Saturday, January 17, 2015

Some reflections about Christians' responses to abortion on the occasion of Sanctity of Life Sunday

Tomorrow is Sanctity of Life Sunday. 

Many evangelical churches across the United States will devote their Sunday messages to addressing our national shame of abortion.

The occasion suggests a few reflections:

(1) The act of aborting a child arises out of a fundamentally pagan, "this-worldly" philosophy, which assumes that this life is all there is, so that our aim ought to be to maximize our personal pleasure during this life and to minimize our pain and inconvenience. A belief system such as this is the polar opposite of that of Christianity, which teaches that it is our eternal destiny that ought to govern our thinking and our choices in this world. Christianity teaches that each human being faces one of two destinies: either endless life in a world of glory, goodness, and love, or endless misery and undying death. Although Christians know that they do not earn the right to heaven, but are given it as a gift, and that they receive this gift only by means of trusting in what Jesus Christ did for them, they also know that no-one whose destiny is heaven can continue to live in a way which is characteristic of those whose destiny is hell. Christians know that they have been, are being, and will be changed, from being consumed with themselves and their own needs to being consumed with God and with love for others. The act of abortion does not arise out of this Christian way of thinking and being. Abortion is sin against God, who is the giver of life.

(2) Much of the debate about abortion centers around the question of the point in time at which life begins (that is, the point in time when it is no longer just the rights of the woman which must be considered, but also the rights of the child). Much ink and many words have been spent trying to justify different points of view on this question. But this way of framing the debate arises out of a basically naturalistic/scientistic misconception: that it is possible to draw a line at some point in the natural development of a fertilized ovum into an adult human being and to definitively assert "Here is where life begins." 

From a Christian perspective, life begins at the point when, if the natural process is not disrupted in some way, a living human baby will result. If humans must force the process of the development of a baby to end, then what they are doing is taking into their own hands the judgment that the gift of life from God to the child should not have been given. Christians understand that God is the creator of life, that He creates through the natural process of fertilization and gestation, and that the artificial "termination" of this process at any point takes away from the child-to-be the life in this world that God gave. To draw lines in the process of gestation is to usurp a power whose legitimate use God has reserved to Himself alone: the deciding of the question of when life begins and ends. The taking of life from an unborn baby, regardless of the stage of development, is entirely equivalent to the taking of life from an adult, and God, since He is absolutely just and fair, must judge the crime of taking another person's life.

(3) Many people, having been brought up in Christian homes and thinking themselves Christians, justify the idea of abortion to themselves by telling themselves that God will forgive them even if they do it. This is a way of thinking which is radically wrong. Although God does indeed forgive all manner of sin, He does so to those whom He has made truly repentant of their sin. Forgiveness is not given to those who still justify their sin and presume on God's mercy to overlook things that they would do again if they were back in the same situation. God is not some "kindly old gentleman in the sky" who clucks his tongue at evil and will overlook it as soon as it is committed. He is a perfectly fair and just God who hates all sin. God does not favor the rights of the parents over the child. He is a just God. In fact, if God takes any side, Scripture is clear that He takes the side of the oppressed and the powerless. 

And yet, it bears repeating, it still remains true that those who truly do trust Christ and submit to His Lordship are forgiven from every sin - including abortion - and receive forgiveness and healing.

Isn't this a contradiction? How do we reconcile the fact that God is absolutely just and yet that God forgives? The only place these two facts can be reconciled is at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If God winks at sin, then ultimately there is no justice in the universe. But if God does not forgive, then no human has any hope, because all have sinned and God cannot just pass over sin. But the fact of sin and the fact of God's graciousness are reconciled in Jesus' death. Jesus suffered the penalty of sin in His own person on behalf of those to whom it is given to trust Him and submit to Him as King. Forgiveness of sins is only given to those who trust and submit to Christ.

This is why deciding in advance that you will commit a sin and that God will forgive you afterward is such a totally wrong way of thinking. To even think in this way may very well mean that you have not trusted Christ at all. Deciding in advance that God will forgive you for the sin you plan to commit intentionally is a defiance against God's grace. This type of sin will harden you. It tends to the destruction of your soul.

(4) The church of Jesus Christ is the place where the good news of the forgiving and healing grace of God in Jesus is proclaimed and embodied. We Christians, because we know that God has forgiven and healed us, do not withhold grace and forgiveness from those to whom God has extended His grace. If God no longer calls our sins to mind, we are to be like Him in utterly forgiving the sins of others who follow Christ. We may not personally hold against others that for which God has forgiven them. Any "church" that condemns repentant sinners is not really a church at all.

