In an interview last week, Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) gave a chilling synopsis of the state of American religious freedom. He said that religious freedom is becoming a “second-tier” right in America.
Forbes, who has been in Congress since 2001, founded the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus in 2005. He now serves as co-chair with Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.). “The Caucus started based on observations,” he says. “Prayer and faith seemed to be under attack in the United States, especially the Judeo-Christian faith. Nobody was standing up from a policy/legislative point of view. We decided to draw a line in the sand.”
Asked what he meant about “second-tier” rights, he responded: “The whole purpose of freedom of speech is that you can say what you want to say. . . . That [freedom] works for pornography, TV . . . but when it comes to faith, they come down with a sledgehammer."
“When the Constitution was first written, the government was not going to stop you from expressing your faith. Now, if what you say offends anybody, we will punish you if it relates to faith. If it’s related to vulgarity, obscenity, or whatever, it is okay. . . ."
“When you read Jefferson,” the congressman explains, “he was saying that we didn’t want the church telling the government what to do. And Jefferson was very clear the government was not going to tell individuals what they had to believe or do."
However, as Forbes puts it, there is now a “new face” on government. Referring to Justice Kennedy’s oft-quoted majority opinion in the Supreme Court decision on DOMA, Forbes said: “Anybody who believes in [defending] traditional marriage is now ‘mean-spirited.’” He added, “If you believe in Bible [explanations] you are actively denounced as a person who is mean-spirited.”
I asked Representative Forbes about some statements he had recently made. In a February 2013 op-ed in the Washington Times, he wrote: “When the government says, ‘You can believe whatever you want, but you will be penalized if you exercise those beliefs,’ we have entered dangerous territory. We cannot allow a religious litmus test to determine who may participate in American life.” Then, in a June 2013 letter concerning protections of conscience regarding the HHS mandate, he referred to a statement by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), who stated that the HHS mandate “primarily targets people of faith communities.”
I pressed him on these points and asked him what the “dangerous territory” was. He explained: “There are two realities. One reality is, there is an effort to push Christians out of the marketplace of ideas. The other reality is that a lot of Christians [voluntarily] walked out of the marketplace of ideas. They have to get back in.” I responded that this was exactly what Chuck Colson had been writing for years.
Forbes continued: “If everything is presented in the marketplace of ideas, truth will win out.”
As encouraging as that sounds, the congressman makes it obvious that truth will not win out without titanic struggles. To one who lives and works in the policy world of Capitol Hill as he does, nothing shows the struggle more clearly than the recent flare-up over protections of personal religious freedom in the U.S. military. As a member of the Armed Services Committee and representative for a district with a significant military population, Forbes is keenly aware of the problem caused by recent statements from military departments, warning against “proselytizing” and “evangelizing” by members of the military.
This issue is still being debated, and recent efforts by Congress to guarantee freedom of religious expression in the military have met with opposition from the Obama administration. I asked him if the chill in the atmosphere could cause Christians to defer voluntary military duty or positions of leadership in the military, which has always had a significant contingent of committed Christians. “There is no question that Christian people might leave the military,” Forbes answered. "Many people call us, afraid that it will affect their careers.” He went on to mention how this would compound problems the military is experiencing with rape and sexual harassment scandals. “We need people [in the military] grounded in a good moral compass.”
Finally, I asked him for his ideas on what was at the bottom of the national trend against freedom of religious expression. I knew he was aware of a recent article by Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon in the Washington Post regarding the targeting of conservatives by the IRS. Glendon wrote: “Careful observers of ‘this new scandal’ will see that it fits a larger pattern of governmental efforts to use state power to enforce ideological conformity. Nowhere is that pattern more evident than in the realm of religious freedom where recent years have seen efforts, both subtle and overt, to squelch diversity of ideas. . . . Today, millions of Americans whose religious convictions conflict with government-sponsored policies on abortion and same-sex marriage are increasingly subjected to penalties and classified as enemies of government policy.”
I asked the congressman if he agreed with this assessment and if he thought this phenomenon was organized and premeditated. His answer was clear: “It is a campaign. It is very orchestrated. You see that in the widespread nature [of what is happening].”
Hearing such matter-of-fact talk from someone with Rep. Randy Forbes’ experience and perspective is unsettling. It is obvious that we (the entire nation, not just Congress) must do something. Forbes would be the first to recommend taking action and joining forces. Recounting what his thoughts were when he founded the prayer caucus, he said: “When it is just a few standing here or there, it is hard to stand against the issue. The key is getting everyone standing together.”
We get a fitting, and encouraging, image of this as he describes what happens at the U.S. Capitol on Monday or Tuesday night after the first vote in the House. Caucus members and staff gather in Room 219 at the capitol and pray for the country. As Forbes says, “It is often standing-room only.”
Alan Eason is Internet director for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.
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