America, as a nation, and we, as Christians within that nation, are in a state of flux. For hundreds of years most Christians* experienced a special status within the government, with politicians and courts favoring them in laws and rulings. Blue laws, prayer in schools, tax-free status, are all examples of the favoritism enacted by the government to pander to the Christian voters.
Recently, in the eyes of many Christians, these privileges have come under attack. Repeal of Blue laws, removal of the Ten Commandments from public grounds, abortion laws, even the tolerance of non-Christian beliefs (Islam, Wicca, even Satanism) makes it seem like America has abandoned its Christian heritage for secularism. But, is this true, and it is bad?
While none of the Founding Fathers professed atheism, or even agnosticism, neither did all of them belong to mainline Christian churches (or any church at all). Some were Deists*, Pantheists*, most could only be called “casual” Christians at best. They were very careful in crafting the Constitution to recognize that many in America had varying beliefs, beliefs that must be protected from an overbearing government, ready to force a particular belief upon its’ people (most of Europe), or prevent people from professing any beliefs at all. This was evidenced by the, now famous, “religion” clause:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
In modern times the concentration of the government, courts, and activist groups has been on the first phrase, “…establishment of religion”, referring to it in the now famous term, “separation of church and state”* , to the detriment of the second half of the clause, “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” All religions, not just Christian, need to focus attacks on the second phrase, but only where it truly applies: where religious freedoms are being attacked, not where things aren’t going as we would like.
Persecution of people of faith has a long history in the world, going back to at least the time of Moses. And, religious people have been on both sides of the issue, which was the real reason for the religion clause. The FF’s knew that the establishment of a state religion would result in many of America’s current (their time) population being persecuted by the controlling religion. But, they also knew that people needed to be free to express their religious beliefs without fear of retribution (primarily, at that time, aimed at the nation’s Catholic population).
But, what issues, today, attack those precious freedoms, and which do not? Ten Commandments? Abortion? Prayer groups in schools? Healthcare? What defines a “free exercise” issue, and what does not?
To make this determination I will refer to Paul’s statement in 1-Cor 6:12, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” Paul lived in a time and culture where everything was truly legal – abortion (until suckling was finished), divorce, homosexuality, fornication, gambling. Just about every act modern Christians see as inappropriate (and some they don’t) could be done, legally. Paul’s comment, in response to the Corinthians statement that “all is legal” was to say that just because it is legal doesn’t mean Christians should be participating in it. And that is my basis here: is it legal, and can you refrain from participation? If the answers are yes and no, respectively, then religious freedoms are being infringed, otherwise it is not an issue to be concerned with outside of the congregation.
Let’s look at a simple issue, the Ten Commandments. Is the prohibiting of the Ten Commandments being posted an infringement on our rights that should be fought in the courts (an expensive procedure, to say the least), or is it outside of the Constitution?
Here, I believe the courts have gotten it right with regards to public property. Without doubt placing it in front of a courthouse does violate the first clause in showing favoritism to a particular religion. However, a local school and church had the ACLU crossing the lines. The Jr, High had a stone monument of the Ten Commandments, the ACLU threatened legal action if it wasn’t removed. A local church offered to take them off the hands of the school district to avoid the legal battles, they then erected the monument on church property. The problem from the ACLU point of view is that the church was next to the school, and school children would have to see the monument on their way to school. Clearly, this would be an infraction on the church’s rights, fortunately the courts saw it the same way.
I see the current situation as a gift of grace to the churches, a chance to get out from under the watchful eye of the government, and to take a stand based on their legal rights, and moral obligations. But, to do this the churches need to remove themselves from the shackles of the IRS and start paying taxes so that they are free to voice those concerns without threat of reprisal. But, do the churches have the backbone, and do the people have the convictions? Christ understood what would eventually happen, and warned us against it:
Matt 6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Matt 22:17 “Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”…Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Here then lies the modern day quandary…pay taxes unto Caesar, or speak out against political atrocities, which is the will of God?
Abortion is another example of an issue with two heads – does the church have a right to dictate to America to ban abortions? How should the church go about it? Again, I defer to Paul in the above quote, what is legal is not necessarily good for the Christian. A study by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (a pro-Abortion group) showed that Christians make up over 50% of women having abortions. Even if their numbers are off, that is a significant number. Clearly, the church is not doing its job in educating her own people. If the church centered efforts on converting her own flock abortion centers would, mostly, fold due to a lack of funding. Before the church tries to convert the nation, it needs to convert Christians.
Matt 7:3: Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
So, is America a Christian nation? No. And based on the performances of state/church in the past (Church of England, Holy Roman Empire, Tsarist Russia), I don’t think we want to go down that road again. But, we, as Christians, need to learn how to protect our rights from within the framework of America’s Constitution. It has everything needed to protect our freedom to practice religion, but we need to be wise enough to see when and how to defend those rights.
Glory to Jesus Christ,
The Modern Theologian
* Not all Christians were treated favorably. Catholics were severely persecuted in America, Kennedy was the only president required to put aside his faith. Additionally, Quakers, Baptists, Mormons, have all suffered persecution in America.
* Briefly stated, the universe was created by a supreme being, who then left it to its own devices.
* Belief that god is everything, and everything is god.
* 1947, Everson vs. Board of Education