“Religious Liberty” — A Different Take

Al Mohler recently published an article at the Southern Blog called “The moral revolution threatens religious liberty.

Albert Mohler speaking

Mohler is a noted evangelical leader and the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He considers “religious liberty” important. His article comes only a week after a previous one at his blog, entitled “Religious Liberty vs. Erotic Liberty—Religious Liberty Is Losing.”

Mohler’s explanation of “religious liberty” bears close study.

While I admire most of his convictions, prayerfully I suggest a different take on “religious liberty.” The short version: there is no “religious liberty.” The phrase is a misnomer. Bear with me and this strange point will become more clear. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

Though this principle has often been called “religious liberty,” it would be better to refer to it simply as “liberty.” This clause does not provide for a special kind of liberty. It merely highlights one specific application of the principle of liberty itself. The clause is designed to point out that “liberty” means, among other things, that the government does not control people’s religious ideas in any way.

In his articles Al Mohler does not show this understanding of liberty—as a broad principle applied specifically to the case of religion. Rather, he creates a new set of quasi-concepts: “religious liberty” vs. “erotic liberty” etc. Then he sets these “liberties” against each other and argues that in the end one must be sacrificed for the other.

Mohler writes:

Liberties do not exist in a vacuum. In any historical moment, certain liberties collide with other liberties. We are now witnessing a direct and unavoidable collision between religious liberty with what is rightly defined as erotic liberty — a liberty claimed on the basis of sexual identity and activity.”

Mohler’s is an incorrect conception of liberty.

Within a correct political philosophy, there are not kinds of liberties. There is simply liberty, and the word has a specific meaning. In another context, we may speak of having the “liberty” to take a four-week vacation, or the “liberty” to spend time with one’s children. But in the political context liberty is “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views” (Google).

Notice that Mohler has improperly conflated this political definition with the more general definition: “The power or scope to act as one pleases” (Google). Mohler thus treats “religious liberty” and “erotic liberty” as distinct and incompatible principles, rather than (as I would have it) two compatible implementations of a single principle.

Why does this matter?

In “Religious Liberty vs. Erotic Liberty,” Mohler discusses the case of the firing of Kelvin Cochran, the chief of Atlanta’s Fire Rescue Department. Cochran was fired because he had written a book that agreed with Scripture in calling homosexuality a sin. Christians ought to protest the injustice of the firing of Cochran. It is a clear case of the government discriminating against a Christian for his beliefs. Mohler is right to speak out against this injustice. But we cannot solve this problem by multiplying concepts of “liberty.”

By my reading of Mohler’s view, the government official who fired Cochran was choosing “erotic liberty” over “religious liberty.” I find this a strange twisting of terms. Mohler is attempting to use the general definition of “liberty” (the power or scope to act as one pleases) in a political context. Given that conception of liberty, there certainly would be an “unavoidable collision” between the types of liberties. But that concept is untrue.

By definition, political liberties do not collide.

What is missing from Mohler’s concept of political liberty is the broader framework in which political liberty occurs: the principle of individual rights. I refer to the right to one’s life, physical freedom, and property. Notably, Mohler does not give very much discussion to these rights.

Rather, Mohler has attempted to understand political questions without the help of proper political concepts. He does not recognize that in a political context “freedom” means “freedom from”—never “freedom to” something.

Under the correct understanding of “freedom” as “freedom from,” rights are formulated in such a way as to never collide (that is their very purpose). Essential to this theory of rights is that there can never be a right of one person to violate the right of another. All rights must be conceived in such as way as to fit this requirement. In this view, the idea of colliding liberties/rights is a misunderstanding.

Mohler is not the only religious leader to confuse the issue. Recently Pope Francis contrasted “free expression” with “freedom from being offended,” and he sided with the latter. While the discerning American knows that such a view is wrong, he may not know exactly why it is wrong. It is wrong because the Pope has conflated the political with the general usage of the term “freedom.” In terms of political rights, there is no freedom “to not be offended.” There is a freedom “from getting murdered for what you choose to say.”

Mohler brought up the Pope’s misstatement in The Briefing, but he did not accurately name the Pope’s error. How could he? The error is his own. Like the Pope, he does not trace liberty/freedom to its source in natural rights. Without such grounding, liberty transforms from being “the rights of man” to being “the rights of groups.” Then it is only a question of which group will dominate.

Mohler writes of an “unavoidable conflict between erotic liberty and religious liberty.” If that is how Mohler chooses to understand liberty, he will not be able to defend it.

There is no distinctly “religious liberty.” Only liberty. Only the rights of individual people.

Though I agree with much of Dr. Mohler’s intention and always find his cultural analysis fruitful, I do suggest that his analysis could be even better, would he frame the discussion in terms of the old liberty, not the new “liberties.”