The Unique Contribution of Adventists to Religious Freedom

The Unique Contribution of Adventists to Religious Freedom

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Published:
August 16, 2021

The new editor of Liberty, Bettina Krause, shares her goals and plans for the magazine, her ideas about why the Adventist voice should be loud and effective in the public discourse, and a reminder of the fundamental reason behind the importance of religious freedom. 

Question: Congratulations on your election in April as editor of the North American Division's Liberty magazine. You are leaving your job as Director of Government Affairs for the General Conference to join the North American Division. What excites you about your new job?

Answer: Someone asked me the other day, “Are you sure you really want this job? Is this really a great time to be editing a magazine about religious liberty?” 

And he’s absolutely right! There’s been a seismic shift in the past decade or more in the way religious freedom is understood and portrayed in America. 

When I first worked in Washington more than 20 years ago, religious groups would sit at the same table as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and American United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Humanist Association, and collaborate on shared legislative goals. In fact, both Republicans and Democrats found a sense of relief in focusing on religious freedom as a unifying issue. That kind of bipartisanship is unthinkable today. 

But in a way, that makes our contribution as Adventists particularly relevant and needed. I believe we have something unique to bring to the current public discourse around religious freedom and church-state relations—and having the potential to do that is what really excites me about this new job. 

How would you like to impact, or shift, the way that the idea of religious liberty is seen by people in the US? 

I think many of us have lost sight of the “why” of religious freedom. And given the toxic and politically charged rhetoric in social media and mainstream media around some of the current religious freedom issues, it’s not hard to understand why it’s so easy for us to lose perspective. 

One of my favorite texts is Psalm 139 where the Psalmist is describing the intimate connection he has with his Creator. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” Then a few verses on we get an insight into why this connection exists. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

This is a description of human origins that undergirds a reality about who we really are, as human beings. The fact that the God of the Universe said at the beginning of earth’s history, “Let us make man in our image”—this points to the stamp of the divine in every person, no matter how smudged or damaged by sin that stamp becomes. And then when we look to the New Testament accounts of how Christ interacted with humans—this premise of innate dignity is not only borne out, but amplified.

Now, clearly that’s not an explanation that will work for those who don’t subscribe to Judeo-Christian beliefs, but there’s a core principle there that I would think would have a profound impact on how religious freedom is discussed and understood, and one which is not alien to the current religious freedom discourse within the international community. And that is respect for the dignity and worth and freedom of every human being—or, in our understanding, of every child of God. That is the “why” of religious freedom.  

What goals do you have for Liberty magazine? How will you adjust the focus of the magazine?

Lincoln Steed was at the helm of Liberty magazine for some 22 years, steering the magazine through many challenges, and I’d like to build on that. I’d like to continue increasing the credibility and visibility of Liberty, diversifying the line-up of authors, and bringing in more voices of advocates and writers who are well-known and respected within the religious freedom community. I think it’s important to guard against the conversation lapsing into just “talking to ourselves.” We need to be deliberate in engaging with the public discourse and then bringing our distinctive Adventist voice to those conversations. 

Other areas I’d like to bolster are regular interviews, book reviews, and human-interest features, which really serve to put a face on issues that can sometimes seem abstract. I just did an interview, for instance, with a teenage Muslim runner in Ohio who was disqualified for wearing a hijab while racing. I also interviewed the Ohio state senator who’s advancing legislation to remedy discrimination against athletes wearing religious apparel.   

I think we sometimes fail to appreciate just how much we have to contribute to this conversation. The idea that religious liberty is in the DNA of Adventism has become somewhat of a cliché. But it’s true, and we sometimes don’t fully realize just how rich and deep our heritage is in this area. I want this to shine through the pages of the magazine. 

This is a difficult time for media, but a crucial time for politics. Who reads Liberty? How is it distributed? What is the online presence like? Do you have ideas about increasing readership and expanding reach? 

Liberty currently maintains a consistent subscription base of approximately 185,000, and many of those are sponsored subscriptions, which go to local, state, and national public officials, lawmakers, members of the judiciary, academic leaders, and others. Other subscribers are individual Adventist Church members who have an interest in religious liberty issues. Each issue, as well as a 25-year archive of past issues, is available on our website: www.libertymagazine.org

The magazine has relatively long lead times at present, and so it’s less of a news or current events magazine, and more focused on in-depth analysis, book reviews, opinion pieces, and so on. We’ll be working in the coming months and years to develop our website and social media presence in a way that makes Liberty more responsive to current events—that’s one item at the top of my to-do list. 

Please, if you would, give us a very extremely brief crash course description on where the Seventh-day Adventist Church falls on the subject of religious liberty and separation of church and state, and how it might differ (or be the same) from other denominations in North America.

