Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Religious Liberty: Some Current Cases

I haven’t finished excited comments on the BPFNA summer conference/peace camp, but I know that some people (especially Roger and D.R.) are waiting for me to return to my posts on religious liberty/liberty of conscience and answer some specific questions they asked. I am hugely disappointed that their’s is the only voices and that no one seems interested in my posts on peace camp, etc., so maybe I’ll shut this blog down soon–but not before keeping my word.

Roger challenged Americans United’s support for the ruling that struck down federal funding for InnerChange Faith Initiative, a program of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship that helped rehabilitate prisoners in Iowa through evangelical conversion. I agree with this ruling. InnerChange and programs like it do good work. No one, me included, thinks such programs should be ruled out. Of course churches should be involved in prison ministries. The question is whether the government should be funding them and here my answer is the same as with all such federal funding of “faith based initiatives.” No. These are clear violations of the no-establishment clause. It is NOT the business of government to fund evangelistic efforts or to advance or harm any religion in any way. The millions that Prison Fellowship has to repay the government should serve as a warning to other groups. Yes, by all means, minister to prisoners–but be prepared to do so out of your own funds, donated by your believers who support the ministry. Tax money should have nothing to do with it–just as I don’t want my tax money to support a Mormon school or a Jehovah’s Witness program for alcoholics, etc. Also, no prison ministry can give prisoners extra privileges for attending any faith-based rehabilitation program–we do not bribe folks to come to Jesus.

The case that D. R. brought up, of a high school valedictorian having her microphone cut off during her commencement address is harder. I am a huge champion of free speech and free exercise of religion. I don’t think I would have supported this and, at least on the surface, it looks as if AU took the wrong position. (There are no perfect organizations, not even the ones I support.) I would have to read the contents of the young woman’s speech to know for sure. However, although I am likely to support the legal right of a valedictorian to say whatever she wants at commencement, that doesn’t mean I, as a parent, would have been happy if she used her time to evangelize or, especially, to tear down others who do not share her faith. At a public high school commencement there may be people of many different faiths–and this pluralism will surely continue to increase in the future. The commencement’s purpose is to celebrate graduation. If the valedictorian wants to give thanks to Jesus (or Allah or Buddha, etc.) for helping her make her achievement, that is completely appropriate. If she wants to make a brief witness, something like saying, “Neither high school nor college nor the world of work is the central purpose in life. I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the purpose for which we all were created and, if you wish to ask me more about that, I will gladly tell you.” This is something that will make some folks squirm, but I cannot fault any Christian who would want to use such an auspicious occasion for such a low-key, non-coercive, witness. Now, if her testimony dominated the event, that would be rude, and if she began to put down students who were Muslims, Jews, etc., then parents would rightly be very upset. Schools should have clear guidelines. Private baccalaureates held at churches, synagogues, etc. (as were common in my youth) are, of course, a different matter and can well be completely religious events. The young woman in question’s speech may have been completely legal (and probably was, though I can’t tell for sure without seeing the speech) and still unwise: Think, Christians. If we evangelize in such a way that we get the reputation for rudeness (like people trying to witness in busy checkout lines at supermarkets) or bigotry and intolerance, we drive people AWAY from Christ. How smart is that?

This brings me to the recent case in New Jersey where a girl on a basketball team was intimidated by her coach for not wanting to pray before games and the good “Christian” principal and neighbors tried to make the family move! This is harrassment, pure and simple, and these folks should prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. The proper Christian thing to do would be to rush to these folks aid against the false Christians who would use their positions of power to try to coerce faith–or at least hypocritical conformity.

I’ll end here and take comments and questions. I commend the following defenders of liberty of conscience linked to this blog: Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (formerly called the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs)–the BJC is supported by many Baptist bodies for the sole purpose of defending both the free exercise and no-establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment. The represent the traditional (non-fundamentalist) Baptist view. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), while sometimes overzealous on the no-establishment clause and not as strong on free exercise, is an excellent grassroots organization, as is Americans for Religious Liberty–the latter of which has ties to Seventh Day Adventists. Saturday Sabbath keepers have strong reasons to know that “Christian” majorities can discriminate through laws which privilege Sunday, etc. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a secular organization, now, but was founded by religious pacifists during WWI to defend the rights of conscientious objectors to war. Soon, it took as its mandate the defense of all rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. The ACLU is far from perfect, but they have been a very important voice over the years–supplying most of the lawyers, for instance, during the Civil Rights movement that dared to take on the segregation laws or to defend civil rights protesters. As the Bushies try to return us to the age of McCarthy in the name of “fighting terrorism,” I am very proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU which is taking the lead in challenging these repressive moves.

