What Religious Liberty Means to MeBeth Whittemore November/December 1997 What does religious liberty mean to me? Does it have any kind of significance in my life? In Paradise, California, how does freedom of religion shape my life? On one hand, being able to choose my religion means everything to me; on the other, sadly, it means almost nothing.
Because I live in the United States, I have always had freedom of religion. I have never had persecution or discrimination force me to consider how important my God is to me. For this reason, religious liberty means very little to me. It was Thomas Paine who, during the American Revolution, said, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value."
Though I often don't realize the value of the choice I have, it is a very important part of my life. It means that I can go to a church instead of having to worship in a home while hiding from the authorities. It means I can go to a Seventh-day Adventist school, where good morals are enforced. It means that when I'm older I can vote on moral issues in the government instead of having them dictated to me by a controlling church organization. It means that no one can take away my choice to live by God's standards. It means that no one can refuse to give me a job because I worship differently than they do. Perhaps the most noteworthy significance of freedom of religion in my life is that it makes it immeasurably easier for me to make my choice for God. My fears of being different, or of being punished or discriminated against, might keep me from choosing God if I didn't have religious liberty.
There is another kind of freedom of religion that often goes unnoticed. This is not a freedom that any government can give to us or take away from us. God Himself gives every one of His created beings the choice to worship Him or to worship someone or something else. God, in His infinite wisdom, knows that if He were to force anyone to worship Him, that person would automatically resist obedience. That's the way our sinful natures work. He also knows that to force us to worship Him would be selfishly forcing us to love Him. What is love if it isn't given by choice? What would be its value? It would be worthless. In fact, it wouldn't be love at all; it would be fear, the opposite of love.
Sometimes as Christians we forget that God has given everyone the right to choose or reject Him. We want to beat people over their heads with Bibles or scare them with hellfire and brimstone. Sometimes I feel as though I have to pressure people to choose God. I forget that all God asks us to do is to share and show His love.
There is yet another type of religious liberty: the liberty to worship God in your own way. At times people can get stuck in ruts. They grow up knowing one way of worshiping God. They may even have a list of certain do's and don'ts for worship. Then one day they discover that not everyone does things the way they do. The immediate reaction is to say that because the other person's standards are different, they are wrong. However, this isn't always true. It may be that what is right for one person at that particular point in their spiritual walk is wrong for someone else, because of where they may be in their walk. Or it may be that what one person does is only habit or tradition and not really based on anything in the Bible. Therefore, there is no room for judgment or condemnation. God speaks to each person individually, in His perfect timing. It's His place to judge and convict.
There is also the freedom of each person to study the Bible and to reach different conclusions. This is the reason there are so many different interpretations of the Bible. With these varied interpretations come whole church organizations. My own church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was founded by a few people who interpreted Scripture differently, in some areas, from anyone else. If it weren't for religious freedom, we might hold beliefs much different than those which we hold utterly essential today.
Unfortunately, not only can this freedom produce churches, but it can produce factions in churches and cultish religions. So this liberty, though it is basically good, can be used for malicious purposes. However, does this invalidate the importance of interpreting the Bible individually, the way God leads us to believe? If each person can't personally hear what God speaks to them through His Word, isn't that like reverting to the days when only priests could read the Scriptures, and everyone had to take the priest's word for truth instead of reading and understanding the truth from its real source? God made each of us intelligent beings. He made each of us capable of communicating with Him through His Son and His Spirit. So we must have this freedom.
In conclusion, no matter who is giving religious liberty, and no matter what type of religious liberty it is, it must be cherished and held sacred to each individual. No one should ever stop thanking God for the freedom of choice He gives each and every one of us.