Tag Archives: First Amendment

Who Needs Autonomous Religions?

In his 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen L. Carter said, “autonomous religions play a vital role as free critics of the institutions of secular society.” The hubbub surrounding the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision makes it clear that the culture is flummoxed by any idea that a religion could be autonomous. It is autonomous religion that teaches its members to live by their principles 24/7. That little icon, 24/7, is the key to the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, and it underlies a great many ongoing disputes.
Twenty-first century culture deifies the notion of living 24/7. Be a dreamer. Seek your goals and don’t let anyone crush your dream. Stand up for yourself. Be who you are 24/7, and don’t let anyone steal your self from you. This is the mantra of secular self-actualization, but when a person of faith lives by his or her faith 24/7, all of a sudden this commitment means that this person wants to push his faith off on other people, and the culture cannot tolerate someone who does that. The fact that activities to explain faith or even invite other people to believe are not the same thing as becoming tyrannical over other people seems not to be important. The important thing is that somebody somewhere has decreed that people with religious faith must keep their faith to themselves, this despite the fact that other people’s beliefs assault people of faith in the form of ads on websites for general news and public service announcements ceaselessly teaching the philosophies politicians espouse make it difficult to watch or listen to any content on any subject without being invited, or even forcefully motivated, to think what someone else thinks is a good idea.
Comments online and even on television and twitter repeat the cultural accusation that the Supreme Court has ruled that an employer may invade the bedroom of an employee. Yet all the owners of Hobby Lobby ever asked was the Constitutional right to “exercise” their faith. They did not ask that the law be changed to require every American citizen to do what they do. They asked only to be free to live according to the teachings of their faith. They learned the teachings, because in the USA, their religion is autonomous. The government of the US, unlike the government of China, does not try to tell any religion what it must teach. Unlike the government of Tajikistan, it does not tell parents that they may not teach their religion to their children. Unlike the government of Laos, it does not withdraw citizenship from someone whose faith principles prevent him from celebrating local animist rituals that other citizens practice habitually. In the USA, the Constitution gives each religion the autonomy to decide its own teachings and the freedom to teach its adherents the principles of its faith. Every follower, like the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby is protected by the Constitution when “exercising” the principles taught by his religion.
Why does Carter believe that the role of religions is vital to a secular society? The answer lies in the values taught by religions. Secularists tend to think that whatever makes an individual happy is right for that individual. This rule of thumb may work for a person who lives in isolation, but not so well for communities. In a community, people need standards of more enduring value and broader application than each person’s individual muse.
The important thing to know about autonomous religion is that it operates independently; nobody outside the religion’s governing structures tells the religion what to believe or what to teach. An autonomous religion determines its beliefs, its teachings and its values without input from the culture or the government. In fact, those entities, important as they are, have no influence on the teachings of an autonomous religion. The religion has its own sacred sources from which it receives direction with regard to principles.
Furthermore, an autonomous religion reacts and develops independently of culture or government. In the Hobby Lobby case, the developments which resulted in passage of the Affordable Care Act derived from political considerations shaped by secular pressures in the culture. Politics may feel the need to respond to cultural pressure, because the people in the culture vote, but an autonomous religion has no obligation to voters. Its wisdom and moral guidance does not come from the culture; it comes from the religion’s sacred sources by means of writings, tradition, revelation or any combination of those elements. There may be religions that are culture-oriented, but if so, they are rare and sparsely followed. Hobby Lobby’s owners live by a religious tradition of values that go back thousands of years and that have been taught consistently to millions of believers. These religious values are shaped by revelation, tradition and sacred writings, none of which take any note of changing cultural trends. It is very common for cultural trends to clash with immovable religious standards. An attempt to compel people whose moral fiber is shaped by their faith poses incalculable stresses that the government need not impose. The Constitution is designed specifically to prevent the behemoth of government from imposing such stresses on people of faith.
The Constitutional solution is important for the health of the nation. When people are compelled to choose between faith and government, the pressure is incalculable. Early Christians faced exactly this kind of pressure, and there was no Constitutional protection for them. They were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed, because there was no protective buffer between individuals and that powerful government. Good people died, because they could not sacrifice the faith that sustained their lives. Strong people died. Talented people died. Leaders died. The Empire lost many valuable citizens because the empire of Rome could not tolerate autonomous religions.
Thank goodness the government of the USA is constrained by the Constitution to allow religions to exist in autonomy. The government may not choose a single religion and force everyone to belong. The chosen church may not deliver edicts to the head of state in opposition to the will of the people. In the USA, the autonomy of the religions sets up a culture in which the values taught by the religions are expressed in the political discourse and the decisions of the electorate, not in the administrative bureaucracy of government. The values expressed in the votes of the people become the values that shape specific acts, but at no time is any particular religion “in power.” The citizens with their votes are always “in power.”
The Hobby Lobby decision is an example of what happens when the autonomy of religions and the fundamental human rights of believers are respected. The Hobby Lobby decision gave government the guidance it needed in order to achieve what it said were compelling government interests without exerting tyrannical control over private citizens whose religious convictions were outraged by the Affordable Care Act.