(5) Christians not only oppose abortion: they hold all life to be a sacred gift of God. It is because of this that we cannot just tell people not to abort - we must also help to provide options and care for those who choose to bring life into this world. To do otherwise would show that we don't really think life is sacred. We must show that we treasure the life of children already born as well as unborn ones.

(6) Abortion presents a uniquely difficult challenge for Christians to communicate with unbelieving friends and neighbors for two reasons: (a) our worldview arises out of completely different worldview assumptions than those held by the non-Christian world, and (b) the fact that Christians believe that the life of a baby is taken in abortion implies that they are morally obligated to act on behalf of an unborn baby in the same way they would be if they were to see one person about to murder another.

First, believers cannot expect unbelievers to completely understand their conclusions, because unbelievers do not reason from the same presuppositions. If a person believes that the physical world and this life are all that there is, and that there are no rewards and punishments except those experienced in this life, then it makes complete sense that one would try to maximize pleasure and minimize inconvenience in this life. Of course, it's worth pointing out that this worldview, if followed consistently, doesn't actually support the idea of "rights" at all - if the universe is a blind, godless, place, then there are no such things as rights, of a woman or of a child. All there is is seeking one's own advantage.

Second, since believers believe that abortion is the killing of a baby, it is implied that they will try to stop abortions. This will inevitably be perceived by an unbeliever as coercive and intrusive. That is, unbelievers will rightly see the effort to prevent abortion as the effort of a believer to impose his or her worldview on the unbeliever. Abortion is not like some moral issues which Christians would relegate to the realm of "being between the unbeliever and God." It falls in the realm of public evils in which the Christian worldview requires intervention. If Christians believe they can leave the decision to abort a child up to the individual, it logically follows that they believe the decision for one person to murder another ought to be left up to decision of the individual. To distinguish between the case of the murder of an adult and the abortion of a child is to acknowledge the very distinction on which opposition to abortion is premised. If you once concede that there is a difference between these two cases, you are admitting that humans get to decide when life begins (and ends) - and this decision can ultimately only be made on considerations of the "value" of a life - considerations which are completely alien to a biblical worldview.

To hold a Christian worldview on abortion, then, inherently involves us in a certain level of moral obligation to "impose" our worldview on unbelievers. In the same way and to the extent that we would seek to prevent the murder of an adult we are to use all appropriate means to prevent the killing of an unborn child. This may seem to be a radical statement, but to think otherwise is to concede the argument in advance by effectively saying that an unborn baby is not a full human being with full human rights.

(7) What, then, are the "appropriate" ways in which Christians may to prevent the killing of an unborn child? Aye, there's the rub. Certainly, Christians ought to be involved in efforts to roll back evil laws and judicial rulings which permit murder, just as they once worked to do away with slavery. Christians, too, ought to be deeply involved in providing good options for mothers who don't wish to be mothers to give their children to parents who will love and care for them.

But what about taking action beyond this? After all, it is true that Christians, where human law conflicts with the Law of God are required to obey God rather than men. Should we take this as implying our obligation to protect the unborn in the same way that we would feel we were morally obligated to take action to prevent someone with a gun from killing someone else? For example, although the rulings of the judges in our nation make it illegal to prevent women from entering abortion clinics, are Christians obligated to disobey these laws? Clearly there are some very thorny issues here that need to be carefully thought through. It is not sufficient to just fall back on the fact that Christians are in general commanded to obey the laws. There are times when to do that involves us in disobedience to God. 

Of course, it is always wrong for Christians to try to right wrongs by committing evil themselves. It is always wrong for Christians to take such actions as bombing abortion clinics or shooting abortion doctors. Even to the extent that Christians are to take actions which prevent people from getting abortions, they must not violate God's Law in doing that.

I can propose no easy answers to the question of how far Christians ought to go, or what actions they ought to take, in preventing people from getting abortions which are legal in this nation. There are no easy answers to this question (although, as noted above, there clearly are some actions which Christians cannot take). Each Christian is obligated to think through these issues carefully in the light of the Word of God, and in His Presence. But Sanctity of Life Sunday is a good day to stop and consider the question.

May God see fit to change the hearts and minds of many in our land so that this evil practice disappears and many come to recognize the sacredness of life which God created in His image.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On "Christian nations" and Christians' political/social involvement

It is fairly common for conservative, evangelical Christians in America to claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that America was founded as a "Christian nation," has fallen away from its roots, and needs to return to them.

