Until recently I would’ve been surprised to see that question raised at CT. We might disagree about what religious liberty entails or how it should be acquired or used, but the value of free religious exercise has long been assumed across political lines in American evangelicalism and the United States as a whole.
But a series of recent comments from pastor and theologian John MacArthur reject that value in vehement terms. It’s an about-face for MacArthur personally, but the more pressing question to me is whether his new perspective will spread. The view he outlines includes some truth, but it recklessly jettisons longstanding and important Christian convictions.
Last summer, when lawsuits proliferated over California’s unusually strict pandemic limits on in-person worship, MacArthur and his Grace Community Church (GCC) in Los Angeles were all about religious liberty. An August statement from Jenna Ellis, an attorney defending GCC, decried LA County’s “[clear defiance of] the Constitution’s mandate to protect religious liberty.” MacArthur himself cited the First Amendment in an interview on Fox News. And a July statement from GCC elders, though explicitly declining to make the constitutional argument, still embraced religious liberty and argued any church closure order is an “illegitimate intrusion of state authority.”
Half a year later, MacArthur was adamantly opposing religious freedom from the pulpit. His first sermon to include this theme came on January 17:
I don’t even support religious freedom. Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say, “I support idolatry.” It’s to say, “I support lies; I support hell; I support the kingdom of darkness.” You can’t say that. No Christian with half a brain would say, ‘We support religious freedom.’ We support the truth!
MacArthur continued on January 24:
Now I told you last week that I do not believe as a Christian that I can support strongly freedom of religion, because that would be to violate the first commandment, right? “Have no other gods.” You say, “Well, doesn’t the church need freedom of religion to move forward?” No. In no way does any political law aid or hinder the church of Jesus Christ. We are a separate kingdom.
He returned to the topic again on February 28:
I said I couldn’t fight for religious freedom because that would be fighting for Satan to be successful, because every single religion in the world except the truth of Christianity is a lie from hell. You say, “Well, isn’t religious freedom important for Christianity?” No, it’s meaningless.
And in a “State of the Church” address on March 3, MacArthur said defending religious liberty is “fight[ing] for idolatry” and “looking for alliances with Satan.”
I’ve quoted MacArthur at length here because this is strange, new territory for an evangelical figure of his influence. There’s been a debate among political conservatives for several years about the value of religious liberty and classical liberalism more broadly. Participating evangelicals, like writer and attorney David French, are typically pro-freedom, arguing that for all its flaws, it’s the best we’ve got.
MacArthur now seems to disagree. Some of what he’s said is quite right, of course: The kingdom of God is distinct from the kingdoms of the world, and legal favor isn’t necessary to spread the gospel and grow the church (though it can certainly help). As an Anabaptist, I wholeheartedly endorse MacArthur’s assertion that Christians “don’t need the government to expedite the gospel.”
MacArthur’s also correct in his repeated contention that the Bible “doesn’t advocate democracy.” Indeed, the wide difference between our governance and that of the ancient Near East is a big reason it can be so difficult to define faithful Christian interaction with the state millennia later. Nevertheless, there’s a long Christian tradition of supporting religious liberty, particularly in contexts like ours where the government solicits our opinion and purports to reflect our will.
In the third century, the Christian theologian Tertullian argued for religious freedom to an official in Carthage. “We are worshippers of one God,” he wrote. “You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. … It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free will and not force should lead us.”
Religious liberty received fresh attention after the Protestant Reformation, when new denominations were persecuted by fellow Christians. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island as well as the first Baptist church in what is now the United States, took up the cause after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his “strange opinions.”
“An enforced uniformity of religion,” Williams argued in 1644, “confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” Moreover, Williams added in a prudential note, curtailing religious liberty backfires: “Sooner or later” it occasions civil strife, he warned, and “ravishing of conscience,” persecution, hypocrisy, and lost opportunities for the gospel. Freedom of religion must be universal, he insisted, even—to borrow MacArthur’s phrase—for the Devil’s lies. Baptists like Russell Moore still echo Williams’s thinking today, insisting Christ’s kingdom is built “not through government power but by the ‘open proclamation of the truth’” (2 Cor. 4:2, NASB).
MacArthur was unclear about what he thinks would happen without religious liberty. At one point he said laws have “no effect on the kingdom of God.” At another he said that without religious freedom, “the only religion that’ll be punished” is Christianity. Elsewhere, he said, “the more supportive” our government is of religious liberty, the more “persecution will be ramped up” for Christians. Meanwhile, his claim that religious freedom “sends people to hell” suggests he envisions Christianity enshrined as bland state religion in a post-liberal United States.
That confusion is why I’ve chosen these two examples from church history, penned as they were in very different contexts: Tertullian was a Christian in a persecuted church appealing to an official hostile to Christianity; Williams was speaking to Christians wielding the sword against siblings in Christ. My own view is that we’re moving from a situation more like Williams’s to one more like Tertullian’s. An irreligious majority is coming—or is already here, depending on how you measure it. Religious liberty is increasingly viewed with suspicion, seen as a ploy for special privileges or a way to deprive others of their rights.
That perception makes judicious, irenic defense of religious liberty a needful and urgent work. It would be incredibly foolish to abandon the cause of religious freedom, especially now. MacArthur is right that God’s kingdom doesn’t require that freedom to grow. But what pitiful kingdom he must imagine if he thinks “Satan [will] be successful” if people can worship as they choose.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.