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The Spurious Notion of ‘Religious Liberty’


Many Adventists have taken the comments from Pope Francis regarding the need to prioritize humanity over economy, along with recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, as an opportunity to tout the importance of “religious liberty.” We want to make sure that no one is going to bother us for keeping the Sabbath. The issue is that by framing the problem of the church and state as a matter of religious liberty we implicitly adopt a secular narrative that insists on the domestication of faith.

 “Religious liberty” is nothing more than the recognition by the secular state that you are allowed to say, do, or believe whatever you like, as long as the state is indifferent towards it. Anyone who thinks that the notion of religious liberty is actually an anchor for freedom of conscience is sorely deluded.

It’s time for both conservative and progressive Adventists to recognize the inanity of the fight for religious liberty.

Today’s so-called secular state imposes worship on its citizens just as much as Nebuchadnezzar with his image of gold. Only our god is Mammon. The state has no interest in forbidding you from performing whatever rituals you like, so long as they do not interfere with the national cult of capital.

The pursuit of “religious liberty,” therefore, amounts to the three Hebrews requesting permission to pray to Yahweh, without refusing to bow to the golden image.

And that’s because the modern concept of “religion” is intentionally amorphous and a tool in the hands of the modern state.

 The English word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, which originally referred to a reverential obligation. It was not until after the Protestant Reformation, as Christians scrambled to delineate what was true Christian religion (i.e., piety), that religion came to be used in the plural. Lutheranism, Catholicism, and so on, came to be known as different “religions.”

As the Western powers exported this distinction between the religious and the secular through colonial expansion, it proved especially useful. Asians, Africans, and Native Americans could be allowed (in some cases) to continue practicing cultural customs, but only to the extent that they did not interfere with Western interests in social organization and market forces. Native cultural resources that could be used to oppose Western interests were undercut. They were domesticated and privatized by being designated as “religious.”

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. Those who continue to fight for “religious liberty” are only validating the domestication of their own faith. “Religious liberty,” today, means nothing more than the allowance of whatever does not contradict the values and interests of nationalism, capitalism, and liberal democracy. Your “religion” is only protected if it is properly liberalized and can fit neatly into the ideological project of the state.

What does this mean for Adventism, practically? It means we ought to stop entertaining ourselves in the sideshow spectacle of the defense of “religious liberty.” To fight on the terms given to us by the liberal state is only a vindication of the secular project that relativizes and domesticates piety.

Adventist paranoia regarding an impending Sunday law is a self-congratulatory joke that convinces the average churchgoer that by simply showing up to church that they are being activists in the Great Controversy.

If there is any truth to the possibility that the United States will target and persecute Seventh-day Adventists for their Sabbath keeping it will be because Adventists have abandoned the privatized and individualist form of piety that the secular state has thrust upon them.

On the other hand, if Sabbath keeping were about a program of economic justice that upsets the plutocratic regime, then Sabbath keepers might actually be resisted by the United States government, that apocalyptic beast. Until then, our pleading with the state, to let us practice our “religion” unperturbed, will never send us into the fiery furnace, where the Son of God is. 

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