I don't agree with the claim when stated in this form.

Does this mean I support the anti-theistic, amoral society that we're becoming? 

Well, no. 

What I don't agree with in the claim above is the premise that America (where the word America refers to the political entity which came into existence in 1788 with the signing of its present Constitution) was ever a "Christian nation" or that Christians ought to be trying to establish formally Christian nations on the earth anyway. Relative to the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, it might be true (although I doubt it) that America was once a nation with a high percentage of Christians. America might also have been (and I believe it was) founded by men, the overwhelming majority of whom were devout Christians, with the sincere goal of establishing righteous government. But it was never a Christian nation. 

In fact, I don't even think such a thing as a Christian nation is even possible in this age redemptive history.

Why, you might ask, do I think that? Well, for starters, the term "nation," in its political sense, signifies a well-defined group of people who agree to be subject to a common system of government. Given that not all Americans ever agreed to be subject to Christ (i.e., to become Christians) or to the Bible, and given that office-bearing was never restricted to Christians, this nation was never a Christian nation in any meaningful sense. It is true that American institutions were established with enormous influence of Christian ideas, but that does not make the United States a Christian nation.

As for the reason that I don't think there can even be such a thing as a Christian nation in this age of the world, that requires a little more explanation.

Even if we were to allow for the possibility (which I don't, so long as Christ Himself is not physically here on earth to govern) that it's legitimate for Christians to establish a nation governed exclusively by Christians using only the Bible as their ultimate standard, we must contend with a horrendously difficult set of issues with regard to what that hypothetical system of government would look like.

When evangelical Christians talk about a "Christian nation," they usually have a pretty limited idea in their minds of what that means. What they often have in mind is a semi-mythical golden age in the American past that we need to "get back to." If pressed, they'll usually come up with a relatively short list of things that we need to do: outlaw abortion, put prayer and the Bible back in schools, get rid of no-fault divorce, make sexual activity outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage illegal, clean up the smut in media, and so on. 

Many conservative evangelicals would also add various things to this list which are probably more Republican ideas than solidly biblical ones: things like reducing taxes (does the Bible really specify what the right level of taxation is or what combination of property, earned income, capital gains, sales, custom/excise, value-added, etc. should be levied to gather it?), getting rid of national health care plans (does the Bible really tell us how to deal with out of control health-care inflation), providing for a strong national defense, tort reform, Second Amendment rights, and so on. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any of these things are bad policy recommendations. I'm actually in favor of many of them (assuming they are implemented well). What I am saying is that implementing various of these things is not at all the same thing as drawing a comprehensive model for laws and civil administration from the Bible.

What would a more comprehensively biblical model for civil administration even look like? As many non-Christians have noted, there are lots of laws in the Bible that Christians don't  keep any more. While I think it's not that hard to defend in general (i.e. in terms of a distinction between moral, ceremonial, and civil law) why that is so, making individual decisions about which laws from ancient Israel ought to have some kind of counterpart in today's civil law is a complicated matter. And yet, if someone proposes to establish a nation whose civil laws are derived from biblical prescriptions, it is necessary to be very clear and comprehensive in identifying which laws and institutions are binding outside the context of ancient Israel, and which are not. And even for those which are still binding, there remains the question of which of those laws are to be enforced by state authority (as opposed to being enforced by God Himself). 

It's impossible to do this comprehensively in this short blog post, but to illustrate the complexities of this project, consider a few examples.

Most Christians will agree that it is not appropriate to adopt the ceremonial code of ancient Israel as a binding standard for Americans. But what about ancient Israel's administrative laws? Should we have something analogous to allowing the poor to glean the edges of a field in our law code? What about the idea of inalienable family land title (i.e., land that can only be temporarily leased, not sold)? Sabbatical years? Years of jubilee?

And what about the moral Law? Meaning the one that most Christians still believe represents God's will for all mankind (I don't personally know any Christians who think it's OK to murder, steal, commit adultery, and so on). The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments also require that only the true God is to be worshiped, that graven images cannot be made, that one is not to misuse God's Name, that the Sabbath is to be observed (which Sabbath? Saturday, Sunday, your choice of any day so long as you do it? or is it only the Nine Commandments now?) and to honor parents. Elsewhere in Scripture these same "religious" prescriptions have specified punishments for violating them (usually the penalty is death). Please note, I'm not writing any of this with any intent to mock God's holy Law. God forbid! But I am saying that the fact that God's covenant with ancient Israel was unique ought to make us think very hard about how to apply even the moral laws and their civil penalties outside of Israel's redemptive-historical context.

