At a recent White House press briefing, a reporter asked what the “red line” is for U.S. action to defend Egypt’s Christians from jihad. The response was, “I didn’t bring my red pen out with me today.” It is easy to understand what this response means: there is nothing that could be bad enough to compel me to defend Egypt’s Christians from the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such an attitude is completely inconsistent with what most people consider to be American principles, but it isn’t really surprising in view of the clear daily evidence that the US government is committed to secular principles. Secularism considers any and all religions to be childish regression to a fairytale world peopled with beings invisible to the average person, beings that only exist in the minds of those who claim to see them. Secular thinkers refer to expressions of faith in God as a manifestations of personal neediness and immaturity that leans on an Imaginary Friend. To a secular thinker, a Christian who is persecuted for his faith just needs to grow up. Bombing, beheading, burning, looting and raping Christians is certainly undesirable behavior, but to a secular thinker all this uproar could be brought to a halt if Christians simply stop acting like children. That attitude is made very plain by the fact that the White House press secretary didn’t make any case whatsoever for allowing the violence to continue, but instead, smirked and made a joke about it. It would be hard for someone to state more clearly that this whole Christian thing is just silly, and beneath the dignity of a White House response.
In effect, the White House asked, What am I supposed to do about this? How is this in any way my problem?
Christians around the world, on the other hand, joined by non-Christians who have basic humanitarian instincts, are deeply concerned that a violent organization is being permitted to wreak havoc unimpeded. They are concerned that this violent organization, some of whose “warriors” were trained by the US under some past ill-advised aid program, will overwhelm the ability of the Egyptian military to bring order to the streets of Egypt. Christians everywhere see the hands-off attitude of the US president, and he looks just like the Egyptian police who respond to calls for help by saying, “I can’t be bothered to protect every Christian pastor who might be attacked.”
The real problem with the White House response, however, is not whether military intervention or support is the right answer. The problem is that the White House dismisses the question. It reminds thoughtful observers that the White House has a very narrow interpretation of the legitimate expression of a religious conviction. Demonstrating a viewpoint consistent with secular standards, the White House has asserted multiple times that when a person engages in business, he loses the right to exercise his religion in the course of doing business. From that viewpoint, compelling a Christian businessman to engage in a transaction against his conscience is not persecution, or even restriction of his free exercise of religion. To a secular thinker, if the businessman or any other Christian is free to go inside any house of worship he chooses and engage in conversations with his imaginary friend, then he has all the religious liberty he has a right to. From that perspective, the White House sanely puts distance between itself and some dispute in Egypt between competing religions over which imaginary friend is better.
Are you asking yourself, What am I supposed to do about this?
If you are a Christian, you face similar challenges every day. The culture of the US is increasingly secular, and secular advocates are becoming more aggressive all the time. The successes achieved in the campaign to redefine marriage, to make the state (the federal government) the parent, to dissolve all moral boundaries and to restrict religion to an ever smaller footprint in the culture feed an enthusiasm for ever more hostility toward traditional values and the religions which shaped them. Even if you identify with the pain of Christians besieged by Muslims, your own battles are less bloody and fought on a different plain. You may think that because you battle intangible ideas you are in less danger than a Coptic Christian in Egypt.
You are wrong. The US is only at the beginning of a fundamental transformation, which, you may remember, was promised by Barack Obama as part of his campaign. There are many secular governments in the world where you can observe where secularism goes. There are numerous countries where full-blown secularism is the official worldview. The local officials in nations such as those have confiscated the property of Christians simply because they are Christians. Christians are beaten in their own homes for holding unauthorized prayer meetings. Christians are forbidden to take their own children to church, because of a secular law forbidding the inculcation of religious teaching to anyone under the age of 18. And so forth.
