While praising the nobility of our Constitution in recent months, many leading Americans have asserted that one of the Constitution’s most noble attributes is the First Amendment’s protection of our religious freedom. In this new nation, citizens were and are able to practice their religion free of governmental coercion. And for the blessing of that freedom, Christians (as Richard Neuhaus argued in his The Naked Public Square) have provided a sort of moral/theological backdrop for the nation. Many commentators have praised the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as a source of American national ideals.

I suppose we Christians should be pleased that our religion has been so helpful in supporting national ideals. It appears to be a fair trade: the government gave us freedom of religion; religion gives the government its ideals.

But it is important for us Christians to admit that our democracy provides us freedom of religion only up to a point. The recent conviction of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel, has reminded us that there are religious people in this country who are willing to take their religious beliefs more seriously than their patriotism.

Before she was convicted, Mrs. Pollard told a television interviewer that she spied on the United States because it was her duty as a Jew to support Israel. Of course, she also might have spied because she was greedy, or for a host of other reasons she would not admit. But her open testimonial of the dominance of religious claims over national ones caused me to sit up and take notice. Can you imagine one of us telling an interviewer, “I am refusing to obey the President’s order to stay out of Lebanon because I am a Methodist and we have people there”?

Few of us would attempt to justify our actions by referring to our religious commitments over our patriotic loyalty. We American Christians have convinced ourselves that our only quarrel is with governments that do not permit freedom of religion. We can be Christian and patriotic because we are fortunate enough to live in a constitutional democracy, where we have religious freedom.

But has American freedom of religion been good for the gospel? It depends on how you look at it. We have been taught that we have created a democracy that is religiously neutral. Our duty as Christians is to provide support for a religiously neutral state that guarantees us the freedom to be religious.

The widely accepted idea is that governments handle public, political matters. Religion is a matter of personal option. Citizens are free to be as religious as they please, as long as they understand that it is unfair for them to “go public” with their faith. John F. Kennedy could be elected President only after he gave us assurances that his Catholicism had limits in regard to his public life. (As it turns out, his religion had its limits in his private life as well!) And Jimmy Carter went through a tortured explanation to the press on how, although he was a born-again Southern Baptist, as President he would act as if he were not.

This is the viewpoint that has been adopted by many American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—especially those in public life. After all, we enjoy freedom to be Jewish or Christian here as long as we agree to keep our religion to ourselves and let the government handle public matters. Such is the arrangement we defend as “freedom of religion.” As a result, we have voluntarily qualified our loyalty to God in the name of the state. The cost does not seem too high to us because we have gained freedom of religion. However, I defy anyone to find theological support for such arrangements in Scripture—whether it is Jewish or Christian.

Article continues below

The great new idea of the American experiment was that there need not be any link between religion and the state. National unity did not necessitate unity of religion. A great nation could stand on its own, without any religious props.

Just the same, American Protestantism proved quite willing to provide the new nation with a vestigially Christian civil religion to undergird the new national order. In recent years, we have realized that this old Protestant civil religion is fading.

Is it being supplanted by a new civil religion called “secular humanism”? Probably not. More likely, what we are at last seeing is how, by relegating religion to the purely private sphere, a secularized, enlightened democracy lost the moral underpinnings by which a society is held together. Constitutional guarantees of rights alone, without some moral underpinning, left us with a society of much selfishness and little community. It is a society in which citizens are little more than competitive consumers of rights, a society morally and spiritually empty at its core.

The mere granting of rights does not insure that we will fashion worthwhile lives with our rights. We are finding we have many social problems that cannot be solved through purely political solutions—probably because we have excluded religious, spiritual, and moral commitments from those solutions in order to have “freedom of religion.”

If that is so, a major cause of our current malaise is, oddly enough, our concept of the freedom of religion. Tolerance is said to be a cardinal American value. Yet what we really mean when we say “tolerance” is that religion is tolerated as long as it does not threaten our present compromise with the state.

In the American Revolution, Pennsylvania Mennonites had their property confiscated by the revolutionary government because the Mennonites refused to pay taxes to support the war. In this century, Jehovah’s Witnesses went to jail during both world wars because of their conscientious objection to war and their refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag. Of course, most of us mainstream Christians consider groups like the Mennonites to be a bit beyond the fringe of our middle-of-the-road religion.

But is our suspicion of them based on theological or nationalistic grounds? Do they remind us that if we, in the name of religion, challenged the state’s power to control the education of our children, the nature of our medical treatment, or whom we shall die for and kill for, we would quickly encounter the limits of secular tolerance? This nation’s “tolerance” can be quite oppressive to those who deviate, particularly in the name of religion, from the established norm.

Observers of our national moral decay call for a restored religious underpinning for our national ideals. At the same time, they want the state to be “completely neutral.” But how would Christians set out to provide moral underpinning apart from their commitment to Jesus Christ, which can hardly be described as neutral?