Some readers might want to avoid all these issues with the rather lame response that "we are not under the Law." That is certainly true of Christians with regard to our accountability to God's eternal punishment for breaking His moral Law. But that's not what we're talking about here. The point here is that if you propose to establish an earthly system of government with earthly laws having earthly penalties for disobedience, you need to say which biblical laws you are choosing to have a civil government enforce and why you've chosen those ones and not others. 

You see, in ancient Israel people didn't really have much choice in anything. They were born Israelites (well, yes, there were some proselytes as well) and, being Israelites, were obligated to live under the entire Mosaic code. Once a person had entered the covenant, whether through birth or through conversion, leaving was not permitted. You were obligated to keep the entire Mosaic Law - which dealt comprehensively with ceremonial, civil, and moral matters - under penalty of civil government. 

That situation is not at all the same as that of the modern Christian. The New Testament seems clear in teaching that to be converted to Christianity is something which is ultimately between the individual and God. Although every individual person does have moral obligation to trust in Christ, it is God, and not the civil magistrate, who will enforce the penalty (the eternal penalty of hell) for his or her refusal to do so.There is no hint in the New Testament that someone who apostatizes from Christianity (or never makes profession in the first place) is expected to face a civil penalty for that. In this age of redemptive history, the church, as God's covenant community, does not bear civil authority (although individual Christians often do). 

And what about our system of government itself? Some modern advocates of a Christian government for the U.S. argue that the Scripture calls for a democratic republic as the biblical form of government. This is not an exegetically sound claim. Actually, Old Testament Israel was a monarchy, not a republic, and leadership in the tribes was family- and clan-based. Although there are instances of leaders being chosen (as in Exodus 18 and in Numbers 11), it seems from closer examination of genealogical records that those leaders chosen to represent the tribes in national assemblies were generally clan leaders - there was nothing resembling a modern election and political campaign.

And what about the offices of government? In America we have three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. In ancient Israel, you had prophet, priest, and king. You didn't have a legislative branch. The Law was fixed. You didn't get to change it or add to it. You only got to interpret it. This was what kings and the judges appointed by them did, with input from the priests. Prophets were messengers from God who confronted kings, priests, and people for failure to keep the covenant of Law.

In short, the models for government that we find in the Bible don't seem directly applicable to the situation of a non-covenant nation in the Christian era. So, someone who proposes to establish a system of laws and government established on "Christian" or "biblical" principles is not so much having those things prescribed out of Scripture as inventing things and determining whether what they've invented contradicts anything from the Law of Scripture which is of abiding validity.

It seems, then, that the project of establishing Christian government is not a simple one. This doesn't by itself imply, of course, that we're not supposed to try to do it. The fact that something is hard doesn't mean that we're not obligated to do it. Are there other reasons that Christian nations cannot exist in this age?

The most important reason is theological. There is a Christian nation. Only one Christian nation. The church. Redeemed out of every earthly nation by God and promised a heavenly city. As the Apostle Peter says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10, ESV)
The Apostle Paul, too, confirms this:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20, ESV)
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says something similar:
 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16, ESV)
And Jesus Himself confirms it:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36a, ESV)
In the book of Revelation, the living creatures and the elders sing of it:

They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:9-10, ESV)

All these verses confirm the idea that there is only one Christian nation - and it is not America or any other earthly nation. It is the nation consisting of those whom Christ has redeemed out of the nations of the earth. The church consists of those who trust Christ and willingly submit to Him as King. This church already reigns with Christ in heaven, but, when He returns, will reign with Him on the earth.

From this it follows that the quest to establish a nation formally as a Christian nation is a foolish one. It has no biblical basis and, if attempted, will only lead to apostasy and a repetition of the evils that attended the church in its abominable alliance with the Roman empire that began with the reign of Constantine.

So is it legitimate for Christians to play any part in earthly politics and government? The answer is definitely yes, so long as it is borne in mind that it is not the church that is to govern earthly kingdoms on earth before Christ's return. Rather, individual Christians are to seek to do justly in using that power and influence which God has entrusted to them. As is well-illustrated in the discussion of biblical law above, doing this is by no means a simple matter. It often involves a great deal of thinking to determine whether laws and policy proposals are consistent with the moral Law of God, and with the societal obligation to care for the weak and suffering.

