Religious Freedom Day, Whatever THAT means…

Portugal Gay MarriageThere seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding in American society of what religious freedom entails, and this misunderstanding threatens to destroy the actual freedom itself.  Lower court decisions have already stripped some elements in favor of culturally popular dogma, a reality the Supreme Court may or may not reverse. Atheistic groups have unsurprisingly sought to interpret religious freedom into non-existence along with God, but religious groups have not always helped matters, either. Some argue extreme positions while others tie themselves to political parties so closely as to simply be a regurgitation of partisan talking points. Phrasing things ever so slightly into exaggeration, flipping definitions around, and using emotive words to misrepresent ideas has reached elite status in American politics. If it was an Olympic sport, perhaps only the Russians could threaten us for the gold, but meanwhile, the idea of religious freedom has been misunderstood, redefined, and read passionately backwards.

I sound negative, I know. In my defense I’m still reeling from Jon O’Brien and Larry Decker’s idea of “true religious freedom” in their recent opinion piece in The Hill.  They argue that religious freedom does not give one the right to discriminate against others, which doesn’t sound so radical, but in their article it means you must accept and/or participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, support a pro-choice position on abortion, and refrain from protesting when public advertising slanders your religion.

In other words, religious freedom is fine as long as your religious beliefs have no impact on your behavior, participation, or actions. Do what we tell you and you can be free. Having another opinion is acceptable, but you must participate with the lifestyle, ethics, and opinions of the rest of the world, even when doing so violates what you believe.

Which, by definition, is actually the opposite of religious freedom.

How did we get here? The concept of religious freedom never meant freedom from religion as O’Brien and Decker insist along with millions of others. It does demonstrate that the removal of Christian history in western education (doing so in an effort to maintain a separation of church and state of course) has had pronounced negative effects on the understanding of history itself. Whether we are Christians or not, the fact that Christianity was intertwined with western Europe and early American history is undeniable. Understanding that history is quite literally impossible by strictly focusing on the Enlightenment while ignoring Christian influences. The circumstances of the western world were buried in Christianity.

We should recognize, for instance, that when religious freedom was an issue back in the days of Thomas Jefferson, the norm was to have State churches. Most could not imagine an effective government that did not choose a church to be the State Church. In America, the Congregationalists and the Anglicans enjoyed this status. This meant a portion of taxes would go to the official church. If a pastor preached something that contradicted the doctrines of the State Church, that pastor could be thrown in jail. They often were. In fact, they often preached from jail, which is one reason why there are walls around the outside of some early American jail houses. The State Church didn’t want a rebel pastor preaching to people through the bars of his window!

This was the world of Jefferson. It was the world of early America, and it’s why the separation of church and state was not spearheaded by atheists. It was spearheaded by those Bible-thumping Baptists who teamed up with Jefferson. It was spearheaded by religious people who objected to paying taxes to a church whose doctrines they rejected. One Baptist minister who looked upon Jefferson as a kindred spirit, John Leland, argued for religious freedom this way:

“Is it the duty of a Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ, when he really believes that he was an imposter? Must the Papists be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope?”[1]

Those were important questions because the problem wasn’t merely whether people personally followed their religion, the problem was people were forced to pay taxes and conform their actions to an official, State Church. There were sometimes even laws that everyone had to have their child baptized by a certain age or face a penalty! Imagine being forced to participate in something that went against your beliefs!

It shouldn’t be hard considering we do the same thing to wedding cake bakers.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Discriminating between various actions, endeavors, and practices is the result of any religious belief. Jewish and Islamic believers refrain from certain types of food, follow certain moral codes, and practice certain religious rituals. Christians have fewer lifestyle restrictions than those two groups, but generally, Christians view drunkenness, certain sexual practices, and certain ethical practices as outside their moral code.  All of this necessarily means that religious people typically do not participate in everything that particular culture, even Western culture, practices. Forcing such people to accept and participate in these actions anyway, regardless of their personal beliefs, is religious oppression. It may not be harsh oppression by any means, but it is certainly not religious freedom as O’Brien and Decker try to argue.

