The Best Short Defense of Religious Liberty I’ve Heard

By Sean McDowell Published on August 2, 2017

As John Stonestreet and I argue in our book Same-Sex Marriage, we are going through one of the most sweeping social revolutions in world history. Virtually every culture in the world has understood marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Then came the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision in 2015. Now this has changed.

Marriage has been redefined. The law, our schools, and other social customs have begun to change as well. As a result, there’s a great tension between religious liberty and claims of discrimination. Can Catholic adoption agencies work according to their convictions that marriage is the union of a man and a woman? Or does this discriminate against gay couples who want to adopt? Should the law force people to use others’ preferred gender pronouns?

Is Liberty Worth Protecting?

At the heart of this debate is whether or not religious liberty is worth protecting. Does the state have an interest in preserving religious liberty? In my experience, few people (including religious people) understand why religious freedom is so valuable for both the government and society.

I recently read Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. It’s a thoughtful and respectful dialogue between Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis on the one side, and John Corvino on the other. In their opening remarks, Anderson and Girgis offer a brief case for the state’s interest in preserving religious freedom. It’s the best I have heard.

While this certainly won’t end debate, it’s the starting point of an argument that must be heard. Here it is:

A Simple Case for Religious Liberty

For all their differences, [a] splendid range of people from every corner of every culture across thousands of years [Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Muslims, etc.] would agree that much hangs on exploring religious questions and living by the answers. Even those who end up atheists or agnostic are compelled to search by a sense of the value of achieving harmony with whatever ultimate source of meaning there might be.

As a basic human good, religion consists of efforts to align your life with the truth about whatever transcendent source (or sources) of being, meaning, and value there might be. It’s about efforts to honor or find harmony with that source — call it the “divine.” Relationship with the divine, like human friendship, must be freely chosen to be authentic. To coerce is to produce a counterfeit. So respect for your basic interest in religion demands respect for your freedom in pursuing it. For this basic good, religious liberty is a precondition.

And hence the state, which exists to protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods, must never directly attack this freedom. It must never require or forbid an act on religious grounds — for example, on the ground that its religious rationale is true or false, or that the associated religious community should shrink or grow. But the same basic good also requires the state to avoid needless incidental limits on religious freedom. These arise where your faith calls for you to shape your whole life by the divinity’s demands: in preaching and conversion, pilgrimage and prayer, building and worship, ritual and ascetical struggle, charitable work and Sabbath rest. All of these might conflict with legitimate laws. The state can’t avoid a conflict every time. It has to protect the wide range of basic goods for all of society, even at the expense of some instances of them, religion included. But because religion, like moral integrity, is itself one of the basic goods to be protected, the state should avoid imposition on wherever reasonably possible.



Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

Adapted with permission from

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