In short, Christians are called to act as salt and light in this present evil age, upholding the requirements of the moral Law of God in their own lives, submitting to and supporting earthly governments so long as what those governments require is consistent with what is right, and using whatever authority or influence God has entrusted to them to see that justice and righteousness are established and mercy is done.

But neither America nor any other earthly nation is the promised Land. The Christian's citizenship is in heaven. We will not build the New Jerusalem. That city will descend from heaven with Christ. We are sojourners here in Babylon and must seek the good of the earthly cities (or nations) in which we dwell. Law and morality are not the Gospel. We Christians have infinitely more in common with Christians of other nations than we have with the pagans in our own. Our thanksgiving to God for the blessings of belonging to our earthly nations (in my case, of being an American), and our earnest efforts to establish righteousness and do justice in our nations must never distract us from preaching the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ and entry through Him into the eternal heavenly kingdom to which the redeemed from every nation belong.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Atlanta Effectively Barring Conservative Evangelical Christians from Managerial Jobs?

On January 6, the New York Times published an article in which it was reported that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. The firing was a response (so Mayor Reed said) to Mr. Cochran's having distributed copies of a book he had written to several members of the department who had not asked for it, and who objected to the book's characterization of sexual activity between people of the same gender as "vile, vulgar, and inappropriate." The mayor said that he believed that Mr. Cochran's "actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse work force.” The mayor added that “every single employee under the fire chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.”

Mr Cochran responded that no-one received the book who had not been personally identified to him as an evangelical Christian. It is not at all clear, though, that even if Mr. Cochran had only given his book to those who shared his views that it really would have made any difference at all in the outcome. That is to say, Mr. Cochran was fired, not because he gave copies of his book to people who didn't want it, but because Mr. Cochran's public condemnation of homosexuality was seen as implying his inability to be perceived by all employees as a fair manager. In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter whether Mr. Cochran's views were expressed in a book, made in a speech, expressed in a blog, or communicated in some other way.The real reason for Mr. Cochran's firing was that, in light of the fact that he sincerely believes that homosexual activity to be immoral and "vile," his continued employment by the city of Atlanta would be perceived by many as an endorsement (or at least a non-repudiation) of his beliefs.

One might be tempted to write this case off as another minor skirmish in the culture wars of the modern United States. It would be a mistake to do so. I am not sure if Mr. Cochran will pursue his case in court (I hope he does), but if he does, his case highlights an issue which everyone who cares about the freedoms of speech and of the free exercise of religion ought to care about. This issue is the fact that Mr Cochran was not fired for actually violating the rights of any of his employees. He was fired on the basis of his views alone. That is, he was fired because his religious views in and of themselves, without regard to any action arising out of them, was judged sufficient basis for his disqualification from the office of fire chief.

Regardless of the opinion one might hold with regard to Mr. Cochran's beliefs, as a matter of law, the case of his firing is significant since it represents a departure from the legal standard which has been in place ever since the finding of the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1878). In Reynolds, the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion so long as religious beliefs do not result in actions which actually contravene relevant national law. Later, in Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Supreme Court, on the basis of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, applied this to state law as well. Case law and legislation in the second half of the twentieth century further clarified that any government laws, policies, or regulations which impinge on a person's right to act in accordance with their beliefs must be in pursuit of a broad and legitimate government purpose and must be framed in a way which is minimally burdensome. (For a very brief history of modern religious liberty law in the United States, see here.)

That is, it is the law of the land that no national, state, or local government is permitted to discriminate against a person on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Mr. Cochran was fired from a government position merely for expressing certain sincerely held religious beliefs. It is ironic that Mr. Cochran was discriminated against on the basis of the mayor's desire to establish a non-discriminatory environment for the city's employees. That is, rather than requiring gay and lesbian employees to remain under the supervision of a manager who might violate their rights, the mayor chose to actually violate the rights of the fire chief.

Some might respond to this that the fire chief had not merely potentially violated the rights of those city employees under his supervision, but had actually violated their rights by condemning homosexual activity as "vile." But this is nonsense. No-one has a right not to be offended. Even public officials retain a right to free speech, so long as it is clear when they are speaking for themselves and when they are speaking as a public office-holder. To assert the contrary will merely disqualify everyone with strong views on controversial issues from political office, since such views always offend someone. The non-existent "right to not be offended" would, if implemented, virtually guarantee unrepresentative government, since every significant issue dividing society by definition fosters strong opinions, and, by this silly non-right would guarantee that only those with no opinion on divisive issues could be candidates.

