Tag Archives: religion definition

Words Have Meanings

Americans have a bad habit of assuming things. For example, they assume that the First Amendment protects religious liberty. They expect not to be taken to jail for praying on a street corner. They expect nobody will care if they give someone a Christian tract in a mall. Americans think it is quite normal to start meetings of a city council and the US Congress with prayer, because of the First Amendment. They even believe that the First Amendment protects conscientious objectors from fighting in combat. The claim of religious faith on daily life has been consistently been respected in the culture and protected by the law. The US has claimed from its inception to be a nation of laws, not men.

There is reason to be concerned today about the future of religious liberty. The First Amendment isn’t going anywhere, but religious liberty is at risk. Nobody is trying to arrest Christians for going to church. The attack is coming from a different corner. The attack is being launched by bringing up a discussion of the meaning of the word religion.

You may have heard children or college students engage in arguments about definitions. If so, you know that if one contender is determined not to be boxed into a definition, it cannot be done. There is always yet another twist to some word or phrase that allows the wily debater to slither away. The introductory arguments for a definition of the word religion make it clear that the meaning of the First Amendment could change dramatically if Christian lawyers are not as wise as the serpents on the other side of the argument.

Brian Murray has written a very important post at Public Discourse on the subject of what the Hosanna-Tabor case in the Supreme Court contributes to the body of law surrounding the First Amendment. He specifically mentions the issues that have arisen due to the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. According to his view, the cases surrounding the employer mandate have “reignited the debate about the definition of religion.” If you didn’t know that there is a discussion about that definition, consider yourself warned.

The legal profession has always been deeply engaged in discussions of definitions. The ability to make words mean what they must mean in order to prevail in court is the mark of a good lawyer. In the argument about religious liberty and the way the Affordable Care Act diminishes it, it truly is important to have a definition of the word religion, but Christian lawyers must be assertive in that discussion. Otherwise, religious liberty as Americans have known it will disappear.

It is clear to any attentive observer, and Murray confirms, that the present administration considers religion to be confined to “inward, private belief.” Murray further confirms that, for most Christians, religion is “just the opposite of the administration’s emphasis on private belief.” Most Christians believe that faith in Christ creates an imperative to live by the principles of faith and to share the faith with other people. The two views contrast sharply, and the two definitions imply very different interpretations of the term free exercise when applied to religion.

In today’s climate, with administration pressure to achieve some specific social objectives by using the force of law to compel politically desirable behaviors, it is dangerous for Christians to assume that it is enough to assert First Amendment protection for religious activity. While cultural pressure in opposition to sharing the good news may arise from time to time, Christians have not been pressured to refrain from sharing their faith or from making attempts to persuade non-believers to convert. If a definition of religion as a purely private matter were to prevail in the courts, the low-key cultural rejection of evangelism could become much stronger, as has happened in numerous countries where a secular definition holds sway.

The current administration’s definition has much more in common with the strictly secular definition of religion that prevails in the courts of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan than with the definition held by the founding fathers of the USA. In those countries, the government requires churches to register their buildings and provide lists of members. Every month, pastors must report every meeting held and who attended. Pastors must provide advance notice of planned meetings.  Some churches prefer the risk of going underground and meeting in secret to the risk of giving the government all the information required of the registered churches. American citizens have never had to contemplate such choices, because Americans have never defined religion as something to be kept out of sight.

Have you ever heard anyone complain that Christians are too public with their faith? Do you know anyone who thinks that Christian employers have no right to refuse to offer coverage for medical services and pharmaceuticals that conflict with the teachings of their faith? Have you observed any Christian being accused of wrong-doing for refusing to participate in activities, such as wedding ceremonies for same-sex pairs? All these situations are set up by a definition of religion as nothing more than a privately-held philosophy. What can you do to influence continuing religious liberty in the USA?


Why US Christians Should Watch the Federal Government

American citizens rightly look to the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, to protect their right to protection against government control of their exercise of religion. It should make Americans nervous to hear that the US president makes even the vaguest comparison between Ho Chi Minh and the patriots who established the USA.

Historically, First Amendment issues have often centered on the passage of well-intentioned laws that unexpectedly imposed pressure on the individual right to exercise religious convictions. Conscription of soldiers in wartime was not an attempt to interfere with the free exercise of anyone’s faith, and when that unintended consequence arose, men of good will found a faithful and patriotic way to manage the problem. For more than two hundred years, it could be said with confidence that the government of the USA had no real desire to interfere with the freedom of any citizen to live according to his faith.

