A few days ago I stood next to what looked like a rain-filled basement sunk deep into the green spring grass of a low Texas hilltop, called by some to this day Mount Carmel. It is all that is left today of the Branch Davidian Compound after Federal agents opened a general assault on April 19, 1993, and a fire ensued which killed 82 of the Davidians, 18 of them under 10. The few who crashed through the flames to escape went on trial and several got 40-year prison sentences.
You might think that the developing cataclysm over 41 days, which eventually engulfed them, would have been sufficient to break the spell of their very unique take on Biblical prophecy. But like we Seventh-day Adventists, from whom they had decades earlier separated, they expected a turbulent end times; and while they were fearful, they were convinced that their troubles were the final time of trouble.
They were wrong. It was instead a tragedy that they themselves helped to precipitate. And anyone who treasures religious freedom must avoid becoming insular and avoid seeing everything through just one prism.
All around the world religious antagonisms are resurfacing and escalating. Buddhist, Hindu, and animist play round-robin games of persecution that are sometimes joined by elements within Christianity. And in the twilight of global communism there has emerged a radical secular animus for all faiths—a phenomenon seen as strongly in the US and Canada as anywhere else.
In the emerging struggle between gay rights and religious liberty rights we are seeing this most clearly. In April of 2015 headlines all across the nation bannered the “news” of state Religious Freedom Acts, or RFRAs. On one level it was not a new story. My Seventh-day Adventist church was part of a large coalition of other faiths and civil rights groups which carried the original RFRA through to a 1993 Federal law. It was necessary to shore up basic religious freedom rights after a disastrous 1990 Supreme Court case which upheld a ban on aspects of Native American religious ceremonies, on the basis that the law was of general applicability and not intended to restrict religion. Unfortunately that same Supreme Court held that RFRA could only apply to Federal agencies and employees. So religious liberty activists—many of them religious liberty leaders in my own church—began to work with state legislators to enact RFA on a state-by-state basis.
The Indiana case was the 20th state to pass; but it became a tripwire for open opposition from the gay rights supporters. It should be obvious that there is potential for “generally applicable laws” granting gay rights to actually restrict the ability of those with Biblical sensibilities to speak and act according to its moral norms. We need RFRA protections! And yet gay rights advocates say that the laws will be used to empower Christian opposition and denial of their rights. They are partly right, because Christian activists have increasingly attempted to add language to RFRA that would allow them to refuse service to gays. It seems likely that the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court exempted that family owned corporation from providing to their employees medical insurance that they objected to on religious grounds, has spurred this intention, even though it tends to go beyond the scope of the case. Whatever the direct cause it is now certain that RFRA has degenerated into a blood feud between competing gay rights and religious rights. The wild card in the discussion is something Liberty has long cautioned against: the assumption that the U.S. is a Christian nation or a Christian government. It was once a majority Christian society, but even that has changed. We are now back to where the early Christians were—living in a prevailing pagan, secular culture and called to witness to it by example and entreaty.
But it goes even further than that. Last presidential election Senator Santorum, a devout Catholic, and a man of personal integrity, shocked many by declaiming that “Protestantism is absent in America today.” He is right, and it should be self-evident to all who know a little history and are passingly familiar with Bible prophecy. Again, taking a salutary lesson from the Davidians and their alienating style and pronouncements, we must simultaneously know exactly what this means without degenerating into ad hominum attacks on Roman Catholics and other politically activist religious groups and their interests—which are to be protected and respected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
In September 24, 2015, Pope Francis, the first ever Jesuit Pope and a man clearly in a hurry—whether from age or agenda—will become the first ever Pope to address a joint session of Congress. This is huge on every level, and we should take note of the pope’s agenda. He is due to speak at a September 22-25 World Conference on Families, and after an address at the United Nations will address Congress. I hardly have to reach for prophetic credentials to suggest that he will probably float the Family Rest Day before the legislators, and probably at the United Nations also. The Sunday family rest day has been a familiar topic of his of late and appeals to many with its emphasis on social renewal and millennial calm. And no matter one’s preferred day of rest, we are all safer when no worship day is advanced by law
Remember the central reason why Adventists and all who treasure the Constitution should be uncomfortable with the joint address to Congress. It may appear as just a huge courtesy, but even the Dalai Lama was bumped from his invitation to speak because of political considerations. The present Pope of Rome may be a very nice man, but the institution he heads is the very antithesis of the U.S. Constitutional norm. He is both a head of state and the head of a church.
It must be said that Roman Catholics are emerging as leaders for religious liberty and even proponents for church-state separation. But as with much that concerns religious liberty, the difference is in the definition and the way words are used. For example, the latest buzz-term used by church and government leaders is that we must work for the Common Good. It sounds good, but too easily leads to seeing the individual or the minority as inconvenient to the common good in times of stress.
These are challenging times, but times of opportunity at the same time. People want to think for themselves; not just what they are spoon-fed. Not too many months ago I heard Cardinal Dolan, head of the US Catholic bishops, speak on religious liberty before a Catholic University audience. He is an engaging figure and very open in his style. Halfway through he paused, looked around at his audience and said deliberately, “ You know there was a time Roman Catholics would not have spoken this way about religious liberty. We once held that ‘error has no rights.’” His audience was shocked. The next session left the listed topic and the panelists were engaged in answering a flurry of questions and explaining what the Cardinal meant. The attendees had to be told that this was indeed the historic position and that it was Vatican II in the 1960s, with the document Dignitatus Humanae, which changed everything. That answered their questions. What nobody commented on was that the previous two popes had rethought much of Vatican II and with growing conservative support had begun to turn the clock back. Much hinges on how well Vatican II holds.
This is a time of fire. Globally it is truly a time of revolution and reorganization. It is a time of rapidly shifting social, religious and moral norms. And nobody is immune from the sparks flying around. No wall of silence or denial can deny the flames of change. And no condon sanitaire should inhibit us speaking the truth on religious liberty.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."