In order to have one's rights violated one must have suffered material, tangible damage. That someone has experienced emotional distress as a result of having heard others disparage them, their behavior, or their views does not, in general, mean that their rights have been violated. (NB, I do think there is an exception to this general principle in the case of children - laws and policies preventing children from being bullied are, within certain limits, a good thing.)

With regard to the establishment of "opinion tests" in order to be qualified for public office, where does it end? Do we really want to live in a nation where the government imposes litmus tests for belief? Such tests are expressly forbidden by the Constitution, regardless of how any hypothetical Supreme Court might wish to interpret it.

It is high time that our society was reminded that toleration does not mean that we never hear views with which we disagree. Toleration does not guarantee a public square where no-one ever says anything controversial. What toleration means is that we respect the rights of others to publicly express views which disagree with our own - even views which personally disparage us - and to do so without public penalty. Again, it is ironic that the concept of "tolerance" is being pressed in directions which are profoundly intolerant. Wild-eyed zealots of all stripes must be reminded that zealotry can only prosper in a world of tolerance for diverse opinion. To insist on uniformity of publicly expressed opinion is to insist on tyranny.

This not, of course, to say that there should be no limits at all on free speech or on the free exercise of religion. The classic examples of people who shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or who claim a religious right to perform human sacrifice come to mind. It is, however, to say that any free society must permit people to differ with each other on important matters and to do so publicly and without government-imposed penalty.

It is to be hoped that the great center of our nation will act, as it usually has in the past, to restrain those foolish would-be revolutionaries who so earnestly seek to use the force of law to purge American society of those with whom they disagree. If not stopped, they will ultimately find that the demons they unleash will not establish a the "good society," but the guillotine and the gulag.

Monday, January 5, 2015

On the First Amendment Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses and the Debate about the Christian Heritage of the United States

It is now a fixture of political debate to hear the political left arguing for the "separation of church and state" and the religious right arguing in response that constitutionally there really is no such thing. What are citizens (especially Christians) to make of these rival claims? 

Well, to begin with, the conservatives are right in saying that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. What the Constitution has to say about the relationship between religion and government is found in the First Amendment, which merely states that 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

So where did the phrase "separation of church and state" come from? The phrase, in fact, has its origin in a letter which President Thomas Jefferson sent in response to three representatives of the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, who had written him on October 7, 1801. These men had written to Jefferson on behalf of the 26-member Baptist Association, which was working to overturn the establishment of the Congregational church in New England.  The text of their letter can be found here.

In his letter responding to them, Jefferson said the following:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. 
That is, the phrase "separation of church and state" entered the American lexicon as Thomas Jefferson's interpretation as to the effect of the First Amendment's prohibiting the federal government from either establishing a church or interfering with the right of individuals to hold whatever religious beliefs that they might happen to hold.

The full text of Jefferson's response makes clear that he personally objected to the idea of any government's advantaging or disadvantaging of citizens on the basis of their religious convictions and affiliations. It is also clear that Jefferson understood that, as a result of the First Amendment to the Constitution, the federal government lacked any authority to repeal the establishment by the states of New England of "official" churches.

That Jefferson's response to the Danbury Baptists was so widely publicized (it was published in a number of newspapers) gave evidence that the issue of establishment was a live one in the early Republic. Indeed, the issue of establishment of religion at the state level played a substantial role in the election of 1800. In that election, the infant United States chose to elect Thomas Jefferson over his opponent John Adams. Adams was a representative of the Federalist party, which found the majority of its support in New England, where the Congregational church was the established church. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a representative of the Democratic-Republican party, which favored religious freedom and disestablishment. The Methodists and Baptists (who were stronger in the West of the new nation) generally favored Jefferson because of his party's support for disestablishment, while the congregationalists supported the Federalists. 

Despite the fact that Adams was himself a Unitarian, many of the more orthodox clergymen of New England told their parishioners that they were conscience-bound to vote against Jefferson since he was a deist (which was true). Jefferson ultimately prevailed in the election.

In the ensuing years of the Second Great Awakening, appeals were commonly made on the basis of the identity of the United States as a "Christian nation" for lawmakers to support various crusades to establish laws in favor of Sabbath-keeping, and against slavery and alcohol. These appeals to the Christian identity of the United States were made, not on the basis of any official establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the United States, but on the basis of the fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens considered themselves to be Christians, and considered themselves to have the right to advocate for laws in keeping with their beliefs.

