By the Reverend Doctor Clint Schnekloth. Dr. Schnekloth is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and is currently pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, AR. He is a graduate of Luther College, Luther Seminary and has his Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era.
When developing a vocabulary of culture and society, difficulties arise. It is the words themselves that often present particular trouble. Conceptual words, what Raymond Williams calls keywords in his book of the same name, are notoriously elusive. They have specialized meanings in particular areas of study. Their usage is variable in general discussions.
Williams wrote an entire book on keywords because he found that with such words the problems of the meaning of the words are “inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss” (Introduction). In other words, the words themselves are elements of the problem we are seeking to solve when we discuss that which the words are intended to signify.
I have been given the task of writing an essay on the understanding of religious liberty from a Lutheran perspective. With “religious liberty,” our troubles are twofold, for we have two words tethered, both of them endlessly complicated. One of them made it (sort of) into William’s keyword lexicon, elucidated in neighboring entries on liberal and liberation in his lexicon.
If we take Williams as at least somewhat authoritative, we learn that although liberty in general means freedom, the more specific use of the term historically has been that of formal permission or privilege. We “take” liberties. Other than this sense, liberty also has the sense of rights granted under the auspices of some sovereign. Our liberties are protected.
Williams offers another entry on liberation and notes that although historically liberation was understood as emancipation, being set free from bondage, the more contemporary sense of liberation includes a more active sense of winning self-determination. Our religious liberties are ours; we own our own freedom.
I will circle back around to this term, liberty, in a bit, offering a comparison to the word more appropriate to Christian and Lutheran theology, that of freedom. But for a moment, let’s continue with the other keyword. Williams offers no concise definition of religion, so we are left to our own devices. And we all know that the word “religion” is one of the most hotly contested words on the planet. Not only is there a global contest as to what counts as the “right” religion, but religious studies as a discipline is almost humorously incapable of defining the very term they study. I say “almost” because the academic guild, having the task of defining religion in a “sortal” way to cover a set of activities, way-of-being-in-the-world, tests the range of definitions and finds them lacking, but then continuing the quest. A scholar’s quest for a definition of religion aspires to objectivity and neutrality, which is a wholly different approach than the confessional one.
We can chase the word religion down a lot of paths. Some claim it has to do with organized forms of worship. Some argue it is about a shared sense of meaning. Others about a higher power. Others a set of beliefs. The problem with almost every definition offered for “religion” is the reality that some religion of a specific group or individual conflicts with the definition. Some religions don’t organize for worship. Other religions deny that a search for meaning is integral to their faith. Many religions do not posit a higher power or may be actively anti-creedal, rejecting a body of beliefs as definitive of their religion.
This being the case, we may need to offer a more tautological definition of religion: a religion is what is claimed as a religion. If it’s your religion, that’s a religion. I offer this definition, recognizing that this hands the definition of religion over to the participant, whereas there are some legitimate arguments to be made for the definition of religion remaining in the hands also of analysts of religion, even if their definitions always fall short of completely articulating the phenomenon of religion as we experience it.
So we can offer a somewhat concise definition of religious liberty: Religious liberty is the hard-won freedom and privilege to practice religion as we understand it, or as the religious analysts observe and continually articulate it.
Of course, this itself is hotly contested. Not all advocates for religious freedom successfully extend privileges to all religions, and oftentimes the claims of one religion in its liberty stands in incommensurable conflict to the religious claims of others. These are the sites in our culture of particular heat and pain. By and large, though, I would argue that a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty would, in its vocation to live with and through this world, share much in common with secular or standard understandings of the two terms, especially in our shared responsibility to protect religious liberty in as capacious a sense as possible. Which is to say, a working Lutheran definition of religious liberty would be to practice our faith in such a way that the religious liberties of others are safeguarded and even advanced as much as possible.
This brings us to the specifically Lutheran approach to the topic. Lutherans carry with them a rather famous essay of Martin Luther, “On Christian Liberty.” In this essay, Martin Luther offered a famous paradox:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.
This paradox benefits from a bit of unpacking. First of all, Luther is working in categories of freedom related to the things above as much as he is working in categories related to things from below. That is, towards God, because of the justification of the ungodly in Christ, Christians are completely free, no longer bound by their concern for salvation, and so subject to no one as regards their standing before God. If there is one mark of what it means to be Lutheran, it is likely this–we have been set free from having to earn, purchase, justify, or establish in any sense our standing before God. Christ has set us free from this. That is a form of religious liberty. This is the freedom Luther discovered reading the letters of Paul, particularly the letters to the Galatians and Romans.
So we are freed from justifying ourselves with God. We are realigned, new margins set, working our way down the page not free from any margins, but free for specific margins. We are justified for the neighbor, set at liberty, subjected to the neighbor and their need. The new direction of concern for the Christian set free from the law is the neighbor in love.
