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Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas P. Miller, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of church history and director of the International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Religious Freedom in America

What does the future hold for the country? For the church?

The recent presidential election showed how complicated the religious liberty landscape in America has become.

It unfolded a bit like a disorienting game of musical chairs: Catholic bishops defended religious liberty like old-fashioned Protestants; Evangelical Protestants supported a Republican presidential ticket that stumped for prayer in schools and government support for religion, sounding like pre-
Vatican II Catholics; and President Barack Obama, a self-professed Christian with a Muslim-influenced upbringing, proffered secularist positions on abortion and gay marriage that were contrary to those religious traditions.

President Obama’s victory means that secularist values will likely become even more of a concern for religious liberty and institutions during the next four years. This challenge to religious freedom from the Left will ensure that agitation from the Evangelical Right and the Roman Catholic Church will also intensify, as they seek to protect religious freedom and to promote a special role for Christianity in our society. The net result will continue to be challenges to genuine religious liberty from both the political Left and the Right.

Going to Extremes

Given the political climate, challenges from the Left will be most immediately pressing. Adding to the pressure on religious freedom, three more states, Washington, Maryland, and New Hampshire, joined several states that have now legalized same-sex marriage. Initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana use and, in Maryland, vastly expanding casino gambling.

Faith-based schools and colleges, both Catholic and Protestant, have sued the government over the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage in their private health insurance plans, including paying for drugs that induce abortions.

Where same-sex marriage is legal, religious institutions, including Seventh-day Adventist ones, have come under pressure to adopt sexual lifestyle policies for employees and students that are contrary to their understandings of Scripture. Commercial institutions have fewer protections than not-for-profits. Already companies such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A have come under media and legal pressure to conform their practices to the mores of the secularist Left.

In another disturbing development—and a portent of things to come—California in October enacted a law to make illegal any attempt by a licensed counselor, therapist, physician, or health worker to provide counseling to modify or alter same-sex attractions to any person under the age of 18, even if that person desires such counseling. This legal development should dash any thought that same-sex marriage regimes will operate in a “live-and-let-live” manner.

Churches in California can still teach and preach biblical views of sexuality, but Christian counselors—including pastors with counseling licenses—are forbidden from helping the church’s young people to actually live and practice those beliefs.

The law is under legal challenge, so far with mixed results. But whatever the eventual outcome, this is an indicator of the Left’s desire to legally suppress those elements of the church’s morality and practice that conflict with secularist values.

A very real danger, of course, is that the Left’s pressure on religious institutions will provoke a backlash from the Right, one that itself could endanger religious freedoms. Indeed, suppression by majority religions of minority religious rights is what the Adventist prophetic message envisions. We cannot ignore the very present and real danger to religious freedoms because of our concern about a predicted future danger. To do so endangers the church’s witness to the present age, and our moral authority in future conflicts.

A Historical Survey

How should the Adventist Church respond to these challenges and their potential backlash? History can help us shape an answer to this question.

In recent years arguments about religious liberty, and the culture wars in general, seem to have proceeded on a two-sided basis. There are a series of issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, faith-based funding, gambling casinos—with two apparently possible positions, one for secularists, and the other for “faith communities.”

But the two-sided nature of this discussion is a recent development. It trended this way in the mid-1970s and 1980s, as Protestants began to make common cause with Catholics, f irst over the issue of abortion, then on issues of religion and education. The trend has been toward pushing for greater government support for religion and religious viewpoints.

Secularist values will likely become even more of a concern . . . during the next four years.

The recent conf lict over the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring religious institutions to provide coverage for contraception, including abortifacients, has highlighted the historic Protestant position on keeping matters of religious conscience free from the will of the state. The irony, of course, is that it is primarily Catholics reminding Americans of their Protestant heritage.

That they must do so goes to show that we have lost sight of something important in our recent “faith versus secularism” arguments. For most of American history, from the founding through the 1950s and 1960s, there was a more nuanced dialogue that involved at least three points of view.

On the left were the secular liberals, coming to prominence in the progressive era of the 1910s and 1920s, symbolized by the rise of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This group has deeper roots, though, going back to Thomas Jefferson and the philosophies of the French Enlightenment.

On the right were Christian republicans, made up of an uneasy coalition of Catholic groups seeking state funding for parochial schools and evangelical groups supporting Bible reading in the public schools (King James Version only, please), Sunday blue laws, and religious tests for political off ice. These Christian moralists had their roots in the Puritan theocrats of New England and the Anglican establishments of Virginia and the South. They were images of the magisterial Protestantism of Europe, with a church supported by the state, where dissenting groups were regulated and often suppressed.

But there was a third group, whom we can call dissenting, or free-church, Protestants. This group opposed the practice of the state provision of resources to religious groups, and also insisted that churches should be free from state oversight or control. This group represents the real ancestors of the Adventist church-state view.

These dissenting Protestants did not reject all state involvement with morality. But they believed that issues of public morality should be legislated in light of the natural moral law, not scriptural injunction. Their colleges taught courses in “moral philosophy,” required study for all students to provide a foundation for public moral discourse and debate.