This "generally Christian" character of the American Republic continued throughout the 19th century, manifesting itself in such institutions as the chaplaincy of the House and Senate, as well as in the proclamation of national days of prayer and thanksgiving, and in public prayer. It is not at all difficult to find public documents and findings of the House and Senate at the time invoking Christianity in a quasi-official way.

Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists surfaced once again in constitutional arguments about the First Amendment "Free Exercise" clause in 1878. In the case of Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1878) (which can be found here), a Mormon man appealed his conviction on the charge of bigamy on the basis that his religion required it, so that his prosecution was a violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. As part of their argument, his lawyers cited the phrase "separation between church and state" from Jefferson's letter in support of his claim. In its decision, the Supreme Court ultimately held that this claim of religious immunity from the laws of the land must be set aside since otherwise it would amount to the freedom of every person to do as he or she wished and to excuse it on the basis of religion. That is, the Supreme Court, citing Jefferson, acknowledged that the government had no authority to interfere in matters of private belief, but held that the Free Exercise clause only governed private beliefs, not actions in violation of national laws.

Jefferson's phrase surfaced once again in 1947 in the case of Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947). In this historically important case, the U.S. Supreme Court held, on the basis of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (which requires that every citizen is entitled to the equal protection of the laws of the United States) that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not only to the federal government, but also to the states. That is, the Supreme Court held that states were no longer free to establish churches since that would mean that the citizens of any such state would now no longer have the same rights as the citizens of another state. The Supreme Court had made a similar argument on the basis of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in its earlier decision in Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940), which established that Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment was binding on the states.

Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion (which can be found here) for Everson v. Board of Education, cited Jefferson's phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" in finding that
The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither [the state nor Federal Government] can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither [the state nor Federal Government] can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.'
The combination of these Supreme Court decisions on religious liberty, then, established the core of United States constitutional and case law as it existed in the middle of the twentieth century, prior to the great societal and cultural changes that took place during the decade of the 1960's. As can be readily seen, even those disputes about free exercise and the establishment which arose up to this point in time were raised in the context of the "least common denominator" of a broadly Protestant society. That is, even after the formal disestablishment of the established churches of the colonial era, the Protestant hegemony was so general at the governmental level that those churches retained substantial influence, so that these rulings of the Supreme Court had limited practical impact. In this Protestant society, it was quite natural for governmental representatives to almost unconsciously act in accord with the religious consensus, and there were few to object when they did so.

It was during the latter part of the 20th century, and particularly during the epochal decade of the 1960's, that this Protestant hegemony in government unraveled. As this unraveling took place, and as the society at large became increasingly post-Protestant, those who felt that religion was being imposed upon them by their government became more vocal with their objections. 

The Supreme Court, governed as it was by the precedents of Reynolds and Everson, continued to work out the logical consequences of these prior decisions in the increasingly pluralist United States. The first major religious liberty decision after Everson was Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962), in which the Court found that it was unconstitutional for public schools to impose non-denominational prayer.

In Sherbert v. Verner 374 U.S. 398 (1963), the Supreme Court articulated a principle for adjudicating Free Exercise cases which came to be known as the Sherbert Test. The Sherbert Test was a four-fold test as to whether a state could be permitted to infringe on an individual's free exercise rights. This four-fold test involved proving
- that a person's religious beliefs are sincerely held
- that a proposed government action interferes substantially with a person's right to free exercise
- that the government is acting in pursuit of a "compelling interest"
- that the government has pursued its compelling interest in a minimally burdensome way.

Later, in Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the court expanded on the criteria elaborated in Everson to articulate three principles for determining whether proposed national legislation was constitutional with regard to Establishment Clause issues. These three principles are that the proposed legislation served a non-religious purpose, that its purpose was neither to advantage or disadvantage religion, and that its effect was not "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The Sherman Test did not last long. In the landmark Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the Supreme Court eliminated the Sherman Test, thus eliminating the requirement for strict scrutiny of proposed governmental legislation for impact on Free Exercise rights. A number of legislators seeing that the Supreme Court had, in not requiring governments to use only the least burdensome way of achieving legitimate and generally applicable governmental ends, effectively eliminated the constitutional protection of Free Exercise, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which reimposed strict scrutiny as a standard. Subsequently, the Court decided in City of Boerne v. Flores 521 U.S. 507 (1997) that RFRA was unconstitutional because it was an invasion by Congress of the Court's exclusive right to define rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, RFRA became applicable only to the federal government and not to states.

As the national government has become increasingly post-protestant, there has arisen an increasing large body of legislation and judicial decision which is contrary to the moral and religious principles of historical Christianity, and the situation has turned from being one of a protestant majority imposing a religion on a non-protestant minority into a secular government imposing objectionable law on what is still a substantial protestant majority.

Since the 1960's there have also been increasing incursions (judicially justified on the basis of the Establishment Clause) into the right of Christians to full use of public facilities and participation in public forums. Recent examples include decisions of colleges to deny Christian groups the right to recognition if they do not allow non-Christians to be elected as leaders.

It seems increasingly evident that what started out as an effort to protect the rights of religious (and non-religious) minorities has grown into a substantial burden on the rights of Christians to free exercise and full participation in government and public fora. It seems that many have come to understand "separation of church and state" to imply a "religion-free" public square. That is to say, many (especially militant secularists) began to argue that any expression whatsoever of religious belief in a public forum ought to be excluded on principle.

This ongoing secularist effort to exclude religion from the public square has resulted in a backlash in conservative and religious circles. One form which this backlash has taken is the formation of a number of advocacy groups with the intent of propagating a "counter-narrative" to that propagated by the aggressive secularists. The counter-narrative which these Christian groups seek to propagate is the narrative that the United States was from the beginning a Christian nation, that this Christian nation was aggressively hijacked by aggressive secularists, and that Christians must now wake up and "take back" what has been taken from them.

This backlash against overweening secularism is a badly needed correction. However, this necessary response to the efforts of those who would seek to to exclude religion from having a voice in the public square has been undermined in its effectiveness by the overly simplistic characterization that the United States was originally a "Christian nation."

It is incontrovertibly true that the United States was and is a Christian nation if by that is meant that Christianity is the professed religion of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Indeed, large majorities of Americans still claim affiliation with Christianity, even if that affiliation has little effect on their day-to-day lives. To use "Christian nation" in this sense borders on the meaningless. But it is not this sense of the term "Christian nation" that is in dispute.

On the other hand, if what is meant by the term "Christian nation" is that there is a national church, with a distinct creed and confession, of which all citizens must be members, then the United States was never a Christian nation. It is true that some of the early colonies (notably the Plymouth colony) partially satisfied this definition (although those colonies weren't "nations"), in that only members of the church were allowed to vote or could hold political office, but these colonial arrangements were only a distant memory by the time of the founding of the United States.

If what is meant by "Christian nation," though, is a nation in which it is considered entirely legitimate for Christians of various confessions to advocate for laws which suit their beliefs, for Christian lawmakers and magistrates to represent Christian views, and for governments to recognize the legitimate rights of religion without privileging one citizen's belief (or lack of belief) over another's, then in that sense, the United States indisputably was, for most of its history, and may in a limited sense still be, a Christian nation.

Which of these concepts of "Christian nation" is it that these conservative Christian groups are setting forth as that which must be "taken back" from the aggressive secularists? Too often this question is not answered with sufficient clarity by these groups, and the result is confused debate in which protagonists talk past each other, or, even worse, invest effort in defending "truths" from history which are, in fact, demonstrably untrue. In either case, the result is undesirable in that opponents are unconvinced and crucial credibility is lost with observers of the debate.

It is essential that Christians seek to defend their historical and constitutional rights to advocate for laws they believe in, and to not be required to keep their Christian confession a private matter. But in seeking to defend Christians' right to advocate for laws which comport with their beliefs, it important to remember that it would be contrary to Christianity to seek to establish a regime in which those who believe differently (or do not believe at all) would be coerced to support a religion to which they did not subscribe, or would be disadvantaged financially or legislatively, or would be excluded from either office or political representation.

Moreover, it is also important that Christians' claims to political freedom be defended on the basis of actual historical truth, not misrepresentations and falsehoods. It is too often the case that historical documents are "cherry-picked" for evidence in support of a pre-determined historical conclusions, and that any evidence contrary to the pre-determined conclusion is just ignored.

For those who would like to learn more, there are a number of helpful books and resources available which present a balanced view of the history of church/state relations and religious liberty issues in the United States. Some good examples are the following:

Butler, Jon, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer. Religion in American Life: A Short History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Fea, John. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Harris, Matthew L. and Thomas S. Kidd. The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Noll, Mark A. America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Smith, Steven D. The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

For a more legally and judicially focused background on religious liberty in the United States, see:

Alley, Robert S. The Constitution & Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1999

Laycock, Douglas. Religious Liberty, Volume 1: Overviews and History. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010.

Laycock, Douglas. Religious Liberty, Volume 2: The Free Exercise Clause. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011.