The Heresy of Religious Freedom

It is getting much harder to call myself a Christian.

This isn’t because I have lost any faith in the saving and redeeming power of Jesus. Far from it: my commitment to follow the Way is as strong as it has ever been, stronger even. It isn’t because I have been sinning in any spectacular way: my sins are what they have always been, significant only in their persistence, rather than their magnitude.

No, it is harder to call myself a Christian because that title has become toxic to so many people, both inside and outside of the church. While I would love to loudly proclaim myself as a Follower of Jesus, that proclamation now has to come with caveats to avoid hurting entire groups of people.

“I am a Follower of Jesus, but I don’t hate gay people.

“I am a Follower of Jesus, but I don’t hate Muslims.

“I am a Follower of Jesus, but I don’t believe that you’re bound for Hell.

The past 7 years have been particularly difficult. A liberal/progressive President has drawn a number of conservative reactionary groups out of the woodwork. Many of these groups are Christian, at least in name. They long for a Christian America of the 1940s and 50s… when we had White’s Only signs in every window. Or, maybe they long for a Christian America of the 1850s… when we owned black people. Or, perhaps an earlier version of Christian America…. when we massacred the majority of a native people because they wouldn’t convert, to bring “civilization” to a “savage” land. A Christian America where European settlers, fleeing persecution for their lack of ideological purity… tortured and murdered people for their lack of ideological purity.

Make no mistake: that is what a Christian America has looked like throughout history. It is a long and bloody trail of Christians oppressing and murdering in the name of the Savior who told his disciples to put away their swords.

In modern Christian America, our methods are more civilized, but our attitude remains unchanged. We are the Chosen, which makes those who do not believe like we do “rejected.” This attitude has become sharply defined in the recent avalanche of “Religious Freedom Restoration” legislation, which has become law in Indiana, and will soon become law in other states.

Christian leaders like Franklin Graham praise this move towards moral uprightness. No longer will Christian businesses be forced to provide goods and services to people that they don’t like… I mean, people and activities that offend or contradict their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” We’re assured that this legislation isn’t discriminatory; it’s simply protecting “religious freedom.” “Religious freedom”, as you might have heard, is so strongly under attack in the nation – especially amongst Christians – that we need far more than simply the First Amendment of our Constitution to protect it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I bring a word from God today. I don’t often claim to speak with the Spirit, but today feels like the day when I must say “Thus saith the Lord.”

Our religious freedom has become an idol. Our belief in religious freedom at all costs is a heresy.

We’ve been in the Lenten season, which is typically a time for we Christians to reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus, and think of the things that we can sacrifice in our own lives, the things that keep us out of closer relationship with our God. In a little less than a week, we will celebrate Good Friday. Good Friday marks the day that Jesus went to the cross, when Jesus took on the sin of all mankind and expunged it. Good Friday marks the day that Jesus cried out from the cross, where he hung dying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Good Friday marks the day when the earth shook, and the veil of the Temple – the barrier between God and man for a thousand years – tore asunder. No longer was God an unapproachable entity. God came and dwelt among us, dwelt in us. When Jesus died, the power of sin died with Him. Separation from God was no longer an option.

We commit a terrible sin, as those who claim to follow Jesus, when we try to separate others from the forgiveness and love that Christ offered on Good Friday. How do we do this? We do this by constantly pointing out the power of what we see as “their sin”. (Note the word “their” and “they” when we talk about sin. We reserve grace for ourselves, and judgement for the world… but that’s another post.)

Good Friday also marks the day that Jesus willingly gave up His rights and His freedoms, and allowed Himself to be tried without defense and killed without mercy. He never made any protests about His “sincerely held religious beliefs” when He was accused of disrupting commerce or causing a riot in the Temple. He never claimed any special citizenship, any special privilege. When accused before the Sanhedrin for blasphemy, He simply said, “It is as you say.”

Stephen the Martyr wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming to his death. He lifted his eyes up to Heaven, and cried out for the glory that awaited him.

Coptic Christians in Egypt. Christians in Syria and Iraq. Christians in so many parts of the world. They are beaten. They are robbed. They are killed. And yet, Christianity remains strong in those areas of persecution, where “religious freedom” is an oxymoron.

Contrast that to America, where we cling tightly to our idea of religious freedom, where we proclaim loudly our own persecution, and we watch the Church lose members, lose influence, lose credibility.

We have enshrined into law the right to refuse goods and services to anyone who offends our religious sensibilities, and we have done it in the name of Him who said, “If any man demands your coat, give him your cloak also.”

We have demanded tax exemptions for our most extravagant buildings, and done it in the name of Him who said, “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.”

Men like Franklin Graham proclaim loudly from places of power and wealth, and claim the name of Him who said, “Blessed are the meek.”

Christian leaders demand the persecution and death of Muslims around the world, in the name of Him who said, “Blessed are the merciful.”

Christian leaders, like Tony Perkins of the “Family Research Council”, warn of Christians rising up violently against the government in the event of federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and in the name of Him who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

We claim the name of Jesus in America, and look nothing like Him. We claim the desire, the mandate, to be a “Christian nation”, and yet our laws, our history and our behavior refute every basic tenet of the teachings of Jesus. We demand the freedom, the right, to worship Him as we please, and yet rights and freedoms never entered into the life, death or teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Make no mistake, Christians of America, we are committing a grave heresy in our relentless pursuit of power and “freedom.” We are making an idol of our “rights”, and in doing so we make a mockery of the One who gave up all of His rights, all of His freedom and refused every power that was offered to Him. We spit in the rivers of blood that the martyrs of our faith have shed, and we trivialize the very real, tangible struggles of Christians around the world.

There may come a day in America when Christians are really persecuted, but it won’t be because bakers have to make cakes for same-sex weddings, or photographers have to take pictures for them. And, if that day comes when we are truly persecuted – when it becomes illegal for us to worship, except in secret; when Christians are being rounded up and put into camps, or beaten and killed – if that day comes, I hope that we will never scream about our rights and our freedoms. I know that those who worship God “in spirit and in truth” will follow the instructions of Jesus, when He said, “Rejoice when you are persecuted, for they persecuted the prophets before you!”

If Franklin Graham really believes that Christians are in danger of persecution, he should rejoice! If Tony Perkins believes that we are in danger of being rounded up and killed, he should know that he is in good company! Jesus promised us eternal rewards for facing trouble here on Earth, He promised that we would be first in the Kingdom of God – if only we were willing to be last here on Earth. I greatly fear for many of my Christian brothers and sisters when the Day of Judgement comes – because in the mad rush for “freedom”, in the endless grasping for “rights”, we have demanded that we be first and most important here on Earth, and all but guaranteed that we will be last in the coming Kingdom.

Thus saith the Lord.

Michael Brian Woywood

For more information on Christians being persecuted across the world, check out the blog Christians in Crisis.