Are Christians Persecuted in the USA?

By the strictest definition of the work persecute there is no persecution of Christians in the USA. However, persecution seldom arises full-blown in any country. It develops over time. The seed is sown as disinformation about Christianity is spread in conversations, blog posts, public discussions and printed material. Disinformation casts Christianity as anything from an annoyance to a real threat to non-Christians, and the reaction of non-Christians may be as mild as name-calling in a shopping mall or as severe as lawsuits pursued all the way to the Supreme Court. Harassment may lead to actual discrimination, a practice forbidden in law but easily practiced by pretending some other motive.

That path to persecution is littered with the establishment of dangerous precedents. For example, in contemporary culture, the generic issues of health care, marriage and education are seething stews of hot button issues that turn on personal values shaped by religious teachings. When legal discussions succeed in dissecting the issues to separate actions from the values of people embroiled in them, court decisions can set precedents that feel like persecution to individuals who cannot live by their faith principles without running afoul of laws or regulations. Increasingly, the secular stance of the culture shapes a secular stance by government. The secular worldview is not itself persecution, but it is diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview. The conflict between worldviews can and does lead to persecution. It has happened in countries around the world, and it could happen in the USA

In the US, the First Amendment to the US Constitution historically has moderated the friction between secularism and Christianity. At the beginning of the nation, most of the parties to discussions in this realm agreed on terminology and definitions without writing out the terms and the definitions. They simply understood one another. Today, the tacit agreements of the past no longer stand, and disagreement over the terms is creating new points of friction.

Contemporary Christians chafe at the changes but are loathe to use the word persecution. It sounds overblown. They do not want to call it persecution when an employer forbids employees to wish customers a “Merry Christmas.” They don’t even want to call it persecution when a student is forbidden to pray in a valedictory address, bad though they may think the ruling is. They want to get along, and they do not want to start trouble.

This is the real challenge. When might the courage of one’s convictions become thoughtless and irresponsible trouble-making? In first century Jerusalem, the same question arose. The apostles were going around talking about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a real sore spot for Jewish religious leaders and Roman government officials. They had executed Jesus in order to shut down trouble, but trouble seemed to erupt despite everything. Ignorant fishermen made the powers that be look ridiculous by claiming their “execution” was a failure, and even worse, they were performing miracles of healing in the name of the very troublemaker who had been executed. The people with power in the culture and the government tried to make deals with these people. They said that if the followers of Jesus would just shut up, the people with power would leave them alone. The followers of Jesus refused to shut up, saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” The public disagreements escalated from disinformation (these people just want to make trouble) to harassment (demands by religious leaders to shut up) to discrimination (refusal to hire Christians or allow them to live in certain places) to outright persecution (beatings, stonings, imprisonment and public executions).

Nothing has changed. People in the US have become comfortable about being Christian, because until recently, the culture actually thought being Christian was a good thing. Public officials wanted to be known for regular church attendance, whether or not they believed anything. That state of affairs has ended. And that is no real loss. What is lost, however, is an easy, comfortable assumption that being a Christian is a social plus.

