he told summit participants. These evangelicals “say, ‘Let’s simply step back from all of our rights, and let’s simply step back from the table and surrender all that,'” Moore said. “In a democratic republic by doing that, it is not just that you are saying, ‘I am willing to be persecuted.’ You are saying, ‘I am willing to be persecutor,’ by putting into jeopardy future generations of people based upon their consciences.”
Churches and religious institutions must be able to “equip people to keep the next generation out of jail” and “to train up a generation who is willing to go to jail, who have consciences that are not so malleable that they can be directed simply by the whims of the marketplace, consciences that are not so malleable that they can be directed by government edict…,” Moore said.
Religious liberty promotes political freedom and economic progress, panelists said. Research shows religious persecution “spawns civic division, conflict and extremism,” while religious freedom — including the ability to evangelize — “promotes civic stability, a wide array of democratic freedoms and the empowerment of vulnerable groups,” Shah said.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).