The USA, like many other countries, has a long tradition of religious freedom. If you’re an American, you can worship any god, or no god, in any way you please. That right is fundamental to US history and culture; it’s enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Amendment seems pretty clear. Congress can’t force you to belong to an “approved” religion, nor can it prevent you from exercising your religion as you please.
In practice, however, things have been a little more complicated. Some religious practices have been deemed in violation of public policy to such a degree that they are prohibited outright (for example, the 18th-century Mormon practice of polygamy), while others have been restricted in some way (for example, the restrictions on political endorsements by churches if they wish to remain tax-exempt).
The issue has become more energized in recent decades by the rise of Islamic terrorism, and especially since the major attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. President George W. Bush was quick to note that the U.S.’s conflict was not with Islam itself, which he characterized as “peace.” But others have noted passages in the Quran that call for the extermination of “infidels” (non-Muslims) and suggest that advocating genocide ought to be viewed far more sternly than advocating, say, polygamy. Some have proposed various forms of discrimination against Islam for this reason, while others have opposed some government policies—such as President Trump’s travel ban—as being a violation of the First Amendment.
Politics aside, it’s always helpful to return to first principles. What basis, if any, is there in Scripture for religious freedom? If there’s such a thing as absolute truth, why should we allow people to believe falsehood? And what guidance does the Scripture give us on the thorny religious issues that have led to such conflict?
Let me suggest a few clear biblical principles that we can apply to this question:
- There is truth, and there is error. Truth is not relative. The Scripture identifies truth, essentially, as whatever God thinks (John 3:33; Titus 1:2; Rom. 1:25). Jesus identifies Himself as the truth (John 14:6), and virtually the entire Gospel of John is an account of Jesus rejecting and correcting the error-filled thinking of everyone He interacts with. So truth matters.
- The consequences of error are infinite and eternal. There is a heaven, and there is a hell—an eternal one (Mark 9:44)—and the difference is simply in the acknowledging of the truth (2 Thess. 2:10).
- Human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). They are of infinite value.
- God has created humans for relationship with Him (John 17:3). This is not sterile or mechanical, but heartfelt. That’s how relationships work.
- So this relationship must extend to the heart, to the will, to the emotions, as well as to the intellect (Deut. 6:5).
Now, these things being the case, of what use is it to compel conversion at the point of a sword? Will God be moved to receive sinners who came to Him because they were forced to? Is He that unaware? Of course not.
And that serves as the theological basis for religious freedom. From a governmental perspective, you don’t—can’t—compel religious belief. You let the citizen think as he pleases. You don’t compel him to believe one thing by establishing a state religion, nor do you compel him not to think something else by prohibiting the free exercise of his own religion. That policy is exactly in line with the biblical position on the nature of genuine faith.
Now. What about Islam and those commands to kill the infidels?
Killing the infidels would be, well, wrong. Illegal. Killing pretty much anybody is illegal, except in very limited cases, and it should be. God told Noah that at the very reinstitution of human civilization (Gen. 9:6), and He enshrined it in the Ten Commandments as well (Exod. 20:13). If your religion tells you to kill the infidels, then you’re going to come into conflict with the legal system, and you’ll have just a very few choices:
- Kill the infidels, and face the legal consequences, up to and including death.
- Leave the country, and kill infidels somewhere else.
- Don’t kill the infidels, even though your religion says to.
Now, here’s the thing. Religions are not homogeneous. Within Christianity, there are multiple schools of interpretation of the Scripture. Luther and Zwingli had a huge fight over whether Jesus’ body was in the communion elements “really” or “spiritually,” and Luther famously consigned Zwingli to the nether regions for his (latter) view. Even among Baptists it’s rare to find two of them who agree on everything. Followers of a religion need to be dealt with as individuals, not as classes.
As we might expect, then, there are lots of Muslims who interpret the Qu’ran in ways that do not require them to kill any infidels. As long as they’re willing to abide by the law, there is no legal basis to discriminate against them. And, according to US legal tradition, we can’t assume that they’re going to violate the law unless they give us individual reason to think they will.
But what about the fact that they believe in a serious error, one with eternal consequences?
That, my friend, is what the Great Commission is all about. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in a great plan to extend Their grace—and truth—to people from every kingdom, tribe, tongue, and nation, and They—He—have (has?) enlisted us to be the agents of that grace. The world has come to our neighborhood and is speaking our language. Take the message of grace to all those around you. Disarm the enemy, eternally, one soul at a time.