Tag Archives: state restriction of religion

Why Should Christians Pay Attention to Government Scandals?

The IRS scandal sounds quite scandalous to citizens who are accustomed to believe that government must obey the laws and act with integrity. The scandal of the government wiretapping and hacking the email of journalists boggles the minds of people accustomed to think of journalists as the watchdog of government on behalf of the citizens. Attentive readers and listeners feel the hackles on the back of their necks rising in response that something not quite named that feels sinister and disturbing. The spectacle of a woman at the center of the IRS controversy declaring “I have done nothing wrong,” and then taking the fifth like a Mafia don makes people who live on Main Street nervous.

In the United States, we have until recently prided ourselves that our government was itself governed by law. The Constitution and the body of federal law applies as surely to our officials as it does to us. Until recently, people felt they did not need to fear the government, because the government was subject to the same law as everyone else. Stories about a federal agency targeted citizens who want to organize for charitable purposes or targeting journalists who want to get the facts behind the news they report daily are worrisome. Christians who have always suspected politics of being a dirty game feel justified in smugly saying “I told you so,” but there has not been any murmuring about one aspect of the situation that should be worrisome. They may not be well-informed about what happens in other countries. There are many countries around the world where churches are so highly regulated that even an unofficial prayer meeting is a legal infraction on the level of a charitable organization in the US trying to claim tax-exempt status without having qualified officially. In some countries, a Christian church that has actually registered can nevertheless be summarily shut down. A church that wants to be registered may feel that it has been singled out for attention due to unwarranted requests for additional forms and membership lists and copies of worship materials.

In countries where the government considers itself above the law, there is no recourse for citizens abused in the same manner as the non-profits applying for tax-exempt status in the USA. In other countries where the government is above the law, news reports must be compliant with the government message. Reporters suspected of non-compliance have their email monitored, their phone calls checked, and risk arrest or worse. In many countries, people targeted by government have a way of simply disappearing. American Christians have not seen anything like this and are quick to reject suggestions that it could happen in the USA. Sadly, anyone who reads news of the persecuted church around the world has seen things like this and worse things, all perpetrated as the legal acts of the government involved. American Christians, who have had good reason to wonder what the federal government means by the definition it uses for a religious exemption in the healthcare law, should look abroad for some forewarning of the sort of things governments do when they start defining religion and putting it under regulatory control.

Below is a short list of some issues that are eerily parallel to the bureaucratic hullabaloo associated with tax-exempt status for non-profits in the US:

  • Targeted groups were asked to provide membership lists and donor lists, documentation not required for groups that were not targeted.  
  • Further, the donor lists of 501 ( c ) 4 groups are supposedly confidential, which makes a request for such lists illegal.
  • Targeted groups were challenged on the basis of religious elements, such as prayer, and the groups were asked to provide the contents of prayers.
  • Targeted groups were asked to provide member lists, plans for membership drives, and the names of people that might join or be invited to join.
  • Bureaucratic strategies to delay official completion of registration included “lost” applications or unofficial holds on processing.
  • Targeted groups were asked to identify people that might hear presentations, or participate in future educational activities.

Delays of a year were not uncommon, and in some cases the delay continued for two or three years.

Governments who want to suppress unwanted political and religious views in other countries follow the same practices.

  • Claims of lost applications
  • Claims of missing or incorrect information on applications
  • Repeated requests for verification of the same information on applications
  • Demands for documentation considerably in excess of the documentation required on the form
  • Deliberate delays in processing applications
  • Repeated inquiries about the status of an application are politely deferred to a later date
  • Press reports on religious issues are suppressed and non-compliant reporters and publishers are arrested or at the very least spied upon (AP leak scandal/wiretap scandal)

There is a wealth of information available to inform Christians who wonder what it might be like to be subject to a government administrative bureaucracy for churches. However, a more pleasant way to learn about the situation is to read Martin Roth’s excellent book Coptic Martyr. Roth’s story details are fictitious, but his event details are quite accurate. In fact, given the news out of Egypt lately, Roth’s story may be considered a mild version of the way things work for a Christian church in a Muslim-dominated country. Roth’s novel Brother Half Angel tells a comparable story of the situation in a secular state such as China.

