Christians and Religious Liberty in America on Easter Sunday, 2013
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
—The Lord Jesus Christ, John 15:18–19
The nature of constitutional law is such that when I litigate or file briefs on religious liberty issues, I survey and cite to the Supreme Court’s decisions and religious liberty historical facts in this country going back to when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were first adopted. Doing so recently, it vividly struck me that in all of American history religious liberty has never been as gravely threatened as it is today, especially for Christians.
One need only look at the cases being litigated by public-interest law firms, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Institute, Becket Fund, and Liberty Counsel. Cases over the past two years show a federal appeals court ordering that states and local governments in the Northeast cannot have public prayers if “too many” Christians offer prayers (in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case the Supreme Court will vote in May whether to take), Texas veterans’ funerals where religious language was banned, Michigan and Georgia graduate students who were expelled from counseling programs because they referred gay couples to a different counselor, a Texas high school valedictorian barred from mentioning Jesus during her speech, a New Mexico photographer who was assessed a hefty fine for declining to photograph a gay civil-commitment ceremony (in a state with neither gay marriage nor civil unions), a Florida school sued for volunteers saying prayers before an evening-hours extra-curricular activity, Utah highway crosses honoring slain highway troopers being torn down, crosses in war memorials held unconstitutional, and so on.
Those are only issues in the courts, and not even discussing other examples most Americans are familiar with like HHS Mandate. For examples outside the courts, there are public schools this year that did not allow students to use the word “Easter,” and many have long since banned the word “Christmas.” These and many others have not gone to court (yet).
Wrestling in court about whether such things violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause would have been unthinkable a generation ago, all the way from the founding of the Republic to recent times. Perhaps never has a nation so quickly and thoroughly purged the public square of the influence of faith, and silenced people of faith. And it’s not all faiths. Virtually without exception, every single incident mentioned above was silencing Christians.
This would be appalling to the Founding Fathers who gave us the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause was to prevent the federal government from creating a national religious system under which one specific denomination would be designated as the national religion, where religious leaders would be licensed by the government, and all other faiths could be officially censored or completely silenced, even by throwing in jail adherents of other faiths.
It was never to create a secular society. In the words of George Washington, the Founding Fathers regarded religious faith—especially Christian moral teachings—as “indispensable supports” for “political prosperity.” Many of our nation’s Founders were outspoken Christians who brought their faith with them into public life without apology.
The First Amendment was to ensure that no one would be penalized for speaking, worshiping, or practicing their faith. Religious tolerance is about all people being able to fully participate in public life as they are—including their faith if they have one—and the government accommodating those diverse faiths whenever possible.
A perfect example of true religious tolerance is found at Breitbart News. The staff and contributors here represent a broad diversity of religious beliefs. But instead of remaining silent or walking on eggshells, any person here can freely express their religious beliefs without apology. In my last conversation with Andrew Breitbart one week before his untimely death, we were discussing a deeply-divisive social issue, and he said it was a perfect example of the need for diversity of opinions, that his vision for the media outlet that bears his name is that people would have “carte blanche” in his words to share their opinions with others.
Freedom of speech is about freedom to disagree. Moreover, in this country you also have the legal right to be theologically wrong. God may not let you be wrong about him, but that’s between you and God; it’s not for the government or for society to decide.
For Christians, things in this country are increasingly difficult. Historically Christianity has not been for people who are lukewarm about it. There can be a real cost to identifying yourself with Jesus Christ, and for millions in America many wonder if the time is coming for difficult choices. We look to missionaries and friends we support overseas in countries right now where there is literal persecution. To them verses like the ones cited at the beginning of this column are a way of life.
As Pastor Mike McKinley of Guilford Baptist Church said in an Easter sermon:
“In this particular nation there probably has not been a moment in its history where Jesus has been less regarded and less respected than he is right now… But friends, just notice that there’s nothing new here. Jesus was … rejected by the people of his own day. By the close of the first century, there were people worshiping him in Africa, in Asia, in Europe… The philosophers, the wise men of the age rejected Jesus… The Stoics and the Epicureans thought, ‘Who is this yokel, this guy from the sticks…? But you know what’s weird? I’ve never actually met a Stoic or an Epicurean philosopher. I think there are more people in this room there would be Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in the entire world …. Jesus, he’s done okay for himself, hasn’t he?... Eventually the secular power of Rome tried to stop him…. You may have noticed, the Roman Empire, it isn’t around anymore….”
Such messages are an encouragement, and a reminder that as much as it speaks to the daily matters of life, the Christian faith is more about eternity than the here and now. Christians are increasingly being ridiculed and denigrated in American society, excluded from elite and sophisticated circles, and even increasingly facing legal and professional consequences for living out their faith.
Easter is a time for every Christian to be reminded of whom they profess to follow, and to be willing to count the cost. Given how despised Jesus was in his own time, it’s a reminder of how blessed Christians in America have been to have enjoyed such a long peaceful time in this nation.
A Christian’s life throughout the world has often been difficult, to the point of persecution and even death. Reflecting on such horrible abuse, the Apostle Paul said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19.) But then in the very next verse he says it’s all worth it: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” and then goes on to exhort them all who hold fast to their Lord.
That’s why for centuries, on Easter Sunday one could hear someone shout in the streets, “He is risen!” To which any other believers hearing the sound would respond in a loud voice, “He is risen, indeed!”
That’s the message of Easter. It’s not about bunnies, eggs, and candy. It’s nice to spend time with family, but it’s not about that either. For Christians, it’s about salvation from an existential curse of sin, death, and decay, and a promise of eternity. It is the counterpart holiday to Christmas, when God became man, to undertake a task that reached its fulfillment and consummation with the Good Friday crucifixion and the Easter resurrection.
For Christians this day is about the pivotal moment in human history, one that puts everything else in perspective, turned the natural universe on its head, and makes a lifetime of difficulty all worthwhile—no matter the cost.
Happy Easter. He is risen!
“His glories now we sing,
Who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring,
And lives that death may die!”
—Crown Him with Many Crowns (1874)
Breitbart News legal columnist Ken Klukowski is senior fellow for religious liberty and on faculty at Liberty University School of Law.