If churches don’t wake up and do something, they may be headed for the day when the American government “will confine the free exercise of religion to the sanctuary, the synagogue, the sacristy, the narrow sanctum of worship and sacrament—the same parameters allowed religion in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

A paranoid fundamentalist speaking?

Guess again. It was William P. Thompson, the highest-elected official (Stated Clerk) of the United Presbyterian Church and a top leader of the National Council of Churches.

His warning was issued in early February to more than 300 leaders representing an estimated 90 percent of organized American religion at an unprecedented conference on “Government Intervention in Religious Affairs.”

The two-day conference held in suburban Washington, D.C., and featuring as speakers some of the nation’s best legal defenders of religious freedom, was jointly sponsored by the NCC, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United States Catholic Conference, the Synagogue Council of America, the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., and the Southern Baptist Convention. Attendance was by invitation only, but participants—a number of them battlescarred veterans of court conflicts with the government—included not only members of the sponsoring bodies but also representatives of such diverse groups as the liberal Unitarian-Universalist Association, the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches, the evangelical Christian Legal Society, World Vision International, and “new” religious groups like the legally embattled Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, the Worldwide Church of God, the Society for Krishna Consciousness, and The Way International.

As chairman of the conference, ...

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