It is a tragedy that the late great nation of the USA does not stand up for the vulnerable in the battle between Coptic Christians and Muslim jihadists. Despite that official stance, Christians can and should pray personally for the protection of the Christians and the conversion of the Muslims. However, for American Christians, the real battle is right here in the USA. The real battle is one you will fight first within yourself. How much are you willing to risk for the freedom to exercise your religious faith? The First Amendment is only words if people are not actually exercising their convictions. Are you willing to lose friends for your faith? Some people will actively distance themselves from “fanatics” or “radical fundamentalists” who speak publicly of their religion. Are you willing to risk your job, or to lose your own business for the sake of Christ? Are you willing to be as scornfully dismissed by your government as the Coptic Christians were?
Many people, many Christian people, hailed the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in 2001 as a real improvement in the government of the USA. The US has no state religion, and the role of religion in this country has always struggled with the tension between preserving religious liberty and providing powerful influence for good in the government and the society. Many felt that the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives meant that the government had decided to be more open to influence from the faith community, and among those of that opinion, most thought such a change was for the good of the nation.
There were a few people of faith who dissented from that viewpoint, futilely pointing out that the lesson of the old aphorism “He who pays the piper calls the tune” was being ignored. While clerics around the country celebrated the opportunity to use state money to fund their mission outreach in the form of social services, a few Christians pointed out that the office was set up precisely for the purpose of achieving the state’s social service goals, not the church’s goals. Where’s the problem? The goal of Christians who provide social services is to be Christ to the people they serve. They share their faith as an integral part of the service they provide, because they fervently believe that people need Christ more than they need food. Christians provide social service in the context of prayer and Bible study and evangelistic outreach. They do it this way, because they believe that the most precious thing they can share with anyone is Christ himself, the savior of the world. Christians actually believe that people who receive Christ have received something that transcends their earthly circumstances. The social services that provide food, clothing and shelter are actions obedient to the teachings of Christ, not mere human kindness.
The government, on the other hand, does not want to be perceived as establishing any religion. In keeping with that standard, the original announcements from the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives seemed to say that the government would provide money in ways that did not comingle the objectives of government social services and those of religious discipleship. The policy seemed kind and benign to many. The government would simply fund the purchase of food and would not interfere with prayers offered while serving or eating the food. The office would provide grants that funded the provision of ice, fresh water and blankets to hurricane victims, and would not interfere with the free speech of volunteers who handed out those supplies with prayers and blessings. Not surprisingly, the voices of individuals and groups concerned about freedom from the influence of religion soon made those original simple expectations unworkable. It was not long before policies were developed with a view to protecting the government from any hint that it might be engaged in the “establishment” of religion. For example:
Grant recipients may not use direct government funds to support inherently religious activities such as prayer, worship, religious instruction, or proselytization. (The issue of proselytization is the one that is most problematic, since any mention of religion or faith might be interpreted as an invitation to discipleship.)
Any inherently religious activities that a grant recipient offers must be offered at a separate time and in a different location from services that receive federal assistance. (It can be very difficult for a Christian group to know how to comply with such a requirement. The logistics of separating such activities may be extremely cumbersome when providing disaster relief, for example. Furthermore, such a requirement actually flies in the face of the Christian teaching that our lives are completely sacred, not divided into sacred and secular pigeonholes that control our speech. What’s more, it is legally conceivable that such a requirement actually suppresses free speech and free exercise in an unconstitutional way.)
Grant recipients are forbidden to discriminate on the basis of religion when providing services (probably the least worrisome requirement, since few faith-based groups have ever restricted their services to the adherents of their own faith).
The bottom line is that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives increasingly administers grants in a way that reinforces the political truth: the office exists to accomplish the goals of government, not the goals of Christ’s body, the church.
The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is actually a temptation to Christians to sell out Christ for money as surely as Judas did. Christ never taught that his disciples should go to the government for money to finance the work of discipleship. Christians who think this office is a good thing point out how much money it has. They say that they cannot get such amounts of money from private charitable contributions. They fail to recognize that they are pretending to themselves that the government collects this money as God’s agent to fund God’s work. They are actually denying that God’s call to them included his gracious provision for the ministry to which he called them. Financing Christ’s kingdom is not the role of government. Financing Christ’s kingdom is the role of Christians who exercise grateful stewardship of their possessions. Read the Bible from cover to cover, and nowhere will you read that God has ordained that his provision for his work will be delivered by the government. The absolute guarantee that government money comes with government rules is part of the reason God does not send Christians to government for financing.