Of course, it’s not so simple. Many would argue that this religious freedom thing is all well and good, but when Christians or anyone else attempt to impose their beliefs on me, they have stepped over the line.  This argument carries some weight since a government like ours can be influenced by society. The majority can begin to write laws and regulations that, in effect, begin to enforce a religion. Islamic democracies, as limited as they may be, tend to have very popular support for Islamic laws and traditions.

Thus, this argument sometimes has a point, but these days in America, it’s rare.

Let’s be real. In the United States today, most religious concepts of sin or bad behaviors are perfectly legal. It’s perfectly legal to buy bacon and eat it regardless of what a religion believes. I live in zero fear of the Presbyterians throwing me in jail for what I preach this Sunday. It’s also perfectly legal to practice more serious sins such as adultery, witchcraft, idolatry, and hatred. Indeed, I sincerely believe that rejecting faith in Jesus may result in eternal punishment yet there are no laws against rejecting Jesus and becoming an atheist. I have no desire to make any.

However imperfectly, the United States has practiced what the actual idea of religious freedom has been since people like Thomas Jefferson and Leland were articulating it. As Jefferson argued (and Leland would repeat):

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The test for any restriction of religious freedom was whether or not it became “injurious to others.” As examples, Jefferson mentioned having money stolen or being physically injured. Consider how this could be applied today. First, in regards to a thorny issue like abortion, it helps us understand each side. Most religious people oppose abortion, for instance, not because it goes against a specific religious practice they are trying to impose, but precisely because they sincerely view abortion as murder. This is why abortion is a tougher issue. It arguably does rise to the level of injurious. It is also why the danger to the life and health of the mother, or the issue of pain to the unborn child, are also legitimate issues where some sort of balance should be pursued.

The abortion debate, therefore, is not one side trying to force a religion down the other side’s throat. If that were the case, there would be many other rituals or beliefs the religious side would also be attempting to legislate. In reality, abortion opponents are arguing that the action of abortion causes real physical harm to another person. It is impossible to claim that the government should not regulate or restrict such activities, otherwise murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and abuse would also be legal. Abortion is a real question and should be. Since people have the right to vote in a representative government, the fact they oppose abortion on these grounds is perfectly in line with how the United States has defined freedom.

But what about the harm caused by wedding cake bakers? The follow-up argument against religious freedom says that’s fine, believe what you want, but by not baking a cake or by refusing to provide assistance for abortion, you are harming me or that person who wanted to eat your sugary goodness on their wedding day. O’Brien and Decker argue this very point, asking:

“What about that couple’s right to express their love through their wedding ceremony and their cake?”

In regards to the denial of abortion drugs or contraceptives, they ask:

“What about a woman’s conscience? What if she has her own moral reasons why she needs that birth control to make wise decisions for her wellbeing and that of her family?”

These are good questions. The authors have every right to ask them. Nevertheless, we should be careful how we answer because, as the old saying goes, you can’t please everyone. If we tried, we would quickly find ourselves allowing and participating in all sorts of disturbing actions and behaviors that someone else finds perfectly acceptable or even good. It’s not impossible to find people who sincerely believe a sexual relationship with a preteen child should be legal. So the question is not merely where we draw lines; the real question is how do we draw the lines? How should lines be drawn in regards to baking wedding cakes, or providing contraceptives, or anything else that comes up twenty years from now?

Jefferson and Leland had a good answer. Harm involved violating the conscience or causing real physical or financial damage. In other words, the harm needed to be more than irritation or offense. In regards to the Catholic opposition to contraceptives or the much larger opposition to abortion, these cases could be judged by balancing the possibility of actual harm with basic freedoms. If you can get contraceptives for free somewhere else, it’s difficult to see how there is any harm. By contrast, there certainly are issues with abortion that need to be debated and circumstances to consider.

When it comes to baking a cake, however, a Christian baker’s refusal to participate in a same-sex wedding does not realistically or typically cause physical or financial harm. It does not force the same-sex couple to perform an action that violates their conscience. It does not prevent the wedding ceremony from having a cake at all. If there is another cake baker available, let capitalism solve the problem. As a comparison, surely adultery causes emotional harm, far more than someone refusing to bake a cake, and adultery actually does cause financial harm. But if we are not willing to make adultery illegal, what justification is there for punishing someone for not baking a cake? When other cake bakers are available and the only injury is inconvenience or deep offense, it simply does not justify taking away someone’s religious freedom.