This bears repeating. We are set free, liberated, for our neighbor. In this sense, Christian liberty is not a license, or the liberty to do anything, but liberation, solidarity with the neighbor so free and deep as to completely pour the self out in neighbor love. This is why the greatest commandment, though a law, is itself a paradoxical law, because it looses by binding.
This is where the paradox lies. We can’t have the one without the other, even if they appear at first blush paradoxically incompatible. Freedom can’t be true freedom without love. Love can’t be love unless it is free.
As a result, we can offer two robust theses regarding a specifically Lutheran understanding of religious liberty.
First, religious liberty in the Lutheran sense will agree with the Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae, that “a human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all [human beings] are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to [their] own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” So Lutherans, as ecumenically oriented Christians open to and encouraging of shared commitments concerning religious liberty, agree with the Roman Catholic communion that part of the recognition of human dignity includes protection from religious coercion.
Lutherans would take this commitment one step further. It is a step that is implied in much of Dignitatis Humanae, if not expressly conveyed. Lutherans have a habit, grounded in their Small Catechism, of articulating an interpretation of God’s commandments not simply in the negative, but also in the affirmative. For example, Luther’s explanation of the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” reads–We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in their body, but help and befriend them in every bodily need.
If we take this same interpretive stance as regards religious liberty, Lutherans might say, a human person should be not simply immune from coercion, but also encouraged and supported in their religious practice. Not only are we committed to protecting the free exercise of religion, we are also committed as Lutherans to ensuring that all humans can practice their religion in as lively and life-giving a manner as possible. This might take many forms in many places, but at the very least, beyond ensuring that Muslims can build mosques and nobody at the university has to pray to a God they don’t believe in, Lutherans are committed to providing the resources and space, the conversation and neighborliness, that can make the religious liberty of their neighbor, of any kind, as vitalized as possible.
Second, and somewhat like the first, the Lutheran will practice their own religious liberty in solidarity with the neighbor in their religious liberty. Lutherans have this tradition of interpretation sometimes called the bound conscience, which emphasizes our responsibility to recognize when the neighbor, the other, has to stand in a place where they can “do no other,” as Luther apocryphally stated. This is to say sometimes we discover a moment, a place, where our neighbor’s faith is particularly imperiled. I am mindful, for example, of the recent tensions between Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College. Here, in this moment, a Lutheran who wishes to protect religious freedom will strive to understand and support the religious practices of these neighbors in faith.
In this particular example, Lutherans might say, “Well, Larycia Hawkins is practicing her faith, which includes her Advent discipline of embodied spirituality, the wearing of the hijab, and Wheaton College is practicing its religious freedom, the freedom to operate a Christian college with a specific statement of belief expected of all faculty.” Lutherans would likely also recognize, and be particularly sympathetic to, Professor Hawkins’s Advent discipline because it illustrates the kind of life-giving solidarity our peculiar understanding of religious freedom entails.
Where things would get complicated would be in the adjudication of the contesting claims for religious freedom between the college and Professor Hawkins. It would appear that one way or the other, somebody’s religious freedom is going to be curtailed. This is probably why Dignitatis Humanae includes that little final phrase in the quote above, “Within due limits.” There are due limits, in this life anyway, to the completely liberated practice of anyone’s or any group’s religion.
This is, specifically, the problematizing of the possible positivism I am working against by way of an articulation of the Lutheran paradox of Christian freedom. Personally, I do stand with and support Professor Hawkins and believe Wheaton College is constricting her religious liberty precisely because it has the white privilege and power to do so. The fact that she is a black woman speaking out for solidarity with Muslims puts her in the position in need of protection. Yet this needs to be problematized inasmuch as it is not always clear who gets to decide who is marginalized in a given situation. That being said, problematizing such positivism likely always carrying with it the inherent risk of benefitting whoever happens to hold the position of power, and thus indirectly curtailing rather than protecting religious liberty.
Take time, if you would, to read Professor Hawkins’s own case for herself against Wheaton College.
In the case of such contested claims, a Lutheran understanding of religious liberty will err on the side of the liberty most in need of protecting. That is, solidarity will be with the marginalized, the vulnerable, the one most at risk in the structures of power that are at play. This is implicit in the paradox itself, the emphasis on taking the form of the servant for the neighbor in need. Lutherans seeking religious freedom for the neighbor will not join the group enforcing systems that obstruct religious liberty, even if those groups perceive their enforcement as itself an act of religious liberty. Lutherans will stand in solidarity with the weakest and most vulnerable. They will be servants with the servants, slaves with the slaves. Returning to Williams and his definition of liberty, it is much more than simple emancipation – it is winning self-determination.
The peculiar form of Lutheran religious liberty is a sense that no self-determination need be won on the God side of the equation, so, having already had the self-determination won for us through the suffering love of Christ, the Lutheran (and all Christians who share this perspective) is now free to join the fight for self-determination for those most in need of it. This is precisely what love looks like, in community, as it pertains to religious freedom.