I’ve been working through the archives of Liberty magazine, starting with the first issue in 1906, and it really makes for fascinating reading. From the beginning, we’ve maintained a clear, consistent, and unique understanding of church-state relationships, and this—along with our well-defined understanding of how religious liberty fits with end-time prophecy—is really what has set us apart from others. In every issue of the magazine, for many decades, we’ve published a declaration of principles that begins: “The God-given right of religious liberty is best exercised when church and state are separate.” 

Now, people can legitimately debate the finer nuances of what this really means in practice. And that’s okay. But apart from a very few other organizations—such as the Baptist Joint Committee—we are unique in our insistence on both a robust protection for religious free exercise and a robust separation of church and state. Ellen White was foremost in shaping this view. She recognized the practical implications within the political space of divinely given free will, and this has allowed our church to walk this sometimes-tricky middle way. We don’t seek to impose religious beliefs through political means—full stop. That kind of coercion runs counter to the heart of our faith and inevitably undermines the rights of religious minorities. We do, however, seek to preserve the God-given right to live, practice our faith, and witness freely accordingly to our deeply held convictions. I fully recognize that that raises a whole raft of related challenges and questions—but that’s an ongoing dialogue, a calibration, that we must continually engage with. 

What do you think will be your biggest challenges as editor of Liberty and associate director for Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the NAD? 

Our church membership in North America is exceptionally diverse. Some data came out a few years back from the Pew Forum comparing diversity between different religious denominations, and it’s not surprising that the data confirmed Adventism in North America as the most diverse faith group. We span the demographic spectrum, and within our membership there’s vastly different perspectives on often contentious issues of politics and public policy. Although Liberty magazine is outward facing—in the sense that we’re speaking directly to non-Adventist thought leaders, public officials, and lawmakers—church members are also a vitally important part of our audience. So, it’s vital to do all we can to make sure that we’re not perceived as putting our thumbs on the political scale, one way or another. Our reference is always to our faith-driven principles, not current politics. 

You have many years of experience working on government affairs for the Adventist Church, as well as in news and media, which seems to prepare you perfectly for this role. Is there any specific job you did that you think will help you more than any other in your new role?

I’ve been tremendously blessed to be involved both internally in the life of the Adventist Church internationally and in various public-facing roles. I think those two things have been helpful in preparing me.

Some time ago, you were a special assistant to General Conference President Jan Paulsen. What did you work on in the president's office? What insights did you gain by working at the very top?

Initially, I worked as a liaison with the world church divisions on a number of global initiatives, such as the Sow 1 Billion evangelistic effort back in the early 2000s. Later, I focused more on various communication projects for the Office of the President—both video and print. 

What I gained, I think, was a deeper sense of belonging to a worldwide family. We have an incredibly diverse international church—a kaleidoscope of nationalities, cultural backgrounds, and so on—but we come together around a shared purpose and shared faith. Imperfectly at times, but still together. And that has to be due to something beyond human efforts. I’ve sometimes been asked if working for church means becoming jaded. I’m not generally Pollyanna-ish by nature, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. Yes, we’re all still this side of the kingdom, and we’re going to see evidence of that. But I’ve seen and experienced—far more often—palpable evidence of what the Spirit is doing through us, in spite of us.

I believe you have a lot of experience mediating discussions—I understand you hosted a roundtable discussion about politics and current events for The Hope Channel at one time. What was that like?

Hosting “Intersection” was a wonderful experience. Jennifer Stymiest, who is with the General Conference Communication Department, played a key role in that. We produced almost 100 episodes that were intended to address issues of where faith meets real life. This was the mandate that Elder Paulsen gave us—he wanted a program that would bring faith into the practical, everyday realm. It was a tremendous opportunity to tap the brains of key Adventist thinkers and leaders—for me, that was the best part.  

How do you feel your personal politics impact your job?

Well, I have to say that when it comes to political perspectives, I’ve undergone a conversion experience through the years. As a younger person I held certain dogmatic points view. Since then, and with experience working in Washington, I’ve not become cynical—because I’ve seen plenty of genuine intent within the political process—but I suppose I’ve become much, much more wary. Frankly, there’s no “political home” that aligns perfectly with my values and my faith. 

The partisan political process itself also tends to exact a heavy toll on integrity. I have seen, time and again, a reflexive “team spirit” kick in. Once we’ve identified our political team—our tribe—we’re in danger of supporting that team, come what may. It’s actually a reflex borne out in a number of psycho-sociological studies—people will vote against their own interests, or even their own beliefs and values, in order to support the “team.”   

I often fall back on the question: Does your faith shape your politics or does your politics shape your faith? It’s a deceptively simple idea but has deep implications if you’re really prepared to take it on board. I think I can go out on a limb and say that it’s almost impossible for a person of faith to find a consistently comfortable home within partisan politics. Yes, we have to discharge our civic duties within the current political framework—and we may even take on more active roles in the political process in various ways—but I think we buy into partisanship at our own peril.  

