Christianity & Religious Freedom in America

The first amendment to the US Constitution states thus:

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.

Is this a law that guarantees the rights of Christians to gather for worship? Does this prevent the government from either establishing a non-Christian religion or preventing the peaceful practice of the Christian religion? Should Christians demand these rights?

The contemporary political climate is characterized best by tension, turmoil, division, and furor. Every issue is especially heated. Several things contributed to this period of volatility. Political movements of every stripe have been feeding it, and also feeding off of it. The air is ripe for change, and its not yet certain what direction that change will go, whether a fundamentalist-type revival, or a progressivist revolution. You could switch revival and revolution in the previous sentence if you like (please don’t get caught up with that wording).

A so-called force behind many of these movements, often derided by liberal media and placated by conservative pandering, is this group of people referred to as the evangelicals. Some of these evangelicals embrace the derision, and wear their scarlet letter with pride. There are also those who are placed in this group, willingly or not, who distance themselves from the pack. This group is led by younger evangelicals who despise the assumed coalition between Christianity and the G.O.P. One of the more outspoken younger evangelicals is Jonathan Merritt.

I can appreciate those Christians who are dedicated to political conservatism, yet I also appreciate those Christians who distance themselves from the political arena. It is quite true that Christianity can thrive and has done so under any political situation. It was born as a perceived Jewish sect on the fringes of the Roman Empire, an empire whose civil religion was both pervasive and universalist yet which demanded total allegiance and worship of the Emperor as God. Three centuries later, Christianity had pervaded the empire amongst periods of heavy persecution. Christianity also spread under Persian rule in the East, into the India and China. Though it often suffered from its oppression, never holding a position of power in society, it persisted for centuries. Under the Mongols, a terrible and vast empire, Christianity thrived, three of Ghengis Khan’s wives being devout Christians. Christianity is also flourishing in communist China. In fact, though Christianity has been engaging the Chinese since the seventh century, it has only been under Communist rule that Christianity has really exploded in numbers and influence.

Christianity doesn’t need government sanction, favor, or even legality, to persist and progress. Christians don’t need religious freedom in America and they certainly don’t need political parties to be able to worship God and see His name made great among the nations.

This is not to say that Christianity hasn’t benefited from religious freedom. It certainly has. On the whole, religious freedom always wins over religious intolerance. But, here is the main point of my post, it is wrong-headed for Christians to demand their right to religious freedom!

Here is what I mean by that shocker of a statement. The only right Christians have in the United States for religious freedom is the same right that grants Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, “other” Christians, even atheists their religious freedom. If we do not see that, then we will lose our freedom. It is not up to each group to demand its own freedom at the cost of the other. When these demands are the only option, then there is no room for public discourse. That is, not just discourse in the public, but discourse that affects the public, that affects everyone.

It behooves us as Christians to stand for the right of all Americans, Christian or not, to be able to worship (or not) as they choose. Public liberty is the only liberty that aids our cause. Christianity cannot win by  political coercion, even if they were to “win” a political battle. We value the right of every individual American to choose because we recognize, with Scripture and with the Founding Fathers, that the human will is a gift from God.

If we truly want religious freedom in America, we must also be willing to speak up when Muslims are denied their rights, when Mormons or atheists, even cult leaders, are encroached upon. Our religious freedom as citizens is attacked when any other citizen is denied his or her right, not just when our own are questioned. We must not argue in public that we have certain rights as Christians that others do not also have. When our rights are violated, so then are theirs. We must show them this. When the government violates the first amendment, it renigs on its contract with the entirety of the American people, not just a few, for intolerance of one is intolerance of all.

To make this public demonstration we must speak with sincere congeniality and also a deep concern for the welfare we hold in common with all. This commonality is a principle deeply rooted in scripture-in the creation narratives, in the Fall, in the creation of the nations, in the coming of a universal redeemer and the all pervasive kingdom of God, and in the final redemption of all peoples. No one people or culture stands above another. In a metaphysical sense, we hold everything in common as human beings. With the Declaration of Independence, we believe that “all men are created equal.”

So, while I deeply value my own religious freedom, having the opportunity to worship the Lord Jesus Christ publicly and without fear of government persecution, I cannot value this any higher for myself than I do for my fellow countrymen, for my neighbors. And as a Christian, I must be willing to stand up for the right of my neighbors before my own. When my neighbor is free, then so will I be.

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