Historical overview of eroding religious freedom in America and a call to faith in a challenging new day for Christians

This article was originally published on AnswersInGenesis.org on January 16, 2021.

We live in a nation with an established Christian heritage. This is not to say that all who have resided in the boundaries of the United States historically were all Christian. Far from it. But Christian tradition was woven into the fabric of our nation from the very beginning. America may not have ever been a Christian nation, but it was certainly a Christianized nation.

Christians established the Plymouth Colony in 1620—an event we celebrate every year at Thanksgiving. Great Awakenings of Christian revivals spread throughout the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s and later throughout the United States at various times. The majority of Ivy League universities were founded by at least some Christians, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown. Certainly, there were periodic outbursts of non-Christian behavior in American history (e.g., the Salem witch trials), but the overall religious tenor of our early country was not Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist. It was Christian. Bottom of Form

Moreover, early America was a kind of environment with an inherent appreciation for religious freedom. The collection of colonies that formed our early nation recognized a need for such liberty. Pilgrims fled Europe because of the oppressive state church in England. Puritans expelled Baptists, who then fled to Rhode Island for religious freedom. Quakers founded Pennsylvania for similar reasons. In America, there is a legacy of those claiming to be Christians aiming to practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience.

As we celebrate National Religious Freedom Day in 2021, we remember some past challenges to religious freedom and consider an uncertain future for Christians in America.

Overview of Religious Freedom in America (1791–2005)

To begin, we look to the original precedent for religious freedom in American jurisprudence, the United States’ Constitution. In the Bill of Rights (1791), the very first amendment to the Constitution protected religious freedom:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

This section of the initial amendment to the Constitution, known as the “establishment clause.” This clause disallowed a state church, guarded individuals’ freedom to practice their religion, and prohibited government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. This bedrock right of religious freedom found in the Bill of Rights did not appear out of thin air. It was a concession given by the Federalists (supporters of the Constitution) to the Anti-Federalists, with the aim of protecting individual liberty against an encroaching central government. The founders understood that unless religious freedom was protected in the founding document of the new government, it would be in jeopardy. They were right.

As religious practice in America developed, so also religious freedom flexed.

Changing Religious Freedoms

As religious practice in America developed, so also religious freedom flexed. On many occasions throughout the history of the United States, religious freedom was challenged. Many of those instances made their way to the Supreme Court where Constitutional disputes are adjudicated. Here are a few of the landmark cases that further clarified religious freedom in America.

  • Reynolds v. United States (1878): This case upheld a federal law banning polygamy against a Mormon who argued and practiced otherwise. The Court held that people cannot avoid a law due to their religion, which was a ruling against the religious liberty of Mormons who practiced polygamy. This could be seen as a win against the non-Christian practice of polygamy but a loss for general religious liberty.
  • Braunfeld v. Brown (1961): The Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law that required stores to close on Sunday—also known as a “Blue Law.” It was a win for the state that supported the majority Christian population that wanted to keep stores closed on a traditional day of worship for Christians.
  • Sherbert v. Verner (1963): The Court ruled in favor of Adeil Sherbert, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who was denied unemployment benefits by South Carolina for refusing to work on Saturday as part of her religious faith. This was a win for the personal practice of religion as it related to Sherbert’s personal worship.
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): There seemed to be a shift in 1971 when the Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law that allowed a state to reimburse Catholic parochial schools for teachers’ salaries because it supposedly supported a state religion. In addition, it established the “Lemon Test” that helped guide religious liberty cases moving forward. This was a move toward enforcing secular-only education and a loss for religious freedom in state-run education.
  • Van Orden v. Perry (2005): This case decided a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol was acceptable because “simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause.” This was a temporary win for religious freedom that was soon challenged.
  • McCreary County v. ACLU (2005): In the same year as the Texas case (2005), the Supreme Court ruled against another Ten Commandments display because the purpose, in their view, had been to advance religion. This seemingly contradictory ruling compared to the Van Orden case was a blow to religious freedom, as the Court sided against a Kentucky county that practiced something very similar to the State of Texas. Except in this case, it was a blow to religious freedom.

Eroding Religious Freedom in One Year: 2020

Despite the hundreds of years of Christian heritage and appreciation of religious liberty in our nation, attacks against traditional Christian practice have increased relentlessly in recent years. From the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision that legalized same-sex marriage to the Bostock v. Clayton County (2019) case that decided against employment decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the legal groundwork has been laid for a further assault on religious freedom in America. There are several demonstrations of these eroding religious freedom over the past year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for religious liberty opponents to expand their assault against Christians.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for religious liberty opponents to expand their assault against Christians. Here are just a few events where government restrictions increased at the expense of religious freedom practiced by churches and schools in the past year.

  • A Nevada church allowed only 50 people to attend while casinos operated at 50% capacity (Baptist Press).
  • A California governor ordered churches closed while strip clubs remained open (Disrn).
  • A Governor limited attendance in New York churches to 10 people in their “red zone” while not limiting secular businesses at the same time (CNBC).
  • A Kentucky governor closed religious schools while other businesses remained open (Kentucky.com).

Although the pretense of these statewide closures is related to COVID-19, the unequal application of the restrictions highlighted an underlying government animosity toward the free exercise of religion. In short, religious freedom deteriorated dramatically in 2020.

