Freedom of Religion

Christians in the United States are blessed by God to have a government that does not attempt to dictate a form of religion to them.  One of the first principles in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution is the freedom of religion.  Specifically, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This amendment limits the federal government in two ways: (1) Congress may not pass a law to establish a national religion; and (2) Congress may not pass a law to prohibit the exercise of any religion.  The Supreme Court also applied these limitations to state and local governments as well in a ruling regarding the Fourteenth Amendment.


The phrase “separation of church and state” is often cited as a Constitutional principle, but the phrase does not appear in the Constitution.  The idea is derived from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group called the Danbury Baptists in which he gave his interpretation of the First Amendment and freedom of religion.  Jefferson perceived that the First Amendment had built “a wall of separation between Church and State.”  Some have interpreted Jefferson’s meaning to be that government must avoid any appearance of religion in its affairs, and others believe that he meant that religion must be free to exist without governmental influence.  Whatever his meaning, separation of church and state is not the law per se.


Nevertheless, maintaining the separation of church and state has become the guideline in almost all questions pertaining to religion and government institutions.  The result is that there are many perceived infractions of Constitutional rights.  Debates go on and on about such matters as prayer in schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, Christmas trees on public property, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the phrase “In God We Trust” on currency.  On either side of any of these issues, people claim persecution against them and violations of their freedom.


This is not to make light of these issues (some of them are more serious than others), but Christians need to exercise some historical perspective.  From the very beginning, Christians were severely persecuted because of their faith.  It began with the Jewish Sanhedrin who commanded the apostles to cease from preaching the gospel and flogged them for teaching the truth (Acts 4:14-22; 5:27-42).  It continued when Stephen was killed by the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:12-15; 7:54-60) and Saul began to ravage the church (Acts 8:1-3).  Saul continued that persecution until he was called by the Lord (Acts 9:1-22), and then he became one of the persecuted (Acts 9:23-25).  The persecution against Christians increased when the Roman provincial king Herod persecuted the church and killed the apostle James (Acts 12:1-2).  Similar persecution continued on throughout the first century wherever the word of God was preached.  Beyond the first century, many persons lost their possessions, their freedom, and even their lives because of their faith in Christ (consider Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).


Not only is historical perspective helpful, but international perspective should also be exercised.  Many nations in the world today do not permit the exercise of Christianity.  Things such as Bibles and churches are illegal, and those who violate these laws are severely treated.  Other nations claim religious tolerance to make themselves more acceptable to the international community, but in truth they make the free exercise of Christianity practically illegal.


For Christians in the United States, the lesson to be learned from historical and international perspectives is that true, faithful believers in Christ will not be stopped from the practice of their religion by any individual, institution, or government.  True freedom of religion is granted by God, who allows people to believe as they choose to believe.  For those who choose to have faith in Christ, which is their religion, no one can take that away from them.  As the Scripture says, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Just as it is written, ‘FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.’  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).  The things encountered by Christians in the United States cannot even begin to infringe on their God-given freedom to believe in Christ.


Stacey E. Durham


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