Lesson 18: Freedom of Religion

Freedom of ReligionI think the widely ignored freedom of religion movement indicates the problem Christianity faces in a modern democracy. People in my circles thought the advocates were a paranoid minority of various church bodies. Now those paranoids control our government.

Let me chart what I think developed in my lifetime. When I entered the ministry, pastors felt they had to keep politics out of the pulpit. After all, the 1954 Johnson Amendment threatened to remove tax exemption if they directly or indirectly supported or opposed any political candidates. Consequently, most of us in 1960 felt John F. Kennedy could separate his politics from his Roman Catholicism.

Then the Viet Nam war challenged all this. Conservatives warned those of us who opposed the war that we were breaking down the separation of church and state. They were worried the government might force churches to pay taxes, stop pastors from acting as state officials when they married people, and include pastors in the military draft. Some of us wondered if that might free us to proclaim the full Gospel.

Things reversed around 1979 when conservatives such as Jerry Falwell with the Moral Majority accused politicians of destroying Christian family values, defining these as opposing abortion and homosexuality and supporting a strong defense budget. These Evangelicals advocated taking political action, beginning by getting elected to local school boards.

In 1994, the Evangelicals were joined by Catholics in issuing the statement “Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” It was pretty much overlooked, because the signers acted as individuals rather than officials of their churches. The statement recognized a common mission it defined as defending the religious freedom necessary for the right ordering of civil society. It warned that some Muslims and secularists had motivated our courts to to narrow the protection of free speech and to penalize and marginalize churches. Although it mentioned support for parochial schools, the market economy, and Western culture, most readers came away thinking it was designed to oppose abortion. Its only specific call to action was seeking legal protection for the unborn. Pertinent to our lesson was the claim, “wherever government goes religion must retreat, and government increasingly goes almost everywhere.”

In 2009, the Orthodox were added to a very similar document commonly known as the Manhattan Declaration. It picked up the idea of a culture of death threatening the sanctity of life by offering abortion on demand, accepting same sex weddings, and using coercion to force citizens to compromise their deepest convictions. Notice the group now goes much further in accusing the government of attacking churches and with that, the fundamental principles of justice and common good. Consequently, the signers pledged they would not comply with some duly enacted laws. It is now the conservatives who resist the government.

In 2010, the Obama administration tried to restore a private understanding of religion by using freedom of worship rather than freedom of religion in its communications. Part of Donald Trump’s success has been taking the other side. His 2018 White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative assured conservative Christians he would promote every point of their agenda. Quite frankly, many on both sides had already flagrantly broken the Johnson Amendment by welcoming presidential candidates to speak in their services.

Even this quick look reveals we have entered a new stage unforeseen by our founding fathers. Their main intent in the First Amendment was obviously protecting free speech that they felt would be promoted by prohibiting the establishment of any one religion. I do not think they ever imagined church bodies uniting for political action in ways closely resembling an established religion. The statements themselves assert the need to do this, because of the problems presented not only by secularists but also non-Western cultures and religions.

I also wonder if our forefathers imagined that the Bill of Rights would be used to discriminate against the minorities it was meant to protect. That is certainly what seems to be happening when free expression of religion is allowed to deny rights to the LGBTQ community. However, an even deeper problem has emerged as modern society assumes the pursuit of happiness includes access to the benefits of modern technology. In some circles, the free expression of religion includes denial of birth control, abortion, scientific research, and such.  This clearly prevents some individuals from the right to obtain things that they regard as their pursuit of happiness. Let’s look at this one next week.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kerry says:

    Excellent again, Fritz. Thanks!!

  2. Father Jude says:

    Assumption One: “. . . we are not sure what the relationship between Church and State is.”
    The United States is fairly clear about how it relates to religion, as spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution: Congress should not make any law that would establish a religion nor any law that would prohibit free exercise of religion. In other words, the State should remain assiduously committed to absolute neutrality regarding religion.

    I understand that to mean the State, insofar as its legislative powers (and the enforcement of such) are concerned, is totally transparent regarding religion. Any one Church (since there is no such thing as “The Church”) may have any number of ideas about how to relate to the U.S. “State,” as long as none of those ideas include working to become the “State Religion.”

    Any one Church may decide to actively engage in the democratic process to try to influence legislation and policy-making, based on religious principles that Church may adhere to; indeed, many Churches do just that.

    This framing, of course, subtly insinuates that the State is a priori; that the State is the environment in which “the Church” (or any number of Churches) exists. Some Churches would hold that THEY, instead, are the environment in which many nations (the U.S. being one of them) exist. These are often the same people (though not always) who also know for a fact that THEY are the only ones who will get into heaven. This kind of framing will necessarily run into some serious conflicts for these Churches down the road in our “State” (the U.S.), governed by our Constitution (including the First Amendment).

    Assumption Two: “. . . whether the institutional church really has a significant role in a modern democracy.”
    If (at least for the sake of argument) we take the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment at its word, the State would seem to be saying that it is up to the institutional church to determine how much and what sort of role it wants to play in our modern democracy.

    The Franklin Grahams and Jerry Falwell, Jr. types are certainly investing quite heavily in the direction modern democracy has taken just lately. The Evangelical Holier-Than-Thou Combine has decided quite vociferously that their institutions are all in, fully supporting whatever shenanigans the Republicans want to get up to.

    Other institutional Church types (Rev. William Barber, et al) hope to put a significant stop to ALL that, and sooner rather than later. Without coming down in favor of either, it would seem to be pretty good evidence that the “institutional Church” is doing just fine in the “Significant Involvement” category in our current democracy.

    Then, too, there is the ongoing phenomenon that just about every politician, from the local right up to the federal level, declares an affiliation with one kind of institutional Church or another. IT IS interesting to contemplate that there seem to be a few more here and there these days who let slip that they are a bit more of the a-theistic persuasion.


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