For the past several months I have looked on silent and increasingly confused as Christians of all walks have indignantly decried the perceived attacks on religious freedom in this country as outrageous, unexpected, and contrary to the very essence of the American way of life. After soaking in statements from conferences in Washington DC, cable news punditry, and the ever verdant blogosphere alike, I cannot help but wonder at the biblical naivety expressed by these self-fashioned defenders of my faith.
In case perusing what colloquially passes for “the news” has not been high on your to-do list of late, religion in American is under attack by the Obama administration. From the stifling of military chaplaincy to the enforced funding of birth control in the HHS mandate, religion – and particularly Christianity – is now commonly said to face unprecedented levels of persecution in this, God’s intended “Shining City on a Hill.” Founded as a Christian nation, Obama and his immoral leftist and irreligious cronies now threaten the very intellectual foundation of our country. We perilously stand before the obliteration of this longstanding religious fiber that once defined America – a feat that may be accomplished in as little as four years. Something must be done; and that something is to vote Republican (i.e. for Mitt Romney) in November. So the story goes.
My above sardonic tone aside, I actually agree that many of the current concerns about restrictions on faith are valid (in substance if not always in rhetoric) and if you have yet to investigate these issues I challenge you to research them further. What irks me, however, about the emerging breed of religious freedom advocates is the continual insistence that these “persecutions” are shocking or that it is somehow unfathomable for Christians to face challenges like this in – of all places – the United States.
It is true that America has, in the past, had the good fortune of being heavily influenced by Christian teaching and morality and that this influence bred a certain respect and reverence for religion in the public square. Just pickup the oft cited Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville to survey one case in point. Additionally, many of our founding principles were undeniably shaped by Christian thought, even as the weeds of competing philosophies took a rather defiant residence in our national character.
My own hesitation to use these observations as definite signs that we are – or ever were – a “Christian nation” aside, even if it was unquestionably true that America has a uniquely divine identity, would that fact be enough to warrant the current level of moral outrage expressed over attempts to curtail the free expression and practice of religion in this country? Somehow, I doubt it.
Call me old fashioned, but when striving to understand how best to live out my faith I occasionally turn to the eternal wisdom and instruction of the Bible. You know, that book in which George Washington makes no appearance (unless you are reading from The American Patriots Bible, in which case I think we may have greater problems to tackle than just the subject of this post).
What I find therein leads me to think that we might have the focus of our indignation all wrong. Instead of foaming at the mouth over the the loss of our nation’s moral identity in the hands of malevolent socialists gone wild (I speak as a conservative to a presumably mostly conservative audience), maybe we should take some time to put our own house in order and confront the weaknesses and debilitating comforts of the American church. As radical as it may sound, perhaps what we find in the holy scriptures are commands that direct us, when countering those who wish to spit on us or silence us, to approach our enemies in love and with a willingness to suffer for Christ, and not just to pontificate for Christ. Perhaps what we hear are calls for our own repentance.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Christ repeatedly speaks to us in the Gospels of the inevitable persecution his followers will face and the ways we will be hated by the surrounding world. And while he challenged us to stand firm in the face of such trials, I don’t recall the passage where we are commanded to spit right back at them and shamelessly mock their unjust and sinful ways. When we face persecution, like the martyred saints of last two millennia, we do so not for the defense of a nation or a political ideal, but in defense of our faith and in solidarity with the global body of Christ. We do so as those who can face slaughter with a peace that passes understanding, and as a people who know that their true home is not of this world.
In Matthew 24 Christ says that in the end days, as we await his return, we “will be hated by all nations because of me.” Mind you, he does not say that we will be hated by most nations, especially those in the 10/40 window, but never in God’s favored land yet to be founded and named after an Italian cartographer (or a British merchant, depending on your preferred historical cup of tea).
The severity of persecutions faced by our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe far outweighs the inconvenience posed by our present legal battles in America. Yet many of our beleaguered spiritual siblings manage to bear their crosses with a greater grace (and much less surprise) than anything we have collectively mustered in recent months. If facing the consequences of refusing to pay for someone else’s birth control is too much for us to handle without sputtering about the “injustice” of it all, how could we ever hope to stay strong and pious if we were to encounter threats of imprisonment or death?
I find little in the Word to assure me that America will ever be free – in both the civic and private realms – from a widespread hatred of righteousness. This does not mean I believe those who speak out against restrictions on the practice our faith are wrong or misguided, so long as they carry out their advocacy in a Christ-like manner that honors, not besmirches, him and the testimony of his bride. We cannot forget that the tone of our rhetoric is never to be set by the opposition, as much as the legacy of the Andrew Breitbart’s of this world may suggest otherwise. Last time I checked, anger was not a fruit of the spirit.
Acknowledging that persecution is a fact of life for all Christians does not necessitate a passive response. What it means is that we should never be shocked – or indignant – when we encounter the hatred of the world, especially when we find it in our country, our states, and our neighborhoods.
There is strength yet to be discovered in prayer-filled patience, quiet persistence, and the power of a still small voice.
The popular insistence within evangelical circles that the United States is a Christian country has rendered the ministry of the American church soft. We have become lazy in our evangelism, dull in our catechism, self-indulgent in our theology, callous in our cultural critique, and fractious in our devotional unity. But why bother fixing the problems of the Christian church when you can just fix the problems of the “Christian” nation instead? Political involvement is a facet of life Christians should take seriously, but never as a replacement for the work of the church, and never with a belief that one party or one politician can somehow remedy the problems that Christ himself refused to address or combat.
If our country has morally declined in recent decades to clear the way for seemingly unprecedented attacks on our faith, perhaps the real blame lies, well, with us. Perhaps our problem (or at least the key source of our latest bout of cultural and political decrepitude, the fallen nature of man aside) is not with those pesky feminists, multiculturalists, socialists, leftists, rightists, abortionists, sexists, atheists, fascists, racists, and every other kind of -ist or -ism that may come to mind after all. Perhaps the real problem facing America is a tepid church – a Laodecian church – that only gets hot to defend its little kingdom and only gets cold when it has to look the other way for the sake of social or political pragmatism.
If there were ever a cause for righteous indignation, a church with so many resources at its disposal and so little societal fruit just might be it.