July 19, 2014

Why Does America Still Have Freedom of Religion?

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Freedom of religion was a radical shift from the status quo in the Western World at the time of the American Revolution.  To have freedom of religion meant that the State would not be able to use political means in order to limit the right of the people to adhere to their consciences and practice their service to God peacefully, without intervention.  To be sure, it is an exaggeration to indicate that the British subjects were without choices when it came to their religious preferences and convictions.  But the truth of the matter is that the relationship between the Church of England and the political mindset of imperial Statism was such that to have a religious conviction that stood opposite the opinion of the King and “his” Church, was to be seen as a traitor.  Therefore, to believe, as the Puritans did, that the Kingdom of God would overcome all earthly Kingdoms was a dangerous doctrine indeed.  Kings don’t like their kingdoms threatened.

One of the most prevailing “token” lines in conservative Christian circles today is something like, “I’m thankful that, in America, we don’t have to be afraid of where we worship.”  That is usually followed by a statement about “Communist China” or “Soviet Russia” or “Muslim dominated Middle East.”  The point is, of course, that America is a free country simply because we are unique in that way.

With all the outstanding breaches of individual rights in the latter half of the twentieth century, why has the freedom to practice religion not been struck down to the same extent as many other freedoms?  Why can we still go to Church in a world where our civil liberties are rapidly being swept away.  Most other nations that have transitioned to authoritarian regimes have attacked the right to religious assembly first.  Very few people have actually pondered the reasons behind this.  America is quickly loosing its liberties and this is not a new reality.  It has taken place since the Progressive era.  Yes, the freedom of speech, especially religious speech, has been attacked.  And yes the freedom to include Christian curriculum in home and private schools has been slammed.  But why not the freedom to assemble for religious reasons specifically?  Why can we still unite into whatever denomination that pleases us?

Indeed, if the loss of religious freedom is one of the first benefits of a free society to be taken away during a dictator’s rise to power, why have we not seen it in America specifically?

It is my view that Christians today have largely lost the mindset that the State is not to be sovereign over society.  The freedom of religion was an important facet in the late 18th century because to be a Christian meant to realize that earthly tyranny was an evil, an abomination to God.  Christians understood that the State must obey the same ethical precepts as the individual.  The States hated this development.  The Protestant Reformation brought the same effect; the Roman Church was not to exercise a tyranny over all of Christendom.

In “Communist China” or “Soviet Russia” or “Muslim dominated Middle East,” the leadership has realized that Christians with a voice would be able to speak boldly against the dictators.  So why doesn’t the quite authoritarian American Government fear its Christians?  Perhaps because, devastatingly, Christians have been the greatest proponents of the Warfare State (for Republican Christians) and the Welfare State (for Democrat Christians).  Of course the Government does not fear American Christians!

The Christians are their biggest fans!

Christianity today has refused to apply Christ’s moral teachings to the State.  The State gets a free pass on morality because it is a government.  Christians, we ought to be ashamed.  The State will seek and destroy those who threaten it.  And yet it has largely– up until the last several years– left the institution of religious assembly alone.  Where are those Christians who apply their complaints of world tyrants to the actions of political leaders in America?  It seems that the consistent Christian ought to “test all things and hold fast to what is good.”  If there is perhaps a President toward whom conservatives tend to flock (say, Ronald Reagan), are we not to judge his actions by the same standard of a President whom the conservatives tend to despise (say, Barack Obama)?  Is Reagan ballooning the deficit morally better than Obama ballooning the deficit?  Is Obama’s socialism, war-waging, spying, and much-criticized unilateral executive activity morally worse than when Bush, at the urge of GOP leadership, pursued the very same means toward Government expansionism?

The United States government, controlled as it is by the politicians and monetary elite, has nothing to do with words like “justice,” “constitution,” “security,” “freedom,” “leadership,” or any other political catch phrase. The Federal Government threatens its own people beyond the unproven extent to which it says Iran, China, and Russian do.  Asking the State to protect us from the “bad guys” (the State needs the “bad guys” to stay in their trillion-dollar business) is like asking the leader of the gang to protect you from the petty thieves. Petty thieves are bad. Gang leaders are worse.

But at least Americans have not been deceived about the nature of the gang leader –the same cannot be said of the State.

Of course, by this I do not wish to contradict Paul’s warnings in Romans 13 wherein he is clear that subjection (I elaborate here) is our role as Christians, despite (not because of) the State’s (inherently necessary) evils.  But nowhere in the concept of subjection is there an idea that Christians ought to forsake moral standard or stay silent on issues of justice and ethics.  In fact, it is precisely the nature of the Christian, as the salt and light of the world, that he speak the truth to a decaying society and government.  In a world where Christian groups are essentially bamboozled into keep quiet for 501(c)(3) tax reasons, it is time to be brave.  Brave in the sense that, if we do begin to vocalize the desire for liberty, the true nature of the State will be demonstrated.

But when it comes to fighting for freedom, will freedom be sought by cozying up to power?  Or by taking part in a revolution of the intellect, that is, by seeking to change the minds of the people in respect to their authoritarian rulers? The American Christian world needs a change of mind toward the State. We have worshipped, trusted it, made friends with it for too long.

And once the State feels threatened by the Christian message, then persecution will come.  This world is not our home.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Just thinking about the absence of church’s prophetic voice…Isn’t it related to her departure from the Reformation concept of the Bible?

  • Interesting thing, as most Christians are fighting against the dictates of Kathleen Sibelius that resulted from Christians’ rejection of the right to discrimination in their support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the demand to provide contraceptive services to employees does indeed violate religious rights, it also violates the freedom of association, the right to discrimination based on anything.