Acton Institute Powerblog

Religious Liberty Versus Secular Tyranny

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The domestic threat to religious liberty and the global slaughter of Christians around the globe is becoming harder to ignore. It certainly is now one of the most important news stories to follow for the New Year.

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture on the topic of religious liberty to the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. My Acton commentary is an abbreviated version of the portion of the lecture that focused on the current domestic threat. I’ve already talked about how the American Civil Rights Movement might be one model to push back against the rising tide of Christian persecution in this country. It is becoming increasingly clear that churches need to do a better job preparing believers to handle and deal with religious persecution.

We are really living through a dangerous era of historic revisionism, where the agenda to drastically curb the influence of religion and a faith informed virtue from the public square is strengthening. I simply ask in my piece, “What would Western Civilization look like without God, and more specifically the Lord Jesus Christ? Francis Cardinal George warns us that “secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow.

In my commentary, I noted the fatal flaw of the secular progressive scheme with its empty promise to perfect and organize man free of the divine:

As the West rushes to repaganize itself, ironically, it is only reverting back to the kind of tyranny and despotism that predates Western Civilization’s championing of progress and freedom.

In truth, as we are reminded this Christmas season, it’s not progressive secularism that redeems the world, but Christ. The secular world and even many people of faith have lost sight of the fact that it is faith and the Christian life it inspires that reflect and bring us closer to the restored world promised by Christianity.

Read the entire commentary.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • LibertyLover

    Amen brotha!

  • srlucado

    “The Church is the conscience of the state,” declared Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    And as the state actively seeks to perform a church-ectomy on our country, our conscience goes with it–as we’re seeing right in front of our eyes.

  • ScottSemans

    The constitution does not grant or recognize religious liberty directly, only forbids an “establishment of religion.” Religious establishment by the state can be either positive or negative. Examples of positive establishment would be favoring members of one religion over another in the granting of benefits, placing a God motto on government coinage, or creating national holidays to coincide with those of one religion. Negative establishment would be exempting members of one religion from a tax or duty, such as failing to tax property belonging to churches, exempting certain Indian tribes from peyote prohibition, or Quakers from military service . . . . or religious employers from mandates. Under a strict interpretation of the 1st Am, none of these practices would survive. Unfortunately the framers saw nothing at all wrong with (local & state) government favoring, establishing, or interfering to any degree whatever with any kind of commercial activity or employment, and they failed to foresee that one modest clause would extend such capacity to the new federal government. Federal mandates upon employers or insurers are wrong because government OUGHT not have that power, but there is no valid 1st. Am. argument against the practice. Rather, the practice is COMPELLED by the 1st. Am.

    • Mary J. Nelson

      The constitution does not “grant” any rights…we already have said rights, including a right to religious liberty.

      • ScottSemans

        Agreed that rights are not granted by man or government, only recognized, protected, or infringed. Proscriptions on government or enumerations of rights, that was one of the debates during ratification and why the Bill of Rights was added. My point is that by granting only some individuals exemptions from (rightful or wrongful) laws, taxes, or duties, based on their religious beliefs, constitutes an establishment of religion, just as much as granting privileges to some based on their religion. The federal government currently does both, and granting exemptions from (wrongful) mandates would further erode separation of church and state.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      The constitution does not grant or recognize religious liberty directly, only forbids an “establishment of religion.”

      Don’t forget about the free exercise clause. It should be noted that the framers wouldn’t have assumed that the government would have the power to grant anyone the freedom of religion or conscience. Those were rights that individuals had by virtue of being endowed with them by their creator, to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution doesn’t really grant anything to anyone. It’s a charter of negative liberties – it exists to restrict the government that it creates from violating those rights that the people are endowed with, or put differently, to create a strictly limited government with certain enumerated powers.

      Under a strict interpretation of the 1st Am, none of these practices would survive.

      A strict interpretation of the First Amendment would allow the government to force Quakers into military service in violation of their conscience? It would force the government to tax churches? Why?

      Unfortunately the framers saw nothing at all wrong with (local & state) government favoring…[etc]

      Keep in mind that the Framers of the Constitution were writing a Federal Constitution, applicable to the Federal government. They assumed that the states would be quite free to order their affairs as they saw fit with as little interference as possible from the Federal authority. Hence, multiple states had established churches for a number of years after the ratification of the Constitution; eventually, they all acknowledged the importance of religious liberty and adopted that idea into their own constitutions. As for the vast expansion of the Federal government into areas of commerce and the everyday lives of the citizenry, I would venture to guess that the founding generation, having just fought a revolutionary war against a foreign tyrant, believed that the public would jealously guard their liberty against attempts by government to restrict it; it seems that after a century or so of successfully doing so, the American people let their guard down with the rise of the progressive movement in the late 19th/early 20th century. We live today with the consequences of that failure to jealously guard liberty.