What should Christians do about it?

Christians must open their eyes. The cultural pressures that create the momentum to persecution seem almost too trivial or even too ridiculous to worry about. Some Christians feel that it looks immature to object when somebody says, “It offends me when you say that Christ is the way to God.” In the name of being considerate and sensitive to the feelings of others, Christians back away and back away and back away.

Jesus teaches his followers to love people who oppose them, and he even teaches his followers to turn the other cheek, but he also insists that his followers must never stop putting him first. The entire book of Revelation is devoted to one consistent message: overcoming. Christians do not overcome the world by aggression; they overcome by clinging to Christ. When they are opposed, they cling to Christ, they claim his name and his promise to go with them, and they never recant. When they are assaulted and abused, they turn the other cheek, and they keep saying, “Christ died for you, too.” When they are told to keep their religion to themselves, they simply do not do it; they share Christ everywhere at all times. They overcome persecution by never giving up Christ. Their victories may at times look like defeat. Christ on the cross looked like a loser, but the empty tomb testifies that Christ is the winner, the victor.

In the US today, a Christian’s neighbors do not gather around and demand he leave town because everybody else is a Buddhist. It won’t hold water in a US court to accuse a Christian of blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. The local shaman will not assemble a mob to burn down a Christian’s house because he refuses to contribute to the annual fertility festival. Those kinds of aggression do sound like persecution even to western ears. By comparison, battles over prayer in schools, wearing a cross at work, and even the funding of birth control don’t actually sound like persecution. Nevertheless, it is important to remember than unless Christians step up and defend the boundaries of religious liberty, the pressure of creeping secularism will steadily shrink the accepted scope of religious liberty. Christians in the US may not be persecuted today, in the strictest sense of the word, but their right to the free exercise of their faith is seriously under assault. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation do not try to hide the fact that they want religion shut down and cleaned out of US society. They are quite clear that each time they win a victory, they celebrate the narrowing of religious liberty, and they consider that small victory to be a stepping stone to the ultimate victory of removing religion from the culture forever.

Christ never taught us that we should expect it to be easy to live obedient to him. He said, “All men will hate you because of me.” Matthew 9:22 The cultural and even governmental restrictions that pressure Christians to be less and less visible may not be persecution, but if the enemies of Christianity achieve their objective, the suppression of the good news of Christ, persecution will not be needed. Persecution arises only when less violent tactics fail. Christians must be faithful against the least rejection, the tiniest restriction of free exercise of faith. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Satan’s battle to defeat the good news of Christ may begin with nothing more than a whisper. Never doubt, however, that when Satan takes the smallest step to diminish Christ’s influence in the world, he has every intention of carrying the battle to its fullest development. The fact that Christians are not “persecuted” in the US today does not mean that it will not happen.

The Juggernaut Rolls Forward

A couple of years ago, the Cheektowaga Central School District of the state of New York reprimanded a teacher who displayed Bible verses and other material about her Christian faith, and all the material she had displayed was removed from her room. At the same time, a social worker at the high school was permitted to display materials supportive of LGBT political and social activism, such as bumper stickers, the Human Rights Campaign’s “Equal” sign, and other related materials.

The alleged reason for removing Christian materials from the teacher’s room was that they were “offensive” to a student. The teacher pointed out that materials supporting LGBT activism are also “offensive” to some students. The situation was instigated when the school administration received a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation alleging that an anonymous student was offended by the Christian material in the teacher’s classroom. There is no evidence that the complaining student has ever been identified.

