One of the core distinctives of Baptist Public Theology is “Religious Liberty.” At the Land Center, we champion this ideal, and I am proud to be a proponent of liberty. However, as I love to teach my students, there is a difference between liberty—doing what you ought—and license—doing whatever you want. To avoid anarchy and license, any liberty must have boundaries.
The struggle in creating a system of liberty, then, is balancing liberty with boundaries. No system is perfect, and no system is immune to possible corruption. A democracy can turn into mob rule, a republic can turn into an oligarchy, and a benevolent king can turn into a despotic dictator. Every system will have to deal with a possible tradeoff somewhere.
In this essay, my goal is to present a range of possibilities regarding models of liberty. I’ll start by noting a view that restricts liberty. Then, I’ll try to present a few possible views for religious liberty. Finally, I’ll provide a short argument for the view that I think has the strongest practical viability.
A Restricted Liberty View
This view has been common throughout history. I provide it here to show the “other side” of the conversation.
Required Adherence: A view that has been present throughout most of human history (in Christian, Muslim, and pagan nations) is required adherence. In order to be a functioning member of society, you must participate in the local religious system. The religion and political state are often fully integrated, such that to be a member of the state is to be a member of the religion and vice versa.
This view is strongly adverse to freedom because the diversity of religion is directly proportional to the dysfunction of the state. In this system, the state functions best when religious liberty is largely non-existent. However, it is the state decides “proper” religious convictions (Church Decree, A Prophet, Emperor Worship), one must accept these convictions (or lie about them) to be a member of society.
While this view can create a cohesive society, it does not allow for religious disagreements and can easily lead to abuse and persecution for honest disagreements.
Possible Boundaries of Liberty
Where the above section allows for no liberty, each of the views below allow for some. I’ll start with the view that allows for the most freedom and work down to the view with the least.
Absolute Religious Freedom: To many American minds, “absolute freedom” has a certain appeal to it: Everyone doing what they would like apart from government control. Doesn’t that sound great?
However, absolute freedom means just this: absolute freedom. This would mean that anyone could do whatever they wanted so long as it was under the banner of “religious practice.” While this may still seem good, consider some of the following actions a person could take under the name of “religion”: human sacrifice, abortion, rape, polygamy, murder, slavery, drug use, and bestiality.
With absolute religious freedom, all of the practices would have to be protected because the freedom is “absolute.” It covers everything that could be done under religious practice. Such freedom is necessarily anarchy because no law could prevent an action if that action were done as part of a religion. This creates a system with nearly unlimited freedom, but it is hard to see how this setting could be cohesive enough to form a large community.
As such, Absolute Religious Freedom must be ruled out.
Maximal Freedom – Do No Harm: This version is similar to Absolute Freedom with one major caveat – the Do No Harm principle. The Do No Harm principle comes in various forms, but it basically states that “an action should be permitted provided that it does no harm to another person.” So, for example, I should be allowed to engage in evangelism, provided that I don’t hurt anyone else in the process.
This version of freedom often sounds good, but it also runs into problems. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll narrow the problems into one: the Lack of Clear Definitions Problem. The Lack of Clear Definitions Problem is just as it sounds—this version of freedom lacks clear definitions for its terms.
Consider “religion.” What counts as a religion? Obviously, we can count traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. What about fringe religions like Norse Paganism or Satanism? What about “internet religions” like Jedi? (Yes, it’s a thing.) What about the man who “religiously” plays golf on Sunday mornings? Does this count as a religion?
And, of course, there is the problem of defining “harm.” What counts as harm? Further, what counts as harm “to another person?” Suppose, for example, that Religion X makes a practice out of sacrificing people of Demographic Y. When the police show up to stop this practice, the priest of Religion X says, “Ah, I see the problem. To you, Demographic Y are people, but to us, they aren’t! Thus, when we sacrifice them to us, we aren’t actually harming people!”
The problem here is that the value of religious freedom can easily conflict with the harm principle. Some people see harm in places that others don’t. For a more contemporary example, consider abortion: Should we prohibit abortion because some view it as murdering another person, or should we allow abortion because some religions view abortion as necessary for religious practice? (As some Satanists maintain) Many Christians view abortion as murder, while some Satanists view abortion as a necessary practice. Under the Maximal Freedom view, it’s difficult to determine whose values win.
