Religious Liberty is a legal concept. It is an idea that has grown out of the great Protestant Reformation of the 14th, 16th & 17th centuries. Men and women of courage stood up to the erroneous teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and placed their faith in the living God as He revealed Himself to them in His Holy Word. Their motto was: Sola Scriptura, “the Bible and the Bible only.” They risked everything, including their lives, to flee tyranny and to establish a state without a king and a church without a pope, who used the power of the state to kill, maim, and persecute those who do not accept her teachings.
Further, Religious Liberty is a theory which suggests that the individual is free to worship how he or she chooses to worship, whom they wish to worship and in what manner they decide to worship. It also prescribes that the state may not impose any particular religion on the people.
That belief, which is contrary to the teachings of the Church of Rome, has found its finest hour in the American psyche. It is thus expressed in the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; 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’ .
It is this proclamation that allows us to pursue the religious ideology of our choice. It assures us the right to be of whatever religious persuasion conscience dictates. James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, declared in an address to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785: “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Our very existence as a free, Protestant nation is inextricably grounded in this notion of Religious Liberty. Learn more about the fight to remove the wall of separation between church and state and the First Amendment. Indeed, it is the very foundation of who we are as a people. But this ideal is being threatened.
On October 31st, 2017, a broad cross section of ‘Protestant’ churches, following the Roman Catholic church’s lead of supposedly celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, joined forces with her to declare that the ‘Protest’ is over. But this is an overmastering deception. For the Roman Catholic church has not abandoned any of its traditions and practices that led to the protest. Neither the Bible, upon which the Protestant Reformation was established, has changed. But, what has definitely changed, however, is that the Protestants have forgotten their roots and lost their way.
This has become most evident since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. By all accounts, the 2016 presidential campaign has been a very tumultuous one; certainly the most contentious in recent memory. Donald Trump, the one that had been decried by the pundits, written off by the media and eliminated by the polls, defied them all and emerged as the winner. He is now the 45th president of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave and runs his presidency in his customary self-exalted, defiant, unconventional and controversial manner.
The Religious Right /Evangelical Movement, comprising of primarily of white, male, middle class Americans passionately claim that Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is indebted to their support. By most estimates the new president gained upwards of 80% of their votes. Richard Land, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary, a powerful leader and influential voice in the Evangelical Movement, declared that evangelicals are getting unprecedented input into the Trump White House. He stated, “This administration is going to have more conservative Christians — Catholic and Evangelical — in it than any administration that I have been associated with or had contact with, and I’ve been doing this since Reagan.” “The go-along, get-along strategy is dead,” Land famously said in a 1998 New York Times story about frustration in the Religious Right with GOP candidates who failed to deliver on promises to act on issues like abortion, pornography and homosexuality. “No more engagement,” Land said. “We want a wedding ring. We want a ceremony. We want a consummation of the marriage.” (Baptist News Journal, January 17, 2017). And a marriage they indeed now have.
Like all things political, the evangelicals are demanding payback for their support. And, of course, President Donald Trump is rewarding them. His commitment to the Evangelicals is poignantly summed up in an article that appeared in Time Magazine under the headline: Donald Trump Vowed to Close the Gap Between Church and State. The article, written by veteran journalist and author, Jeff Nesbitt, stated, “Trump promised that one of his first efforts as president would be to dismantle laws that keep Christian churches from spending tax-exempt money on political advocacy. He promised to vigorously attack a law established in the 1950s—from legislation sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson amending the U.S. tax code rules—that prevents tax-exempt organizations such as churches or educational institutions from endorsing political candidates. The ban on 501 C-3 charitable organizations from engaging in political advocacy has come to be known as the “Johnson Amendment.”
The article went on to quote the president-elect (at the time of its publication): “If I get elected President, one of the early things, one of the absolute first things I’m going to do is work on totally knocking out the Johnson Amendment,” he said. “The power you have is so enormous. It’s not like you represent two percent of the country and it’s going to be difficult. You’re probably 75, 80 percent. If you want to put your full weight … I mean, can you imagine if all of your people start calling up the local congressman and the local senator?” Trump promised the evangelical pastors that, by abolishing the prohibition on churches spending tax-exempt money on political advocacy, it would reverse the slow, steady decline in church attendance and public attitudes toward Christian beliefs in the United States” (Time Magazine Online, August 16, 2016). Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who helped mobilize Christian voters for Mr. Trump, declared, “I am confident he will do as president what he said he would do as a candidate.” For all intents and purposes, he has kept his promise to them and the Johnson Amendment, with no teeth, is on its final stages of life support. Trump’s selection of Roman Catholic Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court and his announcement to establish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel are further evidences of his payback to the Religious Right and the power of church/state union.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”, had energized his base supporters, particularly the Evangelicals. It was a mantra that they seized upon as they interpreted it to mean that he would give more power to the churches, thus enabling them to have their ideas of morality enforced upon the populace through government legislation.
