Tag Archives: Religious freedom

Faith, First Amendment, Culture and Etiquette

Christians and adherents of countless religions have come to the United States for one central reason: religious freedom. In many countries around the world, only one religion is legal. In North Korea, in order for the government to control people even more completely, the government invented a religion that is the only authorized religion. In Bhutan, there is a state religion, but a few other religions, not including Christianity, have been authorized in the Religious Organizations Act. In many European countries, a state church receives money collected by taxing all citizens regardless of whether they believe. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution has stood guard over the freedom of citizens to believe and practice any religion they choose. The First Amendment has also protected citizens from being required to support any state religion.  

First Amendment protections have been prized by citizens and guarded by presidents for more than 200 years.

 Over that same period, the bulk of the population of the USA has had some connection with Christianity. The original colonists came to the New World from England – some as emissaries of the state church and some as refugees from the state church. Even those who opposed England’s state church were predominantly Christian. A goodly number would likely have been classified by the faithful as nominal Christians, but in general, Christian ideas, Christian teachings, Bible imagery and Bible-based morality dominated the culture. Even though the country has always been a nation of immigrants, most immigrants assimilated the practices and etiquette of Christians whether or not they had the slightest interest in the faith. Blue laws enforced Sunday as a day of rest and a day to close the bars. Teachers felt free to read the Bible and pray in the classroom if they wanted to. Christians disputed the real presence and wrangled over baptismal forms in lunchrooms. Children played church as often as they played house. A Christmas pageant was the highlight of the school year. The dominance of Christians in the culture led Christians to believe that many cultural norms and practices were protected by the First Amendment.

 Now things are changing. Christianity no longer dominates the culture. Some Christians will say that an opportunity to have a true Christian culture was squandered, but that discussion is irrelevant to the realities. People who worship Allah and Vishnu and nobody are numerous enough in the culture to bring considerable pressure to bear on Christians. Now the question is, what constitutes a protected expression of Christian faith and what is no more than a cultural practice? To what extent must the law protect adherents of all religions from cultural persecution? When is an act or word persecution, cultural shunning, or impolite behavior which adults don’t honor with outrage?  For example, public schools have “always” had Christmas break. Now somebody wants to call it the “winter break.” Some people interpret that as persecution of Christians. Is it real persecution? Or is it cultural restriction? Or is it simply an accommodation that recognizes that a majority of the school population does not celebrate a religious festival called “Christmas?”

 I have a lot of questions. Do you have questions? When Christians are persecuted, how do you believe we should react? How should we deal with the increasingly rapid shrinking of Christian influence in the culture? What is the difference between taking offense and managing the problem of persecution? How is a Christian supposed to live an culture where other religions and even atheistic humanism seem to be more highly respected than Christian?





The New Normal


A bible from 1859.
A Bible from 1859 Image via Wikipedia

I have commented before that I observe a massive cultural change in the USA. Our country was founded by people who believed in God and considered the Bible to be a holy text. They attended Christian churches and sang Christian hymns. When they spoke, they exercised a level of restraint on their speech that seems quaint to twenty-first century ears. In eighteenth-century Boston, nobody would have considered it cute for a seventh-grader to shout “Oh my God!” at the sight of a beautiful necklace. Local, state and national leaders in the early days of this country were expected to behave respectfully toward Christians and to live by Christian standards, an expectation that occasioned little concern on the part of the leaders who pretty much accepted those standards in daily life anyway.

It happened this way, because the vast majority of the people who came to the east coast of North America came from countries where Christianity was the state religion. Even if they came in protest at the particular church the state had chosen, it wasn’t because of a desire to worship a different God.

As a result, our culture and our cultural expectations were shaped by Christian teaching. In many instances, those expectations actually perverted Christian teaching into little more than a cute little proverb for schoolchildren to learn. Nonetheless, Christian ideas and Christian words shaped the culture. Even as immigrants from around the world came to our shores, they, too, soon absorbed the cultural norms. Until very recently, both immigrants and American citizens assumed that immigrants would assimilate. We didn’t expect them to abandon their festivals or even their religions, but we did expect them to speak English and dress in clothing that we considered normal. The immigrants likewise expected to become part of this nation when they came here. They did not expect to bring their old country with them, even though they continued to protect their heritage in festivals and holidays of their own. They expected that when in this country, they would become more like the people who lived here.

