March 7, 2014

There is a great deal in the news of late, much of it fueled by our current political cycle and the contraception debate, about religious freedom. 

Are Christians in America under attack?

It’s been said that the U.S. is becoming a “secular country,” that there’s a clash between “man’s laws and God’s laws,” and even that our current president has launched a “war on religion.”

Compared to the violence against Christians in many places around the world, the answer is no. Christians in America experience nothing compared to the persecution of Christians in such places as Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt or Syria.

What is happening in America is an increasing hostility and intolerance toward Christian beliefs and values that many perceive to be an attack on religious freedom. In current American culture, you are free to be a Christian as long as you don’t actually live out your faith, vote your faith, take a stand in relation to your faith, or believe others should embrace your faith.

In other words, it can be privately engaging, but must remain socially irrelevant.

But there’s more.

There is a real concern that the growing insistence that faith be privatized has now become a demand for faith to be compromised. It’s not enough that your beliefs can’t influence society; you must also embrace society’s beliefs. As Jonah Goldberg noted in USA Today, the opposition to many Christian values has become an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. 

The recent decision to require most religious institutions – including Catholic hospitals and schools – to pay for contraception, sterilizations and the “morning after” pill is simply the most current case in point.  For many this was about government coercion of religious individuals and institutions.

The developing fear is that government will make people choose between obeying the law and following their faith.  Of course, the real flash point is the one between religious liberty and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights.

A new survey from LifeWay Research reveals the culture war may be lost and religious liberty might not be that far behind.

Seventy percent of senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in the United States and 59 percent of Christians believe they are losing the culture war. Eleven percent considers that war already lost.

The survey results are staggering– indicating grave concerns about the moral direction of the nation from both the pulpit and the pew.

Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research told Fox News' Todd Sternes that ten years ago we were talking about who would win the culture war and now we're talking about how will Christian rights be protected after the culture war. Stetzer says "We've lost our home field advantage. There are going to be some things that are different."

That is a big shift.  It's a one that few religious leaders would not have guessed. Over the past few years, I've documented hundreds of instances of religious persecution in the United States. And the targets have been exclusively Christians.

The military labeled evangelical Christians and Catholics as religious extremists. Christian organizations like Family Research Council and American Family Association were labeled by the military as domestic hate groups. Bibles were briefly banned from Walter Reed Medical Center.

The Internal Revenue Service targeted Christian ministries engaged in pro-life activities. The government demanded to know the content of one group's prayers. A Wyoming church was ordered by government officials to turn over their membership roles. A Baptist newspaper in North Carolina was audited – as was America's evangelist – Billy Graham.

The list of attacks on Christians goes on and on – from students ordered to stop praying in front of the Supreme Court to chaplains being told the could no longer pray in the name of Jesus.

Catholic Charities in Illinois shut down its adoption services rather than place children with same-sex couples (as the state required).

A Christian counselor was penalized for refusing to advise gay couples. 

A court clerk in New York was told to issue same-sex marriage licenses, despite religious reservations.

A wedding photographer in Washington State was sued for refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding.

In recent days, the battleground has pitted gay rights groups against Christian-owned businesses who cater to the wedding industry. Christian bakers, florists and photographers have been hauled into court and brought up on state discrimination charges for declining to participate in same-sex weddings.

In each case, the Christian(s) involved were not attempting to impose their religious views on others.  They simply didn’t want to be forced to participate or offer tacit support for something they felt was in violation of their religious conscience. 

And in every single instance – lower courts have ruled that gay rights trump religious rights.

So perhaps it should not be a surprise that 70 percent of pastors and 54 percent of Americans believe religious liberty is on the decline. Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said half of Americans say that religious liberty is on the decline.

Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, conceded that Christians are losing the culture war and they are losing ground every day. He says "the primary reason Christians are losing the culture wars is that pastors are AWOL when it comes to informing and energizing their congregations."

Unless Christians stand up and engage the political process, Jeffress said he fears there may come a day when religious liberty is extremely curtailed.

"A religious leader once said, 'my successor will see the tax exempt status removed from churches and his successor will go to jail," Jeffress said. "That is probably on the horizon."

So who is to blame for the loss? I think the blame falls on Christians. Sadly, Christians have often wimped out and grown silent instead of being bolder for the Gospel. Christians get subdued into thinking they're not supposed to rise up.

Despite the fact that mainline and traditional churches frown on their pastors preaching on politics, conservative clergy should be confronting the culture and the sociological issues which affects the political world.

Think about it. There are 50 to 80 million evangelicals in America. Only half are registered to vote and only half of those voted in the last election. Jeffress concurs with this data and said it's imperative for people of faith to engage the culture. "Every time we go to the voting booth we are casting a vote for righteousness or unrighteousness," he said.

Stetzer said he hopes his survey will spark a fruitful national conversation about religious liberty concerns. "The perception was that the culture war was once a winnable war," Stetzer said. "But it's switched from an offensive battle to a defensive battle."

We ought to do everything we can to push back against this encroachment on religious liberty and protect our right to spread the Gospel. This needs to be done from the pulpit as well as in the community.

I'm reminded of a quote by President Ronald Reagan: "If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under."

In a historic visit to the Vatican, British Cabinet minister Baroness Warsi expressed her “fear” about the marginalization of religion, and specifically Christianity, through Britain and Europe. “My fear today is that a militant secularization is taking hold of our societies ... one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularization is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity. … You cannot extract Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can erase the spires from our landscape.”


And before anyone says, “There’s another alarmist Christian right-winger for you,” think again.

Sayeeda Warsi is a Muslim.

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