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19 February 2015

Live as people who are free

Live as people who are free

Thomas Jefferson; founding father, principle author of the Declaration of Independence and past President of the 'free world' said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance".

Two hundred odd years later and it would seem that evangelical Christians in the UK agree. The Alliance's survey Faith in politics? has found that the issue of most importance to evangelicals when considering their vote is religious liberty and freedom of expression. Seventy one percent of participants said that policies which ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression were important to them and would shape their vote.

In many ways this is no great surprise. The redemptive Christian narrative is all about freedom – a movement away from the bondage of sin and death to freedom and life. Religious liberty and freedom of expression are pre-requisites to almost every other freedom and common grace we enjoy in society. In response to increasing concern about the protection of religious liberty worldwide, the Evangelical Alliance along with Open Doors, Release International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have come together to form the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC). The RLC exists to unify the Church in voice in support of the persecuted Church and is calling on the UK government to intervene to end religious cleansing and violent persecution. Speaking at the recent RLC launch the Archbishop of Canterbury said:

"That quiet creeping removal of freedom that creates a climate of fear and animosity is why we must speak out. We must speak out in solidarity. Silence is not an option. Treasuring the dignity of each and every human must mean that we treasure their right to religious belief – even when we profoundly disagree with them."

Nationally we are thankful that religious liberty is protected in principle, though in practice there is a distinct feeling that religious freedoms are being coerced into smaller margins. Christians in the UK are not being persecuted but they should, to use the word again, remain vigilant.

Religious liberty, freedom of expression and conscience are crucial to the experience and history of Christians, especially evangelicals. Martin Luther, another father figure, this time of the Reformation said:

"I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen."

There is a timely example of the importance of religious liberty, expression and conscience in Northern Ireland at the moment.The DUP MLA, Paul Givan is currently consulting on his Northern Ireland Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill. It is a private member's bill seeking to open up the debate on the issues of religious belief, conscience, commerce and sexual orientation. With reference to the Ashers Bakery case in the first line of the consultation, the Bill attempts to address "the fact that some equality legislation, passed with the intention of protecting minorities, is having an adverse effect on those with religious belief when it comes to the provision of goods and services". The Bill also specifically seeks to change the law to allow a religious adoption or fostering agency the freedom to refuse to place a child with a same-sex couple.

The consultation has touched a nerve around the deeper issues of how society balances competing rights under human rights and equality law. It has been welcomed by many who feel that people of faith are being expected to compromise their beliefs and conscience when they engage in business, work or the wider public square. The Bill has also been met with fierce opposition from the LGBT lobby and caution from many others who believe the wording, as drafted at present, could permit unfair discrimination based on sexual orientation. Here's the consultation and details of how you can respond – we will also have a briefing on our Northern Ireland webpage by the end of the week.

These are complex and abstract issues – freedom, expression, conscience, belief – yet if the boundaries are not in the right places there can be very practical consequences for real people in employment and the ability to access goods and services. More widely these interfaces between religious freedoms and others, if not mediated wisely, can be detrimental to good relationships and the witness of the Gospel itself.

One thing is clear – these difficult and uncomfortable conversations must take place. They are vital to democracy, freedom and a flourishing public square. Closing down debate through name-calling or spinning, by scare-mongering, smearing or electioneering is detrimental to everyone. In the weeks ahead leading up to the general election, and in the year ahead leading up to the NI Assembly election, can the Church create spaces for difficult public conversations? Hosting a hustings is one way to do this and the Evangelical Alliance is encouraging churches across the UK to take on this challenge. Locally in Northern Ireland we are planning a few hustings (details to follow) and would love to help more churches across the constituencies do likewise, so please get in touch via email at d.smyth@eauk.org.

I've quoted Jefferson and Luther as founding fathers. Let me end by quoting a bible text, words breathed and inspired by the founding father of everything, 'Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God' (1 Peter 2:16).