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America's Soul: The Battle for Religious Freedom

While Seventh-day Adventists are busy debating who gets baptized, who gets ordained, who gets to speak at meetings, and who gets to teach in our colleges, the rest of Christianity battles for the very soul of America. The courts and the legislatures at every township, city, state, and federal level are passing laws and instituting regulations that in large manner will define how governmental authority impacts freedom and religious diversity. A plethora of judges are in the process of being approved to serve on federal benches and will impact religious freedom and diversity for years. The struggle between the right and the left, between liberal and conservative Christians, is heightened in a hotly contested political climate.

Governmental authority in matters of religious practice creates a thorny entanglement that has been a part of every civilization. What is the proper balance between religious and civil authority? Who gets to decide which religious freedoms are protected and which are not? The discussion that follows will draw attention to extreme ends of the political spectrum. Few people fit squarely into one camp or the other, but allow me to set the stage to help uncover the framework within which both sides generally operate.

Some conservative Christians believe it is their civic duty to call sin by its right name and exhaust every avenue to influence public policy. Under this view, a society that ignores the mandates laid out in Scripture would place itself on a pathway to destruction. I saw a church sign recently that read, "Life without Jesus is Hell." In Alabama, billboards greet us each day with the question, "Where will you spend Eternity? Heaven or Hell?" This mentality seems to include the idea that either we get busy and shape up our act, or we will all suffer the wrath of God.

Justice Roy Moore, now a leading candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, once suggested that the reason for the attack on the world trade towers on 9/11 was because America had drifted away from God. In the same speech, he indicated that the practice of abortion and sodomy were two issues that seemed to put God over the edge.

The late Jerry Falwell took it a little farther. While appearing as a guest on the 700 Club television show, he asserted that the U. S. suffered the 9/11 attacks because America had become a nation of "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the People For the American Way." Falwell later apologized, saying, "I would never blame any human being except the terrorists, and if I left that impression with gays or lesbians or anyone else, I apologize."

Under our system, the federal government takes responsibility for civil order, yet many conservative Christians long for the government to exercise authority to regulate matters of religious preferences. When the United States Supreme Court or a legislature disagrees with traditional conservative teachings, there is an immediate outcry from a lot of Christian conservatives to warn the nation of God's displeasure. Conservative politicians repeat the message that the United States is a Christian nation. This claim lacks any real substance in fact and is disputed by the framers of the constitution. Every single reference to religion in America's founding document is couched in negative language.

Mark Edwards, a professor of U.S. history and politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, makes the following observation:

If the founders had not made their stance on this "Christian nation" issue clear enough in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, they certainly did in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Begun by George Washington, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution, this treaty announced firmly and flatly to the world that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Instead of establishing Christianity as a state religion, the architects of the constitution went to great lengths to ensure that no state religion could ever be established. They understood that religious conformity at the expense of freedom of conscience would be a danger that could culminate in the denial of civil rights for those who find themselves in the minority.

Conformity to a singular religious ideology seems to be a prevailing theme proffered by those intent on getting America back to God. Again, Justice Roy Moore seems to have settled on the idea that other religions have no place or protections under the first amendment of the United States Constitution. In responding to a question about Muslims and their practice of praying during the day,  Moore gave the following response: “False religions like Islam, who teach that you must worship this way, are completely opposite with what our First Amendment stands for.”

In times past, Christians preached the Gospel to persuade unbelievers to move toward the fold of truth. But in our current climate, some conservative Christians seem to lose patience. If America is unwilling to accept the plain, "Thus saith the Lord," then perhaps conformity can be achieved through legislation. Forcing religious compliance in a society committed to personal freedom is a daunting task. In this war for the soul of America, it seems, sadly, that Christian civility has become the first casualty. While claiming the name of Christ, liberals and conservatives alike sometimes resort to shaming, name calling, defamation, and all manner of insults.

