Why Liberty of Conscience Is the Most Important Issue in 2012
By Stephen N. Allred
When it comes to discussing political viewpoints with fellow church members silence is often eloquence. After all, haven’t we been wisely counseled to check our political views at the door when we come together as believers in Christ?[i] Besides, most of us have learned this from experience. I’ve been “un-friended” by at least one church member on Facebook because of a certain politician whose page I “liked.”
The Most Important Issue In the Upcoming Presidential Election
However, there is one political issue that we ought to be talking about. Personally, I feel the need to talk about this issue because I often find that my political views are at odds with those of my fellow Christians, and many of them misunderstand my reasons for voting in the manner in which I do. This particular issue is practically the only issue that interests me in politics and I am convinced that it is the main political issue that all believers should be concerned with.
That issue is freedom of conscience, the bedrock “original” freedom. From this freedom, all other freedoms grow: freedom to preach the gospel, freedom to help those in need, and freedom to free those in literal or spiritual bondage. Without this freedom, our ability to do the work of Jesus is severely hindered. Not only should we as Christians talk about it with our fellow believers; we are obliged to also act on our convictions. Freedom of conscience, as I note below, is intimately related to the concept of separation of church and state. As such, I submit that these are the issues that really matter in the election this year.
In the United States, the doctrine of separation of powers and the Presidential term limits embedded in the Constitution ensure that the power of any one administration of the executive branch is finite and limited. However, there is one area in which a President’s influence can be felt for generations to come. That power is the President’s ability to appoint Supreme Court justices with lifetime tenure to the highest Court in the land. Whoever takes office as the next President after the 2012 election will likely exercise the appointment power, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to seat one or more justices to the Supreme Court.[ii]
Since the Court is a vitally important and extremely powerful institution in our system of government, we ought to be very interested with who is appointed to serve in this third branch of our government. The Court is the institution that interprets the meaning of our Constitution and determines whether laws enacted by Congress are constitutional. (Pertinent to our discussion here, the First Amendment of the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This language is reasonably interpreted by most moderate and liberal justices on the Court to create a wall of separation between church and state. Alternatively, most of the conservative justices on the Court disfavor the concept of church state separation). Even one new justice appointed to the high Court could tip the balance of power in a direction that would be detrimental to freedom of conscience. Consequently, this election’s most important issue is determining which candidate for President will be the most likely to appoint justices friendly to a correct understanding of the First Amendment, freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state, for, as history tells us, separation of church and state has everything to do with freedom of conscience.[iii]
Why Freedom of Conscience Matters
As a Bible-believing Christian, I understand that the book of Revelation paints a picture of church-state union that ushers in the end of time. Additionally, history speaks loud and clear: whenever church and state mix, trouble ensues for pretty much everyone, including, especially, minority people of faith who value freedom of conscience.[iv] When God’s people lack freedom to live and preach the Gospel, they are crippled from fulfilling their mission to preach the gospel to the poor and bind up the broken hearted.[v] That’s why freedom of conscience should matter to us (i.e., our concern should be for how restrictions on our freedom will affect the salvation of others, not so much the fear of how persecution will affect us). Freedom of conscience ultimately affects people’s eternal salvation.
Is Separation of Church & State a Bad Idea?
Many Christians become suspicious when they hear the phrase separation of church and state, which they associate with communism and atheism. The conventional wisdom among a growing number of American Christians is that the church needs to be involved in governing the land or else society will become corrupt. These same Christians point to our increasingly immoral society and argue that one of the causes of this increasing immorality is separation of church and state.
While every Christian should be deeply troubled by the immorality and sin in the world (and especially in the Christian church itself – see Ezekiel 9:4), many sincerely misguided Christians believe that the solution to this problem is an Old Covenant solution. They want the government to force people to act morally and righteously.[vi] They also believe that the state should base its laws on biblical ideas, essentially enforcing the Bible as the law of the land for all society.
Ironically, however, history shows us that morality was not any better in society when the church was involved in imposing its will through the government. In fact, societal morality arguably reached one of its lowest points during the Dark Ages – at a time when the church reigned supreme through the state. Ignorance flourished, barbarism and persecution prevailed. Some of the greatest immorality and evil ever experienced was perpetrated by a corrupt church working through the state. Look back at history and you’ll see that freedom of conscience always suffers when church and state unite.
A Correct Understanding of Church-State Separation
A correct understanding of the concept of separation of church and state will ultimately lead to respect for freedom of conscience. In such a scenario, the church realizes its proper place in society – to be a lighthouse and a city of refuge, living and sharing the good news of the gospel with a sinful, immoral, and dying world. The church does not request special favors from the state or whine when it doesn’t get to control or impose its beliefs on the rest of society. The church respects the conscience of individuals in the rest of society who do not share its beliefs.