Even though the civil rights demonstrations alleged to be about integrating the culture, its outcome has been to divide the culture in ways I don’t believe the original leaders ever considered. It is the subject for another post to examine the issues of language and law that have steadily widened the rift between the many subcultures in this country. For today, I simply observe that it has happened. Rather than become more thoroughly integrated, more deeply unified in cultural and political values, our nation has become steadily more divided. Every subculture presses strongly for pre-eminence, and failing that, it demands equality. The word “equality” has become a weapon, not a unifier. In the service of this conflict, the word “diversity” stands right beside “equality” as a weapon of division.

The bottom line is that the culture that dominated life in America for almost two hundred years is disintegrating. You may have your own ideas about how it happened or why it happened. You may think that it is broken and needs to be fixed. Nevertheless, no matter how you look at it, our culture today is not the Norman Rockwell culture many people imagine to be the bedrock of American life. I believe that his state of affairs will persist into the foreseeable future. For good or ill, this is the world we live in.

Christians need to recognize this truth, because we cannot continue to live by the same expectations that worked in 1950. We cannot assume that people respect us for being Christians. The new normal in American culture is the idea that religion is something to keep locked up in houses of worship and not dragged out into the streets. If we Christians want to continue to be free to live and speak our faith, we need to recognize the realities. In order to deal with them, we must remember what Jesus promised us.

As Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he sent his followers out to share the good news and baptize believers into the kingdom. Knowing that in the Roman Empire, this work would meet with cultural and political resistance, much as it does in the contemporary USA, Jesus promised, “I will be with you.” It is important to know that when we are living our faith, swimming against the cultural current, our Lord and Savior in the person of the Holy Spirit is with us. That is comforting, but it isn’t the only thing we should remember. We must also remember that Jesus promised us we would endure persecution, resistance, and hatred, and we must absolutely remember that he told us the answer to all of Satan’s assaults on us was love. The Christ who asks us to serve him faithfully says that our defensive weapon against people Satan uses to persecute us is love.

I encounter a lot of people online who really scorn Christian faith. They scorn God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, churches, and Christians in general. Some are respectfully resistant, but others trash Christians and their faith in words I would neither speak nor print. We must expect this, because the new normal in American culture is not a Christian standard for behavior.

For those of us accustomed to the general accommodation of Christianity by the culture, this state of affairs is hard to take. We are tempted to feel hurt personally. We must remember that Jesus said the world would hate us, because it hated him first. Our job is not to respond in kind. We don’t serve Christ by whining that things used to be different. It won’t help anything to accuse people of a war on Christians. We must, instead, do exactly what Jesus told us to do – be salt and light in the world. The Satanic way to deal with rejection is to act out, to take the initiative and pound the opposition into submission. God has been enduring rejection since the day Eve rejected him and bit into the forbidden fruit, and his way to deal with it is to love us even more. If we want to be like God, we, too, must simply love our enemies even more than they hate us. That is how we live with the new normal.


How Shall We Live in this Brave New World?

When the president of the United States appeared on nationwide tv and radio to announce an “accommodation” in the dispute with the Catholic bishops, I did not expect anything good. If he had been planning to take any action in accord with the First Amendment, it would not have been labeled an “accommodation.” An accommodation is not the same thing as a solution. It is a way to avoid solving the problem. The announcement proved to be no solution at all. It is an accounting shell game. Instead of forcing employers whose religious scruples forbid contraception, abortion and sterilization, the regulation would force the insurance companies to provide those services at no charge to the insured individuals, and at no charge to the employers either. Our president thought nobody would guess that the insurance companies must obtain the money used to provide those “free” services from somewhere. They will obtain that money by restructuring premiums to collect enough money to prevent them from going bankrupt by providing all that free service. In plain English, this accommodation accommodated nothing and it solved nothing.

