The Modern Threats to Religious Freedom: They Are Greater than One May Think

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The latest issue of Newsweek devotes its cover story to the Christian faith of George Bush. While I have only given the stories cursory reading, I can imagine that many Christians, or at least the branch of Christians known as Evangelicals, see that story and tell themselves, "We have arrived."

Yet, for all of the hype among Evangelicals that Bush and some of his underlings adhere to Christianity, from what I can see from my vantage point, religious freedom — and especially the freedom for Christians — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — to be able to practice their faiths in the future have never been in such peril. All of the building blocks necessary to deprive Christians of their rights already have been enshrined into law and have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, the Bush Presidency will make it easier for future governments to make Christianity de facto illegal.

On the surface, it would seem that Christianity has never been stronger or more influential in this country. Not only are the president, attorney general, and other cabinet members and advisors open about their Christianity, but Christian books are on the best-seller lists and Christian popular music dominates the radio airwaves. However, for a long time, I have been intensely looking at the current scene and have concluded that (1) the political authorities have squarely targeted Christians and Christianity for harassment and are freely carrying out their agendas at the present time, (2) the historical legal protections in this country for Christianity have been eroded past the point of no return, (3) most Christians are clueless in understanding this situation, and (4) when Christians do happen to recognize dangers to practicing their faith, they tend to endorse legislative and political actions that in the long run will make things even worse for themselves and those Christians who will follow after them.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to write articles that spell out what I think are the present political perils to the practice of Christianity, but I also will present ideas that I think that Christians need to hear. For more nearly three decades, Evangelicals have sought a "place at the table" in Americans politics, yet during that time, government has grown in an oppressive fashion, often because of political prescriptions endorsed by conservative Christians. Ironically, having won their "place," Evangelicals now are attempting to expand the very political institutions that ultimately will swallow them up and create an atmosphere of hostility and persecution. The public murders of Christians in the Roman Coliseum may be seen as a historical relic by many, but the time when such atrocities might be repeated here is closer than what one might think.

Persecution of Christians is a phenomenon that has never stopped since the days of Nero. Yesterday, it was in the Soviet Union and China; today, the persecutions are most intense in Islamic countries and what is left of the communist countries. It is instructive to remember, however, that low-level harassment exists in "Christian" Europe, Canada, and the United States, not to mention dozens of other countries where the authorities look down on anything that might compete with them.

Before I begin this series of articles, let me first say that I expect much skepticism, and especially from Christians. People who have believed both that the religious freedom that was written in stone in the U.S. Constitution stands as a bulwark against religious persecution and, that most Americans are fair and freedom-minded when it comes to the practice of religion are unlikely to believe what I tell them. First, they seem to hold a vague notion that the United States is a Special Nation Blessed by God and that God will never abandon it to the secularists. Second, people forget that religious freedom is not the historical norm; it is the exception. Third, people who have lived with religious freedom all of their lives simply are not able to comprehend it being taken away. After all, they reason, they themselves would never dream of prohibiting others from practicing their faith, and why should other people be different?

Alas, they are different and those folks are your neighbors. At the 2001 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association in Atlanta, Georgia, Louis Bolce, a professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York and Gerald De Maio an associate professor of political science at Baruch, presented a remarkable paper that clearly demonstrated that the key characteristic in determining whether someone voted Democratic or Republican was anti-Christian (and especially anti-Evangelical) hostility. Those who despised Evangelicals tended to vote for Democrats and those who either had deep Christian beliefs or were sympathetic to Christian ideals were more likely to vote for Republicans.

Now, before going farther, let me stress unequivocally that I am not endorsing the Republicans in this, nor am I saying that the Republicans possess special virtues that those supposed God-hating Democrats may be lacking. I am pointing out this phenomenon in order to note that individuals in this country disaffected by religion already are seeking a specific political outlet for their anti-Christian biases, and they do so because they fully expect that the Democratic Party will respond positively to their anger with an agenda that will limit the freedoms of Christians. While I may harshly criticize Democrats in this piece, I am saving some of my vitriol for the Republicans, which will be seen in later articles.

In an article from the leftist magazine The Nation, David Corn in an article entitled "Believing Thomas," reprinted by People for the American Way, noted that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas often attended Truro Episcopalian church where the people there did not worship the U.S. Constitution. In this article, Corn wrote:

Who knows why Thomas attends services at Truro. Several Episcopal churches are closer to his home. But those interested in his view of the world might well ask about his commitment to the teachings of his current church. Does he believe Satan controls some politicians, artists, civil liberties lawyers and others? That everything in his life is dominated by the war between Jesus and Satan? That obedience to this religious faith transcends all else, including his duty to the Constitution? How might such beliefs affect someone who will render decisions with consequences for millions? Respect for Thomas’s privacy should not preclude a Senate Inquiry into his thoughts on spiritual matter, if those opinions might unduly affect his performance as Supreme Court Justice. Given Thomas’ adherence to “natural law” as a judicial philosophy, his notions about metaphysical issues are quite relevant.