The allegation of scandal in the IRS is strongly disputed by all participants and will not be sorted out any time soon. It bears close watching regardless of your political view, because the problem is not who was targeted: the problem is that a federal agency targets anyone. The IRS has a single job to do: administer the law. It is not the job of the IRS to prevent anyone from obtaining tax-exempt status; it is the job of the IRS to certify tax-exempt status to each applicant who provides the information required by the application process. Demands for additional information required at the behest of the official who is processing the application without any legal or regulatory authority for such a request are illegal. Yet the power of the government and the applicant’s fear of the government are both so strong that few applicants have the courage to stand up against the onslaught.

Christians who have been flummoxed by the behavior of the federal government in regard to the Affordable Care Act would do well to pay attention to the allegation of scandal in the administration of law by the IRS. The IRS is the agency specified in the healthcare law to enforce compliance with the requirement to buy health insurance. If the reported behavior of the IRS toward the applications of non-profits is ultimately upheld as lawful, it will continue and expand. That is the nature of government. Just like a gas in a bottle, government expands to fill the power vacuum available to it. The definition of religion contained in the Affordable Care Act is a model which, in the absence of any pressure to do otherwise, will be replicated as the model for administration of the right to free exercise of religion. If the behavior of the IRS in targeting applicants for tax-exempt status is upheld, that sort of behavior will continue and be replicated toward applicants for the conscience exemption in the Affordable Care Act.

Every citizen has both the right and the obligation to participate in the government of the United States.  Many citizens believe that because they elect representatives and senators and etcetera, those people represent us and can act on our behalf. They believe they don’t need to be so involved and vigilant, because their elected officials will act on their behalf. The evidence suggesting scandal in the IRS is only one example of evidence that voters cannot afford to relax and let elected officials operate without let or hindrance. Christians have even more motivation than other voters to exercise vigilance and be active in the government. Christians are not a demographic minority, but in government affairs, they are a worldview minority. The worldview of the federal government is increasingly secular, making it quite challenging for Christians to assert the right of free exercise of religion or any other rights deriving from that one.

This post is not written for the purpose of stating a conclusion about the behavior of the IRS so much as it is written for the purpose of alerting voters, especially Christian voters, to questionable, if not deliberately illegal, behavior by employees of the IRS. Public statements suggest that the behavior is authorized and approved at high levels. Every voter should care about the integrity of the administration of the law, but Christians must be very alert to the manner in which this process forewarns all who might wish to claim the conscience exemption of the Affordable Care Act. It could be an alert to problems that may be seen in the future if the conscience exemption of the Affordable Care Act becomes a model for general use with regard to religious liberty. Pray for wisdom. Speak for freedom. Stand up for integrity and for religious liberty.

Religious Liberty — Precious and Increasingly Rare

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America

The United States Bill of Rights, the first Ten Amendments to our Constitution, begins with a statement of religious liberty. The statement says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
This is the first clause of the First Amendment. Its placement indicates that when the ten amendments were considered as a group, religious liberty was the concern of highest value, the first of the first. The amendment continues by specifying additional rights of the people, and among those rights, freedom of speech and right of assembly are directly related to religious liberty, because a person cannot be truly free to live and express his faith if he is prevented from speaking his faith, both in narrative and persuasive language, or if he is forbidden to gather with others who share his faith. The remainder of the First Amendment says:
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.

The plain language of this amendment to the US Constitution gives American citizens freedom to choose a religion, or no religion, freedom to exercise their faith by practicing its teachings, freedom to gather in churches or homes or parks or on sidewalks or wherever they wish to gather in peace to worship, study, teach or discuss their faith, and freedom to speak the teachings, speak their advocacy, speak words to persuade others to believe, speak words of prayer or words of preaching in public or private settings.