Another way religious freedom is eroding is the expected passing of the Equality Act under the upcoming Biden Administration. According to the Heritage Foundation, “Upon receiving the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign on May 6, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden committed to making so-called Equality Act legislation a ‘first 100 days’ priority of his administration if he’s elected in November.” This innocuous-sounding act is actually a direct assault against religious freedom. Representative Jarrold Nadler (D-NY) said, “Religion is no excuse for discrimination in the public sphere, as we have long recognized when it comes to race, color, sex, and national origin, and it should not be an excuse when it comes to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Representative Nadler’s point is clear. In his mind, religion has been used as a battering ram against homosexuals and transgender people in the United States. No longer. The Equality Act will compel churches, Christian businesses, and other employers to hire those who deny the very principles of the organization by their lifestyle choices.

In addition to the upcoming Equality Act, another group aims to eliminate vestiges of Christian influence in our nation. The Secular Democrats of America have outlined propositions in their “Key Issues.” This organization is a secular (read: atheist) group inside the Democratic Party who will be influencing policy decisions in the Biden/Harris administration when calling for things like the following:

  • Removing God from the Pledge of Allegiance and national motto
  • Canceling government partnerships with faith-based hospitals
  • Compulsory universal secular education, which would greatly affect Christian schools and homeschools
  • Prohibiting religious-based medical and therapy decisions

The implications of these assaults on religious freedom cannot be overstated. According to Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, Robert A. J. Gagnon,

“In our near future are compulsory-speech transgender laws, the withdrawal of federal student loans and research grants from Christian institutions (then an assault on accreditation, leading to their demise), mandatory radical left-wing indoctrination in our schools and places of employment, a national puberty-blocker program for children, mandatory national access to female restrooms and sports by males (including our schools), removal of ‘LGBTQ’-identified children from the homes of faithful Christian parents who don’t endorse the identity, the severe reduction of conservative speech on social media platforms (witnessed in spades in the past few days), and the restriction of employment in various professions to those who embrace ‘LGBTQ’ ideology.”

But the moment we expand our Christian convictions into social media, into colleges, into bathrooms, into our employment decisions, and even our parenting, the State will soon have very different ideas.

Professor Robert A. J. Gagnon, Houston Baptist University

We may think we are safe. We may think we will be able to practice Christianity without government interference. But the moment we expand our Christian convictions into social media, into colleges, into bathrooms, into our employment decisions, and even our parenting, the State will soon have very different ideas. And there will be legal ramifications to those who buck against compulsory secularism. Private religious opinions will no longer be safe venturing into the public sphere and sometimes even into our homes. Such are the implications of the loss of religious freedom in America.

Why Religious Freedom Eroded: Shifted Worldviews

How did this happen? How did religious freedom deteriorate despite our foundational Christian heritage? It’s simple. The underlying worldview of the American population has shifted. Our country moved from essentially a Christianized foundation to a more secular grounding. This shift has affected every area of our nation, including politics, culture, entertainment, law, and especially religious freedom. This bedrock freedom guaranteed in the first amendment of the US Constitution is at risk because of an underlying cultural worldview shift.

A nation that rejects the God who “created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) is soon to lose the religious freedom assumed in a previously Christianized nation. And it’s not like we’ve replaced the underlying Christian assumptions with nothing. Our culture has begun to practice an alternative religion: a secular one. As former Attorney General Bill Barr wrote,

“One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication. Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.”

Barr is right. As Christianity has waned in America, secularism has gained ascendancy and is now pursuing its anti-Christian goals with fervor and impunity. Religious freedom is one of its targets.

Looking Forward: Religious Freedom Challenges Ahead

So as we consider National Religious Freedom Day this year, we are reminded of two things: gratitude and preparation. On the one hand, we should be grateful for the religious freedom we have enjoyed in America. In his providence, God blessed this nation with religious freedom for centuries. From the first amendment to the successful legal challenges to religious liberty throughout our history, we have benefited from state-supported religious freedom. The Lord has been good to those who have aimed to worship the one, true God.

On the other hand, we face enormous challenges ahead. The secularist winds in culture have increased to near hurricane-force. Recent elections and impending judicial appointments and legislation are testing the nation’s commitment to religious freedom. This appears to be the Christian’s new normal in the US.

Pray for your church that they would stand where the Lord wants (Matthew 10:16). Pray for your fellow Christians and us that we would remain faithful in such an environment (Revelation 2:10). And pray for yourself that you would know how to live in this new world of eroding religious freedom (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God has placed us all here for his reasons, even in a post-Christianized nation. And there is still work to do, starting with prayer.

Regardless of the legal and cultural climate, we still have the blessed opportunity to share the joy and hope found in Jesus alone.

Hope in the Gospel – Despite the Challenges to Religious Freedom

Regardless of the legal and cultural climate, we still have the blessed opportunity to share the joy and hope found in Jesus alone. While it may not be as comfortable as it once was, we can move forward both certain that God will be glorified as we live to honor him and confident that Jesus will build his church, even as the world and Satan fight against him. May the Spirit work in our hearts to give us boldness and confidence to point the lost world to its only hope—Jesus Christ. No matter what the government gives or takes away, you have been given the supreme right to be called a child of God (John 1:12–13).

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash.

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