Always a minority in Europe, these dissenting groups were largely unable to guide European political arrangements. But these Baptists, Anabaptists, and Quakers, and eventually Methodists and Scotch-Presbyterians, became politically controlling in a number of American colonies: f irst in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and later in Virginia, New York, and the Carolinas.

These free-church groups grew explosively during the Great Awakening revivals of the 1740s. By the time of the republic’s founding, they were politically ascendant in most colonies outside New England. Thus, when the federal constitution was framed, its church-state philosophy ref lected that of the dissenting Protestants, and not that of either Puritan republicanism or French Enlightenment thought.

Much of the modern-day conflict over the constitution and religious liberty comes from partisans trying to remake the American founding in either the image of a Jeffersonian secularism or a Puritan Christian republicanism. The dissenting Protestant posture, Adventism’s true birthright, is increasingly overlooked, even by Adventists.

A Prudent Position

In our own midst we have growing numbers who either want to join arms with the Religious Right, and call for prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments on our public buildings; or to ally with the Left and dismiss all morals legislation, such as protection of marriage and family, or restrictions on pornography, abortion, or gambling as violations of the separation of church and state. Neither position is consistent with either our dissenting Protestant or Adventist heritages.

We Adventists are nervous when politicians start to talk about morality. Somehow we feel that the political and the moral realms should be entirely disconnected. But this is truly impossible, at least for any government that is to be concerned with justice.

As Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood so long ago, every government worth having must be concerned with what is just, and what is just is bound up with what is good, and what is good is inevitably a question of morality. The state should stay out of spiritual morality, but notions of public health are directly affected by civil morality, which moral philosophy studied.

Ellen White identified moral philosophy as one of the three most important things that Christian students should study. She wrote, “The plans devised and carried out for the education of our youth are none too broad. They should not have a one-sided education, but all their powers should receive equal attention. Moral philosophy, the study of the Scriptures, and physical training should be combined with studies usually pursued in schools.”*

It was the judicious use of moral philosophy that allowed Ellen White and other pioneers to advocate for social moral issues such as abolition of slavery, temperance reform, and the prohibition of alcohol. They could do this while still upholding the separation of church and state because they distinguished between spiritual and civil morals. To survive the coming religious liberty challenges, Adventists have to learn to do the same again. 

How would a recovery of the dissenting Protestant view help guide Advent-ists in the religious liberty challenges ahead? It would counsel us to keep out specif ically Christian arguments based entirely or primarily on appeals to Scripture. But moral arguments that appealed to common moral experience and human reason would be appropriate.

How should the Adventist Church respond to these challenges and their potential backlash?

It would disapprove of state funding to overtly religious institutions, something secularists would appreciate. But it would prevent the state from burdening religious entities with regulations contrary to their religious teachings, such as the contraceptive/abortifacient insurance coverage requirement found in the Affordable Care Act. The faith-based community would appreciate this.

State-off icial-led prayer and worship services or rituals would be out-of-bounds, a position secularists would applaud. But references to a divine being, a Creator, even a God, would not be verboten. Notions of the natural moral law revolved around the philosopher’s God, which was not considered a product of sectarian religious thought. Even the ardent separationist Thomas Jefferson referred to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. But it was a Creator understood in the light of the “self-
evident” truths of nature, of moral philosophy, not those of special revelation.

Issues of abortion and gay rights would require a careful, nuanced approach. The Religious Right’s moral absolutism would give way to a more fine-grained analysis that would weight competing moral concerns, the hallmark of a reasoned moral philosophy. The state could recognize the moral weight of life at its various stages, but also recognize other moral values, such as quality of life, and justice for victims and the oppressed.

Abortion on demand and as a method of birth control could be restricted; but when the life and health of the mother was at risk, or the pregnancy was a result of coercion and rape, these countering moral concerns might be given weight. Such an approach would be consistent with the biblical moral framework, which highly values life, but considers it in a matrix of other concerns, including justice, human dignity, even social order, as shown by its allowance of capital punishment for a variety of crimes.

In the area of gay rights, society could recognize the importance of providing close personal relationships with support and protection. Values of privacy and equal treatment would counsel against discrimination of gays in public benef its or the workplace. But the importance of religious freedom would allow religious institutions—both places of worship and educational and health institutions—to preserve their values in relation to sexual conduct.

This approach would also recognize the moral value of protecting the goals and ends of the child-raising unit of a mother and a father, and reserve its full approval for such relationships. Such an approach may allow for civil unions for tax and insurance purposes, but it would limit marriage and the right to raise children to heterosexual couples based on moral arguments about the purposes of procreation and the rights of children to benefit from the special care provided by a mother and a father.

Other moral issues, such as gambling, marijuana and drug use, and violence and sex in the media, could be restricted, even outlawed; based, again, not on scriptural injunctions, but on studies showing the harmful effects of these things on communities and children. It would be a world that would fully satisfy neither secularists nor Christian America advocates. But it would take into account most of their central concerns and provide a common public language of moral discussion.

More Than a Game

At its best the recent game of religious liberty musical chairs may trigger a revival of America’s true Protestant heritage, one embraced by our own pioneers, both American and Adventist. If this happens, this odd political parlor game of the recent election may have been very worthwhile indeed.

* Ellen G. White, Christian Education (Battle Creek, Mich.: International Tract Society, 1893), p. 210. (Italics supplied.)

 

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