      Federal mandates upon employers or insurers are wrong because government OUGHT not have that power, but there is no valid 1st. Am. argument against the practice.

      …Unless the federal mandate is an imposition on the ability of citizens to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

      Rather, the practice is COMPELLED by the 1st. Am.

      Federal mandates are compelled by the first amendment?

  • fleaburn

    The truth and importance of Christianity does not depend on society accepting it or marginalizing it!!!!!!!!!! HELLLO JESUS WAS TOLD TO STOP SPEAKING IN PUBLIC, did you forget he was crucified !!!?? Might do American Christianity well to be marginalized

    • JudgeRight

      Yep, ok. Exclude Christianity and you exclude justice and mercy from public life. How would you like to be taxed up to 80% of your income? Because that is what post-communist governments levy on their people even today.

      The article is right on and ringing a bell that unfortunately too often falls on deaf years.

  • Fleaburn

    Interesting comment by Bertrand Russell, no? Without secularization religious leaders would still say it’s a sin to have a glass of wine and go to a theatre?? The church has some interesting challenges. It should be embraced, not all this doom and gloom this article writes about. Get over it.

    • JudgeRight

      Doom and gloom? Visit and live in Eastern Europe a bit to see for yourself what compulsory atheism, i.e. State imposed false worship of itself has achieved for five decades. Then you will be able to imagine where America is going with big government instead of God and freedom.

  • Gandolf

    Jesus didnt believe in upholding freedom of religion. Matthew 21:12

    srlucado says :”The Church is the conscience of the state”

    If that be correct. Then how come there is religious christian cults that exist, whom are able to persecute and cause certain people to need to endure extreme harm.

    Allowing people to choose to do what ever they want to. Doesn’t necessarily help provide us with real freedom.

    Theism is full of tyranny. Its the only real reason that these days humans would have need for approximately 41,000 christian domination’s.

    • Marc Vander Maas


      Jesus didnt believe in upholding freedom of religion. Matthew 21:12

      The Bible:

      Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. Matthew 21:12

      Genuinely curious as to how that passage supports your statement.

      • Gandolf

        Hi Marc. Sorry for taking a day or two, to reply.

        Matthew 21:12 seems to point to the fact that religion is regulated.The money changer accused of turning the Temple into a den of thieves through their commercial activities.

        Thus religion isn’t about freedom to include commercial activities. Which to me seems kind of understandable too , considering how some shonky religious groups like fleece their faithful followers.

        Besides. Freedom of religion is a bit of a oxymoron , or mere figment of wishful thinking. Can someone ? still retain the right to freely practice the ancient religious act of human sacrifice. Or do they retain the right ? to marry a dozen wives.

        Its obvious religious practice cannot be about total freedom . And if its not about total freedom . Its obviously regulated to some degree.

        People choose to hold onto the thought that freedom of religion truly exists .They do so , because they prefer to retain unregulated. They fear that they will lose the right to do what ever they wish.

        Yet much harm is continually being done , because people still choose to continually live this lie .

        There is people forced to live within ongoing faith abuses ,because of this ongoing lie. Extreme harm is being to certain people here on earth ,in the name of God . And only because people live with this lie , and try to pretend to themselves , that they can remove themselves of any guilt . Due to the fact that they convince themselves , that faith abuse happens to certain people. Due to laws of freedom of religion

        Freedom isn’t ever upheld, within us also imposing a certain amount of regulation.

        Faith is been riddled with forms of tyranny . If relative religious freedom was being honestly upheld . Why would anyone bother with schisms , and creating new religious groups and domination’s.

        Its wouldn’t be worthwhile. There would be no good sense in even doing it

        Because a realistic form of freedom of religion would truthfully “honestly” exist.

        By the way .Thanks for being civil in your manner of questioning me . Im interested to inquire ? what domination you follow. But only if its not thought “rude” of me to ask


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  • John

    The Catholic hospitals that are “being sued to perform abortions” include a hospital in Muskegon, Michigan. A woman who was three months pregnant came in after her water broke, and the hospital sent her home without treatment, thinking that she could carry the baby to term.