Religious Liberty and Contemporary Trends Series, Part 3 – The Secular Onslaught: Myth and Reality

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Religious Liberty and Contemporary Trends Series, Part 3 – The Secular Onslaught: Myth and Reality

The notion of an America besieged by secularism has been around for some time. Despite the fact that even the most recent studies show at least 77 percent of Americans identifying with a particular religious faith[1], with the number claiming to believe in God slipping a scant 3 percent between 2007 and 2014—from 92 to 89 percent[2]—many religious conservatives continue to warn of a mounting secular onslaught against religious values, especially those of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

 

Some have lately described this conflict as the “post-Christian culture war,” in which—from their perspective—“a diverse, secular left [is] winning the future and preparing to eviscerate both Christian practice and traditional mores.”[3]  Such individuals “see themselves as woefully unprepared to respond with the ruthlessness that the moment requires.”[4]

 

William Barr, currently Attorney General of the United States and a devout Roman Catholic, voiced much of the angst now rampant in conservative Christian circles in a recent speech delivered at the University of Notre Dame.  Noting the 20th-century struggles of free states against fascism and communism, Barr insisted that “in the 21st century, we face an entirely different challenge.”[5] America, in his view, was founded on the premise that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”[6] However, from his perspective, “over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack,” allegedly driven from the public square by “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.”[7]

 

Just How Real is This “Secular Onslaught”?

 

Before addressing the so-called secular threat, we should start by defining our terms.  Does the term “secular” signify overt disbelief in the fundamentals of religion?  Or does it simply mean no firm commitment to any particular set of beliefs?  We can imagine those who wear this label likely doing so with a great variety of nuance.  The old saying about “no atheists in foxholes” makes thoughtful persons hesitant to pigeonhole too quickly even the most vehement of avowed anti-religionists.

 

I recall an interview given years ago by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, as he recounted a negotiating session between himself and then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.  In the course of one particular conversation, Carter recalled Brezhnev loudly insisting that “God will never forgive us if we don’t win!”—“we” referring apparently to the former Soviet Union.  Carter noted in the interview how strange he considered that comment, coming as it did from the leader of an officially atheistic nation.

 

Religious faith is as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as any expression of the human spirit.  The human mind, like nature in general, abhors a vacuum, particularly with reference to ultimate reality.  Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin may not have realized his tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual poverty of Communism when he re-opened the churches of Russia during the Second World War as a means of boosting civilian morale[8].  When unspeakable suffering, death, and dying became ubiquitous, what hope can a godless ideology give a warrior’s heart?

 

Perhaps this is why Scripture spends so little time addressing the challenge of overt atheism, other than to call one who denies God’s existence a fool (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).

 

Returning to definitions, another problem arises when some associate the term “unaffiliated” with overt or even subtle irreligion.  What is not often understood, for example, is that many evangelicals who attend church regularly and hold devoutly to conservative Christian beliefs consider themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular denomination.  Many of these attend independent churches that claim no ties to any larger institutional or hierarchical structure.  Many such persons, despite their strong faith in Scripture and orthodox Christianity, might well classify themselves as hostile to what they perceive to be “organized religion”—meaning in their thinking such major denominations as Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, etc.

 

Liberty and Tolerance Co-Existent

 

In the first article of this series, we spoke of how government permitting free choice relative to a particular religious or moral decision is not the same as government endorsing such choices.  We cited the Biblical example of the two trees in Eden, both placed in the Garden by the Lord (Gen. 2:9), as illustrating this type of liberty.

 

Tragically, much of the present spirit of alarm among conservative American Christians regarding perceived threats to religious liberty rises from a failure to understand the difference between legally allowing a particular choice and endorsing it.  As was stated in our first article, the government does not endorse Catholicism, evangelicalism, Judaism, or any other religion because it permits these groups the free exercise of their faith. The assumption that society is repudiating one or another religious faith merely because free citizens in a free country are legally allowed to disregard one or more tenets of such a faith, is simply wrong.