In many countries, the government either commands or suppresses particular religions, and government enforces strict rules about both public and private gatherings and speech. Some governments regulate religious literature. Some governments forbid evangelism. Some governments set age limits on participation in religion. Some governments that gave citizens religious freedom in the past are passing new laws that control, restrict or even shut down religious language and activities.

For example, the parliament of Kazakhstan passed a new law regulating religion in 2011 entitled “The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations.” It replaces a 1992 law entitled “The Law on Freedom of Religious Confession and Religious Associations”. It is not an accident that the word freedom is missing from the title of the new law. The old law actually specified certain freedoms and rights. The new law is about setting limits and controlling activity. The law was drafted by the government Agency of Religious Affairs.

If the US auto industry grew weary of trying to sell people electric cars when nobody wants them, the industry might draft a law that said that henceforth only electric cars would be permitted on federal highways and then lobby Congress to enact this law. If the Congress simply passed the law just the way the industry wrote it, that law would serve the purposes of the auto industry in the same way as when Kazakhstan’s parliament passed a law about religion written by the agency that wants to control religion in Kazakhstan.

The new laws require the re-registration of all religious communities. Kazakhstan’s laws deliberately mimic laws passed in Tajikistan, and call to mind laws in China that require the same thing. In Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and China, unregistered Christian churches come under attack. Christians in the US are accustomed to be able to hold prayer meetings and Sunday School class meetings, Bible studies and missionary projects in their homes whenever they like. In countries that require both the site of a meeting and the group holding the meeting to be registered and authorized by the government, such meetings become bureaucratic challenges. Christians who choose to meet without registering are subject to arrest and prison at the very least. Some are even tortured for their unregistered religious activity.

The religious materials Christians use are censored as well. Every religion must use materials approved by the government. If a congregation wants to build a new church, the new location and likely the design of the building will require government approval. Foreign visitors are closely restricted in their religious activity. A missionary from outside the country is not welcome to invite people to meetings or to start a new church; founders of religious communities in Kazakhstan must be Kazakh citizens.

Work among young people will definitely become more problematic, and one wonders what Christian parents will do about bringing up their children in the faith. The law in Tajikistan prohibits children under the age of 18 from participating in any religious activities except funerals. Parents who take or send their children to church, Sunday School, or even private prayer meetings face heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 8 years. Kazakhstan used this law as a model for their own. Christians know that the Bible lays on parents the responsibility to teach their children the faith. Parents in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan must be strong, wise and careful if they teach their children to know Christ. Would you read Bible stories to your children and pray with them at bedtime if you thought both you and your children could be arrested for doing so?

The ostensible motivation for such laws is always to prevent extremism. The obvious outcome is that the government can decide which religion, if any, will thrive in the country. Religious speech is shut down except for the favored speech. In the USA there is an unwritten speech restriction today that says that if a public figure is a person of color, then speech that criticizes any aspect of that person’s life is racist speech. This restriction is cultural, not legal, but it has the effect of suppressing important conversations about public figures. In Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, the actual laws restrict religious speech the same way. People who advocate religious ideas the government does not approve of will face arrest and imprisonment.

American citizens believe that they have the right to believe or not believe any religious persuasion of their choice. They believe that they can wear or display the symbols of their faith at will. They believe that they can read the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita in any translation that suits them, and they can talk about these books or any others with friends and neighbors in their homes or in their churches. This is what Americans believe to be their right because of the Constitution and the First Amendment. American citizens need to remember that nothing in the realm of time and space is necessarily true forever. After all, the 1992 laws in Kazakhstan used to be about religious freedom. The 2011 laws in Kazakhstan are not about freedom at all.

Pray for Christians in Kazakhstan. Pray for Christians in Tajikistan and China. Pray for them to hold fast to their testimony as Christ asks of us all in the book of Revelation:
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.  Revelation 2:10
Then pray for Christians in the USA, and pray that they will be strong defenders and advocates of religious freedom, acting and speaking against legal restrictions under the pretense of preventing extremism. Liberty is a fragile flower. Prevention of unwanted viewpoints and suppression of unwanted speech will kill the flower of liberty and leave only restriction and persecution of the faith.

