Today’s headlines reflect a remarkable turn in American culture: Religious faith is under attack. Here are some examples (from the website of the Alliance Defending Freedom):
• A then-second-grade student at a public school in New Jersey was told that she could not sing “Awesome God” in an after-school talent show.
• A pastor of a church in Arizona was ordered to stop holding meetings or Bible studies in his private home.
• Five Christian men were threatened with arrest for sharing their faith on a public sidewalk in Virginia.
• A Christian student at a university in Missouri was threatened with having her degree withheld because she refused to write a letter to the state legislature expressing her support for homosexual adoption.
And it doesn’t stop there. Multiple lawsuits have been generated in response to the Affordable Care Act (known as “Obamacare”) and its limitations on religious liberty. For example, the Little Sisters of the Poor (a group of nuns known for their charitable work helping the most helpless in society) found itself in the sights of federal regulators because they refused to purchase insurance for their employees that included contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, both prohibited by their Catholic faith. They were given the alternative of signing a form they believe violates their religious beliefs. The government insists the form is “meaningless,” yet has sued the Little Sisters all the way to the Supreme Court to force them to comply. (The court has put a temporary hold on the government’s demands while the case goes to a lower court).
Or consider the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Green family, which has run its corporation based on principles of their Christian faith, also argues that they should not be required to cover the cost of abortion-inducing drugs for their 28,000 employees. The Obama administration, however, insists that you lose any rights to religious freedom the moment you step into the marketplace as a corporation. This is a startling turn in attitudes toward religious freedom in America. As law professor John Eastman explains in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, “Since the founding, people have engaged through corporate structures and whatever in religious exercise. Religion isn’t something you do only on Sundays. It was kind of life-encompassing. And the notion that a businessman just to enter the marketplace has to leave his religion at the door, if you will — it’s just foreign to our understanding of the First Amendment.”
The reality is that such attacks on religion and religious freedom are growing increasingly common, and are likely to be more so in the days ahead. One reason is that religious faith no longer holds a favored status in our society. Indeed, for many of the cultural elites who control education and media power, religion is an antiquated practice that should be eliminated in a modern society.
Think about the comments of Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) in his recent evolution vs. creationism debate with Ken Ham. On two occasions, as he had done previously, he insisted that parents should not force such obsolete views as creationism on their children because our nation needs bright young people who can understand science, not young minds bound by crazy religious notions. And Nye is not alone in that perspective, as his views are increasingly shared by leaders in government, education and the media.
Add to the mix the fact that a higher percentage of the population now claims no affiliation with any religious group. These are the “nones,” and they equal about 20 percent of the American people. As the Pew Research analysis points out, “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” They aren’t looking for a better church; this group has turned away from church.
Are they right? Is religion a harmful influence on society?
Despite the isolated examples that one could point to of harmful religion — Islamic terrorism, for example, or even the hate-filled rhetoric of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church followers — religion and faith are still a force for good in society. Indeed, America itself is the product of people of faith who came to these shores to gain religious freedom and whose faith drove them to seek a “shining city on a hill.”
People of faith created the first colleges in America and continue to support hundreds of Christ-centered colleges and universities that offer a distinctive value in the American educational system. South Carolina Baptists support three such institutions — Anderson University, Charleston Southern University and North Greenville University — that make a powerful and positive difference in the lives of thousands of young men and women.
People of faith created many of the hospitals on which we depend even today. Their faith in Christ drives them to offer centers of healing, not only for their fellow church members but for all in need. And when natural disasters strike, typically the first ones on the scene to offer food, water and support are Southern Baptists and their faith-based colleagues. They don’t travel hundreds and thousands of miles and give their time and energy for any kind of profit but because their faith leads them to serve others.
People of faith have led the most important reform efforts in our society, such as the abolition movement in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th. Today’s battle against human trafficking is led primarily by people whose faith in Christ compels them to help “the least of these.”
Most important, churches offer a word of hope to a chaotic culture through the message of the gospel. If they did nothing else, sharing the gospel would be contribution enough. As we serve and share, we demonstrate to a lost world the difference Christ makes.
— Michael Duduit is founding dean of the College of Christian Studies at Anderson University and is executive editor of Preaching magazine.