July 17, 2006 - Posted by | church-state separation, economic justice, religious liberty, taxes

23 Comments

  1. >Also, no prison ministry can give prisoners extra privileges for attending any faith-based rehabilitation program–we do not bribe folks to come to Jesus.

    That doesn’t make any sense. IFI is not bribing folks to come to Jesus. I’ve heard people say this before and nowhere in scripture and nowhere in IFI is that principle understood to be part of the Gospel. Who looks at IFI and makes that judgment? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. So, if we don’t share, people don’t hear and don’t have the opportunities to respond, and souls aren’t saved.

    >The millions that Prison Fellowship has to repay the government should serve as a warning to other groups.

    Why? Is the AU not so much concerned with principle as they are with power? Did you notice Barry Lynn’s veiled threat on the AU site regarding this?

    >“Church leaders who take faith-based funding may find that they’ve made an expensive misjudgment if their ‘faith-based’ funding is challenged,” Lynn said.

    Lynn and AU are the ones doing the challenging! It seems to me that he’s basically saying as a blanket statement to others: “Try to do the same thing, and we’ll sue you too. Can you afford a million dollar defense fee?” I don’t like the spirit behind his comment at all.

    >As the Bushies try to return us to the age of McCarthy in the name of “fighting terrorism,” I am very proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU which is taking the lead in challenging these repressive moves.

    I suspected that politics plays a role in the enthusiasm and support of such organizations and I’m not persuaded otherwise by comments such as these. Remember, politics takes a backseat to the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit to change this world. What is promised to the believer in Scripture? That the wars will cease? No. That the government will be the answer? No. But we are promised the Holy Spirit and that Jesus will return.

    >There are no perfect organizations

    Right on. So, we go forward in the power of the Holy Spirit – following His lead – instead of following man and organizations as they will surely disappoint us. I don’t see how God is glorified by the AU decision against IFI. It appears as if people are being more loyal to the goal of ‘purity’ of religion (as Barry Lynn has stated as a goal of his in reference to this case) than the goal of lost people hearing the gospel of Christ. If God is working through IFI, people work against God by working against IFI. The end result of the court case was not that IFI’s funding structure must be modified – the end result is that they were told that they must stop. What is God doing and where? Are we working for Him or against Him?

    Comment by Roger | July 17, 2006

  2. Michael the Leveller;>Also, no prison ministry can give prisoners extra privileges for attending any faith-based rehabilitation program–we do not bribe folks to come to Jesus.

    Roger;That doesn’t make any sense. IFI is not bribing folks to come to Jesus. I’ve heard people say this before and nowhere in scripture and nowhere in IFI is that principle understood to be part of the Gospel. Who looks at IFI and makes that judgment? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. So, if we don’t share, people don’t hear and don’t have the opportunities to respond, and souls aren’t saved.

    Michael:The article YOU cited showed that IFI had been pressuring prison officials to give inmates extra privileges in return for coming to the IFI sessions. That’s spiritual bribery. Do you ever see Jesus or the early church bribe people to come hear the gospel? No. IFI and similar programs should always be free to minister to prisoners–but on a strictly voluntary basis. Only those prisoners/inmates interested should come with no “incentives” because such incentives amount to the government promoting religion–even if they offer the same incentives to programs of other religions. This is elementary. Failure to understand this is failure to understand that the gospel can never be spread by any kind of coercion.

    As for the “threats” of lawsuits–that’s understandable. AU’s purpose is not to defend any religious group, but to defend the 1st Amendment. If IFI had not been stupid enough to take government money, it wouldn’t be in this situation. You and the IFI folks should be mad at (a) the Bush administration for telling you falsely that government funding for “faith-based initiatives” was legal when no lawyer worth her salt would have said so and (b) IFI’s leaders for having the very poor judgment to try to be court prophets instead of remaining free from political ties like all true prophets.