The current transformation of the US culture to a secular worldview is actually redefining the words “religion” and “worship” and “exercise” in ways that make it much more difficult to defend the free exercise of religion. For example, it is becoming popular in the culture to characterize the Christian religion as a collection of rules. Based on that imagery, some people have praised Buddhism because “it is a way of life, not a religion.” In contemporary everyday speech, people routinely conflate the words “worship” and “religion” as if they were totally synonymous. Further, when someone mentions a religious conviction as the determinant for personal action, it is common for someone who hears this statement to express a desire that people keep their religions to themselves. Not only is the culture redefining what a religion is, but the culture is increasingly pressing against all religions in an attempt to keep them confined within their houses of worship. These definitions and attitudes are shaping government language and attitudes. Over time, almost unnoticed, the culture and the government use the words of religion, worship and faith to mean something other than what the Founders meant, thereby lulling Christians into a false feeling that the First Amendment still protects their free exercise of faith.

Couple the cultural redefinition of the meaning and place of religion in public life with the fact that the federal government is operated outside the Constitution’s boundaries, and it becomes obvious that people of faith must be vigilant and assertive to protect their rights.

When the chief executive of the United States, the person with the great weight of responsibility to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” compares Ho Chi Minh with the Founders of the United States of America, it is reveals that the holder of this high office has no respect for the principles and values of the Founders. If the president does not mean what he said, citizens should be alarmed that he would deliberately life. If the president does mean what he said, citizens should be alarmed that he things this way.

Ho Chi Minh persecuted Christians along with people of other faiths as part of his campaign to create a pure Communist culture. He had enough success that the current government of Viet Nam is completely secular. From the beginning, churches in Vietnam were considered undesirable. They were highly regulated. In January, 2013, the government enacted new regulations for church registration which will make it extremely difficult for any Christian church to attain legal status.  What’s more, the new law includes a requirement of every religion that its “ceremonies and activities … do not contradict fine national traditions and customs.” Christians fear this requirement will expect them to worship ancestors and national heroes. Since they will only worship God, this requirement seems like a deliberate attempt to get rid of Christians. This law is the natural outgrowth of the completely secular government established by Ho Chi Minh, who supposedly has common values with the Founders of the USA.

How long before the government of the USA attempts to regulate Christian churches the same way Vietnam regulates them? It could be sooner rather than later. The Affordable Care Act, administered by the IRS, provides the perfect vehicle to kick off that process. Buried in the regulations for the Affordable Care Act is the conscience provision that exempts an employer from the mandate to include contraception, sterilization and abortion as preventive health services in a group health insurance package. The regulation reads as follows:

For purposes of this exemption, a religious employer is one that: (1) Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves

persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization described in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code. Section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) and (iii) of the Code refers to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.

You can find this information online by searching for Federal Register/Vol. 77, No 31/Wednesday, February 15, 2012. At present, this exemption relies on self-certification of eligibility, but just as the current law in Vietnam replaces an older, more lenient law, it is highly likely that the IRS will seek to assure that no ineligible employers escape and that will require some sort of registration and database, processes not in the current rules. It won’t even call for new legislation. Since the non-compliance of an employer ineligible for the exemption calls for a fine, the IRS could conceivably create a regulation and a process as part of its assurance of compliance with the law. Once there is a database of houses of worship, then the door is open for the government to continually redefine those entities eligible for inclusion. If one arm of government has its thumb on churches, it will be easy for others to use the database or to ask for more data to be included, and soon churches could be regulated so tightly that, like the churches in Vietnam, it would be extremely difficult for them to continue to exist.


This is why Christians should fear a presidential statement comparing Ho Chi Minh to the Founders of the United States of America. It would be easy to laugh off such a ridiculous statement if the current president were simply guilty of an ignorant gaffe. This president, however, knows his communists, and this comparison is not an accident. It is purposeful, and for now, we can only guess at the purpose. It reveals a dangerous worldview, which should not be dismissed, because politics is the concretization of a worldview.


Even while Christians take careful note of the president’s worldview, they must be actively asserting their own. As Jesus was about to ascend to heaven, he explained how Christians are to assert their worldview:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

Christians need not cower and tremble because of the threats to their future. The persecuted church in Vietnam would have disappeared by now if that were their response. Instead, they act on Christ’s authority and work diligently to make disciples. When the government oversteps its quite considerable authority, they stand up and push back. They pray and worship faithfully, remembering and acting on Christ’s promise not to abandon them. Christians in the US have much more freedom now than Christians in Vietnam have ever known. There is no reason for US Christians to cringe or backpedal on Christ’s imperatives just because the US government is trying to redefine the meaning of free exercise of religion. US Christians, like Vietnamese Christians, must act on Christ’s authority and diligently make disciples, trusting that Christ will never abandon them, no matter what the government does.