Over the last few years, I have written about Christian Nationalism (January 2020) before most people knew or had heard about such a thing. Last year, I warned members that we were heading for some major landscape changes in the way religious liberty and the separation of church and state are being handled in the courts (January 2021). This year, it seems appropriate to explain how these issues have come about and what this means for the future of religious freedom in America in light of some very specific prophetic understandings.
The changes that have been happening in the religious liberty world started more than 20 years ago, and we in the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty have been watching and warning members about the changing social attitudes for two decades now. But, like most warning systems, it never really hits home until you can see the storm on the horizon. Anything before that is merely advice to be considered, but not necessarily acted upon.
We have seen a very big change in the attitudes towards the ideas of secularism of late. Secularism in the past was never a threat to religious liberty. It was a protection against the encroachment of the government into religion. However, the issue of secularism suddenly went from being a friend of religious liberty to being the enemy of religious liberty. Growing up as Americans we all understood that our government was a secular government, and that secularism was an idea that government institutions and the governing of people be separated from religious institutions and religious idealism. Secularism in the past supported the right of freedom from imposition of religion upon the people just as it supported the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Over the last 15 years secularism and its definition, within the confines of American society, has been redefined in a way that is very dangerous towards religious liberty. Now, secularism has become an idea that ALL human decisions and activities that engage the public should be unhindered by religious belief or institutions. Conservatives in America see this definition of secularism, when taken to its extreme, as doing away with religion. I think we need to rethink this assessment, however. In the history of the world, we have never seen religion being done away with all together; even when independent religious thinking was outlawed and hunted down, as it was during the Protestant Reformation, religion still flourished because of the fortitude of the believer. It is more likely today’s new definition of secularism could drive religion from the public square, but is unlikely to kill it.
So, from this changing definition of secularism, we come back to the idea that the original treatment of secularism was good for religious liberty because it supported the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” Traditionally, this means that the government shall not establish a state church. It has also upheld the idea that the government would not take tax dollars and give it to religious institutions. After all, doesn’t financial support help to establish or at the very least help maintain those institutions? These have long been ideals that American protestants have valued, even when American Catholics did not. But now, protestants and Catholics alike feel it a badge of honor to defend religious liberty by calling issues that separate the church from the state “discriminatory actions” for treating religion and religious organizations with less favor than secular organizations. One might wonder if that actually is discriminatory to religion. But, calling this separation an act of discrimination misses the meaning of separation. It also points an accusatory finger at religion anytime you must go to the government to ask for financial support. Benjamin Franklin (in a letter to Richard Price, 1780) said the following, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
This past summer, in some of their final opinions for the term, the Supreme Court displayed great aptitude in reconstructing liberty as they made two very concerning decisions in cases regarding government aid to religious schools and prayer at public schools. In Carson v. Makin, the court majority opinion decided that Maine’s prohibition of giving money from the state coffers to religious schools was unconstitutional and discriminatory towards religion. It sounds good when you read it, but thinking about what the decision actually does may make you change your mind about whether the decision was the best one. In essence, the decision takes your mandated tax money and gives it to religious schools to train up and educate the children of families who qualify for the money. If there has been one thing that most people have liked about the Establishment Clause, it was that the state would not take your tax dollars and give it to a religion you would not voluntarily support. Here is my shameless plug for Adventist Education: When you give an offering to Adventist Education, whether it be in the local church school setting or the academy or university setting, you are funding an evangelism program that operates nine months out the year. Should other people’s tax dollars support those evangelism efforts?
In the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court upheld the right of a public high school football coach to pray on the 50-yard line after games. This case involved not only free exercise claims, but also establishment and free speech clause claims from the First Amendment. The majority opinion considered one set of facts, but the dissenting opinion considered another separate set of facts. The dissenting court opinion was in the interest of the separation of church and state, where the prayer could be seen as “the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched.” The question that goes unanswered is, would the court have decided in favor of Coach Kennedy had he been leading prayer on a prayer rug turned towards Mecca? While the coach definitely had a right to have his own personal prayer, the school system had a duty to make sure his actions were not proselytizing a captive audience, the students.
The case reminds me of a discussion over brunch with my former teen Sabbath school teacher from my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In our discussion she related to me a story I had never heard her tell, although I have shared it with others since then. She grew up in a small town in Tennessee and attended the public high school. She was called by name during prayer in assembly, and prayed for in front of all her teachers and fellow students because she was not like the majority there and did not attend the Church of the Nazarene. She looked at me and said how much she loved the Seventh-day Adventist approach to religious liberty. She never wanted any other person to suffer such humiliation.
Our concern in these two decisions lies in the court’s changing attitudes toward the Establishment Clause. Is this part of the reconstruction of liberty, when we slowly tear down the wall that has divided the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state, as Roger Williams so eloquently put it? When we favor a certain religion by granting government endorsement in a setting like a high school football game, do we ostracize students and families who will be seen as “not one of us” because they refuse to take part in the activity? Or, as in the Maine tuition case, do we help religious schools along when we take tax dollars and give them to the school?
In one of the very few places Ellen G. White writes about the United States Constitution, she discusses the issues of the Establishment Clause and why it is so important to our religious liberty that this clause is upheld. It is also why we should be concerned at any effort to reconstruct liberty in our nation. Taken from the Great Controversy, chapter 25, titled “God’s Law Immutable,” she writes, “The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result — intolerance and persecution. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States.” Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority. But, the inconsistency of such action is no greater than is presented in the symbol. It is the beast, with lamblike horns — in profession pure, gentle, and harmless — that speaks like a dragon,” Great Controversy, p. 442.
We have long cautioned ourselves to be vigilant when proposed changes are made to the Constitution. This is, in part, because a change to the Constitution could easily result in the loss of these precious liberties — all the more reason why we outright oppose doing away with the Constitution altogether. And, it is all the more reason to defend the separation of church and state from those who seek to reconstruct liberty so that the church has more say in government. If you believe in prophecy as we have always understood it, supporting those who would do away with the Constitution or the separation of church and state is akin to helping the beast, with its lamblike horns, speak like a dragon.
There is great temptation for each of us to bias ourselves with our favorite political party. And, more worrisome is the new normal of demonizing the party with whom you do not affiliate. It is tempting for us as Christians to stay away from the secular in favor of the more religious. Some even warn that the more secular party will bring about our final persecution. However, this flies in the face of prophecy.
“In order for the United States to form an image of the beast, the religious power must so control the civil government that the authority of the State will also be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends …. Whenever the church has obtained secular power, she has employed it to punish dissent from her doctrines. Protestant churches that have followed in the steps of Rome by forming alliance with worldly powers, have manifested a similar desire to restrict liberty of conscience,” Great Controversy, p. 443.
Defending religious liberty is much more than working Sabbath accommodation problems. It is also much more than just defending the Free Exercise Clause, which gives us the right to freely believe and practice that belief. Defending religious liberty also means defending the Establishment Clause, and understanding that the separation of church and state is good for the country and good for religion.
is the director of public affairs and religious liberty at the Southern Union Conference.
Southern Union | January 2023