How’s that for a divisive post title?
Here’s the thing though, it really shouldn’t be divisive (and I did not intend it as clickbait). From both a US political history perspective and a Christian perspective, it should be acknowledged as both historical fact and a good thing. Nothing I’m going to say in this post is new, but I hope it can provoke some reevaluation on our parts, as I believe we’ve gotten way off course.
Let’s take a minute to review the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an 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.
This was important. The founders reviewed history and recognized what happens when the government enforces a state religion – contrary to the peaceful teachings of most religions, the result was essentially always bad. We see that even with some of the first Europeans coming to America: although we severely sanitize the story, we all remember the pilgrims and Puritans coming to the New World to escape religious persecution. They were Christians seeking to escape persecution in their Christian nation.
By the late 1700s, the colonies were full of thousands of people of different religious traditions who immigrated to the New World from their homes to seek new opportunities (i.e. let’s get rich!) or flee the law or persecution. There was already a tremendous variety of religious ideas in the fledgling country, and the founders recognized the long history of abuse that came with melding a specific faith tradition with governmental power.
There are actually only two references to religion in the Constitution: the First Amendment (above) and Article VI, which states that senators, representatives, state legislators, and all executive and judicial officers will be required to take an oath of affirmation in support of the constitution, “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Looking from the Christian perspective, Paul gives his most expansive discussion of governing authorities in Romans 13. In summary, he tells Christians to submit to those authorities, explicitly stating that everyone who rebels against the governing authority is “rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (v. 2). Well, that’s a rough message to hear a week-and-a-half after we celebrated Independence Day. According to Paul’s teaching here, the entirety of America’s history as a nation is founded on rebellion against God.
I doubt many pastors have used that as part of their pro-America Independence Day sermons, although I know many pastors (and Christ-professing former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders) have used this passage to support blind submission to the US government and its laws.
Similarly, throughout the country’s history people have used the Bible to support slavery and segregation. In fact, God, Christianity, and Biblical teachings are heavily referenced in the words of the Confederate leaders. And let’s be honest – it’s not hard to find Bible verses that support slavery (or at least indicate it’s not an issue to be opposed).
The following statement may seem absurdly obvious, but it needs to be said: there’s nothing in the Bible about America and God’s favor. God’s chosen people from the Old Covenant were the Jews, and with the death and resurrection of Jesus, God created a New Covenant with all people. Americans are no better or worse in God’s eyes than anyone else; we are all God’s children. God bless America, yes, but also God bless everyone.
Back to the First Amendment and what is actually means versus what many Christians want it to mean. Because historically the majority of Americans have adhered to some form of Christianity, the religious freedom granted in the First Amendment has typically never really impacted this majority of Americans. Constitutional protections are rarely needed for the majority; they’re there for the minority.
So while America has never been a Christian nation in the legal sense, our nation’s culture has often been dominated by “Christian” thought. And as a brief, unsanitized view through our history would show, that “Christian” cultural thought has led to persecution of the minority through racism, sexism, and more.
As culture has moved away from an “everyone goes to church, it’s just what we do” approach (more quickly in certain parts of the country than others), there has been an awakening to the fact that, in spite of the First Amendment, Christianity has absolutely received preferential treatment in various areas. And there’s been a movement to change that, removing monuments to the Ten Commandments (which is actually a remnant of Judaism/the Old Covenant rather than Christianity, although American Christian culture seems to have missed that in its focus on laws over love), school-sanctioned/required prayers, etc.
Since the Christian majority has been, well, just that (the majority), these steps seem like new persecutions. But they’re actually long-delayed movements to ensure the government lives up to the First Amendment. And Christians should be all in favor of that. Here’s why:
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” preferential treatment by the government toward any religion is a threat to freedom of all religion.
We should see this from two perspectives; the first is more important morally, while the second is more important practically. First: it’s simply wrong. It undermines the dignity of another human being, regardless of whether we agree with them and their beliefs. Second: leaders are temporary. Any step toward limiting someone’s religious freedom is a step that can be applied to other religions when a new perspective comes into power. So short-term decisions that might seem like a good idea to one religious group can come at a devastating long-term price.
When we see people harassing Muslims for their faith and putting laws in place to prevent them from adhering to their prayer schedules, clothing, or locations to build houses of worship, our hearts should break. Because it’s wrong. As a Christian, I believe Jesus commanded me to love my neighbor. So it breaks my heart to see anyone mistreated due to their faith.
If you are a Christian and disagree with that, I humbly challenge you to read the words of Christ (particularly the parable of the Good Samaritan) and reconsider your stance. But even if you don’t, I highly recommend you consider the history of religious oppression throughout the world and recognize the second point above. It is inevitable once we start eroding the freedoms of any religious group. It might take a long time, but it will happen.
It’s so easy to fall into a mindset of fear and persecution. But granting others rights does not lessen our own. For centuries, Christians have had cultural advantages and freedoms in this country over other religions despite the words of the First Amendment. That is not how it should be. Freedom for all is freedom for one, and we need that to ensure we don’t move down the path of freedom for none.
As a Christian, I’m thankful that I live in a nation that allows me probably the greatest freedom to express my faith of any country in history. As an American, I hope that we continue to stride toward true freedom of religion, and that it remains a foundational tenet of our nation for centuries to come. I truly thank God America is not a Christian nation.