The teacher, Joelle Silver, filed a lawsuit claiming that removal of her Christian materials infringed her First Amendment rights to speak of her faith and that the continued display of LGBT materials inside and outside the social worker’s office infringed Ms. Silver’s equal right to display materials that promote her worldview.
Judge Leslie G. Foschio who heard the case ruled that the teacher’s First Amendment rights were not infringed, but that the lawsuit alleging selective enforcement could proceed. Ms. Silver is represented by the American Freedom Law Center, whose founder and senior counsel, Robert Muise, declared that he will definitely carry Ms. Silver’s case forward, rejecting any insinuation that the school was right to pretend that a display of Bible verses and a prayer box was a breach of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Christians who believe that the Constitution protects the free exercise of faith and who likewise believe that the LGBT agenda is a moral affront to society must make US culture a matter of sincere and fervent prayer. Not only is the school displaying real hostility to the Christian faith, but it is also displaying preference for a moral position that is hostile to the Christian faith. No Christian would advocate hostility toward individuals enslaved by the misconceptions that lead people to believe that they are homosexual, but no Christian would advocate that such individuals should be told that this attitude is normal.

Christians are not hostile to people who think they are homosexual and cannot change, because most people enslaved by sin believe that they cannot change. In fact, most slaves of sin believe that they do not want to change. They want to believe that their way of life is not only just fine, but also probably superior to the lifestyle of boring and ordinary people. Christians are hostile, however, to advocacy for attitudes and behaviors that degrade human beings. Homosexual behavior falls into that category. Murder, theft, and lies fall into that category. Christians reject the behaviors and they reject advocacy for such behavior, but they do not reject the people deluded by the advocacy. People who have bought into the lie that homosexuality is normal are to be pitied just as the person who believes the used car dealer who says, “Have I got a deal for you!” and then foists off a junker that will barely make it out of the dealer’s lot.

It is important for Christians in the USA to be assertive about our rights to speak and live our faith and to do such things in the sight and hearing of others. Christians who want to be able to speak and act must have the personal discipline to be gracious toward people who espouse views in opposition. Christians must never be the ones who attempt to keep other people from expressing their views. Rather, with love and commitment to Christ, Christians must simply ask for what the Constitution guarantees: the right to speak of faith and to live by the principles of faith.

The attitude expressed both by the actions of the school administration and the decision of the judge sound more in keeping with some central Asian “secular” government than with the US Constitution. In Tajikistan, for example, children under 18 may not even be taught about any religion. The government forbids it. Christian parents must be very wise in their choice of words around their own children, lest the children pick up and speak any words that the government forbids. If Christian parents in Tajikistan speak of Christian teachings to children, they can be arrested and jailed. Certainly, in Tajikistan, a teacher who spoke publicly of Christian faith in a classroom would be reprimanded, if not actually arrested. The USA is not Tajikistan, nor do Americans with any wisdom want to be like Tajikistan. Yet the behavior of the Cheektowaga Central School District of the state of New York sounds much more like Tajikistan than like the USA.

The United States has for 238 years been a unique nation. It does not have a state religion, and it prohibits the suppression of any religion. This is the power of the US Constitution. It is not convenient or delightful for Joelle Silver to go to court over her right to display post-it notes with Bible verses on them or to place a prayer box on her desk or her right to mention that she is a Christian with specific beliefs. Lawsuits are not fun. Yet, like the work of police and soldiers to defend what is good from aggression by the forces of evil, Joelle Silver’s lawsuit becomes part of the defense of all that is right and good. When evil attacks good, if nobody defends good, evil wins.

Pray that God will use Joelle Silver’s lawsuit in his work to protect the rights and responsibilities of Christians to be salt and light in a dark world.

How Does Persecution Develop in a Free Country?

It is interesting to surf the web and look at the constitutions, laws and international treaties which establish the legal environment of countries around the world. People who read the news that an American citizen was arrested in some country because he was a Christian do not often realize what really happened. They believe that these countries have a law buried in their legal code which can be summarized as, “Get rid of the Christians.” Americans tend to believe that the idea of state persecution is antiquated and could not be real in this century. It is a misconception to believe that persecution is energized by laws specifically ordering persecution. While numerous nations do have state religions, persecution can be equally severe in a nation with no religion at all.

