Religious liberty is one of the hallmarks of the American constitutional order and a matter of Christian conviction. Far too many Christians fall into the trap of believing religious liberty is somehow granted by the United States Constitution. The framers of that Constitution understood, to the contrary, they were merely recognizing a right that had been granted by our Creator. In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson stated the matter clearly: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.”
Baptists have always had a unique commitment to religious liberty, forged in the crucibles of experience and conviction. One of the most famous Southern Baptists of the 20th century, Southern Seminary alumnus Herschel Hobbs, noted “religious liberty is the mother of all true freedoms.” E.Y. Mullins, the seminary’s fourth president, was a staunch defender of religious liberty during a time of war when some in our nation’s government sought to infringe upon the nation’s “first freedom.”
The Christian affirmation of religious liberty is grounded in the affirmation that every single human being is made in the image of God, endowed with the right of religious liberty precisely because we are the only creature made with a religious capacity. And yet, threats to religious liberty are increasing rather than decreasing. This is due in part to the increasing secularization of the culture which makes religious liberty a privilege rather than a right. In the eyes of secularists, religious liberty is to be valued only until it runs into direct conflict with a more important liberal value.
This points to the second most direct threat to religious liberty in our time: the moral revolution. The revolution over human sexuality which has now led to the redefinition of marriage and the family presents an unavoidable conflict between erotic liberty and religious liberty.
At this point, religious liberty is being threatened by secular authorities seeking to coerce obedience of the new moral norm by whatever means they deem necessary. The inevitable conflict between religious liberty and our new legal and moral contexts was made clear at a recent symposium when a preeminent legal authority indicated she could not envision one instance in which religious liberty should be more highly valued than the new sexual freedom.
We are living in challenging times. Religious liberty is not merely a political issue; it is a theological issue. Ministers of the gospel, therefore, must give careful and rigorous biblical and theological reflection to this topic. Christians cannot ignore these controversies raging in the public square for the simple reason that our Lord commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The urgency of these issues underlines the importance of the mission entrusted to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Furthermore, it points to our greatest challenge: producing a generation of moral revolutionaries who will not only cherish religious liberty but deploy it.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the 9th president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Mohler on Twitter at @albertmohler, on Facebook or at AlbertMohler.com. This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.