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By John Pierce

Words get redefined continually. Sometimes pejorative meanings simply evolve.

For example, the English word “awful” once meant “full of awe,” or “awesome.” It was even used to describe God. Today it means something quite different: “bad, really bad.”

At other times particular terms are captured and redefined in exclusive ways for intended political purposes. This is a favored practice of religious/political fundamentalists.

They claim exclusive rights to the word “conservative,” for example. Disagree at any one minor point and you get deemed not conservative (or worse).

They’ve grabbed other words as well — such as “evangelical” and “patriot” and “Bible-believing” and even “Christian” — and narrowly defined and abused them to the point of negative connotations.

This approach works by repeatedly associating a generally positive term with an exclusive, narrow viewpoint. Then, of course, exclusion is the modus operandi of religious/political fundamentalism.

So why not capture more good terms and misuse them to advance the ongoing efforts of exclusivity? That’s what is being done with the latest semantic grab: “religious liberty.”

The irony is staggering. These are the intolerant, often theocratic forces that stand in opposition to full religious liberty — a firm foundation of the American experience.

Through political maneuvers  — and pseudo-American history that portrays the nation’s founders as like-minded evangelicals — they seek governmental blessing and preference for their particular religious/political beliefs and practices to the exclusion of others.

In fact, they are often among the greatest obstacles to ensuring full religious liberty — an essential element of American life for more than two centuries.

So watch out for those now proposing intentionally mislabeled “religious liberty” bills to accomplish their exclusive political goals.

Strip the masking tape labels from such proposed legislation and one can see that these causes are not religious liberty for all — but attempts at gaining legal footing for discrimination by “conservative Christians.”

Religious liberty is already guaranteed constitutionally. To misuse the term to raise false fears of “Christian persecution” (another term they have abused) and to justify discrimination (the antithesis of freedom) is actually a threat to “liberty and justice for all.”

So I’m not buying it. And there is a simple way to test whether the term “religious liberty” is being used properly or to mislead.

Just take a close enough look to see if the concern being raised is about one’s own so-called “rights” — or about the rights of truly suffering minorities without the power to defend themselves.

Then you will get a good idea.

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.