    Your other comments make no sense, so I will not try to reply to them.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  3. >Your other comments make no sense, so I will not try to reply to them.

    Please ask me what you don’t understand and I’ll clarify the best I can…

    This is too important to dismiss.

    Comment by Roger | July 17, 2006

  4. I’d rather hear from others. The last time I got into a long back and forth with you, Roger, no one else said anything.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  5. Michael,

    I hope you don’t give up your blog. I lurk here from time to time and enjoy reading your comments.

    I’d comment more often if I wasn’t so busy with other things.

    Comment by Dr. Bruce Prescott | July 17, 2006

  6. Okay. I was just frustrated. Thanks for coming out of lurk mode to let me know others come here.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  7. >I’d rather hear from others. The last time I got into a long back and forth with you, Roger, no one else said anything.

    Do you want to understand what you don’t understand? If you’re confused, I want to clarify. I’m not interested in a long debate either. I just want to better understand what’s going on in people’s hearts and minds regarding this issue.

    Comment by Roger | July 17, 2006

  8. Roger, when you say that we (Christians) are promised the Holy Spirit, doesn’t that mean that we don’t need government money, coercion, bribery, or gimmicks? With the Holy Spirit, cannot our evangelistic witness and ministry be trusted to bear fruit on its own?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  9. Interesting stuff, Michael. It’s certainly tricky territory balancing freedom of religion and freedom from religion vs free speech issues, vs gov’t assisting those in need vs faith organizations assisting those in need.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | July 17, 2006

  10. Thanks, Dan. I think most of the time the balance is fairly obvious–only the tricky cases make news. Govt. can assist those in need through secular programs. Usually only govt. can address the structural issues (although often informed by religious models).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  11. >Roger, when you say that we (Christians) are promised the Holy Spirit,

    God is our strength and our hope in this life. Our hope is not in the political realm – as the role of the church can only be done by the church. The government can restrain evil, but not change hearts. Has God promised us in His word that our hope is in the government to make this world right? Certainly not. The same goes for looking for peace as the ultimate answer. There will not be an end to wars on the earth until Jesus returns – as that is what Jesus Himself said. However, we are promised in His word that He will never leave us (by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the believer) and that He will return. That is to what I was referencing earlier. God’s word gives us the direction and perspective that we need.

    >doesn’t that mean that we don’t need government money

    Does government money mean an endorsement? Does it mean that government is asking for something in return? I don’t think we can be dogmatic about that. Why can’t we tackle the abuses as we see them instead of having a blanket policy that tends to be overzealous and unreasonable? What’s the difference between the power of God and the power of Satan and the world’s idols? God can change lives for good and the enemy cannot. If you were the enemy and you wanted to keep from getting beat when you were put side by side against God who is stronger, wouldn’t you want to keep the competitions from going on so that people wouldn’t know that you were no match for God? What’s the difference between that and the root deception behind the policy of this overzealous enforcement of church-state separation where the end result is that no faith based group is allowed in that arena? Why can’t we let them be free to stand on their own and let people see what works and what doesn’t? See how this is deceptively harmful and why I said that it is in effect doing the enemy’s work?

    >gimmicks?

    Who defines gimmicks? People all the time call things ‘gimmicks’ in the face of God who works through it to save someone’s soul. ‘Cool’ and ‘Intellectual’ theology is dangerous. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t want to imply that I do. But I certainly don’t want to get in the way of God and where He is working.

    Comment by Roger | July 17, 2006

  12. Roger, you are a string of contradictions. You claim that the Christian hope is not in politics, but you are willing to use ANY political means to force people to faith. That’s the difference. I trust God to be able to spread the gospel according to the nonviolent, noncoercive means laid out in the NT. I defend church/state separation and religious liberty because I believe it to be biblical and just and what you want to do, I call “tyranny” and “false gospel.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 17, 2006

  13. michael the leveller, you may have to give an account someday for your interpretation of church/state separation. It is pretty evident that what you want is a totally secular society and yet you call yourself a Christian. If you have anything to share spiritually, you are being selfish to not want others to know and that is what you prevent by removing IFI and other such programs from society. Christianity does not repress other religions, but some people misuse the tolerance word and what it comes out to is silencing Christianity.