The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives must go.
Closing the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives will free churches from the temptation to accept the government restrictions on their work that accompany government funding of their work. Closing this office will eliminate the temptation to pray to the government rather than pray to God for financial support. Christians who go to the government for money to finance their work are replacing God with government. They are saying that they do not believe that God will provide for the work he has called them to do.
There is plenty of evidence in the daily news that Christians who accept money from the government to do the work God has called them to do will find it very difficult to live their discipleship while holding on to government funding. The expressed views of the US federal government on a variety of social issues makes it clear that the government’s social objectives are not God’s social objectives. The existence of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives is an ongoing temptation for Christians to believe that God’s ministries can safely accept the restrictions that accompany government grants. To believe this is to believe Satan’s lie to Jesus that he could still be the Christ if he worshiped Satan. Christian ministries must be free of the taint of statism in order to be free to serve God with a whole heart.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10
A pastor recently wrote in a church newsletter about the jarring discovery that while she had vacationed for the joy of it to a faraway beautiful place, back home, in the town where she lives, 35 people were killed. This truth about the evil in the hearts of men reminds us that the evil that befalls Christians on account of their faith is really just part of the big picture. Satan runs loose in time and space, and he is viciously angry, because he has been eternally defeated by Christ on the cross. Evil has lost the eternal battle, and only here in temporary quarters is Satan able to exercise his malevolent purposes. In the book of Revelation, Satan is described as a great dragon who lashes his tail in frustration, sweeping a third of the stars out of the sky.
Knowing that he is on the loose in this world, so free to do harm that he presumed to offer Jesus the kingdoms of the world in return for Jesus’ worship, should put every Christian on alert. There is nothing personal in the evil that destroys families, kills children, addicts, talented artists, and so forth. Even the evil that files suit to remove crosses from public buildings and silence church bells and end the use of the words “Merry Christmas” is not directed at Christians personally. It is all about the fact that Satan wants to be God. All the assaults directed at Christians by cultures, by governments, and even by other religions are instigated by Satan for his ultimate purpose of either luring or clubbing people away from God. Sad to say, violence between groups of Christians is also part of Satan’s destructive work, because he delights most of all in perverting the faithful to fight with the faithful.
Paul knew what it was like to face all these things. A list of all the misery he endured is daunting to contemplate. It certainly makes “The War on Christmas” sound trivial. Unfortunately, none of it is trivial. In the US, when a family decides to host a weeknight Bible study only to have the homeowners’ association send the police to notify them that their guests are violating a parking covenant, that is just as certainly the work of Satan as when the government of Laos revokes the citizenship of six Christian families and confiscates their land because they refuse to recant their faith. It is evidence that Christians who live their faith are shaking the defenses of Satan’s kingdom, the kingdom of hell.
Satan hates it when the kingdom of God draws near. When Jesus began his ministry on earth, Mark records that this was his opening message: “The kingdom of God is at hand.”(Mark 1:15 ESV) Eugene Peterson best captures the revulsion of the demons Jesus met who growled, “What business do you have here with us?” (Mark 1:24 THE MESSAGE).
From that day to this, Satan has busily stirred antagonism against anyone who loves and serves Christ. Every Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, brings the kingdom of God near to every person he meets. Those who believe Satan’s lies about sexuality, marriage and family think they have evolved to a place where they know more about sexuality than Christians who are “mired” in biblical rules. The dangerous part of this situation is not the disagreement. Satan knows that we can deal with disagreements and go on living side by side in peace. That is why Satan ratchets up the conflict by instigating spoken and written words that belittle Christians and their faith. A mild version of this attack says, “You are as irrelevant as your deluded belief system.” The strong version cannot be printed, even if I were of a mind to write such words. No matter what form the words take, they are intended to grate and grind and beat down people of faith who are encroaching on the territory Satan claims for his own.
