The gospel is good – not just for people individually, but for the whole of society. And the gospel is historically synonymous with freedom. You may have noticed that in the countries around the world where the gospel of Jesus is valued, there are many freedoms. Where it is not valued, there are few freedoms.
This is because the gospel not only requires freedoms, it demands them, sustains them, and extends them.
‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free’ (Gal 5:1).
Think about it. At the heart of the gospel is the freedom to accept Christ – to convert. This is the irreducible core of religious freedom itself. Without it, freedom of religion and belief isn’t possible.
And without freedom of religion, other freedoms such as freedom of conscience, speech, movement and assembly are incomplete. They just don’t make sense.
This is why the journalist Rupert Shortt could state that “religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally”. If it starts to die, so does everything else.
Today, in the UK and across the West, secular elites either ignore this inconvenient truth or wilfully deny it. The result is what Os Guinness describes as a ‘cut-flower culture’ – a public culture that, may look fine on the surface – like pretty flowers in a vase – but is in reality disconnected from its life-giving root system, meaning it is in fact dying.
To push the metaphor further, the collapse of institutions, whether banks, the media, or politics, and the withering of trust and a collective sense of the common good, represent a yellowing and falling of petals. Because our society wants the fruits of the gospel, but not the roots, we are experiencing a loss of virtue in public life. The philosopher Edmond Burke once observed that: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”.
Today, we think we can have unlimited freedom and choice without any self-restraint. So, in the media, politics, the economy and so on, ethics may be mentioned, but in reality principles are increasingly eclipsed by utility and consensus – by what I need, and what I want.
Added to this, sexualism (the idea that sexual identity and gratification is paramount) and secularism (the idea that religion has no place in society) have converged, fuelling a new intolerant, illiberal liberalism.
This context holds real challenges for Christians in terms of proclaiming the gospel, living the gospel and transmitting gospel values to the next generation. So how do we respond? It is clear that we can neither stay quiet and acquiesce to the culture, nor become hardened and aggressive.
Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that Christians can seem to be hard-hearted and soft-minded, whereas what’s needed is a tough mind and a tender heart. We need to realise that these are not incompatible. And we should remember Nehemiah’s words:
“Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14)
We need to have the confidence to promote a plural public square, which allows space for different faiths but doesn’t try and condense them to a single thing called ‘faith’. The freedom at the heart of the gospel is what gives Christians the basis to fight for this wider justice, and not just fight for ourselves.
This in turn means that rather than assuming that our freedoms are set in concrete, all Christians now have a responsibility to take an active interest in religious liberty issues. Let’s take time to develop a biblical view of the world, cultivate new ways of expressing old truths, and become a little bit subversive and even mischievous. Then we will be able to take the opportunity to expose the reality that secularism is not in fact neutral, and also suggest practical, reasonable, biblical alternatives. This is what it means to provide public leadership.
The Church in the UK is showing exciting signs of life, and as we get serious about serving and leading in our society, God will inspire and empower us. And despite the context, we should all be encouraged by G.K. Chesterton’s words: “At least five times the Christian faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died”.
So don’t forget: Jesus is, quite literally, the hope of the nations; and the joy of the Lord is, quite literally, our strength.