In this ideal relationship between church and state, the state also realizes its proper place and stays out of the church’s business, unless the church is operating outside of its proper sphere and illegally interfering with the freedom of others in society. Individual conscience is also respected and the state seeks to strike a balance between enacting laws that are good for all of society while at the same time not trampling on the conscience of those in the minority whose consciences may be offended by such laws.
Church-State Union at the End of Time
The Book of Revelation takes the Old Testament imagery of the ancient city of Babylon (the capitol city of a nation in which the king simultaneously wielded political and religious power) and uses it to describe worldwide false religion at the end of time. One of the key characteristics of this false religion that is mentioned repeatedly in Revelation is her “fornication” with the kings of the earth.[vii] In other words, the Bible says that at the end of time the church will be intimately involved with the state.
Using the analogy of a prostitute, the Bible describes end-time false religion as being unfaithful to her true husband, God, and instead seeking alliances with earthly political powers. This alliance of religious and political power leads to persecution.[viii] According to prophecy, all nations on earth will eventually “drink the wine” (the “Kool-Aid”), become spiritually intoxicated (cease to have sound spiritual discernment), and unite church and state.[ix] In fact, not just the governments will become drunk with Babylon’s wine, but all the people of the earth will marvel at this church-state union and “become drunk” with her teachings.[x] Interestingly, the Bible indicates that the movement to establish a mixed church-state government, which becomes the end-time super power, is a democratic (populist driven) movement.[xi]
Of course what happens to God’s people (persecution from a government controlled by religious people) at the end of time is precisely what happened to Jesus when he was on this earth. The Jewish church united with the Roman government and nailed Him to a cross. In the midst of all this, Jesus spelled out His position clearly for His church going forward. “My (spiritual) kingdom is not of this (political) world; if it were, my servants would fight.”[xii] Here, Jesus drew the line in the sand. His followers have no business enforcing His views on the world through laws or force of any kind. Earthly governments have their legitimate place in the world and should be respected within their sphere, but meddling in matters of conscience is not part of their legitimate sphere. And the followers of Jesus (the church) should have no part in uniting with or using any government for such a purpose.
Jesus and America
Ironically and sadly, Jesus’ followers haven’t listened very well to His instruction to avoid fighting with the sword (political power) in order to advance His peaceful and spiritual kingdom.[xiii] Most of the persecution that has occurred over the two millennia since Jesus spoke His words has been committed by “Christians” against those who disagreed with their view of religion. Most of the time, it’s been to enforce a particular group’s idea of “righteousness” on the rest of society. Christians are called to live and teach righteousness,[xiv] not to legislate or “water board” people into being righteous.
America was a huge experiment with separation of church and state. Our Constitution, the supreme law of the land, does not mention God even once. (Do you suppose that Jesus is offended by this omission? I don’t think so. Remember, He was the one who basically told Pilate – “Relax, I’m not vying for your position or Caesar’s throne. My kingdom is a much higher and superior one – it’s not of this world. My servants fight on the spiritual level, not with political power. I don’t need your earthly political power to accomplish the goals of my heavenly kingdom.” See John 18:36). The omission of God in the Constitution infuriated many at the time.[xv] But ultimately the arguments of those who advocated a secular state (as opposed to a “Christian” state, modeled after the European governments of the day) won the day and today that grand document, the Constitution, is the supreme law of the land here in America. (Note, by the way, the fruits of these different systems of government: in Europe, a place where church and state were united up until very recently, and is still united in many countries there, spirituality has nearly died and church attendance is almost nonexistent. In America, where church and state have historically been separated, new churches are being created all the time and, generally speaking, church attendance flourishes).
Thankfully, our founders had seen and experienced the dangers of mixing church and state and sought to avoid a repeat experience here in the newly-minted United States of America.[xvi] [xvii] Practically every other country in the world at the time required that candidates for political office swear to some religion before being eligible for election. Additionally, in “Protestant” countries the political leader usually was considered the head of the state church, or, in Catholic countries, the pope had great political power.