The great, sad and dangerous irony is that contrary to the Evangelicals’ fervent belief, America’s greatness lies not in government support of the church; but rather in the separation of church and state as embodied in the First Amendment and Article 6 of the Constitution of the United States. Famous Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, aptly describes the position of the Religious Right. He wrote, at the birth of the nation, more than two hundred years ago, “When religion is good, it will take care of itself. When it is not able to take care of itself, and God does not see fit to take care of it, so that it has to appeal to the civil power for support, it is evidence to my mind that its cause is a bad one.” Letter to Dr. Richard Price, October 19th, 1790).
Benjamin Franklin, like all the members of that auspicious body, recognized the inherent danger of the church aligning itself with the state. It was because of their knowledge of the dire ramifications of church/state union that they purposely set about to establish a nation, a great nation, that unlike their European experience, would be one without a king who would persecute his subjects on behalf of the church which kept him in power. James Madison, credited with penning the Bill of Rights, most eloquently expressed the intended nature of church/state relations in the new nation. Says he, “The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity” (James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, Dec. 3, 1821).
Besides the Evangelicals, another religious group, which also claims that their support helped put Donald Trump over the finish line, is the Roman Catholics. Again, the president-elect had promised them more power. On September 22nd, a group of prominent Roman Catholics announced the formation of an Advisory Group to counsel then president-elect Donald Trump. The leading Jesuit publication, America, announced on Sept. 22 that the 33 Catholic individuals would advise the candidate on “issues of importance to Catholics”. The group included a smattering of Catholic politicians, pro-life activists, one Catholic priest and two former U.S. Ambassadors to the Vatican. It also included Senator Rick Santorum, who said that the speech of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, to Protestant ministers in Houston Texas in 1960 uplifting the separation of church and state, makes him want to “throw up”. It is not difficult to understand the Roman Catholics demands on the president for church/state union, for is the very foundation of their institution which constitute the longest continuous monarchy in the history of the nations. Its history is written in the blood of those who protested against her tyrannical rule of church/state unity over the nations.
Ellen G. White, whom the prestigious Smithsonian Magazine recently named one of the ten most influential religious figures in American history, declared in her classic, The Great Controversy, more than one hundred years ago, “When the leading churches of the United States, uniting upon such points of doctrine as are held by them in common, shall influence the state to enforce their decrees and to sustain their institutions, then Protestant America will have formed an image of the Roman hierarchy, and the infliction of civil penalties upon dissenters will inevitably result” (Great Controversy, pg. 445).
Not unlike Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers, she believed, and rightly so, that the church gets its power from God and not the state. But there is a link, perhaps the most important link that is missing from the agenda of the Religious Right. It was Jesus Christ Himself, the One whom the Evangelicals and Catholics claim to serve, who declared to His apostles on the night before He was crucified, by the church/state union of His day, on the cruel cross of Calvary: “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall he speak: and He will shew you things to come” (John 16:13). In Jesus’ parting words at His ascension, He gave the assurance, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). No mention here of state power even remotely indicated. Nevertheless, Jesus’ words seemed to have been lost on the Religious Right as they are exerting their time, resources and energy seeking the power of the state rather that of the Holy Spirit. As a result of this missing link, they are destined to return America, and perhaps the world, back to the tyranny, oppression, persecution and barbarism of the Dark Ages, a time when the Roman church ruled the world.
As the line of distinction between church and state becomes increasingly dimmer and leading Evangelicals are calling for more state sponsored religion, people are rejecting the very foundation upon which America was built. The Pew Research Center, an organization which tracks and reports on national cultural and Religious trends, reports that almost 40% of Americans believe that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is no longer relevant.
Religious Liberty, the American Ideal, is at a crossroad. But where are we headed? Find out here.