It’s Time for a Return to Virtue

If you care about religious liberty, as I do, then you should feel pretty good about the current moment, decades in the making. Almost 30 years ago, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in near unanimous fashion. It  was supported by an unusual coalition of organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

RFRA was a response to the Employment Division v. Smith decision issued by the Supreme Court and authored by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. In Smith, Scalia removed the government’s requirement to prove a compelling state interest before burdening religious freedom. The decades since have seen religious liberty prevail again and again at the Supreme Court, affirming the right of religious groups to meet on college campuses, the right of faith-based companies to act according to their values, the right of Christian organizations to receive generally available public benefits, the right of artists to refuse projects that violate the conscience, the right of faith-based adoption providers to participate in state programs, the right of religious organizations to choose their own criteria for ministers, the right of religious private schools to participate in a state benefit, and the right of a religious coach to conduct personal prayer after a sporting event. 

For this, Christians should be grateful and should continue to fight to protect religious liberty—a right not granted by the government, but given by God. As Baptist leader John Leland said while championing the First Amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, “Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.” 

And yet, we should be sober-minded about the important social structure that is required to support liberty: virtue. John Adams was sanguine about the new experiment in human government he and his fellow Founders had create: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

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