 

The culturally and politically polarized state of contemporary America often obscures the fact that people can live together peacefully while embracing entirely different worldviews and pursuing very different lifestyles.  Much of the tension and hatred generated by our present culture wars could be avoided if people simply understood that consensual behavior involving intimate relationships and the various choices attendant to the same are best handled within the sphere of argument and persuasion than through civil enactments or judicial verdicts.

 

In short, secularism isn’t conquering the country merely because choices contrary to a particular cultural or religious set of values are legally protected.  The freedom of Christians to practice their faith is not inconsistent with the freedom of others to practice either a different faith or none whatsoever.  In a truly free society, liberty and tolerance must learn to co-exist. What is more, those holding to the Bible’s promise of grace-empowered transformation and redemption from sin need never consider themselves helpless in the face of popular immorality and self-indulgence.  The gospel according to Holy Scripture assures the believer of power to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1)[9], of “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).

 

Religious Proclamation and Institutional Governance

 

The current fear in certain quarters that movements such as those promoting gay rights might soon obliterate the rights of religious conservatives and the institutions they govern to preach and practice their beliefs, is in a large measure the product of exaggeration and in some cases outright falsehood.  One example of the latter was a recent report by the Christian Broadcasting Network that the California State Senate had passed a law supposedly designed to force pastors to stop preaching the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior.[10]  But the fact is that nothing at all in this bill attempts to dictate the content of sermons or any other religious presentation[11], much less “ban the sale of the Bible,” as some have alleged.[12]  It was merely a non-binding resolution asking citizens to show compassion toward LGBT persons and warning of the dangers of so-called “conversion therapy”.[13]

 

Please understand that the “conversion therapy” this bill warns against has nothing to do with the heart-transformation and supernatural empowerment described in the Bible, but is rather a reference to extreme, even barbaric techniques designed to change a person’s sexual proclivities.  Such methods have included ice-pick lobotomies, nausea-inducing drugs, electric shocks applied to the hands and genitalia, etc.[14]  Banning or advising against such perverse procedures in no way hampers or forbids the spread of the Biblical gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the power to overcome sin through Jesus’ blood (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 10:29; 13:12,20-21).

 

Regarding the rights of religious institutions, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Hosanna-Tabor case of 2012[15] and the Zubik vs. Burwell case of 2016[16]—allowing religious institutions, respectively, to hire and fire employees based on compliance with the institution’s doctrine and to maintain policies for employees and students based on the same—would seem to imply the strength of settled law in favor of religious organizations maintaining their particular beliefs for those voluntarily choosing to be part of such entities.  For those who fear the loss of government assistance—in particular, student aid—by conservative religious institutions that oppose the LGBT lifestyle, for example, the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Lutheran church school in St. Louis, Missouri[17], may prove instructive.  The church school in question belongs to the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod, whose doctrines include the affirmation that marriage is to take place solely between one man and one woman.[18]  The doctrines taught by the denomination in question form a key part of the curriculum of the church school in this case.[19]  Yet the U.S. Supreme Court, by the lopsided margin of 7 to 2, honored the request of this church school that the state of Missouri provide them with taxpayer dollars to fix their playground.[20]

 

In light of the above, it would seem conservative religious schools stand on solid legal ground, affirmed by a substantial ideological consensus of the current U.S. Supreme Court, in their claim to a right to solicit government aid to sustain their work.

 

Religious Liberty and the World of Commerce

 

Where religious freedom can get complicated, at least for some, is in the world of commerce.  Especially in recent times has this become an issue for those in the wedding industry, as the 2018 Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker and the state’s civil rights commission bears witness.[21]  The question could be asked as to how far the protection of religious beliefs as practiced in the commercial realm should rightfully extend.

 

After all, in the Jim Crow South, many business owners held the view—for many, based on their religion—that different ethnic groups shouldn’t mingle together, for which cause they operated segregated restaurants, lunch counters, and other establishments.  Whether we like it or not, some may have logical difficulty distinguishing the practices of a business that refuses—on religious grounds—to serve African-Americans, from the practices of a business that refuses to serve LGBT persons on similar grounds.  Most certainly the Biblical strength of the case for racial segregation is vastly less than that of the Biblical case against homosexual conduct.  But it helps to keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t solely protect religious practices that are Biblically correct.