Jesus predicted the downward spiral persecution would take:

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man![1] Luke 6:22

The four steps on the path to persecution are

1)      opposition

2)      disinformation

3)      injustice, and

4)      mistreatment

Jesus said that these things would happen “on account of the Son of Man.”

In the US currently, the major threats to Christians and Christianity come from secularism. There are actually a number of countries where secularism is the source of the persecution. In the US the Freedom from Religion Foundation is one of the very active agents of secular restriction of Christianity. The cultural pressure to restrict Christians is energized by growing numbers of citizens who claim no religious connections and disavow any existence outside time and space. A pseudo-scientific agenda insists that “science has proved” things that science has never proved and insists on suppressing Christian thought, Christian practices, and even symbols of Christianity. This action in the culture, sometimes achieved by torturing logic in lawsuits alleging “establishment” infractions, is animated not only by outright atheists, but also by people who claim to be Christians. Such Christians support the notion that religion is a private matter that must not be brought into public forums in any form. Secularists and some progressive Christians claim that religious liberty is a thin disguise for religious privilege, while other progressive Christians completely deny the principles for which orthodox Christians are willing to die. In the US it is sometimes hard for orthodox Christians to know who their friends are.

In nations where secular thinking governs both the culture and the government to a greater degree than in the US today, it is possible to see what will come. If the pressure is not reduced by some means, the US will develop means of restricting and suppressing Christian faith just as other secular nations have done. In nations whose governments call themselves “secular” the constitution usually permits people to choose and belong to religions of their free choice, but there is no freedom that corresponds to the concept of “free exercise” that is included the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The US principle of “free exercise” is at the root of the deepest disputes with secularism. Below is a list of a few countries that currently feature prominently in any list of countries that persecute Christians. Since every country felt it necessary to create laws to restrain the influence of churches outside their worship spaces, and more laws to restrict the existence of worship spaces, it seems clear that these countries regard religion with all the enthusiasm hikers have for poison ivy.

    • Uzbekistan – the constitution guarantees separation of church and state, but the state enacts laws that define what a church is, and churches are required to document compliance with that definition. This process corresponds roughly to the US requirement that organizations requesting tax-exempt status must prove compliance with the law in a 501 c 3 application.

In Uzbekistan, police showed up at the home of a Christian woman and demanded to search her home. They confiscated literature, her computer and her passport. She is accused of possessing religious literature that is not on the approved list. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable that the US government intruded into the content of religious literature or private religious observance. However, it is now documented that the IRS asked some groups applying for 501 c 4 status to document the content of their prayers.

    • Tajikistan – the constitution states that the government is secular. The state enacts laws that define churches and specify restricted behaviors for the ostensible purpose of assuring that no religion achieves control of the state.

Tajikistan requires that education be completely secular. Children are forbidden to receive religious education before age 18. Both parents must approve if a child attends a worship service such as a funeral or wedding. The concept of state control of all education is similarly embodied in the German law that forbids even home schools to teach any curriculum counter to that of the state. The current demand by the federal government for all schools to teach federal Common Core curriculum is a step down that path. The recent refusal of the US Department of Justice to certify refugee status for a family that fled Germany over German law that forbids home schools to teach anything different than the government is an event with disturbing portent for American Christians who homeschool their children for the precise reason that they do not want their children to be taught what is taught in public schools.

In Tajikistan, the government confiscated two church buildings on the grounds that the buildings were not registered for religious meetings. In Marathon, Florida, when the city council invited local pastors to pray before council meetings, there was considerable public outcry at the notion of religious observance in a non-religious meeting place.

    • Turkmenistan – the constitution states that the government is secular. It makes laws that define churches and the laws list approved religious literature.

In Turkmenistan, a man was severely beaten for possessing an e-book version of the Bible, because it was not the version registered with the government for Christians to use.

    • Kazakhstan – The constitution states that Kazakhstan is a secular state, and the state makes laws to define churches, to register religious organizations and worship spaces, and to specify approved religious literature. It is illegal to entice or compel anyone to change his religion, although the constitution states that people may choose and change their religion at will.

In Kazakhstan a Christian man was dismissed from his job for mentioning his faith to fellow workers.

