The Persecution Complex: Real ‘religious’ freedom means allowing space for all religious agendas (even secular ones)

So. There’s a back and forth of sorts going on where Akos Balogh has responded (twice) to the first of my persecution complex posts. He’s asking “should Christians defend religious freedom” and responding to some of what I’ve outlined previously. I don’t want to rehash old ground here and you can follow his posts to see where he’s going.

What I do want to do is point out that if the last thing I wrote is true — if every person has a religious agenda because every person is a worshipper — then real religious freedom is simply freedom. For the Christian who sees every vision of the ‘good life’ as religious, “religious freedom” is a tautology. This has a few implications for how we take part in a secular landscape, and what we call for. Let’s ignore, for a moment, that the dominant secular religion appears to have it in for Christianity. I still think Stephen McAlpine’s Exile Stage 2 thing is true, (and I still think we’re in Rome — my response to that post). If we’re serious about ‘religious freedom’ for our neighbours — which is what Akos is calling for, when he argues that pursuing unfettered religious freedom is neighbour love for, for example, our Muslim neighbours, then we need to extend that to our gay neighbours. Freedom to practice their religion; their pursuit of happiness; their god. At the moment, these neighbours are suggesting their worship requires marriage equality. If the last post is true, this is a love — a desire — for an object of worship that is orienting members of the gay community and those who are part of the larger religion of sexual liberty and freedom. In the ancient world there were actual gods that people would worship who embodied these things, so its not beyond the pale to suggest this is a religious belief, even if its adherents deny it.

It’s up to those arguing for religious freedom to show why others should not be free to practice their religion freely, or to show that their free practice of this religion impinges on, or harms, members of the community-beyond-their-community.

What advocates of religious freedom need to articulate better is why we might seek to limit the freedom of others. Which we do. Typically the same voices calling for religious freedom are also amongst the loudest voices upholding traditional marriage. Which makes it confusing, because it sounds a lot like these voices aren’t pushing for religious freedom across the board, but for Christians to remain the gatekeepers in our secular public square. This inconsistency is jarring; and I wonder how much it has contributed to our rapid exile from the public square. We have not been able to articulate the difference between our desire for religious freedom, and our desire for our vision of the good (and I believe God’s created order is the ultimate good) to form the basis of our society which is religiously pluralistic, and full of competing visions.

I think it’s because we don’t practice what we’re preaching on this front, and that’s fine. Perhaps. We’ve either got to decide if we think life in secular Australia is a competition to run the table, so that the loudest and most popular voice determines the good for all, or if we really believe in liberal democracy, where the ‘table’ — the public — is run in such a way that everybody at it feels like their freedoms are protected as much as possible; but where the table comes to agreement to limit certain freedoms for the sake of the common good, or to minimise harm. Part of the art of secular democracy is making compromises that extend freedoms to others. We’ve been pretty uncompromising in our time at the head of the table; and while we might be prepared to extend some sort of branch to other religions whose Gods are transcendent or spiritual rather than secular idols, this uncompromising stance while we’ve been in power will come back to bite us, and is.

We might argue that our ‘agenda’ is an agenda for real, objective, good. And it is. At least I believe it is. But we don’t live in a world where people see things objectively. And if Romans 1 and 8 are to be believed, people don’t see things objectively because God gives people over to a certain way of seeing the world, and only the Spirit restores our ability to see it truly. Our secular table has moved on from modernism and we keep approaching it as though we’re on the hunt for some objective common goods. It’s not going to work. It probably should never have worked if all agendas are religious or functions of worship. Because the things we worship are the foundation for what we think ‘objectivity’ is — its found in the will of the god(s), or God.

We might argue that other agendas cause harm. We should definitely speak out when we think something will lead to harm; and argue for good things. This is what loving our neighbours looks like. Certainly. But the role of the secular ‘table’ is to hear many of these visions of ‘goodness’ and ‘harm’ and to hold them in balance. What is harmful is almost always an assessment based on our own standards (though often, by God’s common grace, people will still have shared senses of what is good and what is harm). This common grace is clouded by the worship of idols though. As worshippers are given over to a broken way of seeing the world.

If we want to participate in our secular democracy, as worshippers with an agenda, then we must, in articulating a ‘good’ also identify things that are ‘not good’ — all agendas do that.

The role of the common table is to figure out what harms we’re going to allow, what harms we’re going to limit, and how we’re going to prevent different groups causing harm to one another as we pursue common goods. Safe Schools is an interesting test case for this, so too is RI. Both sides of the same sex marriage debate are also making arguments on the basis of harm minimisation. But this is fraught, because the standards held in common are very small when we’re talking, from a Christian point of view, about people whom ‘God has given over’ to particular wrong views of the world. We’re talking to people whose imaginations and desires are fired up by their objects of worship, and seeking to deny them their loves. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot. We may not need to imagine this hypothetically for very long; and we don’t need to look far overseas to see how Christians are treated in countries without a ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. It must be odd for our brothers and sisters in countries where the regime is anti-Christian and anti-democratic to see our hand-wringing in the face of social change; to many of our brothers and sisters around the world and through history what we are talking about is a luxury.

