Sometimes, the merry-go-round of false narratives deserves to be stopped, history reasserted. America’s religious roots are under intense pressure today from the media, state governments, educational institutions and litigious atheists. We are at a time of reckoning — and so is our role in the world as a beacon of religious freedom.
Founded by persecuted Christians, America remains the one nation in the world with an unbending, immutable commitment to the right of peaceful worship, paired with a civic duty not to impede any other citizen’s free exercise of the right.
From 1791, when our Bill of Rights was ratified, to now Americans have been secure in knowledge that protections afforded by the First Amendment are inviolate. Specifically, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
From 1620 until today, we have had a special respect for personal, religious convictions. Most Americans recognize the hand of providence in our past. Fully 62 percent of Americans, 240 million, count themselves Christian, 5.5 million Jewish and approximately 3 million each Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu. Taken together, three-quarters of America attests to belief in God.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed America’s constitutional commitment to freedom of faith. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a 7-2 majority that “the exclusion” of a church “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”
Despite these facts, the right of every American to the free and peaceful exercise of religious convictions is under siege. Our rich historical, legal and ecclesiastical tradition of protecting and respecting religious faith in America is battered by those who would remake America in their secular image.
In February 2018, ABC television personality Joy Behar boldly disparaged Christianity as a “mental illness,” eliciting a rebuke from Vice President Mike Pence: “To have ABC maintain a broadcast forum that compared Christianity to mental illness is just wrong,” a distillate of “religious intolerance.”
Soon thereafter, Harvard University placed a Christian student club on probation for its internal decision to require all club officers subscribe to traditional Christian values.
After that decision, a 75-year-old Christian student group at a Michigan college, in March 2018, was kicked off campus “solely because it required its religious leaders to embrace Christianity.” Imagine if any other club were booted off campus for requiring members to subscribe to the club’s purpose, chess club members play chess, thespians embrace theater, French clubs speak French.
Then add a matter of conscience, say tenets of a student’s religious faith — as a basis for excoriation and excommunication from the college campus. Is that America?
In March, another assault: A federal judge ruled that the cross-shaped monument in Bladensburg, Maryland, built 100 years ago to memorialize 49 men who died in World War 1, must come down.
Can religious markers in public cemeteries be far behind?
Finally, California has just introduced an anti-religious bill aimed at banning Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or other religious books, including the Bible and Koran, if they refer to sexual orientation.
The saddest fact is that all the world is watching as we disassemble the long-standing right to religious liberty on which our country was founded — and to which persecuted Christians and others look with hope.
In 2004, I was assistant secretary of State, serving under President George W. Bush. On a trip, I touched down in Laos. Soon, I was face to face with the country’s Communist leaders.
Given America’s current drug epidemic, my mission was to help that nation battle theirs. But Laos had a pernicious history of persecuting Christians. So, against State protocol, I bluntly raised the cases of persecuted Christians with the Communists, connecting their fate to our support.
Freedom from drug abuse is important, but so is freedom of conscience. The Lao government seemed to absorb the point, once made.
We agreed to support their drug treatment programs, but made clear we expected greater attention to freedom of conscience. For a time, things improved — then slipped again.
Today, flagrant violation of an individual’s religious liberty, and persecution of Christians and other religions globally, is pervasive. Globally, one in 12 Christians is persecuted, bringing the number to roughly 215 million, and 600 million are prevented from practicing their faith.
America is an essential beacon for religious liberty, and we — of all people — must not be complicit in dimming that light.
If we do not draw the line here, supporting faithful Christians, Jews, Muslims and others in their morally protected right to freely believe and live by tenets of a sincerely held faith, what does the First Amendment mean? If we do not respect every American’s faith, what do we respect?
And if we do not live by fidelity to such founding principles, where do the persecuted around the world look for hope?
This is a time of reckoning, of America with itself. Religious Americans, which is most of us, should be unafraid to stand for a historical, legal, ecclesiastical and moral tradition that is unique in all the world. We must resist religious intolerance, from the media to madcap book banning. Time to stop the merry-go-round.
• Robert B. Charles served as assistant secretary of State under George W. Bush, and served in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
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