If it does, then religious freedom means very little, and it should be removed from the Constitution altogether to save us the bother.

 


[1] John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, (1791)” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall eds. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2009), 341.

 

 

 

 

 

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Osama Bin Laden is Dead: Hooray?

Today in America, or on my Facebook at least, Christians are torn. The natural reaction for a human being when a mortal enemy is destroyed is celebration. A sense of victory. Relief.  But should we join in the celebration?   The western world may rejoice in the death of Osama Bin Laden, but we are not of this world.  Should believers in Jesus feel guilty for feeling good about the death of someone?  It is difficult not to “feel” something.  But what should I do with those feelings?

Questions like these are part of being a Christian.  Following Christ is not a matter of eating, drinking, wearing certain kinds of clothing, repeating particular phrases at church, voting a particular way, or any of those outward, surface things.  I have my own opinions on what food is worth eating, what drinks are worth drinking,  and what kinds of clothes look good.  I have favorite phrases I use, and I have plenty of opinions on political things.

But that’s not what following Christ is about.  The Bible says when it comes to following Jesus, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” -Galatians 5:6

It’s faith in Jesus, trust in Jesus, expressing itself in our lives through putting God ahead of ourselves, and putting others ahead of ourselves.  See, that’s the Biblical definition of love, and the example of love when Jesus made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant and obeyed the Father by dying on a cross for the sins of everyone else.  Everyone.  Even Osama’s if he would only have taken hold of that forgiveness.

So for a believer and follower of Jesus, because we are to love God by putting Him first, and because He lives in us through the Spirit that He gave us, we should honor God with our reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Therefore we should be thoughtful with how we conduct ourselves and careful to guard our hearts.  God did say:

‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. -Ezekiel 33:11

And in another place:

Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him. -Proverbs 24:17-18

I think it is worth noticing that the above verse instructed us to conduct ourselves humbly so that God would continue to pour out His wrath on our enemies.  In fact, desiring wrath on mortal enemies is found in several places in the Bible where it is not condemned by God.

In Revelation 6:10, martyrs asked God how long before he “avenged” their deaths. In Revelation 18:20 it says to rejoice when Babylon the Great is destroyed for she killed God’s people.  And regardless of what someone interprets “Babylon the Great” to be, the end result is destruction that involves people.

In the Psalms, David often appealed for his enemies to be destroyed or put to shame by God.  He would write things like“Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword.” -Psalm 17:13  

In that Psalm, as in Revelation, and other places in the Bible, it was God who received the praise for His justice in destroying the wicked.  It seems that God accepts that praise, even though as He said in Ezekiel, he takes no pleasure Himself in the death of the wicked.  He would rather that they repent.

Thus, it follows that Proverbs would warn us not to gloat over the death of our enemies because God does not destroy the wicked to feed our desire for power and pride.  God brings justice, but at the same time, He sacrificed His Son for the likes of Osama Bin Laden as well. Anyone can be forgiven if they turn to God as we all know. And a sobering reminder for us is found in Luke 13:1-5. If not for Jesus, we all face judgment.

      Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

      Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”-Luke 13:1-5

In many ways, the death of Osama Bin Laden is merely the natural result of his own actions.  Jesus said that those who choose to live by the sword, will die by the sword.  But I believe that Osama’s death at the hands of his enemies was also an act of justice by a Holy God, avenging the death of thousands of people.  I praise the Lord for His justice and His judgment on our enemies.  But it is also a sobering reminder which makes me grateful for the grace of God through Christ which is available for all, that all might be forgiven and receive eternal life, if they will call upon the name of the Lord.

Hope in the Midst of Crisis

Some of the “prophetic” words of Jesus sound eerily similar to the daily news coming from around the world these days, which gives many of us a pause. Yet we shouldn’t pause too long because He also had words of encouragement and a message of hope. In a moment, I’ll get to what Jesus said precisely, but for now, I think it’s worth noting that the entire Christian belief system is built on a hope, an assurance from God, that He will provide during the toughest of times.

Some interpret the Bible, or insist philosophically, that God should rescue us from these tough times in the first place. Isn’t that what a loving God would do? And if He doesn’t, He’s either not loving, or not real. It’s the same argument used by one of thieves crucified next to Jesus. In one moment, that guy was hurling insults at Jesus, and in the next, he was demanding Jesus prove Himself by rescuing them all from death. Continue reading “Hope in the Midst of Crisis”

Did Revelation Predict What Is Happening in Egypt & the Middle East?