If we really believe in religious freedom and we really want it for ourselves, maybe its time we started confronting the reality of life in a secular (but not irreligious) public, maybe its time we started finding ways to both generously give freedom to others (even when we think what they’re doing is not good and that it causes harm), recognising that what they are asking for is religious freedom, even if they don’t articulate it that way. Maybe we should do this in order to maintain our own voice at the table; but maybe we should also do this because God has given them over to this way of thinking and the way out comes via us using our voice to call people to a new type of worship. The worship of the true and living God. Maybe it’s too late to keep our voice at the table in our secular, liberal, democracy. But perhaps on the way out we should use whatever voice we still have to lovingly and carefully articulate our counter-vision for the good so that people in our public might consider it; and might even change their object of worship as the Holy Spirit changes the way they see the world. Who knows, maybe as it has been historically in the west, that will be what actually delivers us freedom as God changes the hearts and minds of those we speak to.



Akos Balogh says:

Hi Nathan!

Thanks for continuing the conversation about this important topic.

To clarify a few things:

1) I think we need to be very clear about what is meant by ‘religious freedom’. The problem with a term like ‘freedom’ is that it means different things to different people, and thus makes discussion about this topic difficult.

Hence my narrowing of the meaning ‘relgious freedom’, by basing it on the theology of Romans 13, namely that the God-ordained role of government is to coerce justice/public order, but *never* to coerce people to practice/not practice a particular religion, UNLESS it leads to a state of injustice.

2) This allows a clearer answer to your question about ‘secular religions’:

Christians must advocate for a form of government that doesn’t coerce people to practice/not practice a particular religion (be it secular or transcendent), UNLESS such practice leads to injustice…at which the point the state is within it’s God-ordained responsibility to intervene.

3) So a clear example of this is abortion: Hillary Clinton et al. would strongly believe that women should be free to practice their religion of ‘reproductive rights’, i.e. killing unborn babies.

How should Christians respond to such a cry for ‘religious freedom’ (of a very secular kind)?

Well, the government shouldn’t coerce people to practice/not practice any religion, UNLESS such practice leads to injustice.

Is killing unborn babies a form of injustice?


Thus the state is within their God-ordained role to prevent the practice of the religion known as ‘women’s reproductive rights’.

4) As to same-sex marriage: again, the question is whether same-sex marriage will lead to injustice?

The short answer is yes: children will be harmed, who will be told they don’t deserve a mother and a father; not to mention the weakening of the most fundamental and important God-given institution in society (leading to all sorts of pathologies downstream).

I’m not going to argue the ‘why’ here: suffice to say there’s a reason beyond an arbitrary ‘we don’t think gay people should marry’.

5) Will secular religions (or any religion) understand the Christain point of view, however winsomely and accurately it’s made?

Well, let’s think about it: How many people advocating for ‘reproductive rights’ understand and accept the Christian point of view?

Few. (Although, it must be said, in America today there are more people today who are pro-life than ever before. Even though America is the least religious it’s ever been).

Does this mean Christians just shut-up, and not advocate for the sake of unborn babies?

No, we should still advocate, pray, and try and bring about justice (i.e. the end of abortions).

6) This all means that we advocate for a more limited role for government, when it comes to conscience and religious issues.

That is, government shouldn’t intervene if a feminist printer decides to act according to her ‘religion’ by refusing to print invites to a pro-life rally; or an Atheist hotel owner refuses to host a gathering for the Australian Christian lobby.

Government must not punish Atheists/Feminists/Pro-abortionists for exercising their conscience, because – and here’s the key – that’s not governments role.

Unless, of course, it leads to injustice of some kind.

(Which it doesn’t: the pro-lifers can get their stuff printed some-place else, and the ACL can find another venue, etc).

Hopefully that clears things up a little…

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Akos,

1. I think your sense of what governments are meant to do, in a Romans 13 sense, is a massive anachronism. The government of Rome was fundamentally religious and absolutely coerced people to practice (or not practice) different religions — especially the imperial cult; just like Babylon. The only exception was Judaism, who got an exemption by agreeing to hold almost constant prayer in the temple for Caesar so they were a ‘religio licita’ — it seems there was some confusion earlier on (see Paul’s trial in Corinth) as to whether Christianity was a Jewish issue or not. But see the post on carrots and sticks for some bits from the letters between Pliny and Trajan, and the martyrdom of Polycarp. These are, I think, examples of the sort of government Paul is talking about in Romans 13, and arguing for religious freedom, at that point, is not the goal. Submitting because we’re eschatologically wired, is. Same in Revelation I think, and 1 Peter.