In the US, at the moment, the attack is mostly limited to words. However, the federal government has served notice in lawsuits against the HHS employer mandate that it considers people to have forfeited the right to exercise their faith when they enter into commerce. Christians must recognize that stating this position in these lawsuits is an issue for people of faith, even if the government loses one or more lawsuits. By taking this position the federal government is serving notice that it considers the exercise of religion to be something that takes place in a worship space during a worship activity. The federal government of the United States is telling Christians that their voices must be silenced during any other sort of activity – such as education, commerce, political campaigns, and so forth.
Before there were radios and internet, combatants lined up for warfare received their commands by means of a bugle call. The federal government’s stated position with regard to the exercise of religion that is protected by the First Amendment must be interpreted the way soldiers interpreted the bugle call to “Charge!” That sound signaled the onset of a struggle. For Christians in the USA, the federal government has signaled its intent to shove religious practice into a building and lock the door. The Constitution was written by people who believed that every person has the obligation to live his faith in every part of his life, not just the part inside a church building. The struggle between these two conflicting views will be fearful.
Paul fought just such a battle in the Roman Empire. Christians over the past two thousand years have fought this battle with cultures and governments many times. Christians in countries like Uzbekistan and China are fighting this battle today. Weak though we may be in the face of the might of the US federal government, there is One who stands with us in this battle who is mightiest of all. We cannot fight this battle with our wits and our courage. We can only fight this battle by acknowledging that our wits and courage are worthless unless we fight in the strength of God’s power, because “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
People of faith rightly treasure the protection of the First Amendment, which says,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is central to the nature of our free country that we do not have a state religion. The other side of that coin has always been the understanding that the right to the “free exercise” of religion implied that the federal government is officially neutral toward all religion while protecting the existence and free exercise rights of all religions. It does not promote any religion and it does not oppress any religion. In the spirit of a neutral attitude, the federal government has historically honored the religious convictions of pacifists such as the Quakers and it has even honored the right of aggressive churches such as Westboro Baptist Church to practice their faith under the least restraint that preserves good public order. For the entire history of the nation, the neutral stance of the federal government toward religion of any sort has been a stance that promoted peace, civil discourse, and freedom of religion so precious that people from around the world flocked to this country for it.
In recent years, the federal government has begun a swing away from a commitment to the protection of and neutrality toward religion. It has begun to express in public statements, policies, and regulations, not a neutral stance toward religion, but rather a secular stance in opposition to religion. For example, the conscience exemption written into the Affordable Care Act does not exempt all citizens who hold religious convictions that abortion, contraception and sterilization are sin. To exempt citizens on that basis would mean that the government was neither aggressive against nor supportive toward any religion. Such an exemption would recognize that all religions promote teachings which adherents follow in daily life, and without endorsing the teachings the government would show its respect for those teachings by exempting adherents from participating personally or as a business owner in practices considered to be sin by the adherents.
Instead of a neutral exemption, the federal government has written an exemption that incorporates the secular concept of religion. The conscience exemption in the ACA is available to organizations that host worship and member education, activities generally housed in a building and administered by defined and licensed clergy. This exemption applies to organizations that fit an atheist definition of a church, that is, it provides “elements of church life that serve human needs … like the need to gather, the need to be together.” Atheism is a subset of secularism, and secularism is becoming the standard for the federal government’s worldview.