Each of these countries would tell anyone who asked that they have constitutional protection of religious liberty. Yet each of these countries feels the need to create laws to define and restrict all religious speech and activity, all under the guise of protecting religious liberty. These countries and others that have laws about registering religions and worship space and religious literature all have complex and lethargic bureaucracies that add another layer of restriction to religion, because some applications simply never quite make it through the process. US citizens should pay particular attention to the kinds of processes created as well as the bureaucratic structure created to administer the processes. Applicants who “got lost” in the process of applying for 501 c 4 status in the lead-up to the 2012 elections could testify to the ability of the federal government to restrict perfectly legal activity by creating a process and a bureaucratic snarl that effectively shuts the activity down. If the federal government in the US ever officially decides that unfettered religion is a danger to civil society, it already has a ready-made model which can be appropriated to address the “threat.”

The doorway to persecution in the USA is being pushed open by both cultural and political forces. The activists of persecution are pouring through the doorway. Many are busy about the work of opposition. Some are already in the business of disinformation. The courts in general still provide a bulwark against injustice, although secular thinkers increasingly allege that Christians who claim the right of “free exercise” of religion in opposition to government mandates amounts to demands for religious privilege. To date, Christians in the US have not been subject to mistreatment—arrest, torture or execution. It is still possible to enjoy religious liberty in the US, but that liberty is threatened on every hand. Both cultural and political pressure is increasing in the direction of restricting and suppressing any expression of Christian faith in daily life. It needs to be repeated that the pressure is increasing. It is bearable today, and egregious behavior that severely restricts Christians who try to live their faith has so far been stopped by courts faithful to the Constitution’s protection for religious liberty. Nevertheless, if Christians wish to continue to enjoy religious liberty in the USA, prayerful vigilance, and vigilant prayers will be required.

On March 25 and 26, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on two cases that grow out of the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This case will be a crucial case for religious liberty. Regardless of anyone’s personal convictions about the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements for health insurance policies, everyone’s personal convictions about the free exercise of religion are at stake. The federal government’s argument on these cases to date has been to say that when someone opens his doors to conduct business, he has no right to exercise his religious convictions in the course of business transactions. The government is, therefore, attempting to create a barrier against free exercise of religion in public business. The government is saying that the human being who operates a business is not a person with the human right to free exercise of religion. The logic is the same logic by which an unborn human baby is declared not to be a person with the inalienable human right to life.

This Supreme Court case has profound implications for Christians with regard to their right to free exercise of faith. Jesus taught that his followers would live and act in relationship with him at all times and in all contexts—work, play, family, and so forth. The federal government is trying to create a box around business that forbids a Christian from acting on Christian principles when doing business. Christians must engage in prayerful vigilance and vigilant prayers for God’s will to be done in the Supreme Court as a consequence of the oral arguments on March 25 and March 26.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Luke 6:22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

The Not-So-Universal Human Rights

In the USA, people who are committed to living according to the teachings of their faith are protected from persecution and discrimination by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They are also protected by the fact that the US signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is a large body of legal precedent that supports the rights of citizens to put their obligations to God ahead of a variety of demands by government.

Interestingly, despite having a state church, the UK also has a body of legal precedent that protects religious liberty. When someone in the UK refers to the British “constitution,” it actually references a number of documents on which court decisions are based.

In November, 2012, Humanist Life reported on four cases in the UK in which Christians claimed that their religious liberty was being infringed. It is of value for US Christians to know about these cases because of the language issues. Christians say that the people in these cases simply wanted to exercise their right to religious liberty; secular thinkers say that the people in these cases actually want religious privilege. The problems brought out in these cases are quite similar to problems that have arisen in recent years in the US. The article ridicules the protest of US Catholic Bishops against the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and vilifies parents who circumcise babies in obedience to their faith. This article shows how easy it is to use language to change the terms of a conversation.

Christians in the US quickly find common ground with the Christians in the UK as reported in this article. Continue reading The Not-So-Universal Human Rights