It’s pure speculation at this point, especially when the results of so many protests and attempts at revolution are still up in the air, but how might all this turmoil fit with the Bible? I’d keep my eye on Revelation chapter 6, specifically the four riders of the Apocalypse as they are called. Again, I wouldn’t make any grand pronouncements, but it’s like anything else, it bears watching.

As I explained in a previous post, it’s the first rider that intrigues me most. Revelation chapter 5, the prologue to the four horsemen and the other three judgments, begins with God holding a book sealed with seven seals. In the day Revelation was written, books (or scrolls) were sealed in that way when they were legal documents pertaining to life and death. Many Bible teachers say this book was “the title deed for the earth.” Well, the Bible doesn’t say that, but it is at least true that anyone reading Revelation at the time it was written, would recognize that book was about life and death. And as it turns out, it was about the earth.

It becomes clear very quickly that it is a book about judgment. Chapter 5 begins by asking the question “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?” (verse 2) and no one is found in heaven or earth who is worthy.

That is, until Jesus steps forward. Continue reading “Did Revelation Predict What Is Happening in Egypt & the Middle East?”

Sign of the Apocalypse in Egypt? -Mysterious Horseman

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show has a video clip showing various riot scenes from Egypt, and at about the 10:27 mark in a clip titled “World’s Eyes on Egypt,” there appears to be a mysterious horseman. Obviously this is a glare, or a weird reflection of the fire on the lens of the camera. Nevertheless, for anyone who knows of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation chapter 6, it’s kinda spooky, and very, very cool.

Here’s the original from Rachel Maddow’s site. The video is long, and the ghostly image appears around the 10:27 mark.

Here’s a much shorter video that plays up the spookiness factor. (It’s a little silly)

Here’s a link that demonstrates it’s just a camera lens thing.

Speculations are abounding on Youtube. While it is undoubtedly just a weird reflection, it is nevertheless a rather striking one. Why couldn’t it have looked like a racoon? Or a flaming peace symbol? Or the Eye of Sauron? For something that appears to simply be one of those camera anomalies, it sure picked a significant shape. A thought-provoking one for me.

Twenty years ago, while studying the book of Revelation, I came up with a theory about Revelation 6 that no one really took seriously, and I quickly dropped. By “no one,” I mean the 3-4 people I explained my theory to. Hey, I was just a young college student with plans to make a career in business, not dedicate my life to the ministry. Just as well. If I’d tried that theory out in Bible college, it would have undoubtedly been shot down even sooner, different as it was from a traditional interpretation. Besides, nothing really came of it. Twenty years passed, and the world didn’t end.

Which certainly may happen again, but for the record, it is somewhat interesting that something I predicted 20 years ago, seems poised to happen in the Middle East. Maybe my timing was just off? Continue reading “Sign of the Apocalypse in Egypt? -Mysterious Horseman”

Homosexuality, Abortion, Gambling… Issues that Influence Christians

I should warn you, I’m a senior minister at an independent Christian Church, which means I’m from the same cloth as minister Joe Wright (NOT Jeremiah!) who pastored Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas, and Bob Russell, who pastored Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Bob wrote a prayer once that Joe borrowed, adapted and then used to open the Kansas State House of Representatives back in 1996. It was a prayer that asked God for forgiveness involving various things, including a few hot button political issues. And while it really attacked items on both sides of the aisle, it nevertheless insinuated that certain things…

…brace yourself…

are sinful before God.

(insert large GASP here)

So OK, I KNOW I’m a radical. I get it. I believe in God, and I believe the Bible reveals God to us. And crazy as it sounds, I believe we have to come to God on His terms not ours. God judges all of us for sin, He judges nations for sin, and eventually, He’ll judge the world for sin. Me and you included.

The Bible however makes it clear that it is not God’s will to destroy us or condemn us for sin, but to forgive us and give us an abundant life -here, but especially, in eternity. Even in the Old Testament, God said stuff like this: Continue reading “Homosexuality, Abortion, Gambling… Issues that Influence Christians”