Consider another example: evangelism. To Christians (and many other religions), evangelism is a loving thing to do! We evangelize because we believe we have the truth and we want others to know. However, some view evangelism as harmful Western colonialism. For this group, evangelism is a way of spreading Western culture and destroying indigenous populations and practices. So, which is it? Is evangelism an act of love or destruction?
Under the Maximal Freedom view, there is no clear standard of who gets to determine the definitions for terms. This, in turn, means that there is no clear standard of who gets to set the laws. Because this view doesn’t provide a shared set of standards, it’s unclear how it could function practically in a real society.
As such, Maximal Freedom must also be ruled out.
Sectarian Freedom: This is perhaps the strictest view of freedom that can still be called a view of “freedom.” The Sectarian Freedom view holds that the various sects within a particular religion should have freedom, but does not advocate for the freedom of other religions. So, for example, this view might hold that one is legally allowed to be some version of Christian, but not to be some form of Muslim. Perhaps you could be a Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc, but you could not practice a non–Christian religion.
The problem with this view is that it appears to be on a dagger’s edge: it tends to become either Required Adherence or Theological Libertarianism (see below). This view is not philosophically problematic in itself (though you may want a stronger notion of freedom) as a society can actually form under these rules. When a country has a set standard of religious principles, that country has something cohesive enough to stabilize itself. When a country has a cohesive religious framework, it is under no obligation to let other religious frameworks have the floor.
While I am applying this definition anachronistically, this appears to be the system used in early America and post-Glorious Revolution Britain. Both countries clearly had a Christian religious structure that unified the nation and were willing to give non-majority Christian groups access to society. What they often weren’t willing to do was give this same access to non-Christian groups.
The issue with this view today is that our society has become pluralistic to the point where Sectarian Freedom isn’t currently a live option. If we attempted to implement this view, its not clear which view would be predominant; there are simply too many religions being practiced in democratic Western society. Thus, this view is a philosophically viable option (it could and often does work for creating stable societies), but it is currently not a practically viable option in the West.
A Balanced Solution
This final view, then, is an attempt to use the stabilizing power found in Sectarian Freedom while acknowledging the pluralism we currently find ourselves dealing with.
Theological Libertarianism: Under this view, a society must have a general unity around a particular religion. This unifying religion provides the moral structure that allows for the formation of laws and provides shared cultural elements for society. However, in an act of toleration, other religious groups are allowed to exist and practice so long as the laws and morals established by the primary religion aren’t violated. This view is clearly more “stable” than the first two and freer than the last. It provides a shared set of definitions, which means society will be able to establish laws. It also does not force those not practicing the particular religion to join.
An important note might be that for Theological Libertarians, there is no state-sponsored religion, only a privileged religion. For this view, the privileged religion is not legally the religion of the state, but it is recognized as the shared worldview for policy-making purposes. For example, suppose Christianity is the unifying religion. The Theological Libertarian view would assume Christian definitions of things like “personhood” or “harm” but would not require public or private Christian conviction or confession. Further, the state would not use public funding to further the goals of the religion. 
If you doubt the tenability of this view, consider what John Adams said to the Massachusetts Militia,
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The importance is in his words, “moral and religious people.” Clearly, Adams thought that a certain morality and religion were necessary to make sense of the Constitution. It is largely uncontroversial that the American Founders were either Christian Theists, Deists, or Friendly Atheists. Virtually all of them allowed for Christian morality to define the terms necessary for policymaking.
As such, I think it is no stretch to view Christianity as the necessary moral bedrock for American religious liberty. In order for a society to function, we must operate with a shared moral vocabulary. This does not mean that we force people to believe Christian doctrine, but we can use Christian moral vocabulary as a language for debate.
While Adams’s words were likely in reference to something closer to Sectarian Freedom, I don’t think it is a leap to get from there to Theological Libertarianism. Instead of only allowing freedom amongst Christian groups, we could also allow some freedom for non-Christian groups. Christianity is open enough to acknowledge the dignity and worth of all humans while also cohesive enough to allow for shared cultural and norms.
We’ve done it before, and it is time we returned. A society that allows for anything and everything will surely devolve into chaos.
Tyler Bauer is the content editor for the Land Center Journal. He holds MA degrees in Apologetics and Philosophy and is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion at Southwestern. In his spare time, you can find Tyler writing about classical education, worldview, and philosophy at tylerwbauer.com or co-hosting the God and Other Small Stuff Podcast.
Sometimes, his wife will laugh at his jokes.
 For purposes here, I am not getting into the nuances of American Federalism. As such, I am not trying to examine the difference between the “States” and the “Federal Government.”