 

Many religious conservatives, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church,[22] support the Fairness for All Act[23], introduced in December of 2019 in the U.S. House of Representatives as an alternative to the Equality Act passed by the House earlier that year.[24]  The Fairness for All Act is modeled on a Utah state law passed in 2015 with the intent of providing civil protection both for LGBT persons and religious persons and entities with theological and moral objections to the LGBT lifestyle.[25]  Whatever happens in the upcoming 2020 U.S. election cycle, it remains highly likely that the configuration of power within the three branches of the federal government will be such that a careful threading of the needle by which both religious and LGBT rights are safeguarded, will be necessary for any law of this nature to be finally passed.

 

Conclusion

 

When thoughtfully considered, much of the fear now rampant has been exaggerated so far as a secular onslaught against religious faith and the rights of religious people in the United States is concerned.  But our need as God’s people to be vigilant in protecting liberty and justice for all—Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious—must remain a priority irrespective of issues or circumstances.  Ultimately, we as Adventists know what the prophecy of Revelation 13 and its amplification in such books as The Great Controversy portend for the liberties cherished in the United States of America and envied by much of the world.  Until that time, our task must embrace both liberty-safeguarding and societal peacemaking, keeping distinct and separate the twin imperatives of proclaiming the Bible’s message to a diverse society and seeking civil protection for the consensual choices made by persons of all faiths and of none.  Such a course can go far in establishing in the public mind God’s reverence for liberty on the part of all as enshrined in Scripture, thus restraining the prophesied forces of intolerance and misbegotten theocracy until God’s people are ready for the final loosing of the winds of strife (Rev. 7:1-3).

Click here to read the rest of this series on Religious Liberty.

____

Notes

[1] David Crumm, “How Religious Are Americans?Living Facts, March 4, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ezra Klein, “The Post-Christian Culture Wars,” Vox, November 26, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alexander Werth, Russia at War, 1941-1945 (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1964), p. 429-438.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts are from the King James Version.

[10] Andrea Morris, “CA Lawmakers Trying to Force Pastors to Embrace Pro-LGBT Ideology,” Christian Broadcasting Network, June 18, 2029.

[11] Peter Montgomery, “Conservative Christian Media, Leaders Spread Lies About California LGBTQ Resolution,” Right Wing Watch, June 19, 2019.

[12]Matt Barber Says Proposed Conversion Therapy Ban Would Ban Bible, Criminalize Christianity,” Right Wing Watch, May 21, 2018.

[13]Conservative Christian Media, Leaders Spread Lies About California LGBTQ Resolution,” Right Wing Watch, June 19, 2019.

[14]Conversion therapy.”

[15]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hosanna-Tabor_Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_%26_School_v._Equal_Employment_Opportunity_Commission

[16] http://www.becketfund.org/etbuhbu/

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Lutheran_Church_of_Columbia,_Inc._v._Comer

[18] https://www.lcms.org/social-issues/marriage

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_Lutheran_Church_of_Columbia,_Inc._v._Comer

[20] Ibid.

[21] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masterpiece_Cakeshop_v._Colorado_Civil_Rights_Commission

[22] https://www.nadadventist.org/sites/default/files/2019-12/NP%2012-6-19.pdf

[23] Chris Johnson, “Fairness for All Act seeks middle ground on LGBTQ rights,” Washington Blade, December 6, 2019.

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_Act_(United_States)

[25] Dennis Romboy, “Utah anti-bias, religious rights law could be model for other states,” Deseret News, March 14, 2015; Stanley Carlson Thies, “A Better Way Than the Equality Act,” Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, April 25, 2019.

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About the author

Kevin Paulson

Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and serves as a script writer for the It Is Written television ministry and other media ministries within the church. He also serves as the leading webmaster of ADvindicate.com, where many articles by him and others can be found which address a variety of denominational issues. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.