by Christopher Esget
Words matter. It’s understandable how some would not see a difference in the phrases “freedom of religion” and “freedom of worship.” The former alludes to the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, which guarantees “the free exercise” of religion. In the last decade, many leaders in the U.S. government began using “freedom of worship” instead. Professor Thomas Farr of Georgetown University noted in a congressional hearing, “Those of us in the business of sniffing out rats know that this is a rhetorical shift to watch.”
That rhetorical shift is affecting the minds of those entering our land. As the meaning of that phrase takes root in the hearts of the people—and at the heart of legislatures, courts and bureaucrats overseeing schools and social services—the freedom of conscience is threatened. You may say what you like behind the walls of your religious building—but everywhere else, your religion is out-of-bounds.
Yet how long will such speech be tolerated, when religious liberty challenges the one freedom Americans now care about, erotic liberty? The Wall Street Journal recently reported (“Unfree Speech on Campus,” paywall) that 51 percent of college students now favor “speech codes” on campus. Christian groups are being banned from schools, and speakers that challenge the secular orthodoxy need security protection if they are allowed on campus. About a third of these students are unable to identify the First Amendment as the constitutional guarantee of free speech. A similar number favor removing protections for “hate speech,” calling the First Amendment “outdated.”
What this means, as a generation of students emerge fully indoctrinated in the new anti-Christian orthodoxy, is that the legal and cultural protections we have long enjoyed will rapidly disappear. Dare we see in this something good?
The first disciples of Jesus had no such legal or cultural protections. Before Jewish or Roman authorities, confessing Jesus as Lord threatened the reigning orthodoxy and might just get you killed. As a Church, we’ve been here before. It’s time to learn anew what those early disciples confessed: freedom is not found in governments or their documents. “Trust not in rulers; they are but mortal; Earthborn they are and soon decay” (LSB 797:2). We have a King in whom there is freedom no government can withdraw.
As citizens, we should speak and act for the freedoms articulated in the Constitution, especially those of the First Amendment. But the true freedom is already secured: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).