A one-minute-and-forty-seven-second clip of influential pastor John MacArthur speaking about religious liberty began circulating on social media Monday. Some critics claimed it proved the longtime teacher of the Grace To You radio ministry doesn’t believe the U.S. should protect religious freedom. Others insisted his words meant he advocates for fascism, state religion, and forced conversions.
The clip gained traction after being posted to a Twitter account belonging to Matthew Sheffield, a self-described “former right-wing activist” now working to amplify “voices against fascism.” It was taken from a sermon immediately after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. MacArthur shares that he wasn’t impressed by an evangelical publicist who assured him the new administration would uphold religious freedom.
“I don’t even support religious freedom,” MacArthur says in the video. “Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry. It’s to say I support lies. I support hell. I support the kingdom of darkness.”
MacArthur then appears to take aim at the political lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest protestant denomination in the nation.
Under the previous head, Russell Moore, the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed an amicus brief in favor of a Muslim community’s effort to build a mosque, with the rationale that supporting religious freedom broadly helps protect liberty for Christians. Moore also vocally defended devoting SBC resources to supporting the rights of Muslims at the denomination’s annual convention in 2016.
MacArthur seemed to contrast his church with Moore’s approach, saying it has no plans to lobby the government. “We’re not going to lobby for freedom of religion. What kind of nonsense is that? We are in the world to expose all those lies as lies,” he said.
Dozens of political and religious pundits reposted the video to their large social media platforms. Political commentator David French tweeted the clip out to his more than 266,000 followers, calling it “disturbing.” He added in a second post, “There’s an astonishing arrogance in [MacArthur’s] statements and an astonishing lack of respect for dissent from his version of the truth.”
Economist editor Jon Fasman said, “What does he support instead of religious freedom? Forced conversions? The banning and criminalisation of any faith other than his?”
This interpretation was echoed by fellow Christians like Brooke Medina, vice-president of communications for the John Locke Foundation. Medina, who also sat on the 2021 SBC resolutions committee, felt MacArthur’s comments implied he supports government establishing a national religion.
“You know what saying you don’t support religious freedom actually means … It means you think so little of the kindness of God, which leads us to repentance, that you would prefer the force of the State,” she said in one post, later adding, “It also means you prefer outward conformity over inward heart change. History is littered with bloody, heinous examples of powerful people who used their opposition of religious freedom to imprison and kill their detractors.”
(*Note: After this article was published, Medina reached out to The Daily Wire to say she does not believe her remarks suggest she thinks MacArthur wants a state religion.)
Numerous other SBC leaders, including Southwestern Seminary president Adam Greenway, Christianity Today editor Ed Stetzer, and high-profile Southeastern Seminary professor Karen Swallow Prior tweeted and retweeted statements about religious freedom that appeared intended to criticize MacArthur.
It turned out, however, that along with misrepresenting the context of a more than hour-long sermon, the brief clip itself was edited to remove a middle portion that would have further clarified MacArthur’s remarks.
In the full, unedited clip, after MacArthur says, “If the new administration supports religious freedom, get ready; persecution will be ramped up because the more supportive they are of the devil’s lies, the less they’re going to tolerate the truth of Scripture,” he adds this:
We condemn every lie, and we call every person to this: there’s one true God, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You’ll have no other gods before Me.” Right? There’s salvation in one name and one name only: that’s Jesus Christ.
This, along with the rest of the sermon, suggests that MacArthur was speaking about who the church should look to for protection — not earthly powers, but God. Grace to You executive director, Phil Johnson, confirmed that this was part of MacArthur’s intent.
“MacArthur is certainly not advocating the theonomic notion that Christians today should commandeer governments in order to force Christianity on the world,” Johnson told The Daily Wire. Referring to Matthew 20:25-27 and Revelation 2:27, he further clarified the intent of the clip:
Because Christ is perfectly righteous, He has the right and the authority to rule the whole world without tolerating the kind of spiritual free-for-all that people today call “religious freedom.” But because human governments are run by fallen people who tend to misuse power, we do not believe Caesar should have authority over people’s consciences when it comes to the question of whom and how they worship.
The Daily Wire reached out to French to ask if he was aware that the clip was edited when he circulated it but did not receive a response. Stetzer and Medina also did not respond by the time of publication.
Greenway offered a statement through a seminary spokesperson, saying only that he shared an excerpt of the Southern Baptist confession of faith about religious liberty because he noticed so many discussions about it and wanted to remind his fellow Baptists about the importance of religious liberty.
He declined to comment on the people who appeared to take his post as a direct rebuke of the edited MacArthur clip.
While many big-name commentators may have been quick to attack MacArthur, there was one who came to his defense.
Conservative radio host Erick Erickson said that when he listened to the clip in full and in context, he agreed with it. “He was not talking about the ability of different faiths to worship in a multi-ethnic country of different faiths,” Erickson said. “He was talking about Christians believing Christianity is true and all other religions are false and don’t really give you freedom.”
Erickson went on to point out that secular governments often persecute Christians while claiming they support religious freedom. “Obama was big into ‘religious freedom’ while he was suing nuns,” he pointed out. “That’s just true and that is what MacArthur was talking about — the ‘religious freedom’ platitude masks the persecutor of Christ’s church. He’s right on that.”
A previous version of this article inaccurately said that Brooke Medina declined to respond by the time of publication. It should have said that she did not respond by publication time.