For the Health of the Nation: Religious Freedom (Part 3 of 9)
In 2004 the National Association of Evangelicals released the groundbreaking document For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. This historic document outlines seven different areas of concern for Evangelicals engaged in politics. In an effort to make Christians more aware of this work we are taking nine weeks to highlight the importance of this document. You can read it in its entirety by clicking here.
One of the most important questions that every society must address is what role religion will play in public life. For Americans the answer to that question has been playing out for the last two hundred years and counting. There are two sides to this issue, both of which are addressed in the 1st Amendment. The first is what limitations the government will put on religion, the second is what influence religion will have on government.
One of the defining characteristics of the American experiment is the freedom to believe whatever you want without the government interfering. The “first freedom,” as it has become known, is an integral part of any free society. It is no mere coincidence that some of the most repressive regimes in the world limit what religious beliefs their citizenry can adhere too. For the Health of the Nation (FTHOTN) cites religious freedom as the first of seven issues for which Evangelicals should show their support. The NAE’s document points to the biblical principle of freedom of belief as evidence that God cares about religious freedom. The fact that He allows the “wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest,” shows that no government should do what God Himself is unwilling to do: force a set of beliefs on anyone.
The second aspect of this issue that FTHOTN addresses is the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. Much of the controversy over what role religion has in our country deals with whether or not the government is establishing a religion. The NAE rightly points out, however, that the Establishment Clause was never intended “to shield individuals from exposure to the religious views of nongovernmental speakers.” Everyone has the right to bring their worldview to the discussion, and religious people should not be expected to check their beliefs at the door. It is impossible to separate one’s worldview from their politics, yet this is precisely what some secularists are demanding today.
The final aspect that the document addresses is the fiscal issue of establishment when government gives some funding or aid to religious organizations. Contrary to what some would assert, if the government deals evenhandedly with religious and secular groups they are not in violation of the Establishment Clause. When it comes to funding of social services that are not explicitly religious in nature, a church should be able to access the same funding as a community center. As Christians, however, we should be careful that we do not become overly dependent on governmental aid.
One possible critique of this section of FTHOTN is the noticable absence of any mention of religious freedom issues internationally. One of the most dire problems facing millions of people in the world today is the fact that their own government does not allow them to practice their religion. Anti-conversion laws and general repression of religious minorities is something that we all should condemn and work to alleviate.
For the Believer, religious freedom is rooted in the fact that God allows His creation the freedom to practice whatever they so choose. Before His kingdom is fully inaugurated, He has left us the ability to either accept or reject His Son. If this is the way that Almighty God views freedom of religion, than we all should encourage the government to also allow the free exercise of religion, whether it is within our own borders or somewhere else in the world.