Monday, July 2, 2012

Status of Religion in the U.S. Part 1

I. Introduction

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot this past week. Their decision on the Obama health care plan is one that has far-reaching implications, as do many Court decisions. In addition, Independence Day is coming up on Wednesday, so I thought we should look at how we are to live as believers in God in 21st century America. To do that, we need to understand where we’ve been and where we are headed as a country. As part of that, we also need to separate truth from falsehood, and determine our roles as people of faith in an increasingly secular society. It is especially important for us to appreciate our nation’s godly heritage, because I believe God has blessed this country in so many ways. We don’t hear about that too often these days, even in churches.

II. The Constitution

One of the best things the Founders of this country did was to put the First Amendment in the Constitution, the first part of which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

One purpose of this Amendment was to prohibit the establishment of an official state religion such as most European countries had at that time. The other purpose was to allow the free practice of any and all religions without fear of governmental interference. Note the Constitution does not actually use the term “separation of church and state” or the phrase “wall of separation” that are often linked with it.

1. Falsehoods

The First Amendment is now being misused as a weapon to try to eliminate God from our society. Some want to make this into a godless country, and they are especially trying to limit Christianity. They have successfully influenced the Supreme Court, starting in 1947 with the Everson v. Board of Education case.

The Supreme Court has misinterpreted and misapplied the First Amendment of the Constitution ever since, building on post-1947 precedents. If you look at the pre-1947 court decisions, you see 160 years of a totally different understanding of the First Amendment from today. Since some of the drafters of the Constitution ended up on the Supreme Court, we get insight into the original intent by their written opinions.

2. Truth

Because of the direction this country is headed, I believe it is important for us to be able to separate truth from falsehood. For example, we should be aware of God’s hand in the establishment and preservation of this country – and give thanks for God’s grace. With that knowledge we can offset the revisionist history that denies our Judeo-Christian heritage. We should also know what role we as Christians should play in a culture and society that is moving away from a Judeo-Christian mindset.

If we don’t know the truth about our country, how can we defend it? If our kids don’t know the truth, how can they grow up to be proper citizens and know what to do as Christians? Jesus said in John 8:32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

III. Blessed by God

God has blessed us in both the establishment and the preservation of the U.S. However, I’m not claiming the U.S. is a new Israel or anything like that. I’m also not saying that the U.S. is always right, has always done the right thing, and has always been in God’s will – because it hasn’t. I do believe that the U.S. has a part to play in God’s plan for the world.

1. God’s Purposes

What are these purposes? Looking at history, I see some of God’s purposes for the U.S. have been:
●To provide a refuge for the persecuted, especially religiously persecuted.
●To model good government, democracy and respect for human life.
●To send out missionaries to evangelize the world.
●To share our wealth with the less fortunate.
●To rescue countries from oppression (such as we did in WWII).

2. God’s Hand in Establishing

I also see God’s hand in the establishment of our country in a several ways.

●We went against the superpower of the day (England) with rag-tag army – and won the war against all odds.
●We did so with a largely untrained bunch of farmers who were drunk much of the time (according to David McCullough in his book “1776”).
●Our revolution could have turned ugly like the French Revolution but didn’t – that was God’s grace.
●The Founders were amazingly forward-thinking, establishing a new form of government that was remarkable for that day and age.
●It was perfect timing for the establishment of a new country because of the positive influences at work in 1776, which I’ll discuss in a minute.
●George Washington turned down the proposal that he be made king – which took place in Newburgh, NY. If he had accepted, the entire nature of our government would have changed.

3. God’s Grace in Preserving

I also see God’s grace at work preserving our country.

●We survived the breaking off of the Confederate States, which, had it been successful, would have divided the U.S. into 2 or 3 weaker nations.
●We survived a terrible Civil War.
●We survived the Great Depression, and it’s surprising that there wasn’t an overthrow of the government because of the severe economic conditions.
●We survived many other divisive issues.
●Other countries (especially in Latin America) modeled their governments after the US but haven’t been nearly as stable.
●We have never experienced hyperinflation.
●The military has never intervened and has always been subject to civilian authority, unlike some other countries.

IV. Forces at Work in 1776

I said earlier that the late 18th century was a perfect time to start a new country, and that’s because of the positive influences of that day. Two of the positive influences in 1776 that shaped our founding documents are the First Awakening and the Enlightenment. We see their influence in the Declaration of Independence, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note the mention of “their Creator” – God has always been an integral part of this country. Just look at the speeches carved in stone in the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and you’ll see God mentioned often. Those who deny our Christian heritage are ignoring history.

1. The First Awakening

The First Awakening had a major impact on the establishment of our country and on the religious landscape of the colonies. Before that powerful revival, which started in Northampton, Massachusetts, most of the colonists were nominal Christians at best. As a result of that outpouring of the Holy Spirit, many came to faith in Christ, making the colonists much more faithful Christians. Because of this, our Founding documents include many references to God and incorporate biblical principles. While the Founders represented a wide variety of Christians, most of them had deep faith in Christ or exhibited a healthy respect for God and the Bible.

2. The Enlightenment

The second major influence on the Founders was The Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking emerged in Europe in the 1600s, and was pretty radical for that age of kings and queens. Politically, the Enlightenment was distinguished by an emphasis on liberty, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance. So our founding documents include the best of Enlightenment thinking and biblical principles.

V. The First Amendment and Wall of Separation

The Founders also wanted to avoid the problems that had occurred in Europe over the centuries, especially religious conflict. They saw the discrimination, persecution, and war that came with state religions, so the first thing they put in the Constitution was: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

We have to understand that the term “religion” in 1776 meant what we call today a “church” or “denomination.” However, as different religions emerged, they were secure from governmental interference under the broad protection of the First Amendment.

Thomas Jefferson called this protection a “Wall of Separation”, meaning there is a legal wall protecting religious practice from the government. He coined that phrase in a letter written to a Baptist Church in Danbury, Connecticut, which was concerned about what the First Amendment meant. However, in cases coming after 1947, the courts have interpreted the First Amendment as protecting the country from religion. Sadly, Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” is now being totally misrepresented to try to limit religion and religious expression in public.

More on this topic in a future post.

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