Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Celebrating freedom as a Christian in America

My most recent column in the Grand Haven Tribune:

The Fourth of July is an interesting holiday for an Anglican clergyman, like myself, to celebrate.

The Episcopal Church, my faith community, finds its roots in our mother church, the Church of England. During the Revolutionary War, our own church found itself divided on the question of independence. Fifty-seven percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans, over twice as many as any other Christian tradition (the next highest were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, with 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively.)

However, the majority of Anglicans in the United States supported the British side in the war, and by the war’s end many clergy and laity had fled to England, abandoning church buildings. The declining numbers caused by the revolution meant that, by 1820, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians surpassed Anglicans in numbers.

The reason many in our church were loyalist likely came from the established nature of the Church of England. In the prayer book used in worship, we prayed regularly for the English monarch. Our clergy, at their ordination, made an oath of allegiance to the monarch. The state and the church were seen as one united entity, each with different purpose, but allegiance to one necessarily required allegiance to the other.

Those Anglicans who remained in the newly formed United States, however, founded a church here that was very different from the one at home. It would not be united to the government. Instead, freedom of religion was a fundamental tenet of the Revolution.

The Episcopal Church was structured to give voice to the laity, with clergy and laity together choosing their bishops instead of them being appointed by the government or ecclesial hierarchy. And when one-time loyalist Samuel Seabury, who argued against Revolution, was sent to England to be consecrated as our first bishop, they would not consecrate him because, despite his loyalist background, he would not swear allegiance to the monarch. Instead, he wound up consecrated in Scotland before coming home.

Now, what does all this have to do with the celebration of Independence Day yesterday?

Quite a lot, I think.

The concept of “Freedom of Religion,” so dear to the founding of our country, has been manipulated and contorted to mean the opposite of its original intent. Under the guise of supposed “Freedom of Religion,” we now have Christian bodies demanding the government only fund organizations that align with their religious principles. We have businesses making religious decisions for their employees when it comes to health care and family planning. We even have Christians refusing to bake cakes for same-sex weddings — as though they have not been buying cakes from gay couples for years!

Freedom of the individual to practice her or his religion freely has been overrun by the idea that individuals and businesses should have the freedom to dictate to others how to practice their religion. And so, for those whose religion permits abortion in certain circumstances, access to that is being denied because of the religious convictions of others.

Women who work in Catholic hospitals are not allowed to have equal access to birth control. No one is making Catholic leaders use birth control; their freedom of religion is intact. But the law has been manipulated to allow an employer to make a decision about what an employee may or may not do with a benefit. And the Christian baker may very soon proudly refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding (depending on what the Supreme Court decides when they hear the baker’s appeal), even though that same baker would likely never dream that faithfulness requires he find out what other possibly sinful behaviors are present in the hundreds of straight weddings for which he bakes cakes.

If you believe abortion is wrong in all circumstances, don’t have an abortion. If you believe contraception is wrong, don’t use contraception. If you believe homosexuality is wrong, don’t have gay sex. If you believe these things, preach about them. Encourage the adherents of your religion to follow those beliefs faithfully. Evangelize and invite others into your faith community. If you come to my parish, you will hear me preach and teach about the sanctity of life and the tragedy of abortion — but you won’t find me telling the government to make others follow my beliefs.

But please, I beg my sisters and brothers in Christ, stop insisting on finding ways for the law and the government to force others to follow your views or to make it harder for others to practice their religion freely. As St. Paul said in Romans, when it came to fierce controversy in the first century over eating meat, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. … Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

In some ways, it is almost like some Christians in our country today long for the church to be established once more. They want the government to fund their ministries and for those who make laws and sit in our courts to ensure businesses owned by Christians can discriminate against another person’s freedom to practice religion.

That’s not Christianity. And that’s not America.

Trust me, as a clergyman in a church whose mother church remains established by the government: Established religion always results in oppression of the minority.

Absolutely, let’s celebrate the rich freedom we have as Christians to practice our religion freely. Let’s celebrate that this fall I get to officiate at the marriage of my closest friend from my teenage years at Grand Haven High and his partner. Let’s celebrate that those ministers who don’t believe that is OK don’t have to celebrate those marriages. Let’s celebrate our freedoms — and let’s also be on guard that we seek always to support the freedoms of our fellow citizens, as well.