Since I disagree with you at this point there’s a domino effect through every one of the subsequent points.

Akos Balogh says:

Hi Nathan!

I agree with you that Romans 13 is important.

However, this is my understanding:

1) In Romans 13, Paul doesn’t just have the Roman government in mind, but all governments:

Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, *for there is no authority except that which God has established.* *The authorities that exist have been established by God.* [emphasis mine].

2) Thus, Paul is talking about God’s design for government, not necessarily the everyday reality. For example, Government is designed to do good (Rom 13:4). But the Roman government committed the greatest injustice imaginable: the crucifixion of the Messiah. Thus Paul is talking about God’s intention for government, not necessarily the everyday reality.

3) In light of the Messiah’s Kingship (Rom 1:4), and the fact that God is over all governments, it would seem strange that Paul doesn’t mention “coercing people to be Christian” as a God-given role of government, if it really was God’s design.

4) Therefore, “coercing people to be Christian” is not God’s role for human governments. This fits with Scripture elsewhere, e.g. 2 Cor 4:2.

5) God doesn’t want human governments to coerce people to be non-Christian either. This should be obvious, but it pops up in a few places. E.g.:

Acts 4:18-19 18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.

And Jesus:

Matthew 22:21 Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

(I.e. taxes and obedience to Caeser, worship to God).

6) If God doesn’t want human government to coerce people to be Christian, or non-Christian, then presumably he doesn’t want government to be in the religion business.

7) If he doesn’t want government to be in the religion business, then it is unjust for government to be in the religion business.

8) Should Christians care injustice?

I think so.

Nathan says:

Hi Akos,

1. I think this is a very interesting argument that requires Paul to be looking beyond all of his personal experience of Government and his known world, and into the future. I’m sure Romans 13 applies to how we engage with and view all governments, but I don’t think you can infer governments shaped by Christian principles, post-Constantine, back into Paul’s thinking.

I just don’t think that’s how the inspiration of Scripture works. I think he’s writing about the government of his day. And I don’t think the government of ours is all that different. I think his point is that ‘you might think these guys are super evil, but they’re actually appointed by God and your job is to love them and submit to them’

2. So I think Paul is talking about the every day reality; and what our role is in the face of worldly governments. It is never to grab the sword. It’s to follow the example of Israel in exile, and Jesus before pilate, and the New Testament and early church in Rome.

3. I’m really unsure what you’re saying here as I’ve never suggested governments should coerce people towards Christianity.

I’m actually super confused by the rest of your argument. I don’t know that God appointing a government is the same as God wanting the government to do a particular good thing. Like I think he appoints Pharaoh by hardening his heart, and I think he appoints Rome to execute the Messiah (the lamb slain before the creation of the world).

Governments have always coerced people to particular worldviews; and inasmuch as Israel’s OT kings were governments they were absolutely to do this. To set the religious agenda for people. I think it’s a particularly liberal western mindset that wants to think religion is an entirely individual thing that struggles with this idea. But conversion in the ANE started with the monarch, or the head of a family (like Namaan in the OT and Cornelius in the new).

I think Jesus is making a profoundly different claim on the Caesar front. You should give to Caesar what has his image on it, and to God what has his image on it (though this is splitting hairs because that is worship). I don’t think the point here is primarily about Caesar and politics and tax, but about God’s rightful ownership of our whole selves.

6) I just don’t agree with most of your syllogism. The only governments God has directly set up, via revelation, are theocracies — Israel, and the Church. Why would we not expect idolatrous human governments to have the same form even as God uses them (I note that Egypt was also a theocracy, with Pharaoh positioning himself as divine).

7) Again. I don’t think you’ve conclusively proved anything other than that God wants people to be governed by king Jesus, and that worldly governments are institutions he uses for particular purposes in human relationships. By God’s common grace they will occasionally be used for good, but as collective human agencies they will also be totally depraved, one way to mitigate this is for Christians to be involved in government, because God’s Spirit means we’re not totally depraved anymore but simul justus et peccator.

This proves nothing about what sort of alternative government arrangements (for non-Christians) he prefers, but rather that whatever government occurs occurs because God wills it and will use it according to his good purposes.

Akos Balogh says:

Thanks Nathan!

It’s been an interesting conversation, and I’ve enjoyed discussing our different viewpoints.

The big difference that stands out to me is how much of Scripture (particularly Romans 13) can be applied to government systems, i.e. does it tell us much about what God’s intentions for human governments are?

Thanks again,


Nathan says:

Hey Akos,

Yeah this is where I think we differ. It might help Christians think through how they govern, but I think it tells Christians how to respond to government, and think about the government, whether the government is Godly or the manifestation of the anti-Christ.