In a memo issued recently, the White House proclaimed Jan. 16, 2018 to be Religious Freedom Day. The memo explained that “Faith is embedded in the history, spirit, and soul of our Nation. … Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion.”1
Religious liberty is one of the foundational principles of the United States. The First Amendment to our Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”2 At first read, this seems like a simple, straightforward amendment. The government cannot get in the way of our religious beliefs.
The history of the United States has shown that this is not as simple as it sounds, though. History has shown that when humans are in charge of determining what religious freedom is, more often than not the government is the one involved, and there is always a winner and a loser.
The Adventist Church has also been uniquely positioned among Christian churches in its stance toward religious freedom. As Adventists, religious freedom for all religions has always been held as basic human right. One that should never be threatened. But Adventists have perceived threats to religious freedom as arising from the Christian community as well as the non-Christian community.
Winners and losers
The definition of the First Amendment has changed drastically throughout American history. Early immigrants to the United States believed in religious freedom for certain groups, and not for others. They also believed more in the theory of religious freedom than the practice of it.
Many early immigrants to the United States were fleeing religious persecution. But many of these same individuals began persecuting those of other religions in their new homeland. Early laws regarding freedom of religion ignored some citizens’ religious customs and beliefs. Many losers were chosen in the department of religious liberty, the only clear winners being Protestant Christians. Anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiments were strong throughout the 18th and 19th centuries – and even persist today – and much was done to try to oppress people of these religions.
Laws were on the books prohibiting anyone but Christians from holding public office in Massachusetts, and only if they renounced papal authority. Catholics were banned from holding office in New York, Jews were denied basic civil rights in Maryland, Delaware required an oath to affirm the belief in the trinity, and several states even had state-supported churches (Massachusetts and Carolina).3
Freedom of religion was also looked at as more of a freedom of ideology than a freedom of exercise. In a Supreme Court case from 1878, a Mormon sued the federal government after being charged with bigamy. This individual argued that criminalizing his bigamy was infringing on his religious liberty as a Mormon. In Reynolds vs. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that the First Amendment did not allow freedom of practice, but rather freedom of belief only.4
More recently, though, this view has changed to include freedom of practice as well. In cases such as Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby (2014), Wisconsin vs. Yoder (1972), and Cantwell vs. State of Connecticut (1940), the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of freedom of practice as well as freedom of belief. This shift toward freedom of practice was also bolstered by the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1992, which stated that laws restricting religious expression must show they serve a compelling need.
Religious freedom and Adventism
Adventists have been in a unique position regarding religious freedom. The United States has historically been governed by Christians, and the laws made have generally favored Christians. Being Christians, Adventist tend to benefit from these laws as well.
But the Adventist Church has a long history of being wary of governments using religion to form the basis of laws, even if those laws seem to benefit Adventists. In a Dec. 10, 1929 memo issued by the General Conference Religious Liberty Department and printed in the Central Union Outlook, it was argued, “Christianity is not promoted through laws that drive men and women to do things against convictions. The Saviour of men did not resort to civil laws and carnal weapons to advance His cause. … Who that was driven into church by a man-made law could exalt the blessed Christ in his heart as the Redeemer from sin? No sound-thinking person who was compelled to give consent to such a program a certain day each week would ever declare his honest, heartfelt allegiance to the Christ who died on the cross for him; nor does he even have respect for the political preacher who dares to lean on the arm of governmental bodies for such support.”5
Despite most religious laws favoring Adventists, the institution of Sunday Laws in some parts of the country directly violated Adventists’ beliefs. The first Sunday Law was enacted in the colony of Virginia in 1610. The consequences of breaking this law ranged from losing provisions to being whipped and even to execution.6 Sunday Laws persisted into the newly formed United States and, in some locations, even into modern day. Bergen County, New Jersey, still enforced a mandatory Sunday shutdown of commerce even as recently as 2015.7
This fear that the threat to Adventism would come directly from other Christians made the Adventist church opposed to any semblance of the joining of church and state. Ellen G. White stated in Review & Herald Dec. 18, 1888 “A time is coming when the law of God is, in a special sense, to be made void in our land. The rulers of our nation will, by legislative enactments, enforce the Sunday law, and thus God’s people be brought into great peril. When our nation, in its legislative councils, shall enact laws to bind the consciences of men in regard to their religious privileges, enforcing Sunday observance, and bringing oppressive power to bear against those who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God will, to all intents and purposes, be made void in our land; and national apostasy will be followed by national ruin.”8
Adventists are uniquely positioned to see both sides
The skepticism of laws enacted by Christians for Christians puts Adventists in a unique position today as well. These laws pick winners and losers, and it is not a stretch to see some of these laws – even if enacted by Christians to protect Christians – picking Adventists as the losers.
In theory we tolerate, but in practice we discriminate.
The recent memo issued by the White House for Religious Freedom Day states that “Faith is embedded in the history, spirit, and soul of our Nation.”1 This is true. Our country was founded on inalienable rights – one of these being freedom of religion. But also embedded in our nation are religious bigotry, racism, and misogyny, and some laws are based on these. In theory we tolerate, but in practice we discriminate. Who is on the losing end of this discrimination shifts from era to era, and a cursory glance at historical laws in the United States shows that Christians are not above using legislation to discriminate against other Christians.
The White House memo regarding Religious Freedom Day follows closely after the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a case that has bearing on religious freedom: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This case involves a Christian bakery owner who refused to make a cake for a gay couple, saying it violated his religious belief that a marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
Adventists should be in a position where they are able to empathize with both parties in a religious liberty dispute. Because we are Christians, we can clearly relate with the religious individuals who argue they should be allowed to practice their religion as they see fit even when it affects others, as in the Cakeshop Ltd. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. We want the right to practice our beliefs as we see fit as well.
But we should also be able to empathize with those opposing this view – those who are harmed by how a person’s religion is practiced, such as the gay couple who were refused a wedding cake by the owner of Cakeshop Ltd. We have been warned to work as hard as we can to prevent the government sanctioning of religious beliefs. Any steps taken toward favoring one religion over another will inevitably result in laws being created based on that religion. Ellen G. White repeatedly warned in her writings of the dangers to Adventism of a Sunday Law, which would be legislation enforced by Christians for Christians.
As we celebrate religious freedom in our country – where it has come from and where it is going – we must remember the losers in each battle. The Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case will likely pick a winner and a loser. We must remember that even if we disagree with the loser in this battle, we must fight for their freedoms as well. By fighting for the rights of all religious perspectives we fight for the rights of Christians too. By doing this, Religious Freedom Day can be a day to celebrate the free exercise of religion in the United States.
- G. C. Religious Department. “Christianity Cannot Be Promoted By Force.” Central Union Outlook Vol. XVIII Number 49. Dec. 10, 1929.