So, I guess that was a long way of saying that I hope—and will certainly strive—to engage with public policy issues with a constant reference back to core Adventist principles of religious freedom and church-state understanding—certainly not personal political views. Readers will hopefully see that come through.

Did your old job focus much more internationally than your new job will, where you will mainly be focusing on the US? 

Yes, in my most recent job I served the world church divisions, of which the North American Division was just one of 13. That said, I also did work closely on some issues with the NAD Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department—the director, Orlan Johnson, and associate director, Melissa Reid. I couldn’t be more delighted to have joined their team full time! 

You are from Australia, although you have lived for many years in the US. Do you think your outside perspective gives you an advantage as you look at American politics and government, or do you sometimes feel it is a disadvantage?

It’s a fair question, but if anything, I see it as an advantage. Maybe being familiar with other political and legal systems makes it easier to find different ways of looking at things? 

I really enjoyed the interview I did some years ago with your husband, Gary Krause, director of Adventist Mission. The two of you must have some really interesting discussions! Would you say that you and Gary share the same worldview? Do you disagree about politics?

Thankfully, our fundamental political worldviews are very much in line! But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of interesting debates on specific issues. I have to say, when I’m mulling something over, talking with Gary is the best way I know get more clarity. I won’t say that he’s good at arguing, but I do think he would have made an excellent lawyer. 

You have worked with a really interesting number of Adventists in your career. Are there any particular people you could point to who really inspired you or helped you get to where you are now? 

In different ways, each one of my past supervisors has played a part in challenging and developing my thinking—Nick Miller (who I worked with when he was executive director of the Council on Religious Freedom), Ray Dabrowski (former communication director of the world church), John Graz (former GC PARL director) and Ganoune Diop (current GC PARL director) and I’m in debt to each one of them. I need to add to that list Chris Blake, who is a dear friend and relentless provoker of challenging ideas. 

I worked the longest for former GC president Dr. Jan Paulsen. He and his wife, Kari—who has sadly passed away—have had a tremendous impact on my thinking and spiritual growth. They both truly modeled, often in challenging circumstances, what it means to be a gracious follower of Christ.   

When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had a friend whose father was a medical scientist and I thought wearing a white lab coat and peering into a microscope would be an interesting way to spend my days. But a brutal run-in with physics class in high school made me realize that science is definitely not my forte. I think I ended up at law school because there wasn’t anything else I passionately wanted to do. In hindsight, I’m glad I took the route I did. Although practicing law has never held much appeal for me, I enjoy the knotty challenges of legal theory and philosophy. 

What do you think the Adventist Church could do better as it spreads its message about the importance of religious liberty? Who should we be focusing on? Do you think we should fight to have a louder voice and have a greater impact? What is our mission, really, in this area? Does too much focus on government and politics put church and state closer together than they ought to be? Or is it our job to get involved and speak up for what we believe? Where is the balance?

It really depends on what you mean by “having a louder voice and a greater impact.” I was reading an article yesterday focused on the distinction between fighting for religious freedom versus fighting for political power. The author asked: “Was there more or less religious freedom in the US 100 years ago?” The answer, by almost any measure, of course, is that there was far less religious freedom protection than we enjoy today. Case in point—the plethora of anti-Catholic state constitutional amendments that were being passed at that time. 

Yet if we ask, “Did the Protestant majority in the US enjoy greater political power 100 years ago,” then the answer is yes! Look no further than the success of temperance laws and a raft of state-level Sunday laws, and the almost-success of national Sunday laws. 

So, I believe we do need a louder voice and a greater impact on these issues—but not for the sake of shoring up “Christian power” within American politics. Far from it! I would hope—and I believe all my editorial predecessors would agree—that we should be working to make our voice loud and effective. But it should be for the purpose of highlighting abuses and discrimination against religious minorities, both here and internationally, and for sake of advancing the idea that the best protection for religious freedom—for everyone—is when church and state are separate.

 

Bettina Krause is editor of Liberty magazine and associate director for Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the North American Division. Previously she served as associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, representing the Adventist Church on Capitol Hill, at the White House, and among Washington’s diplomatic corps. She holds a law degree with first class honors from Macquarie University, Australia. Previous positions include legislative liaison for the Council on Religious Freedom; director of Adventist News Network; media relations director for the General Conference Communication Department; and, host of the Hope Channel television program, Intersection: Your Faith, Your World. Bettina also served for nine years as special assistant to Jan Paulsen, president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, with responsibility for protocol, media, and communication.

 

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.

Photo courtesy of Bettina Krause.

 

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