The prime challenge of being the Church in today’s culture, says John, is responding to the enormous pressure to conform. The acceptance of a counter-Christian way of thinking about life and the world has created an environment that demands hard thinking and faithful action from Christians.
Here’s what that cultural pressure looks like. First, John says, it takes the form of a growing disdain for religion. “It used to be acceptable to express religious belief,” he explains. “Now it’s acceptable to express hatred for religious belief in the public square.” We see this in the popularity of leading atheist attack dogs like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and legal groups demanding the removal of religion from public life.
But during the last few years, a new front of attack on religious liberty has emerged. Where previous generations considered the right to freely exercise religion their foremost freedom, much of modern America has come to embrace a new first freedom: sexual expression.
“We have, at least on a cultural level,” says John, “come to believe that the most important thing about an individual is their sexuality—either their sexual orientation or their sexual preferences.”
How do we respond to these cultural attitude shift? First of all, we need to reject the urge to fit in and give up our convictions under of pressure.
“Escape is not an option, neither is accommodation,” says John. “ It’s tempting to justify being liked and being relevant to accommodate to the spirit of our age—accommodate to a different rulership. But [as] Christians…our conscience belongs first and foremost to God.”
Instead of caving under pressure, we must defend the concept of religious liberty broadly, and the free expression of Christian conscience in particular, by pointing out the fatal flaws in the new regime. The idea that the government exists to enforce sexual freedom and impose it on the religious, says John, is an idea younger than today’s elementary school children. By contrast, the recognition that religion plays a vital role in the public square is as old as the American founding. And explaining why the American experiment and experience suffers without it will be one of the Church’s most important tasks in the days to come.
“Christians have a profound capacity to explain the grounding of human dignity,” John explains. “Our new definition of freedom is leading us into moral slavery. What a wonderful contribution Christians can make when we jump in and say, ‘Wait a minute. Freedom is not the freedom to do what you want. It’s the freedom to be what you ought. It’s the freedom to be what you were designed and created to be.”
Without religion in public life, he says, people forget the central fact that preserves all freedom: Citizens owe their ultimate allegiance to a higher Authority than the government.
“We need religion in the public square to claim our highest allegiance. When the State demands your utmost obedience—when the thing that you’re most allegiant to in your life is the State—that is the quickest way to tyranny.”
Practically speaking, this means making a choice. As Chuck Colson and the co-authors of the Manhattan Declaration put it, Christians should willingly render unto Caesar all that is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances should we render unto Caesar that which is God’s. So when the government demands we choose between our deeply-held beliefs about right and wrong and our livelihoods, we shouldn’t hesitate to obey God rather than men.
“We have not, in our lifetimes up to this point, had to choose,” said John, addressing an audience composed largely of students. “It is quite likely, in your lifetime, you will. Where does our allegiance ultimately stand? God has a proper, brilliant role for government in our lives. But when these things conflict, our loyalty could be tested.”
Perhaps the most important reason religion belongs in the public square and why Christians must be free to practice it publically comes down to the good it does. No social force has invigorated charity, community involvement or cultural redemption like Christianity has. Whether it’s adoption agencies, poverty relief ministries or outreaches to the incarcerated like Prison Fellowship, Christians have led the way in bringing restoration to brokenness in America and around the world. Christian business owners, too, frequently see their work as service to their community and to God. Infringing on their liberty to live and work according to their consciences, or insisting that they leave their religion at home or at church makes such work impossible.
That’s why we shouldn’t accept the erosion of religious liberty. Giving up the political heritage of America’s founding—one that has allowed the light of the Christian worldview to shine freely for over two centuries—isn’t an option.
As John reminds us, we should expect persecution, but we shouldn’t welcome it.
”You know what I often hear?” he says. “[People say]. ‘Doesn’t the Church grow in times of persecution?’ Often it does. But do you know when else the Church has grown? In times of religious liberty.”
"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by John Stonestreet, co-host of the BreakPoint daily radio commentary as well as The Point.
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