The accommodation did have a value, however. It demonstrated clearly this president’s complete disregard for the Constitution as a whole and the First Amendment specifically. He has told us in a number of speeches how much he objects to the limits the Constitution places on the federal government. When I hear it, I don’t complain along with him. I say, this Constitution is working exactly as designed. Our founders knew that in the course of human events, another despotic ruler might come along and be elected president. We have a president who feels every bit as affronted by the prospect of free people living their lives according to their own choices as King George III felt. He expresses it in a variety of ways, but lately, he seems to be very focused on suppressing religious freedom, something King George seemed not to worry about.

People of faith have run from all over the world to this country seeking the liberty we famously offer to every citizen: the freedom of religious expression without any government interference. Buddhists have come here. Muslims have come here. Hindus have come here. Christians have come here. People of many religious persuasions have come here when their home countries decided that free expression of religion was a threat to an autocratic government. They have come here in fear of their lives, and here in the USA they have found safety. They have brought their families, reared their children, enjoyed their faith, and nobody has ever interfered with them. The freedom to enjoy and express their faith no matter the faith has been a hallmark of American citizenship.

Lately it appears that this freedom is under assault. The most widely discussed issue is the regulation written by the Secretary of Health and Human Services that requires religious employers to buy insurance that provides free contraception, abortion and sterilization. Less widely known and discussed is the news that when the Bishops sent letters to Catholic military chaplains, exactly like the letters they sent to all pastors nationwide, letters that instructed Catholics on the church teachings regarding contraception, abortion and sterilization and reminding them that their adherence to the faith required them to refuse to comply with this regulation, the government told the Catholic military chaplains that if they read those letters to their congregations, they would be subject to be tried for sedition and treason for opposing an order of the president.

This is not all. The latest information I have received is that a program entitled Public Service Loan Forgiveness has been revised specifically to exclude individuals employed in religious jobs. The loans addressed by this program are student loans. The relevant part of the regulation provides loan forgiveness to someone employed by an organization classified “as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC).” Without engaging in any judgment whether this is a good idea at all, I point out that the program specifically stated “The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.

In plain English, this program has, for many years, provided loan forgiveness for students who were employed in all sorts of 501 ( c ) 3 organizations. Churches are among the organizations that qualify for this classification. We all know that. Every church is tax-exempt, and donations to a church qualify for the deduction for charitable contributions. The rule applied until the end of January. Now the rules have changed.

As of February, there is a new paragraph that follows the statements quoted above. The new paragraph reads as follows:

“Generally, the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. However, if you work for a non-profit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”

You can find details in this online article at http://tinyurl.com/7ntjhbz.

This change means that employees of churches no longer qualify for the loan forgiveness program. Again, I say that this post is not to argue with the logic or justification of student loan forgiveness. My point is to ask why, in February of 2012, the rules suddenly changed, and why this change excludes work for religious organizations.

The real question is this: what changed? The respect for religious organizations that has been part of the fabric of the culture of the United States for more than 200 years is no longer expressed in the administration of the federal government of this country. What motivated this change? These are really only a few of the issues I could list.

Our forefathers fought and died to create a country where they could be free. When the American Constitution was written, it was understood by its authors to be a statement of the boundaries for a central government. The founders believed that the government did not have the authority to do anything not named in that Constitution, and the Constitution did not authorize the central government to suppress or impede the expression of religion by any citizen. Some wise minds recognized that human nature being what it is, there needed to be a specific restraint on this government that prevented it from either establishing some single official religion or from persecuting or suppressing any religion. Who knew that we would today be asking ourselves what happened to that freedom?

Christians have survived a lot of governments. The Roman government first ignored and later persecuted Christians before eventually making Christianity the state religion. Across the centuries Christians have known feast and famine in their relationships with governments. Today we have to ask ourselves what we do about the things that are happening with our federal government. It is a big issue. We will not lose our faith or give up our faith even if the government should forbid our faith, but life will be different. It is already different.

How shall we live in this new world?