    Comment by mom2 | July 18, 2006

  14. Let me get this straight, Mom2. I must want a secular society because I don’t think the government should FUND evangelism with money taken from all citizens, including those who have other beliefs? Sorry, that doesn’t follow. Why can’t IFI and programs like it do their work with their own funds? You must not believe in their work, Mom2, or you would donate to it instead of waiting for the Feds to do it for you. Do you wait for Federal tax money to fund your church instead of putting your tithe into the offering plate/

    Precisely how is insisting that all such programs fund themselves “silencing” Christianity? It is in the U.S. where we have church/state separation that Christianity has had the loudest megaphone. Every time a government has sought to “help” religion with money or privilege, the result has been empty churches which would blow away without government money.

    I don’t recall the early church demanding that the Israelit government or the Roman government fund their evangelistic campaigns, do you? Yet they turn the world upside down. In fact, everything began to go wrong when Christianity became the official religion of Rome–and became a tool of empire so far removed from the faith of the NT as to be almost unrecognizable. Now, instead of Christians following Jesus in nonviolence, they killed others in the name of Jesus! That kind of thing happens every time you let governments mess with religion–even in a “helpful” manner.
    As for giving accounts, you are right. I’m ready. I hope you are.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 18, 2006

  15. Yes, I’m ready.

    You are the one that has a conflict, either you are a Christian that loves Jesus and want to follow His command that we go into all the world and make disciples or you can try as you do, to prevent the spread of the gospel.
    You are not the only taxpayer and a lot of money goes for things I don’t like, but the ACLU is not out there protecting my wishes. I will not make you a list of all the government funded things that bug me, but as far as I am concerned IFI does good, not harm and it is not a coercive program.

    Comment by mom2 | July 19, 2006

  16. “It is pretty evident that what you want is a totally secular society and yet you call yourself a Christian.”

    Mom, if not a secular society, whose religion would you see be the norm? Mine? That bunch in Kansas that protest at soldiers’ funerals? Jerry Falwell’s? Yours?

    I’ll assume you mean you want just Christian groups to be the norm, but which ones? If you are talking about traditional Baptists and anabaptists (and many others, I’m sure), part of their religious belief is a separation of church and state. We just don’t want the state dallying around in matters of faith. It dilutes, rather than strengthens our witness.

    Christians have not been silenced. I’m a Christian and I get to share my opinion, vote and go outside without an escort. Sure there have been isolated bad court (school, workplace) decisions that have tried to take away Christian’s free speech. Fortunately for us, the ACLU is usually there to defend us.

    But those are the aberrations. We do have free speech and no one is trying to silence it. The main way that we are sometimes hushed is when we’ve misused the right to free speech and people have been sickened or just annoyed by what some have said with their free speech.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | July 19, 2006

  17. Thanks, Dan. Mom (and I’m glad my mother didn’t share your views), I have been a short-term missionary. I do want to go into all the world and share the gospel–but not with federal money.

    Lots of tax money goes to things I don’t like, too, like weapons and war. I have experimented with ways to resist those taxes–not very successfully. They go against my fundamental faith convictions. So, I support the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill.

    We all have to pay for some things we don’t like–but it is fundamentally evil to make someone pay for something that goes against her basic religious views. To make Jews or Buddhists or Muslims pay for Christian evangelism is wrong–just as wrong as it would be to make Christians pay for the spread of other religions.

    Being committed to following Jesus means sticking with the methods Jesus allows, too, and not using the coercive power of government to promote the nonviolent gospel.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2006

  18. You don’t know what coercive power is if you think this country’s government promotes it against any other religion than Christianity.
    I am thankful that we have the freedoms we have, but they are being slowly eaten away for Christians and we can thank folks like you, Trabue and ACLU who think you know best. You are the squeaky wheels out there protesting against what you perceive as injustice to every other religion, while trying to silence what you profess to believe in.
    It is not government money that you hate to see spent, you vote for it all the time.
    I think you would make a fine citizen of Iraq or one of those countries that truly does not or has never known the freedoms that we have, but may lose some day. Maybe then you would recognize that our Nation was founded on Christian principles and is quickly drifting away from.

    Comment by mom2 | July 19, 2006

  19. Why can’t you answer this question? It’s fair and relevant…

    >”false gospel.”