Another example is in the world of education. If the federal government held a neutral view toward religion, it would have no problem accommodating the issues parents have when their children are taught a godless version of cosmology and evolution. If it felt that religion played a valuable role in the society, it would act to protect the rights of free exercise, including the right of parents to teach their children the tenets of their faith. Christian parents have been the most outspoken in their objections to the practice of excluding all mention of the biblical story of creation, but then Christian parents are more numerous than Hindu or Sikh or even Muslim parents. Still, it doesn’t take much thought to recognize that most religions have convictions about the way the universe came to be and how humans appeared on the earth. The simple humble recognition that nobody was there to record what happened at that moment should be enough, even without the First Amendment, to lead the federal government to recognize that children could safely be allowed to express the religious truths they hold in the context of a discussion of the educated guesses scientists express in their own theories of origins and cosmology. However, the government is not neutral, asserting in most cases that only the science of cosmology and the scientific theory of evolution will be taught in the science classes of public schools. The government asserts a completely secular view of the matter. The assertion that the only source of truth about the world is science is a secular view, which is enhanced in secular writing by a corresponding scorn for the whole idea of spirits and spirituality, let alone religions.
The secular view of human beings leads to a secular form of sex education as well. In the secular view, humans are the most advanced animals in the evolutionary process, and humans themselves are constantly evolving into better and better beings. However, the improvement is measured solely against what humans deduce about the process, there being no legitimate reason to consider any revealed teaching or truth when examining human morality. Secular thinking does not find it bizarre to look to animal studies to learn about human behavior, such as homosexuality. Further, since no spiritual truth or revelation is accepted, secular thinking promotes the exploration of varieties of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity. None of this would matter to Christian parents if it were left in the homes of secular thinkers. It matters a great deal when the federal government abandons a respectful neutrality toward Christian moral teaching. The federal government, through its power administered by the Department of Education, promotes and enforces sex education which flies in the face of Christian moral teaching and refuses to accommodate parental objections on the grounds that the government has an obligation to be sure every child knows what the government wants that child to know, which means that the government wants every child to believe the secular view of human beings rather than the Christian view that humans are God’s highest creation, held to a higher standard of behavior than animals.
Secular thinking increasingly dominates the political agenda and the public rhetoric to a degree that is redefining the language of the First Amendment. It is obvious that some courts still interpret the Constitution and the First Amendment in the spirit of the words as written. Some businesses and individuals are successfully suing for exemptions from the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the basis of their religious convictions. Evidently, there are judges in the court system who believe that the government should be neutral toward and protective of religion, not secular. There are certainly Senators and Representatives in Congress who believe the same thing, as evidenced in their efforts to assure that the right for an individual to exercise his faith in daily life is protected as the First Amendment intended. However, political and social activism of secular thinkers has produced rapid change over the past five years in the meaning of terms such as “religious liberty,” “bigotry,” and “tolerance.” It is becoming difficult for even public figures to express their religious convictions, because so often the public response is a barrage of name-calling and personal assault in the media.
The first and most important way a Christian can respond to this situation is to engage in fervent, faith-filled prayer. Christians who take the Bible seriously already take time to pray for government leaders at all levels and for the work of the Holy Spirit to protect and guide the nation. However, the recent almost rabid change in the attitude of government toward religion in general and Christianity in particular calls for more specific and focused prayer about this gigantic problem. In countries like China and Kazakhstan, where the government is completely secular and completely devoted to eradicating the influence of any religion in public life, constitutional language is coupled with legislative action to restrict and restrain and forcibly punish religious activity. Religion of any kind is considered subversive, a threat to the nation as a whole. It is not unrealistic to foresee that many trends in the government of the United States could result in laws similar to those in other aggressively secular nations that require churches and church members and church publications and church education and the construction of church buildings all to be registered and regulated and licensed and authorized and reported to the government, all in the name of “fairness” to all.