Be sure to read the good news that Rimsha Masih is cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan http://livingontilt.wordpress.com/news-from-the-front-lines/charges-dropped-against-rimsha-masih/

What Did You Expect?

English: Francis Chan at Catalyst West 2009
English: Francis Chan at Catalyst West 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you a Christian? If you are, have you ever been the object of attack – social shunning, or actual persecution? If not, why not? If yes, what exactly happened?

I ask these questions, because I recently listened to a sermon by Francis Chan. He read material from every book in the New Testament, and he convinced me to stop thinking something has gone wrong in the USA when I see evidence of religious persecution. He did it by showing me that from the moment Christ began to preach, he warned us that persecution would be our lot. Maybe as mild as not being invited to the cool parties in school. Maybe as harsh as being sawed limb from limb while still alive. Maybe simply being crucified as Jesus was crucified. Maybe being verbally crucified and rhetorically sawn to bits by an aggressive individual with what he calls a humanist agenda.

Francis Chan convinced me that the Bible says we should expect to be persecuted if we follow Christ. It isn’t anything odd. It isn’t some colossal mistake. It is our own fault for believing that Jesus meant what he said. We follow him, and we might as well paint a big red target on our faces. This is what the Bible says.

There’s more, however.

The Bible says that we should be really glad about it when we are persecuted. If we are being persecuted, then, according to the Bible, we are doing it right. We are actually giving our testimonies, showing everybody that we put Christ ahead of anything and everything else. If we were to stop doing that, then nobody would care.

This is the current agenda of our secular culture. They want us to lock our faith up in elegant buildings and go inside those buildings to visit our faith practices. The culture wants us to shut up about our commitment to God and our conviction that since God is the one who gives life to each human embryo, then only he should take it away. The culture wants us to say that it was just an accident that the first couple happened to be heterosexual and have children. The culture wants us to accept all sorts of deviations on both heterosexual and homosexual themes that are an abomination to the God-given design for a family that starts with one man and one woman. The culture wants us to have all our conversations about what God wants from us inside the houses of worship that are listed in some government database for the exemption from the healthcare mandate, and the culture wants us to leave all our convictions and commitments and concerns about our relationship with God inside those buildings when we exit at the end of a worship service.

Secular culture has great admiration for the idea of religion. Secular students of the arts discover that much of the truly great art was produced by artists inspired by their religious experience. They love our big Gothic cathedrals as high examples of both aesthetics and engineering. They do not want to be annoyed by any suggestion that the cathedrals grow out of relationships that permeated the society of the day. Rather they would like to think that the engineering and artistic challenges shaped the culture. Secular thinkers do not want to hear that Christianity is a way of life. To them, Buddhism is a way of life, and they love the enigmatic nuances of its words and ways. Buddhism is mysterious. Christian teaching is hard-headed, and they don’t want it let loose in the real world.

When we live our faith in the midst of the secular culture, we invite persecution. Most people don’t want to hear that word in this context. Someone sues a church because he doesn’t like the sound of the bells on Sunday morning when he wants to sleep in. Someone complains that a valedictorian thanked God in the text of a graduation speech. Someone takes offense at a bank teller wearing a necklace with a cross-shaped pendant. These acts, according to the secular agenda, are not persecution; they are cultural cleansing. We really must excise all these references to religion in the public forum. People who don’t believe in God ought not to be expected to put up with such intrusions into their daily lives.

You may go along with some of these little jabs. To accept them without resistance, to acknowledge them without calling them what they are, is to pretend that the culture can slice away our testimony without infringing on our practice of our faith. If faith in Christ shapes your life, then you will always be a testimony to him, and that will always inspire resistance and rejection from those who reject Christ himself. If you think it ought to be easier, read your Bible again. Persecution, in large and small bites, is the destiny of every Christian. It is time to stop being surprised about it and start giving thanks for it. It isn’t an accident. It is exactly what every Christian ought to expect.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:11-12 NRSV