“Tolerance” dwindles when the state is confronted by beliefs or practices that are inconvenient to the secular ethos of the state. Above all, we are free as long as we will practice that cardinal constitutional virtue: reason. Beliefs must conform to the national norms. When they do not, they are likely to be labeled fanatical and suppressed. We have freedom of religion, but only so far as religion is willing to be domesticated by Enlightenment notions of what is rational, above all else. Remember, religion is free to be as irrational and as loony as it pleases, but only as long as it remains private.

Yet the Bible seems unconcerned about beliefs being “rational.” Its concern is with matters of what is true and what is false in the light of Jesus Christ. Of course, a secular government has no means of determining which religious beliefs are true or false. Our government’s only concern is to enable all of us to be as free as possible to choose which religion we desire, since religion is, as the Constitution sees it, purely a matter of private, personal option. Once again, this view is antithetical to the biblical witness. We Christians are stuck with the biblical assertion that some things are true and others are false, personal choice notwithstanding. Nine out of ten Americans can be wrong.

Article continues below

In fact, Jesus calls us not to freedom of choice, but to discipleship. What would become of our freedom of religion if Catholics decided they would never participate in a war if it involved killing other Catholics? What if Baptists said they would not support a war in which the United States was at war with a country where there were Baptist missionaries at work? They would be called fanatics. We would become as nervous as we are about people like the Pollards, since we see no way to sustain this nation, which protects our “freedom of religion,” except to subordinate God’s demands to nationalistic ones.

As my colleague Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Only a domesticated religion is safe to be free in America”; and “The inability of Protestant churches in America to maintain any sense of authority over the lives of their members is one of the most compelling signs that freedom of religion has resulted in the corruption of American Christians, who now believe they have the right religiously to ‘make up their own minds.’ ” Privatization of religion in the name of tolerance has led to the trivialization of religion.

I will admit that none of this is much help in assisting the state in its decisions about the limits of religious expression. I can understand how any state, even the most free and enlightened one (like our own), feels that it must protect its national self-interest. Yet the state must also realize there are times when Christians may feel compelled to transgress what the government may define as its best interests.

Above all, there is no way that Christians can lay aside our very public assertions in arguments about truth and the truthfulness of our claims. Christianity can never be relegated to the purely private and personal good because our religion is inherently political—in the sense that the gospel is, in great part, an argument for the existence of an alternative society, the church.

Almost every Christian claim has political ramifications. A great deal of the New Testament is a debate over how Christians are to relate to the state. After all, Jesus was crucified by those who were nervous that this King and his kingdom would upset the alliance established between Caesar and people who had become accustomed to thinking that the value of religion lay mainly in its ability to help Caesar keep order. If a “fanatical” young Jew had to die in order to preserve social order, it was not too high a price to pay, reasoned Caiaphas.

So we American Christians are right to reenter that debate. What we have to offer the American experiment is not open-minded “tolerance,” or the enforced privatization of a very public sort of faith. Rather, we can offer an account of a polity (the church) that is based upon the conviction that God, not nations, rules the world.

When the United States bombed Libya, I left my office in the university chapel and, on my way out of the building, encountered a group of students who were arguing about the morality of the bombing. One side seemed to think that the bombing was a good idea; the other side thought it was a bad idea. I listened to their increasingly heated debate.

Article continues below

Then one of the students said, “Look, there’s the preacher, let’s ask him what he thinks.”

Their ranks parted and all eyes were on me. “Well,” I said, “it’s hard for me as a Christian to support bombing as the answer to anything. I do not believe that violence is stopped by violence.”

One impudent sophomore said, “Yeah, that’s just what we would have expected you preachers to say. You get all upset when some terrorist murders a little girl in an airport, but then when the President tries to take matters in hand and do something about it, you get all upset because somebody gets hurt. You don’t mind preaching your sermons behind the military umbrella that gives you the freedom to say nasty things about the President.”

In the silence that followed, I knew he was right. I replied, “Okay, what would be a Christian response to this situation?” Receiving no answers, I said off the top of my head, “What if the Methodist Church announced that tomorrow, we were sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. That’s at least a traditional way of the church responding to some international crisis. Let’s say we had realized that people there were in need of the gospel, since Jesus also died for the Libyans. It would be more difficult to bomb the Libyans if you might hit some Methodists having a covered-dish supper there.”

“But you can’t send missionaries over there,” said one of the students.

“I know we can’t,” I admitted. “But why?”

“Because you can’t get a visa to go to Libya,” she said.

“Wrong!” I shouted. “We can’t do that because we no longer have a church willing to pay that kind of price. It’s been a long time since we were willing to do what God commanded despite what the government required. But you let me tell you one thing. There was a time when my church would send people anywhere—Caesar’s visa had nothing to do with it. There was a time when we didn’t need anybody’s permission to preach the gospel.”

I could only walk away wondering. We’ve gotten our freedom to be religious. But what religion is it that we are free to be?

William H. Willimon is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University. His latest book, with Robert L. Wilson, is Rekindling the Flame: Strategies for a Vital United Methodism (Abingdon Press).

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: