October 20, 2014
Rich Nathan
Religious Freedom Under Attack

Religious Freedom Under Attack

Over the last few years, religious groups have found themselves on the defensive as a result of increasingly aggressive actions from a variety of government and private actors. Consider the following: 


  1. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (a Christian group that Marlene and I were a part of at our university) has been "derecognized" by the 23-member colleges of the California State University.  The reason that InterVarsity (IV) was derecognized was because they required their leaders to have Christian beliefs.  The group is not banned from the universities; rather, they lose free access to university rooms which will cost each chapter between $13,000-30,000/year to reserve rooms. They also lose access to student activity programs including new student fairs.  As a result, they've lost status and standing with faculty, students  and administrators.
  1. Other private universities have also derecognized Christian groups. At Bowdoin College, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship was derecognized because they required their leaders to adhere to a Christian doctrinal statement.  Vanderbilt University, likewise, derecognized more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical, but one of them Catholic, because the Christian groups balked at the university's policy requiring them to cut the words "personal commitment to Jesus Christ" from their list of qualifications for leadership. 
  1. President Obama just signed an Executive Order which amended a 1965 order prohibiting some forms of discrimination by federal contractors.  The old text forbade contractors from discriminating "against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."  The President's revision adds, "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" between "sex" and "national origin."
    Religious organizations petitioned the President to be exempt from this new anti-discrimination measure.  But as David Skeel, Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania, put it, "[Going] forward with anything other than an order with exemptions built into it suggests, on balance, sexual orientation is [the President's] stronger concern over religious freedom." 
  1. There are more than a thousand healthcare and adoption providers in the United States and many are faith-based organizations.   And as gay marriage is recognized across the country, many of these organizations face a choice to compromise their beliefs by providing adoption services to same-sex couples, or cease operations.  Catholic Charities in Boston and Washington, DC, for example, were forced to end their foster care and adoption programs because they did not extend adoption services to same-sex couples.
  1. The current Administration failed in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its religious policies on conflict resolution.  The Administration's position seems to define religious activity in its narrowest possible form.  Religious activity, in the Administration's mind (as well as some Supreme Court Justices' minds), is confined to ordained clergy performing church duties such as serving communion. But teaching at a Christian school, running a Christian food pantry, working at a Christian medical clinic or providing immigration services by a Christian relief agency are not sufficiently "religious" so as to provide a religious exemption in hiring practices.


I could go on.  But here are a few observations:

A. Religious liberty has become a lesser concern for many Americans than is discrimination based upon sexual orientation or freedom from discrimination based upon gender identity. 

B. The law increasingly does not recognize a difference that many Christian organizations seek to draw between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Many Christian organizations would hire lesbians and gays on the same basis as heterosexuals, but would forbid their employees to have sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Increasingly, any discrimination based upon sexual conduct is perceived as bigoted and homophobic.

C. Religion is being defined in a way that is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union frequently trumpeted that it observed "religious freedom" defined as "the freedom to believe anything you wanted to believe."  But churches were forbidden to evangelize, feed the hungry, engage in any social services, educate youth or heal the sick.  It was as if the church's hands, tongues and feet were cut off.

Where do we go from here?  I believe that religious organizations in America are going to face an increasingly hostile climate from both government and private actors.  In the midst of all the obstacles facing the church in the 21st century, there is no more encouraging book for 21st century Christians to study than the book of Acts.  We need to be reminded over and over again that the survival of the Christian church, much less the growth of the church or the spread of the church worldwide following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, was hardly a sure thing. When Jesus left way back in the 1st century, the smart money would not have bet on his little group of followers to take over the world. 

Michael Green, the British theologian and Anglican priest and scholar, said this: 

To the Greeks, the message of these Christians was mad.  To the Romans, it was weak, and to the Jews it was incredible. Everywhere Christians were opposed as anti-social, atheistic, and depraved.  They had a very bad press. 

Wives would no longer join their husbands in Roman orgies or in offering sacrifices to the gods.  Christianity created tremendous family pressures. Jews who turned to Jesus as Messiah faced extraordinary community opposition from their synagogues and their Jewish families and friends.  Christians wouldn't join the military because of the idolatry that was part of the military.  And it wasn't like after 10-20 years things improved for Christians. Roman persecution of Christians began with Nero when Peter and Paul were martyred. 

But the most severe wave of Roman persecution came in AD 303 under the rule of Diocletian, the Roman Caesar.  Diocletian decided to destroy both the Christians and the book they used for their faith.  He sent out edicts to prisons to kill Christians and to burn their Bibles.  His orders were carried out and he thought he was successful.  He thought he had destroyed the Christian faith and their Bibles.  And over a burned and destroyed Bible, he erected a Roman column and placed this caption on it:  Extincto Nomine Christianorum,which means "Extinct is the name of Christian."

If you are a student of Roman history, you know who followed Diocletian.  Just 10 years later, in AD 312, Constantine removed the insignia of the pagans from the shields of his Roman soldiers and placed on their shields a cross. 

The church could not be defeated.  John Stott, one of the greatest Bible teachers of the last century said this in his Bible Commentary on Acts 12:

At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage - arresting and persecuting church leaders; at the end he is himself struck down and dies.  The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the Word of God triumphing. Such is the power of God to overthrow hostile human plans and to establish his own in their place.

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