Statistics show that religious liberty around the world is a precious and endangered human right. Statistics further show that in the set of all acts of religious persecution, the majority of such acts are directed against Christians. Saddest of all, statistics for recent years in the US show a rising number of events which may not meet the legal standard to be called persecution, but they are the sort of events that can easily escalate to that level. It is clear that Christians must be alert and attentive to cultural pressures that influence governmental pressures on human liberty. In fact, it is possible for pressure to restrict a right not specifically limited to religious liberty to seriously infringe on religious liberty.
In a recent blog post, Matthew Clark provided some important perspective on an IRS plan to monitor speech in churches. The IRS has announced that it will collaborate with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a manner not yet publicly disclosed. The purpose will be to determine if a church is advocating a position on a political issue, whether it be in the realm of social morality such as abortion or in the realm of elections such as support for a candidate who stands for traditional marriage.
The US Constitution specifically prohibits the federal government from engaging in such a practice, because the Constitution protects both free speech and religious liberty. Every citizen, whether or not he is a member of a church, whether or not he is a pastor of a church, has the fundamental human right to hold and express his views on all matters. However, as Ronald Reagan pointed out years ago, we are never more than one generation from tyranny, because each generation must defend liberty as if the battle had never been won before. The IRS proposal to monitor what is said in churches specifically intrudes on freedom of speech, but by imposing such monitoring on churches, it also intrudes on religious liberty, because such monitoring makes it clear that the IRS believes it can and must prevent churches from promoting their views by teaching members to act on positions that are being discussed in political circles. It is as if the IRS is saying that churches have no right to speak on any moral issue if the public is talking about it. Since the people who founded the USA have always regarded the churches as integral to the moral fiber of the nation, it is hard to imagine how the IRS concluded that churches should be prevented from speaking on any issue.
What is a Christian to do about this information? How does God want us to live and behave when our deeply held convictions are threatened in this manner?
Paul wrote to the church in Rome, the seat of government for the Roman Empire, a government that was corrupt and tyrannical in many ways. He told them, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Rom 13:2 Many people in the USA certainly believe that this country was founded by people who trusted God and followed his guidance. The Constitution of the USA sets a standard for government that has been copied all over the world, and many people believe that God inspired the design of government in the Constitution. It builds in structures that impede tyranny as long as the citizens and the elected officials live by God’s moral code. The authors of the Constitution conceded from the beginning that only people with personal integrity could make this government work. It was always understood that the integrity of the voters and the integrity of elected officials was crucial to the success of the designed government. When the integrity was missing, the liberties would die. Yet, even though Paul knew how corrupt and tyrannical Roman government was, he taught early Christians to be good citizens. He modelled that citizenship in his own life, taking his case to the emperor, his right as a Roman citizen, in order to obey his higher calling to take the name of Christ to Gentiles.
Peter likewise admonished Christians to be good citizens, saying that governors “are sent by [God] to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” 1 Peter 2:14 Peter, too, advocated good citizenship as a testimony to Christ. He taught that “doing good” would “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” 1 Peter 2:15 However, this is the same Peter who, ordered to stop preaching in the name of Christ, replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19-20 In Peter’s life there is a model for obedience to authority, right up to the point where that obedience conflicts with obedience to God.
This is the conflict being addressed in the book of Revelation, written to churches under serious threat because of the unwillingness of Christians to worship the emperor. They were viewed as traitors for this attitude, because while Peter taught that Christians should pray for the emperor, he never tried to tell Christians they should pray to the emperor. Roman citizens who were not ignorant of the depravity of Roman emperors often worshiped tongue in cheek in order to be politically correct. They thought Christians were silly for balking at a public ritual. Christians were ridiculed then for their conviction that they must worship and obey God, just as they are ridiculed now for the same reason. In Revelation, Christians are encouraged to hold fast to their testimony, no matter the price, and the book is full of promised rewards for “him who overcomes.” To overcome in Revelation is to overcome the temptation to go along to get along.
What is a Christian in the USA to do when government intrudes into the words and deeds of churches? The Bible teaches good citizenship and faithful testimony to Christ.
As good citizens, Christians have both the right and the responsibility to use the powers of citizenship, speech and the vote, to push back against tyranny. To act as a responsible citizen in advocacy for the God-given rights protected by the Constitution is not a benefit solely for Christians; it benefits every citizen. Christians may be the target today, but tomorrow it could be some other group. Therefore, when Christians recognize that the government is trying to diminish or destroy rights protected in the design of the government, they have the obligation as citizens to prevent that overreach of government.
In faithful testimony to Christ, Christians must not accede to government overreach and go silent on matters of public morality and good government. They must speak on the subjects of God’s plan for families, God’s sovereignty in the gift of life, and God’s insistence on truth and integrity in human words and deeds. Inside churches or outside of churches, Christians must stand on biblical principles and speak God’s truth.
At the same time, both as a duty of good citizenship and as a duty of faithful testimony, Christians must uphold the government and all the officials of government in prayer. Christians must ask for God’s guidance in their own words and deeds as parties to conflicts between the government and the citizens.
It is not always easy to know the right thing to do. Some of the social problems facing the culture are so complex that human wisdom is inadequate to the task of solving them, but none of those problems is beyond God’s understanding or concern.
The fact that the IRS even explores the notion of monitoring the speech of churches with a view to suppressing speech deemed as political is an affront to the First Amendment. The fact that the IRS even explores the notion of monitoring any speech whatsoever is an affront to the First Amendment. God-fearing men wrote that amendment because they believed that the freedom to hold and express opinions is God-given, not something for government to dole out.
What do you suggest Christians do?