    Please clarify for me: Do you believe that salvation comes as a result of a following of the words of Jesus in the NT or a surrending to His Lordship as defined by who He is in all of scripture? Are there any parts of scripture that you refuse to accept?

    >I trust God to be able to spread the gospel according to the nonviolent, noncoercive means laid out in the NT.

    Is Jesus communicating something here that you would object to?

    Luke 14:23 (English Standard Version)

    And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’

    This it too important to ignore, as it very well may determine if you worship the true God or a modern, man-made Jesus…

    Comment by Roger | July 19, 2006

  20. Yes, I believe salvation comes in surrendering to Christ’s Lordship–including the nonviolence he taught. If you remember, I began my first post on liberty of conscience by noting (with Richard Overton of the Levellers) that Jesus commanded in the Great Commission that we TEACH to make disciples–not coerce.

    I wondered whether you’d bring up Luke 14:23. This is part of the Parable of the Great Feast. It refers to the surprise that Gentiles will be part of the Rule of God since some Jews refused to come as guests. Reading “compel them to come in” as a mandate to use force for conversions (the theology of Crusaders!) is to read far too much into one word. Even in the parable, we do not see the servants of the master using force to get feast guests. We definitely don’t see them using the power of government for it.

    Sorry, I reject Crusader/Inquisition interpretation–it does not fit with the full NT portrait of Jesus and the early church, nor even with the parable itself. This is scripture-twisting on a cultic scale.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2006

  21. >Yes, I believe salvation comes in surrendering to Christ’s Lordship–including the nonviolence he taught.

    Is salvation a matter of faith or works?

    >Reading “compel them to come in” as a mandate to use force for conversions (the theology of Crusaders!) is to read far too much into one word.

    An expanded translation from the Greek is almost the same word for word as the translation that I posted. ‘Compel’ was used there as well.

    >Even in the parable, we do not see the servants of the master using force to get feast guests. We definitely don’t see them using the power of government for it.

    Where in the IFI program was force used to drag guests ‘to the feast’ against their will? How was ‘power’ of government used by IFI? However, wasn’t ‘power’ of government used to halt the program by the AU?

    >Sorry, I reject Crusader/Inquisition interpretation–it does not fit with the full NT portrait of Jesus and the early church, nor even with the parable itself. This is scripture-twisting on a cultic scale.

    If I’m twisting scripture, please clarify. I don’t want to mislead anybody. I believe that the heart of Luke 14:23 is ‘urgency’ and not ‘surprise’. The banquet invitation won’t last forever. There is a time when it will not be available anymore. A logical understanding of this passage is not to assume that people will use force to share the good news, but to do so as a hungry person who knows where a free banquet is … and knows where other hungry people are!

    Comment by Roger | July 19, 2006

  22. Roger quoted and then said:

    “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’

    This it too important to ignore, as it very well may determine if you worship the true God or a modern, man-made Jesus…”

    Roger, why would this one verse be too important to ignore – an apparent litmus test of whether or not you’re a Christian, and not all the other teachings of Jesus? You sometimes seem to want to accuse others of a salvation by works, but then quote this passage saying, “if you’re not doing this work, then you may well not be saved…”

    Am I misunderstanding what you’re saying?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | July 20, 2006

  23. >Am I misunderstanding what you’re saying?

    I need to clarify. My reference to worshiping the true God or not was in response to:

    —>Are there any parts of scripture that you refuse to accept?

    If we reject parts of scripture, then it’s likely that we’ll end up with differing views of God and His nature. God can’t be two different things – so it logically means that the worship of a false God is a result. If I determine what parts of scripture I will accept as truth, then that means I’m determining what God I will worship. But we must come to God as He is, and not as we want Him to be.

    For clarification on Luke 14:23: That verse speaks about urgency and need – an invitation that is for a limited time, and hungry people that need what the banquet offers. The servants have been given the order by their master to go reach anybody and everybody they can – so that as many people can get there as possible. That leads to passion and excitement as the servants have great news to share – especially given the spiritual realities to which this parable refers: eternal life vs. eternal death. I don’t see given the reality of that, how we can be indifferent about lost people that would have had the opportunity to hear not getting that opportunity.

    Comment by Roger | July 20, 2006


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