All of this led, of course, to the persecution of religious minorities – defined as anyone who thought differently from those who were in power at the time. Many of America’s founders knew the dangers of a church governing through the state or a state governing the church and they sought to create a secular (not a Christian) government that would be neutral towards religion – one that would neither favor nor hinder any peaceful religious expression.[xviii]
Some will still ask why it is not OK to have an official Christian religion in America. Wouldn’t it encourage people to get closer to God? Wouldn’t enshrining God’s law as the law of the land make America a more moral nation? One of our Founding Fathers, James Madison, addressed the crux of the matter when he asked: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity [as America’s national religion], in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christianity, in exclusion of all other Sects? The same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?” Madison then went on to note the results of “establishing” religion by enforcing it though the government. He noted: “During the almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”[xix]
Here’s the Bottom Line: We Need Our Next President to Appoint Supreme Court Justices Who Support Separation of Church & State and Value Freedom of Conscience
Why does all of this history matter to us today? First, those of us who forget our history are likely to repeat it. Those who forget or are ignorant of the reasons for separation of church and state in America are more likely to argue against it since they misunderstand its vital importance. Additionally, as we can see, freedom of conscience has been historically linked with separation of church and state. This has been the case because whenever church and state have been united, persecution of religious minorities (and the non-religious as well) has ensued.
As noted above, the next President will likely choose one or more new Supreme Court justices. The delicate balance of power on the Court could shift drastically – in the wrong direction and against freedom of conscience – depending on the new justices’ views regarding constitutional interpretation, separation of church and state, and freedom of conscience. Although the Constitution does not contain the explicit phrase “separation of church and state,” a reasonable reading of the First Amendment reveals that the concept of church state separation is present in the Constitution. The language “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is reasonably understood by many judges to create a separation between Congress (the federal government) and religion (the church). The Fourteenth Amendment extends this concept to the individual states.
Historically, those Supreme Court justices who are politically more moderate or liberal have tended to vote more generally in favor of individual minority religious rights and the separation of church and state while conservative justices have tended to side more generally with the government or big business in support of laws that support the majority religion even at the expense of the minority believer. Conservative justices have generally been more opposed to separation of church and state.[xx] I have not included specific examples here but I highly recommend the reading of three books mentioned in the endnote as a good place to get an overview so that you can draw your own conclusions on this.[xxi]
Historically, both Republican and Democratic Presidents were responsible for appointing moderate justices to the Court. However, in the past few decades Democratic presidents have been more likely to appoint liberal or moderate justices who are more likely to lend their support to court decisions supporting separation of church and state, individual freedoms, and the religious rights of minority people of faith. Republican Presidents have been more likely to appoint only conservative justices who have been more inclined to side with the government, big employers, and majority religion against those in minority faiths. These Republican-appointed justices generally look askance at separation of church and state.
In my opinion, in the current political climate, it is more likely that a Democratic President will be inclined to appoint a moderate (or, perhaps, a liberal) justice. Why? Recently, there seems to have been a rightward shift in the Republican party (due to the influence of “Teavangelical” voters). Those Senators elected on a Tea Party platform are ideological purists and will filibuster any judicial nominee that does not meet their standards. Especially is this true of the confirmation of potential Supreme Court justices since the stakes are so high for a Supreme Court appointee. Any pragmatic Democratic President will take this into consideration and only nominate a moderate-liberal candidate since he knows that only such a nominee will have a chance at Senate confirmation.
In contrast, a Republican President will not have as much of an incentive to appoint a moderate candidate for the high Court. Why? Because by and large there are more moderate Democrats (such as the “Blue Dog” Democrats) in the Senate who are willing to confirm a conservative judicial nominee and few, if any, liberal Democratic Senators who have the political spine (i.e., it’s not as politically “cool” to be a liberal Democrat in many states now-a-days) to filibuster a Republican-nominated high Court candidate. Thus, if the next President is a Republican, it is likely that he will be willing to heed the voices on the fringe of his party (e.g., “Teavangelical” voters) and nominate justices who hold to the views of those on the fringe (i.e., nominees who do not support separation of church and state).
Think Pragmatically & Use Godly Discernment
It is naïve, of course, to buy into the rhetoric of either major political party and believe that they or their candidate are the answer to the world’s problems. However, we must also be pragmatic when it comes to promoting freedom of conscience and realize that a vote for one party’s candidate may ultimately be a vote for the appointment of Supreme Court justices who are more likely to be friendly to freedom of conscience and separation of church and state while a vote for the other party’s candidate may be a vote with opposite results. Since the issues of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state ought to be issues of first importance to every Christian who cares about their freedom to believe, I encourage you to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider what I have shared above as you decide where to cast your vote in this upcoming election.
In closing, I leave you with the words of Jesus: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” John 7:24. His words remind us that it is not always those who appear to be Christian or who have the Christian rhetoric that are really forwarding His agenda – especially on the political scene. Instead, followers of Jesus must look beyond the appearance and the rhetoric and “judge righteous judgment” by applying biblical principles. Chief among these is the principle found in the words of Jesus Himself when He told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36).
