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Religious Freedom and the Christian Conundrum

Thu, Jul. 21, 2016 Posted: 11:27 AM


According to yourdictionary.com, the definition of conundrum is a situation where there is no clear right answer or no good solution. That is a very useful definition for understanding the problem(s) facing the American Christian when it comes to our alleged struggle for religious freedom in a religiously pluralistic society. An American society that is growing more ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse is challenging the conventional interpretation of the original intent of the Framers of our most sacred and revered national document, the Constitution of the United States of America.

What many Christians mean and understand by religious freedom in America is that the laws governing the nation must affirm Judeo-Christian ideals and morality, and that the Church must have a say, even a veto, in how the nation is governed, and how the culture evolves. This, they seem to believe, is the just and free exercise of their religion. And they are convinced that this is constitutionally guaranteed.

The U.S. Constitution is not a Christianity affirming document

The first clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There is no dispute that the United States of America was founded in part on the idea that people ought to be free to practice their religion without coercion or interference from the government. The challenge is how to interpret that part of the amendment.

In the Christian community it is mostly taken for granted that the U.S. Constitution is a religious document, or more specifically, a Christian affirming document, thereby making America a Christian Nation. So for this community, the religious freedom clause is generally seen as a divine proclamation of the special place Christianity has in the society. The irony is this interpretation is untenable because it immediately violates the Constitution in two ways: (1) it shows favorability for the Christion religion, and (2) it is a de facto establishment of a national religion.

A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll finds that a majority of Americans do not believe the United States is a Christian nation. According to the study, 56% of white evangelical Protestants, and 48% of white mainline Protestants believe that America was once a Christian nation, but no longer is. That is wishful thinking finally succumbing to reality.

Of course, there are scores of erudite dissenters who would argue that some of the Framers were indeed Christians and wrote from their core convictions, making the finished product the fruit of Christian morality. But it is a gratuitous assumption that they were guided by Christian virtues as opposed to humanistic ideals. For we also know that they were educated men very familiar with the various form of governments of their times and the philosophical writings of Plato. While some were Christians, they were primarily Deists or Unitarians as opposed to being Christians; and some were not even religious in the sense of practicing any form of religion.

In fact, in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797, a portion reads: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." That seems to have been a deliberate attempt to make clear, and for the record, that the government, and thus the United States of America, was not to be considered a Christian nation. The Treaty was read aloud in the Senate and each Senator received a copy. There were no dissensions as they voted unanimously to pass it.

Free Exercise does not mean without restrictions

Thomas Jefferson believed in religious liberty and yet introduced "the wall of separation between church and state," in 1802. This seemed necessary for him to write in addressing Connecticut evangelicals, as a demarcation between a secular government and the interests of a special religious group. More than two hundred years ago it was necessary to point out to some Christians in America that there is a boundary between religious and secular matters, even while the ideal of religious liberty is maintained; but more importantly, that religious entities do not run the government.

The way the Amendment is written forces one to read it from the government’s perspective that it allows, as a basic human right, the free exercise of religion. Congress is the entity charged by the Constitution to make the laws. The stream does not flow backwards giving any religious group the authority to dictate how the government does it. The government is subject only to the Constitution.

As the American society grows more diverse in every facet of life, the government is bound by the Constitution to allow the free exercise of the various religions that are part of the lives and cultures of the disparate groups of peoples. However, the government has to mitigate certain practices of these religions in order to maintain a civil society, and to restrict certain rituals that are not in keeping with the ideals of the Bill of Rights.

If the freedom clause was to be taken at face value, then ritual sacrifices and cannibalism, practiced by some religions in their native countries, would have to be allowed in the United States as a constitutional guarantee once those adherents migrate here. Any infringement upon that right would be restricting their religious freedom. That may be an extreme example, but the reductio ad absurdum makes the point that just because we are guaranteed religious freedom, the Constitution certainly did not intend an indiscriminate application.

Religions are by nature exclusivists, and there is very little tolerance for the “other.” With any kind of freedom comes the need for personal responsibility as well as accountability to the public. The government has to balance the rights of the religious and the non-religious. The rub is really felt when religious organizations do commerce within a secular marketplace. If each religious group is unrestricted in the exercise of certain practices then chaos would ensue, and abuse and discrimination of all kinds would run rampant. Society would revert to tribalism. Both Paul and Peter recognized this reality and, under the guide of the Holy Spirit, reminded Christians that God ordained and authorized governments to maintain order in the society (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-21).

In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul made the point that within a secular society, holding people to the Christian standard of morality applies to members of that community where their conducts are judged, but does not apply to those without the Church. He understood that even though the actions of non-believers are still sin, and are under the condemnation of God’s righteous judgment, it was not the Church’s responsibility to indict them and hold them legally guilty where secular law does not. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges” (12-13, NASB).

Free Exercise is for All Religions

It is a harsh reality for Christians who have enjoyed the benefits of being the majority religious group for so long, with the inevitable consequence of having politicians sharing the same religious background making laws, to now be faced with diminishing influence in government. And who can blame them for feeling that their religious freedom is being eroded? It is more likely, though, that they have not come to grips with the fact that the Constitution and the First Amendment is not just about their religious freedom.

The challenge facing many Christians about religious freedom is that the society is not disposed to abide by Christian principles. We do feel that America owes us special treatment and that because a majority of Americans currently self-identify as Christians, the laws and ordinances should be weighted in our favor. Because this is not the case, we feel that our religious freedom is being eroded. We react to any legislative ruling that is not in keeping with our standards or expectations as an attack on our religious freedom.

The Constitution does not, and was never intended to give special treatment to Christianity at the expense of all other religions. The Constitution never really made the United States a Christian Nation – it couldn’t have. The very ideal of religious liberty ensconced in the freedom clause gives equal weight to every, and all religions. So despite the claim that our nation was founded on Christian principles, our guiding document pays no special respect to Christianity.

The idea that the government must codify our standards on the basis that they are required by the God of Christians for a righteous nation is not tolerated by the Constitution. That would subjugate other religions and force them under the penalty of law to adopt religious practices they may be opposed to, especially if those practices conflict with their traditional practices, thereby denying them the free exercise of their religion.

Christians revere the Constitution. But the very thing they esteem and have turned to for centuries as approving of their special status, has grown up. What a mature Constitution now reveals, and, perhaps, was intended by the Framers, is that it never regarded Christians as special or different from anyone else. It has to be handed to the writers of the Constitution for their prescience. The document was brilliantly written to anticipate a religiously pluralistic society, and to preserve the right of each person to freely practice religion in their own way. It is now obvious that the Framers intent was not only to guarantee the freedom of religion from the influence of the government, but also to guarantee the freedom of the government from the influence of religion.

That is where “Constitutional” Christians are confused and struggle.

Marvin Thompson