Christians in the USA used to believe that the USA was a nation dedicated to the principle of religious freedom. When the government took a stance that was simultaneously respectful and neutral toward religion, there was broad religious liberty. Today, the government is taking an increasingly secular and restrictive view toward religion, treating it more like a tolerated annoyance than a respected voice in the culture. Christians must not be apathetic about such changes. Secular thinking is not tolerant. It is aggressively dismissive of the value of faith. Christians must pray fervently for guidance to speak and act in ways that work to preserve the freedom to exercise faith in public for all Americans.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.Isaiah 55:8-9
Secular thinkers hearing the words of Isaiah scoff at the idea of anything higher than themselves. They examine the wonder of humankind, and they believe there is nothing higher than that. They emphatically assert that this world we can see and touch is all there is. However, if we simply exchanged the word higher for the word different, secular thinkers would absolutely agree with this text. The thought of God is vastly different from secular thought. Secular thinking dominates twenty-first century culture in the USA, and Christians need to be alert to all the ways that secular thinking differs from Christian thinking. To understand secular thinking will help Christians to have appropriate expectations of conversation with secular thinkers, and it will help prevent Christians from failing to understand the secular interpretation of words Christians use quite differently.
For most of the history of the USA, Christianity was the dominant religion in the culture. More than that, the culture was so richly permeated by Christian thought that even non-believers thought they ought to believe. There was a time when someone with no intention of attending worship on any Sunday would apologize to a Christian for not attending. No more. In today’s world, there is little expectation that even Christians will attend worship on Sunday. Those who do, find themselves in conflict with a variety of demands on their time. For America’s first two hundred years of history, Sunday was a quiet day in most communities, and little was happening that would conflict with any person’s desire to attend worship. Today, Christians with children in athletic programs, for example, will be compelled to juggle worship and ball practice and may not be able to find any way to fit worship into the schedule.
Many people who would not classify themselves as secular thinkers adopt secular thinking for their public life. Even Christians will say that they consider religion to be a private matter, something they won’t intrude into their social lives, their work or their politics. Christians use the terms sacred and secular as if they, too, can separate the two concepts in their lives. There is a real groundswell of momentum toward religious neutrality in the public square. Secular philosophy almost universally regards religion as an antiquated, perhaps quaint, idea, although some secular humanists make room for religion, as long as it is isolated from public view. Secular thinkers do not think that God’s ways are higher than their ways, but they would agree that God-think is dramatically different from secular-think.
Secular thinking does not necessarily have to be dismissive of God, because there was an era in the US when secular simply meant not church. Over time, however, church people have cooperated in allowing a barrier to be created between sacred and secular behavior, sacred and secular spaces. Contemporary secular thinking is quite dismissive of God all the time and actively aggressive against God some of the time. Secular thinking is adamant that religion has no place in public life.
The dominance of secular thinking is changing the definitions of words. We are accustomed to think of the First Amendment as our protection to express our faith at any and all times. We call that right ‘freedom of religion.’ Secular thinkers more often express it as ‘freedom of worship’ and that tiny semantic difference expresses a vastly different mindset. The federal government has put into words what many secular thinkers would not be able to say so succinctly: religious activity takes place in a house of worship and consists of faith formation, worship and evangelism. This is the perspective applied as the government is gradually revising regulations and the interpretation of laws. When secular thinkers see us wearing cross pendants or see us reading the Bible at a bus stop or hear us offer to pray for someone at work, they think we have intruded our religion into the public realm where it does not belong. The vague suspicions of the general population are validated when the federal government says in a court of law that nothing happens in a for-profit business that has anything to do with religion, and that a petition for accommodation for a for-profit employer to express his religion in his business activities is, therefore, completely groundless.
It is a mistake for people whose call from Christ expects us to live as his followers in all places at all times to pretend that there is any difference in the way we live inside a church building or outside of it. Jesus taught us to live our faith in every word and deed. The Sermon on the Mount was not preached inside a house of worship, and it was not about liturgy. This sermon talks about the way we live our faith every day, out on the street. Of course, Jesus also told us that we could expect to be scorned and abused for doing so. When that happens, he taught us to love our opponents and pray blessing on them. The book of Revelation, however, gives us an image of a completely secular world in which people would rather have boulders fall on them than respond to God’s love. I meet people like that online now and then.
Psalm 23 is widely regarded as a comforting psalm, a place for retreat in times of trouble, a prayer for strength when the world feels threatening. It includes, however, a powerful metaphor for the daily life of a Christian in all situations. In the final statement of the psalm, David says, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6) He says there, what Christians believe to be true – that our relationship with God permeates our daily lives. No matter where we go, no matter what our situation, we are always participating in that relationship. The presence of God is real to us not only inside a building during worship, but also outside that building as we work for our employers or visit with friends.
