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Another Perspective on “Religious Freedom in America”


On January 17, the Adventist Review published an article by Nicholas Miller titled, “Religious Freedom in America.” Although touted as focusing on religious liberty, much of the article is written with a much broader “social moral” framework in which the writer mixes religious liberty issues with other “social moral” issues. One of the main thrusts of the article concerns the writer’s advocacy for how Adventists should respond to such issues, particularly those currently subject to political controversy. Initially, the writer asserts that the “social moral” positions of the political right are faith-based while those of the political left are rooted in secularism. Then, after concluding that Adventists should not follow either group, the writer advocates for the so-called moral philosophy approach of Ellen White with an accompanying “civil morals” distinction, as the writer indicates in the following: 

It was the judicious use of moral philosophy that allowed Ellen White and other pioneers to advocate for social moral issues such as abolition of slavery, temperance reform, and the prohibition of alcohol. They could do this while still upholding the separation of church and state because they distinguished between spiritual and civil morals. To survive the coming religious liberty challenges, Adventists have to learn to do the same again.

For purposes of clarity, it is noted that a “civil morals” position may also correspond to either a faith-based position or a secularist position. For example, one advocating for temperance reform based solely on health principles would be adopting a position based on “civil morals” concepts and yet another advocating for the very same temperance reform based on scripture would be adopting a faith-based position. Further, the article indicates that “civil morals” should be based on what is just and good. This can be problematic since not all would agree on what is just and good.

The article provides much confusion because the writer overstates the adoption of faith-based positions by the political right and widely misses the mark regarding the political left. This becomes clear when one considers their respective positions regarding some of the most important “social moral” subjects of today, i.e., same-sex marriage, guns, and the poor. 

While there are differing positions in the faith-based community regarding same-sex marriage, there is no dispute that the writer accurately characterized the political right as faith-based for this subject. However, the faith-based label does not work for issues regarding guns or the poor. Advocacy by the political right for the sale to the public of military-style guns that have no reasonable use other than the unlawful killing of human beings is not rooted in scripture. With respect to the poor, even a cursory reading of the New Testament would cause one to predict that a group identified as faith-based certainly would adopt social programs designed to help the poor. Instead, the political right supports large tax breaks for the rich and supports cutting social programs designed to help the poor. Based on the importance Christ gave for helping the poor, it becomes difficult to accept the faith-based right vs. secular left binary that Mr. Miller posits.

With respect to same-sex marriage, the political right argues that it has a harmful effect on heterosexual marriage and family members. In response, the political left finds that there simply is no credible evidence to support that argument and further finds that the “Bible says” is their only remaining argument, conclusions increasingly reached by the courts as well. Accordingly, because of the absence of any compelling reason otherwise, the political left, adopting a “civil morals” position based on fairness, would extend same-sex couples the same civil liberties that are extended to heterosexual couples.  With respect to guns, the political left, using “civil morals” principles, supports the use of guns for hunting and protection while otherwise supporting restrictions deemed necessary to reduce the unlawful taking of human life. With respect to the poor, the political left tends to support the faith-based mandate to help the poor, but bases overall positions regarding help for the poor on “civil morals” concepts by asserting that they are designed for the common good. 

Moreover, the article’s biggest failure concerns the fact that it does not address the Sunday laws issue. The Sunday laws issue has dominated Adventist religious liberty discussions for the past 100 years. 

To grasp Ellen White’s understanding of religious liberty, including the Sunday laws issue, one would note her words:

The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result–intolerance and persecution. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority.  [The Great Controversy p. 442]


A time is coming when the law of God is, in a special sense, to be made void in our land. The rulers of our nation will, by legislative enactments, enforce the Sunday law, and thus God’s people be brought into great peril. When our nation, in its legislative councils, shall enact laws to bind the consciences of men in regard to their religious privileges, enforcing Sunday observance, and bringing oppressive power to bear against those who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God will, to all intents and purposes, be made void in our land; and national apostasy will be  followed by national ruin. We see that those who are now keeping the commandments of God need to bestir themselves, that they may obtain the special help which God alone can give them. They should work more earnestly to delay as long as possible the threatened calamity. [The Review and Herald, December 18, 1888, par. 6]

Not only should the Adventist Review article have addressed the Sunday laws issue, it should have included something about the relevance of this issue for today. This is evident when one questions whether any existing groups might be identified as a part of the movement that could be responsible for establishing Sunday laws. As noted above, Ellen White indicated that the Sunday laws will come from a union of church and state. [See also The Great Controversy p. 588] Largely on behalf of certain evangelical protestants and conservative Catholics, the Republican Party has worked hard to obtain the power of the federal government and state governments to promote their religious goals. This is particularly evident with respect to efforts, consistent with the Republican Party platform, to prohibit same-sex marriage. Moreover, there is little hesitancy on the part of a significant portion of the Republican Party to cover for such actions by overtly arguing that the Constitution does not require the separation of church and state. In fact, David Barton, the founder of WallBuilders and author of The Jefferson Lies, has become a sort of folk-hero to millions of Republican Party members for advocating that the Constitution does not require the separation of church and state. 

There is much more in the article that is troubling. In a gratuitous addition, the article accuses President Obama of having “a Muslim-influenced upbringing.”  Inclusion of such talking points of the religiously bigoted political right without some evidence of Muslim influence on President Obama’s actual decision making is inappropriate. Also, the article asserts that “President Obama’s victory means that secularist values will likely become even more of a concern for religious liberty and institutions during the next four years.” The scenarios provided in support of this idea are much more complex than presented. Moreover, many of the mainstream religious liberty experts would reject the notion that the scenarios provide serious concerns about religious liberty rights.  For example, the author’s conclusion that ObamaCare coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients violates religious liberty rights of employers misses the mark because it fails to recognize the rights of employees and ignores the provisions allowing for accommodations. 

In sum, the Adventist Review published an article that attempted to wedge a partisan political perspective and a flawed dualistic view of the moral motivations for civil law into Adventistm under the guise of religious liberty.

—Thomas O. Gessel, J.D., is a former Director of the Office of Regulatory Law in the Office of General Counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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