At the end of the Friday night revival, the faithful sang, “We’ve got our marching orders. Now is the time to carry them forward.” Shouldn’t Thomas be asked if he accepts any marching orders other than to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States?

To someone like me who has been a Christian for most of my life, I do not find the beliefs expressed at Truro completely out of line with what I may believe, although I might express my ideas somewhat differently than they do at that church. Moreover, I do not worry about the religious views of those who might have political authority over me provided those beliefs are not used as tools of oppression. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution itself explicitly states that there is to be no "religious test" given to those who might be appointed or elected to positions in government.

Yet, Corn and those in his camp — who represent the soul of the modern Democratic Party — do believe that there should be a "secular test" to people in the political arena. A test of one’s secularity is a "religious test" by other means and once it is employed, there is no end to it.

For example, in California, state judges are compelled to cut any ties they may have to the Boy Scouts of America, which does not permit openly homosexual men to be scoutmasters. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court (by a very narrow 5-4 vote) upheld the Boy Scouts’ rights of association, the State of California and the Democratic Party that controls that state government have basically declared the Boy Scouts to be an illegal entity.

While the requirement for judges is based upon "nondiscrimination" policies, it clearly is the first step in what ultimately will be used as a weapon against Christians. After all, it is not only the Boy Scouts that prohibit gays and lesbians from membership; the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches also prohibit open, practicing homosexuals to be members of the clergy and many of those same churches also prohibit women from pastoral ordination.

It is hardly a farfetched idea that future governments in California and elsewhere in this country will extend the Boy Scout prohibition to those Christian churches listed above. That is a logical next step and please do not think that people in elected positions, as well as Democratic Party operatives like James Carville, Paul Begala, and Robert Shrum are not already thinking of how they can effectively ban members of the above Christian churches from all positions in government, including teaching in public schools and state higher education. After all, these churches do discriminate on the basis of sex and sexual preferences and whatever thin religious exemptions that might exist now are going to be removed in due time.

Another tool that will be effectively employed against churches is tax exemption. One of the "litmus test" questions that Democrats always ask individuals nominated to be federal judges is whether or not they support the 1983 Supreme Court decision to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because it prohibited inter-racial dating at the time, something the Internal Revenue Service held to be "racial discrimination," which it said disqualified the university from being tax-exempt. (Bob Jones has survived nicely and even thrived in the post-IRS atmosphere, but those who supported taking away tax exemption from BJU clearly had hoped it would damage the institution or even force it to close.)

(The other "Big Question" involves a judge’s view of Roe vs. Wade, and whether or not the candidate believes the Supreme Court made the right decision, and whether or not that person believes that abortion on demand as practiced in the United States is a good thing. A "no" answer to either question almost always means that person will not be confirmed to the judgeship.)

I do not think it is a big step from denying tax-exemption to a church or university for policies involving race to policies that deny pastoral ordination to women and practicing homosexuals. I’m sure that plenty of Democrats have already floated that balloon within their party and are awaiting only the opportunity to implement such a policy. In fact, the only thing holding them back now is that the Roman Catholic Church is the church home to about half of U.S. population, something that could explode in the Democrats’ faces should there be an adverse public reaction.

That is why I believe that the policies of religious disenfranchisement will be implemented piecemeal at the state and local levels. Make no bones about it; that is what many Democratic Party activists are planning for the future, as one cannot expect them to contain their overt hostility to Christians who do not share in their secular, socialist vision of the United States.

Those who seek to strip Christians of their rights also use tools such as zoning laws to implement their agendas. Many Christians already have found themselves unable to meet in their homes because of zoning restrictions, and churches have been denied permission either to build in certain areas or to expand their present operations because political authorities have seen fit to appeal to unhappy neighbors using the club of denial of private property rights.

Although some might say these are mild sanctions and do not fall into line with what might call persecution, they are a form of low-grade warfare. They also are a reminder by the political classes to churches that they are to be subservient to the authorities, or face severe sanctions.

One of the images one associates with Germany is the persecution and murder of Jews and other minority groups and political dissidents during World War II. The persecutions did not occur in the vacuum of war, however. All during the 1930s, as the Hitler government gained more and more power, those deemed political enemies of the German State were harassed, arrested, and ultimately doomed for extinction.

Had someone 10 years before this happened predicted such events, most people would have laughed. After all, was not Germany the most "civilized" nation of Central Europe, and did it not provide a safer environment for Jews than any other European nation?

Likewise, it is not as farfetched as one might think to foresee severe persecutions of conservative Christians in the United States in the not-too-distant future. The honest liberals of the Democratic Party are tiny in number today, and Democrat civil libertarians like Nat Hentoff and Harvey Silverglate — people of real principle — are only a small voice on the left. Such people used to be the heart and soul of the Democratic Party; today, they are on the periphery, dinosaurs of a past age in which things like conscience, integrity, and fair play might have meant something.

The modern political classes place no such restraints upon themselves. Politics today is about grabbing power and holding onto it. Any means used to accomplish these ends is fitting in this present political age. God help us, indeed.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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