The power of this relationship is the indwelling Holy Spirit. In fact, when we live by the Spirit in places other people call secular, we live as if we were in houses of worship all the time. The apostle Paul once asked his Corinthian church, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1 Corinthians 6:19) Paul’s words about the indwelling Holy Spirit suggest that God’s dwelling place, in the temple of our bodies, is in, with and under all our realities. To a secular thinker, there are sacred spaces and secular spaces, but to Christ’s people, every space is sacred, because God is there. It may be a concept that secular courts would ponder with skepticism, but it is the standard we live by. For us, there is no such thing as separating the sacred and the secular.
As Christians living in a secular world, we believe Christ calls us to live by the Spirit all the time. We don’t think we are expected to shut out the guidance of the Spirit when we go shopping at Wal-Mart. A Christian nurse expects to pray for her patients and for her fellow-workers as a natural expression of her faith in her daily life. A Christian teacher expects to be able to express her faith that the universe was created as a natural expression of her own faith in her life, even as she teaches the known science and the cosmological speculation about the processes God used in creation. A Christian social worker expects to be able to select families for adoptive children based on a Christian standard for families as a natural expression of his own faith. Secular thinkers believe and will say with real outrage that these people are pushing their religion on other people in forums where religion does not belong. This is not an academic hypothesis. All these things are being discussed right now in conversations all over the country.
It is interesting to note that the meaning of religious freedom as expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights sounds more like a Christian understanding of the place of religion in human life than like a secular view. Article 18 of the declaration says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The phrase “either alone or in community with others and in public or private” makes it clear that the UN upholds an individual’s freedom to express and share his religion in all places, whether the secular definition is either sacred or secular. The UN declaration says with greater clarity in contemporary language what the Constitution’s writers intended in the language of the First Amendment in 1791. Everything written about religious freedom in those days was understood at the time to mean the freedom for a citizen to be public in exercising his faith. The colonists who shaped the nation never intended the words “free exercise [of religion]” to mean free only in houses of worship.
This is the reason that Christians must be alert to the language used in political discourse in our country. When we hear the words, freedom of worship we must not equate them with the First Amendment protection, because freedom of worship is only part of the freedom that amendment guarantees. When we hear the words freedom of religion we must not equate them with the full freedom to live our faith in all places at all times, because many people who use the term freedom of religion only mean the right to choose any religion you wish. The amendment uses the words free exercise purposely to protect the right of all citizens to live according to their faith principles in all places at all times. It protects citizens from acts of government which either prevent them from doing things in keeping with their religious principles or require them to do things contradictory to their religious principles. The government is not authorized by this amendment to declare that any human activity or any location is exempted from the protection granted to citizens by the amendment.
The rising momentum of the secular definitions puts us in conflict with our culture. We cannot set our Christian behavioral standards aside just because we are not in church. We are not able to adopt secular standards or enable secular standards because of personal principles shaped by our faith. We find ourselves in the same conflict as Christians in many countries around the world where the culture and/or the government reject Christian teaching with scorn and restriction. Our situation increasingly corresponds to that of early Christians who were asked to worship the emperor as an act of political citizenship. Their unwillingness to bow as expected was interpreted as treason. Our unwillingness to comply with legislation or regulations that limit our freedom to exercise our faith is being seen in much the same light.
It is not too late for Christians to assert the First Amendment privilege to live our faith, not simply worship in buildings, but the cultural shift to secular definitions is moving at a startling pace. We have thought for two centuries that the First Amendment was our protection, and we did not need to engage in political discussions about it. Today, the definition of the free expression of religion is being reinterpreted to shut religion out of public sight. We cannot stop living our faith, but if we do not succeed in asserting that free expression means all places at all times, in both public and private, we can expect that our lives will change dramatically.