Religious Liberty in a World of Pluralism – Part 2

Last week I wrote about the ongoing struggle between the White House and Christian organizations relating to President Obama’s Health Care Initiative. At issue for the Christian organizations is that this initiative requires them to provide health insurance that covers contraceptives and abortion. I mentioned that the religious organizations are opposing the measure because they believe that if they are forced to accept this initiative, they will have to pay/provide a service that is morally reprehensible to them. The primary rallying point is freedom of religious expression.

I am as thrilled as anyone for the religious liberty we have in this nation. My heart aches for our brothers and sisters in far too many places of the world who cannot practice their faith in Christ without serious threat of reprisal. Even now, one of our brothers is on death row in Iran because of his faith. We are more privileged than we realize. We should give thanks to God every day for this freedom. Now read what I am about to say in the context of my gratitude.

What I hear from many Christian leaders about religious freedom makes me uneasy. I am uneasy because this issue brings to light two attitudes about which we tend to wear blinders. For one thing, I hear the cries about religious liberty for us, but when cults or other religions ask for the same liberty, we tend view their requests negatively. We want the government to stay out of our worship practices and to let us settle matters of difficulty on our own, but we want the government to issue a cease-and-desist order on groups that we disagree with.

One of the clearest examples of this is the Christian response to the plan for building a mosque near Ground Zero. It appears that most Americans are opposed to this plan because they believe that it is a slap in the face to every person who died on 9/11 and to the family and friends who still grieve for them. But when a church is denied a building permit for their structure, we plead the first amendment. We can say that Ground Zero is different from some church wanting to build in a residential zone and there is no doubt that it is different. We can argue that it’s unwise and perhaps dangerous in the vindictive world in which we live to build a mosque in lower Manhattan, but we cannot argue that they should not be allowed to build it…at least, we cannot argue this point if we truly believe in religious liberty. There is still, however, a deeper concern.

I am also burdened about the spirit in which the response to the President’s initiative is being made. I hear “fighting words” not humble words. I hear an attitude that declares “we’ll show them” not “how can we express the love of Christ” in the clearest words and tone of voice. I hear words about power, political action and rights not humility, grace and submission. The response often includes vilifying the leader of our nation, forgetting that God calls us to respect those in authority over us (Romans 13:1-7). It’s important to remember that Paul writes these words while Nero is emperor of Rome. We forget the many times that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament tell us that we know that we are right with God not because we protect our rights—but because we love others, even when this love is painful and sacrificial. During this Lenten season, it is especially significant to reflect on how much different the world would be if Jesus responded to those who violate his rights the way we do.

Should we do nothing to fight for our rights? Yes and no. If fighting for our rights means an offensive against people who disagree with us, then no; if fighting for our rights is a matter of justice, such as the civil rights movement in the 60s, then yes. Either way, the decision is based on kingdom priorities not earthly ones. Our highest objective is not our freedom but the freedom of others who are bound by the chains of sin. If the world is ever going to believe that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we have to respond to differently than the rest of the world.

This issue reminds me once again of the paradox of our faith—being as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Living in this tension in such a way that we bring glory to God and bring the grace and love of Christ to the world is not easy. Often it feels like we are walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls which is why it is imperative for us keep our eyes on Jesus rather than ourselves, to rely on the Holy Spirit rather than political pundits, to surrender ourselves to the power of the cross rather than the constitution, and to remember that we are resurrection people who see the life and the world through Christ’s eternal vision.