Seventh-day Adventist world church president Ted N. C. Wilson published this piece in the online Huffington Post yesterday. The article sets the Adventist church apart from “some religious groups in America” that “have repeatedly sought to influence various sectors of government to enshrine particular principles.” It cites examples of how Adventists have been on the side of religious liberty since our church’s founding 150 years ago. It touches on hot topics like gay marriage and prayer in public schools. It asserts that “it is optimal when the church does what it does best – which is educate, serve others and spread the gospel – while refraining from the business of governing.”
Yes, Adventists have always historically strongly lobbied for the separation of church and state. But the fact that our world church president is using this secular forum to educate a wider audience about this important Adventist position is notable. Is Wilson really behind this article, and was it his idea to publish on HuffPost? Why would Wilson right now make a statement about the limits of a church’s authority?
Keeping Church At Arm’s Length from State
A U.S. federal appeals court right now is considering whether for-profit businesses can be exempted from a contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act — a mandate that is tantamount to a “war on Christianity” by the Obama administration, according to at least one elected official.
A Christian in Pakistan was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2013 for the crime of blasphemy. With no actual evidence presented at his trial.
Earlier this year there was a proposal in North Carolina to allow the state to declare an official religion.
What do these three situations have in common? They’re all current examples of things that go wrong when either the government wrongly asserts itself into religious issues or the church tries to break down barriers (or makes powerful accusations against the government) in an attempt to exert improper influence on the business of the state.
While the above just scratch the surface, it’s no exaggeration to say that if you’ve paid much attention to the news during the last few decades, you can be forgiven for assuming that some religious organizations believe a primary purpose of government is to legislate more religion into public life. From prayer in public schools to religious imagery in courtrooms to national elections, some religious groups in America have repeatedly sought to influence various sectors of government to enshrine particular principles.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Seventh-day Adventist church and for each and every one of those years Adventists have been a minority voice strongly advocating for greater separation between church and state – exactly the opposite of what many have come to expect from organized religions in this country.
During the Civil War, that meant taking a stand for conscientious objection to military service. At the end of the 1800s, Adventists led the fight against a national “Sunday Law” proposed in Congress: because we observe the Bible Sabbath on Saturday, Adventists, Jews and others sought the right to work or open a business on other days of the week. By petitioning Congress, we helped secure a basic right enjoyed today by millions of Americans.
A common argument by the religious right is that “America is a Christian nation.” While it’s true that some of our founding fathers were Christian, these bright minds recognized the dangers of imposing faith on others. This is why they very deliberately included this cornerstone language in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
The core idea was that America should be a land where believers could practice their faith, free of government interference. But the other side of the coin is that those who don’t believe also were to be free from legislative imperatives to follow the church’s dictates.
Here is the real danger in pushing for greater influence by the church on the state’s business: the church must stand for morality, God’s Word and free will, and attempting to coerce our neighbors via legislative or other means runs completely counter to that. Faith should inspire and unite – not be used as a cudgel. And as for government, a free people should never be subject to legislated interference with one’s beliefs or ability to worship according to his or her conscience.
All of the above notwithstanding, will government ever make laws with which we as a church strongly disagree? Yes, absolutely. Like many other faiths, the Seventh-day Adventist church subscribes to the Biblical definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, for example. But where we differ from some of our peers is that we acknowledge that there’s a difference between government allowing certain actions with which we might disagree on moral grounds … as opposed to compelling them. That is the fine line that is religious liberty.
This is why it is optimal when the church does what it does best — which is educate, serve others and spread the gospel — while refraining from the business of governing. And the government should do what it does best — which most assuredly rules out telling people what to believe or how to worship or enacting any restrictions thereof. When each entity is functioning as our founders intended, a functional balance can be achieved.
Oh, and as for prayer in the public schools? Consistent with our approach that church and state should remain far, far apart, we don’t believe that prayer should be imposed on public school students (or faculty or others) who may believe differently than the person doing the praying. We certainly encourage prayer, of course, but it’s about free will.
My fellow Seventh-day Adventists around the world and I believe that we serve a wonderful and mighty God who cherishes religious liberty and grants each individual the right to believe or not to believe in harmony with the dictates of their own conscience.
It is precisely the right to hold these varying viewpoints while respecting each other that makes America and all countries that foster freedom great.