July 7, 2010

Thank God Freedom Rings in the United States of America

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This year we had that “once-every-seven-years” opportunity to celebrate July 4th on Sunday. There were Facebook posts and tweets that were delighted about this – advocating worshipping God and celebrating Independence Day – and those at the other end of the spectrum – reminding us to keep our worship and celebration apart from one another. Just the fact that both expressions can be written, in public, with full attribution, is a cause for celebration and a reason to thank God!

We Americans enjoy such unprecedented freedoms and all of us alive today have never known anything different. It’s hard to not take it for granted. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center gathered data covering 99.5 percent of the world’s population. It concluded that “one-third of the countries have high or very high restrictions on religion” and “nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on freedom of religion.” But how about living in:

China, where religious practice must be sanctioned by the government and occur only in government-registered places of worship.
Denmark, where the Church of Denmark receives government subsidy.
Greece, the only European Union nation that bans proselytism by constitution. It establishes Greek-Orthodox as the prevailing religion.
Iran, which omitted freedom of worship from its constitution, established Islam as the official religion, and gave powers to the Islam clerical establishment.
North Korea, another atheist state, which only allows government-sanctioned religious events.
Saudi Arabia, where proselytizing by non-Muslims in illegal and Muslims who convert to another religion are subject to the death penalty.
The former Soviet Union, where the government nationalized all church property, executed clergy, prohibited the publication of most religious material, and persecuted believers.
Albania, who like the Soviet Union imposed state atheism, including a constitutional ban. Church property was nationalized, religious literature was banned and many clergy were tried, tortured and executed, or expelled from the country.

Are you starting to feel some of the privilege we Americans have? In our church (Journey Church), we had an educational and inspirational slideshow of quotes. See if you can attribute these ten comments:

1. “… To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.”
2. “We recognize no sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus!”
3. “I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
4. “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that his great nation was founded, not be religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
5. “… Our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; that this Redeemer has made atonement “for the sins of the whole world,” and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy has opened a way for our redemption and salvation; and that these inestimable benefits are of the free gift and grace of God, not of our deserving, nor in our power to deserve.”

Give up? Here are the answers:

1. George Washington, First President of the United States of America and Ratifier of the United States Constitution
2. John Adams, Second President of the United States of America and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
3. Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States of America and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
4. Patrick Henry, Ratifier of the United States Constitution
5. John Jay, First Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court

The social media conversations made me think of “separation of church and state”, which we read and hear about many times during the year. It’s a statue of the Ten Commandments erected at a courthouse. It’s the nativity scene erected on the State Capitol grounds. It’s prayer in school. It’s then President-elect Obama inviting Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. It’s the National Day of Prayer. Yes, in my recent memory (okay, granted, that’s not all that long) the controversy fires up because “Christianity” is invading the government space. But this Independence Day falling on the Sabbath felt like the opposite to me; government invading the Christian space. Interesting.

The quotes from our Founding Fathers clearly show you where they stood, and yet these very men feared Government’s intervention in religious matters. What’s up with that? First, the first colonists of America were escaping religious persecution by government. Second, having just won the costly Revolutionary War, one can imagine the desire to act in contradiction to English practice and the Church of England. Third, there were already various Christian denominations (Americans had been practicing religion freely for 150 years by this time) and the Founding Fathers realized there was only way to get consensus among all; keep government out of religious matters.

In researching Wikipedia, I learned that the concept is often credited to John Locke, English political philosopher. In his “Letters Concerning Toleration” (1689-1692), Locke made three arguments:

(1) “Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints,
(2) Even if they could, enforcing a single “true religion” would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence,
(3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.”

Having considered the faith in God expressed by our Founding Fathers, having considered that we are among the 30% of the world’s population that can practice religion freely, how can we not thank God for blessing us to be in this Great Land! It’s true that we have missed so many opportunities. It’s true that we have drifted farther and farther away from God. It’s true that Christianity is under siege. It’s true that we should do more to eliminate hunger and poverty. And the list goes on and on. But it’s also true that we spend billions and billions on the less privileged of the world. It’s also true that we grow children into adults who give back to their country and to their world, investing their time and money in times of disaster and in other times of need. It’s also true we’re the country that was home to Gates, Getty, Ford, Johnson, Kellogg, Hewlett, Lily, MacArthur, Packard, Moore, and Mellon, with almost $100 billion in assets among them contributed to philanthropic organizations. And it’s true that 13 of the 20 largest charitable organizations in the world have an American origin.

Much to do . . . much room for progress . . . much need for prayer . . . and many thanks to give God. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow …” (written in 1674 by Thomas Ken, an Anglican bishop in the Church of England).

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