Mahatma Gandhi gave a stinging rebuke to Christians who profess to follow the humble teacher from Nazareth and at the same time act in ways so unlike Jesus. Gandhi said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Christian liberals are in a word, liberal. By the very nature of that designation one might expect them to easily accept religious and political diversity. While this might be generally true, there is one major exception. Liberal Christians are completely intolerant of those who threaten their personal freedom. They resist a top down, authoritarian model that seeks to restrict their right to free expression. But there is one glaring difference in the way liberals defend their ideology. They have used the courts to secure certain freedoms for themselves but do not generally believe it is their obligation to force other citizens to comply with their preferences. For example, liberals never pushed for mandatory abortions or same sex marriages. A Christian conservative man has every right to say, "I don't care how expensive the ring might be, I will never consent to marry another man—." In the words of Nancy Reagan, conservatives have the right to, "Just say no."

There are Christians who believe it is an infringement on their religious liberty to provide services for those who practice alternate lifestyles. Should a business owner who believes exclusively in naturopathic medicine be allowed to restrict medical coverage for employees to only include natural remedies? Should an emergency room doctor have the right to deny life-saving treatments for a gay man? Personal religious freedom has never given Christians the right to enforce their beliefs on others.

Since both liberal and conservative Christians claim to represent Christ, let’s look at a couple of examples of how Jesus dealt with issues of governmental authority and personal freedom.

The Bible recounts the story of an adulterous woman who the religious leaders brought to Jesus. When the Pharisees walked away with their own sins exposed, Jesus turned to deal with this humiliated woman. Jesus concluded, "Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more" (John 8:11). Why did Jesus clearly say that He didn't condemn this woman? Most modern conservative Christians believe that adultery should be called by its right name. Why didn't Jesus inform this woman that her lawless conduct was ruining the nation? The second part of Christ's answer is even more surprising. He said, "Go, and sin no more." Allow me to focus on the first word of this sentence. He told the woman to, "Go." Jesus knew that this woman had God-given free choice. He dismissed her from His presence to live the life of her choosing. He directed her not to continue in a lifestyle that would bring harm to her, but He knew that He could not make that decision for her.

Even as Christ's final hours on this earth drew to a close, Jesus told His betrayer, Judas, "Whatever you do, do it quickly" (John 13:27). Christ could have stopped Judas from committing this treacherous act; instead, He gave Judas the freedom to make his own choice. Sometimes people might be tempted to say, "Save me from myself and my own poor choices," but in matters of worship and conscience, God always defers to the exercise of free will.

In many ways, Jesus lived in a social-political environment similar to our society today. The Roman rulers and governors took responsibility for civil order while the religious leaders would have certainly preferred a return to theocratic rule. It is worth noting that Jesus directed His strongest criticism toward the ultra-conservative, law-abiding, self-righteous religious leaders of His day. These religious teachers had no problem calling sin by its right name. They had no problem demanding conformity to their religious ideas. The most compelling argument to combat religious intolerance comes straight from Christ's own teaching and actions. Jesus rebuffed the top-down, authoritarian, conservative establishment. He gathered food on the Sabbath. He healed on the Sabbath. He mingled and ate with the outcasts of society. When it comes to personal freedom, liberal Christians seem to mirror the teachings and practice of Jesus more closely than their more conservative counterparts. As it turns out, freedom is a fragile, rare commodity that is easy to claim for ourselves, but often we are slow to extend that same freedom to people who live and think differently than we do.

Christ's constant mission was to gather His children to Himself. The dissension we see in Christianity is not consistent with the design put forward by the Architect of our salvation. All Christian believers should be marching in unison under the blood-stained banner of the cross of Jesus. Standing next to that cross, we cannot believe ourselves to be better than those around us. We cannot represent Christ to the world and at the same time espouse racial or religious bigotry. We cannot denigrate and belittle other people and still claim to be followers of Jesus. The ground under the cross is level, and under the light of the Lamb of God, we clearly see our own need for forgiveness and healing. As we pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, let us unite to extend freedom and love to our fellow travelers—even to those with whom we disagree.

 

Leroy Sykes lives and writes from Alabama.

Image Credit: Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

 

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