“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
-1st Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
-Evelyn Beatrice Hall paraphrasing Voltaire
“Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
-John Leland, “A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia,” The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.
Christianity, and more specifically its Protestant expressions, often experienced preferential treatment by government for the first two centuries of the founding of the United States of America. The pendulum is swinging the other direction in our time, and with increasing momentum. Now Christian expression is in disfavor, not only with government, but corporations, academic institutions and the media. There is an obvious bias against orthodox Christianity.
How should Christians respond? How should government respond?
Let’s begin with the latter. The United States of America was not founded as a Christian institution, even though most of its founders were Protestant Christians, and some sought to establish a Christian commonwealth in their respective states. No, the U.S. was first settled by religious dissenters from England who sought freedom to practice their religion. The War of Independence was fought to establish a sovereign nation, whose people would be free from unrepresented taxation and tyrannical monarchy.
The United States was established so that people could have a government that is, as Lincoln famously stated, of the people, by the people, and for the people. Government is established to protect the God given rights of people, not grant those rights. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence opens with the famous lines:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Government exists for the benefit of the governed, not the other way around. Government receives its power from the people, and the people have the right to take that power back.
However, the United States government’s power has expanded continuously over time, and and dramatically in the last 15 years. Under the Presidency of George W. Bush, motivated by the fight against terrorism, federal spying and policing agencies were given unprecedented power under the Patriot Act and through the Department of Homeland Security. During the Presidency of Barack Obama government expansion continued into private healthcare. The U.S. government threatens businesses who will not violate the religion and conscience of their owners by providing health insurance that enables abortion.
From the beginning the Supreme Court has acted as though it has the authority to deny or create rights to persons. Slaves were denied rights under the 1857 Dred Scott decision because they were considered property by the Almighty Court. In 1973 SCOTUS denied unborn babies the right to life because, in the fatal logic of the court, the mother has an overriding right to privacy. Since that time courts have consistently upheld the right of a woman to terminate the life of the unborn baby in her womb because the court considers that baby nothing more than a part of the woman’s body. In 2015 the Supreme Court defied 5,000 years of precedent in every civilization by redefining marriage.
This is not government of the people, for the people and by the people: it is government granting rights to people. Such a government flies in the face of both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution— the latter of which, ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to interpret to protect the rights of citizens.
Citizens of the United States must retain their rights to think, believe and speak as their conscience or religion calls them to. The only limits to this are the rights of others to the same life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In other words, if an Islamic extremist claims they are called by God to kill the infidel, they are not permitted to do so in the United States, since this obviously deprives other citizens of the very rights the jihadist would claim.
1st Amendment rights are being eroded by government’s ever increasing tendency to enforce a politically correct agenda. However, the same principle that applied to Christians seeking to establish a commonwealth, applies to secularists seeking to outlaw public expressions of Christian faith. Leave people to express themselves freely in the marketplace of ideas. The President of the U.S., Congress and the Supreme Court have no right to prohibit or inhibit the free exercise of religion, nor do they have the right to censor free speech. This applies equally to state and local governments, agencies and officials.
Examples of erroding 1st Amendment rights abound. A recent example comes from the State of California. Senate Bill 1146 seeks to limit religious exemptions from Title IX.
Dr. Kurt Krueger states: “The bill effectively eliminates the religious exemption under current law that allows Christian colleges and universities to operate in accordance with their beliefs, including the freedom to hire only Christian faculty and staff. If passed without amendments, the new law would also very likely disqualify students attending California Christian colleges and universities from eligibility for Cal Grants, a key state-level student aid program.” The law may be applied further by proscribing coed dorms, and enforcing acceptance of homosexuality, same sex marriage and transgenderism.
If passed, religious schools in California would not be permitted to operate according to the teachings of their religions if those teachings do not agree with what the government has defined as acceptable.
It is this kind of totalitarian legislation that the Supreme Court is in place to invalidate by properly interpreting and applying the U.S. Constitution. However, the consensus in government and in many cultural power centers is to aggressively pursue an agenda that eliminates the rights of religious persons, particularly Christians, to speak and live as their religion dictates. That is not the United States of America.