[i] “Christians…are not to spend their time talking politics or acting politics; for by so doing they give the enemy opportunity to come in and cause variance and discord.” Ellen G. White, C.Ch. p. 316. The context is outreach and the church environment.
[iii] “The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result—intolerance and persecution. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority. But the inconsistency of such action is no greater than is represented in the symbol. It is the beast with lamblike horns—in profession pure, gentle, and harmless—that speaks as a dragon.” – The Great Controversy, p. 442.
[iv] Think Dark Ages, the Inquisition, early American Puritanism, Foxes Book of Martyrs, etc.
[v] This was Jesus’ mission, according to Luke 4:18. As His followers it should be our mission as well.
[vi] The critical difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant of the Bible is that in the Old Covenant God’s law was written on tables of stone while in the New Covenant God’s law was written in the “heart” of the believer. The Old Covenant never succeeded because the hearts of the people were not really changed and since God’s law cannot successfully be obeyed as merely an outward observance. Thus, in order for individuals in society to become truly moral and righteous a true heart transformation must take place and the law of God must be written on the tables of the heart. Only the Holy Spirit can transform the heart by the blood of Jesus Christ. Since the Holy Spirit never forces Himself upon anyone, but only comes into a person’s life if He is invited, a heart change cannot legislated or forced.
[vii] See Rev. 17:2. Because the union of church and state is a key characteristic of Babylon, this is also an easy way to identify Babylon. In other words, any church that is promoting the union of church and state is a prime candidate for being a part of this false religious system that the Bible calls Babylon.
[viii] See Revelation 13 and 17:6.
[ix] Revelation 14:8 – “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.
[x] See Rev. 13 and Rev. 17:2
[xi] Rev. 13:14 – The second beast “deceives those who dwell on the earth” and then tells “those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life.” The fact that the beast feels it necessary to deceive the people of the earth and command them to make the image (or set up a form of government that copies that of the first beast) indicates that the second beast needs the power of the populace to accomplish its goals. This passage alludes to a democratic or pseudo-democratic society where voters ostensibly make their will known via popular initiatives, etc.
[xii] See John 18:36.
[xiii] The Apostle Peter, seeking to use the power of the sword (political power) to defend Jesus (and His religion) is Exhibit A. Notice Jesus’ response: “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” John 18:10-11.
[xiv] Jesus told His followers to be “salt” and “light”: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16.
[xv] Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005), p. 27.
[xvi] “The founders of the nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result—intolerance and persecution. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority. But the inconsistency of such action is no greater than is represented in the symbol. It is the beast with lamblike horns—in profession pure, gentle, and harmless—that speaks as a dragon.” – The Great Controversy, p. 442.
[xvii] “The regulation adopted by the early colonists, of permitting only members of the church to vote or to hold office in the civil government, led to most pernicious results. This measure had been accepted as a means of preserving the purity of the state, but it resulted in the corruption of the church. A profession of religion being the condition of suffrage and officeholding, many, actuated solely by motives of worldly policy, united with the church without a change of heart. Thus the churches came to consist, to a considerable extent, of unconverted persons; and even in the ministry were those who not only held errors of doctrine, but who were ignorant of the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. Thus again was demonstrated the evil results, so often witnessed in the history of the church from the days of Constantine to the present, of attempting to build up the church by the aid of the state, of appealing to the secular power in support of the gospel of Him who declared: “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36. The union of the church with the state, be the degree never so slight, while it may appear to bring the world nearer to the church, does in reality but bring the church nearer to the world.” – The Great Controversy, p. 297.
[xviii] For an excellent exposition of the founder’s views, see The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State, (2005) by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore.
[xix] God on Trial, p. 10.
[xx] Without going into specific examples here, I recommend the book God on Trial: Landmark Cases from America’s Religious Battlefields (Penguin Books, 2007), by Peter Irons which chronicles a broad swath of Supreme Court cases dealing with religion, the various justices’ views in those cases, and the outcome of those cases. Irons notes: “On the rough spectrum from left to right, the more ‘liberal’ justices have most often read that history (America’s religious history) as requiring ‘a wall between church and state’ that ‘must be kept high and impregnable,’ as Justice Hugo Black stated in 1947. More ‘conservative’ justices have generally dismissed the ‘misleading metaphor’ of the church-state wall, as Justice William Rehnquist wrote in 1985.” God on Trial, p. 1.
[xxi] The books I recommend reading to understand the trend of both liberal and conservative justices’ voting records are as follows: Peter Irons, God on Trial: Landmark Cases from America’s Religious Battlefields (Penguin Books, 2007); Warren L. Johns, Dateline Sunday, U.S.A.: The Story of Three and a Half Centuries of Sunday-law Battles in America (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1967); and Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005).