We need another revolution, a revolution that returns us to our founding principles. Government needs to be limited, not expanded. People must be left to exercise their God given rights.
How should Christians respond?
We must speak the truth in love. That means believers must be intimately acquainted with, and personally committed to, the truth found in the Bible and embodied in Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian I implore and challenge you to love God above all, and refuse to compromise or capitulate to a godless culture. Increasing numbers of nominal Christians are proving the reality of the Apostle Paul’s prophecy in 2 Timothy 3, “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”
You and I would do well to heed the Apostle’s command, “Have nothing to do with them!” Paul was not speaking of avoiding atheists or those from other religions, but those who profess to be Christians but fail or refuse to believe the truth plainly taught in the Word of God. They may be active in their respective churches, yet choose the same values as the godless culture around. The Apostle also prophesied about this in the same passage quoted above. “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—” (2 Timothy 3:1–4, NIV84)
Increasing numbers of formerly “mainline denomination” churches are now actively supporting sexually immoral lifestyles, even among their leadership. Episcopalians have ordained openly homosexual bishops. United Methodists are debating inclusion of transgendered ministers. If you are a member of one of these apostate churches I believe the following command and promise applies to you.
“Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:17–18, NIV84)
The United States is not a Christian nation– if it ever was. However, it can be a nation full of God loving, Bible believing Christians who seek to show the love of Jesus both to fellow Americans and fellow residents of planet earth. It may be a nation with a government occupied by many Christians who seek to protect the rights of all people, not Christians alone, and who seek to keep the marketplace of ideas free of totalitarian laws and leaders in order that the Gospel of Jesus may be openly shared alongside other ideas.
Christian faith is always harmed when it is enforced by government coercion.
“An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Roger Williams (founder of the first baptist church in America), in The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. The author of this quote, Roger Williams, is the same Baptist pastor to whom Thomas Jefferson famously wrote concerning the wall of separation between church and state in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists. This was a concept Williams strongly espoused. Williams likened the church to a garden around which God has placed a wall, and he saw the world as a wilderness outside that wall. What Williams didn’t want was influence from the world or coercion from government coming into the church. If properly understood, you and I would do well to support this concept. It is not a prohibition against public displays of religious thought and sentiment, but a prohibition against government involvement and intrusion into church affairs, or preference for a particular religion.
Some examples follow. Should children be permitted to pray in schools? Absolutely. Should children be required to pray with a teacher or administrator of a public school? Absolutely not. Should public schools teach the Bible? Even if taught as literature there are many possible problems with teachers importing their own personal bias, or government mandating a certain interpretation, so I think this is a bad idea. Should private hotels be permitted to put Bibles in their rooms? Of course they should. What about celebrations of Christmas in schools? Considering the secular nature of Christmas in our time, I don’t know why this should pose a problem. Santa, Frosty and Rudolph have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. However, even recognizing Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Christ does nothing to establish Christianity. Perhaps we should be open to celebrations being limited in communities where large groups from other religious expressions exist. Certainly Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be enforced. Should displays of the 10 Commandments or Manger Scenes be removed from government facilities? Yes. This does not mean every religious display must be erased from public spaces. Christianity is part of the history and cultural heritage of the United States, and leaving a cross on a hillside where it has stood as a war memorial does not establish Christianity. These are examples of how I believe it would play out if we’re serious about the 1st Amendment and why the United States was founded.
Trust me, Christian friends, the Gospel will triumph because it is true and it is the best news. Christianity and its Gospel do not require government enforcement. When you combine Christianity and politics, you no longer have Christianity, just politics using that name. Believers must be free to preach and to live out their faith without government intrusion.
I’m sure I’ve made no one happy here. It is likely you disagreed with something I wrote. However, I hope you get the main point: no one’s point of view, religious or not, should be prohibited from public discourse. You have the right to disagree and believe differently, and so does everyone else. Shutting the opposition up or shutting them down is not American, and it is not Christian. Speak the truth as you understand it. Don’t be offended because someone disagrees with you. Give a better reason, a better argument. Live a better life!