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Editor's Blog

September 16 2009 by Lincoln E. Steed

A new website and a new blog for Liberty. The print version of Liberty should be needed as long as there is paper. After all, our target readership--public officials and an array of thought leaders--is best served by putting a product in front of them. And many may not even think to check "the Google" for the information we supply. That said--welcome to this adjunct to Liberty. It may take a while for the word to get out that you can take us on here--but have at it!

Above all there is Liberty Magazine. Check out the latest--our September/October issue--and give us your feedback.

Issues of note from the magazine:

1. Is the very definition of religious liberty shifting?

2. Religious Liberty is freedom from both represessive religious claims and those of civil leaders who might claim divine authority--see the article on the Covenant of 1638 in Scotland.

3. Retelling the history of Liberty precursor and the battle against the National Reform Movement which advocated a Christian America civil model and a national sunday law.

4.Gay rights and religious liberty? Any connection?

To set the scene--admitedly in a very Seventh-day Adventist context ( but after all I am an SDA and the magazine directly derives from that viewpoint)-- I am including a riff of about 2100 words I did to go with our annual promotion video for 2010. It follows right on from this.

Stand up for Liberty

Recently Liberty magazine put together a video presentation of how the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty was able to stand by Adventist Sharlene Harwood, and assist her in explaining to Union and government officials in Canada why her exemption from labor union membership is both a longtime position of her church and consistent with her own rights of conscience. This is a recurring challenge for us in both Canada and the United States—and there is evidence to expect that the arguments of those requiring labor union membership will sharpen in the days ahead.

Back in Ellen White’s time labor and capital were in a desperate and at times bloody fight for control, and personal piety was not always accepted as reason for “non-combatancy” in that fight. While a generation ago union power in the United States seemed broken, today there are signs that the government may actually cooperate with unions in pressuring workers to join, even if they have faith objections. And it may be that in a post-crash world, weakened unionism will combine with business conglomerates to further restrict faith choices and usher in an era when “no man may buy, sell (or work) unless!

No quote from Ellen White on the topic is more succinct than what she wrote in a 1902 letter printed on page 144 of Selected Messages, Book 2. “Those who claim to be the children of God are in no case to bind up with the labor unions that are formed or that shall be formed. This the Lord forbids. Cannot those who study the prophecies see and understand what is before us?” I have no question Ellen White looked ahead to the imposition of the mark of the beast and a control over employment and commerce.

Such concerns are very much in the public mind as the United States and much of the world continues to reel from the economic shocks so evident in late 2008. We see a very anomalous situation between labor and capital. Workers are being laid off by the millions; with their benefits and retirement often erased by bankruptcy proceedings. Yet at the same time the labor union movement in the United States is politically more influential than it has been for a long time and has lawmakers’ support in enlisting members. It is likely that we will see a unique coalition of capital and labor, cooperating to “save American business” and not too tolerant of those who would derail the national salvation of capitalism.

Obviously, we shall see. But the reasons to maintain our caution against joining confederacies remain.

In this new “post-crash” era some Adventist may imagine that religious Liberty concerns have dissipated. They could not be more wrong!

It is true the paranoia that followed the 9/11 attacks has abated. The high-handed abrogation of almost every basic civil liberty in the pursuit of enemies is now under severe question. The power of the religious right to influence an adventurous, end-time, dispensationalist-oriented public policy has also faded.

Around the world religious national identity and outright persecution are on the rise, however. Severe restrictions against changing religious identity are not just the province of Islamic states but are appearing in countries like Buddhist Sri Lanka and Hindu dominated India, as well as Orthodox Eastern Europe. Even the United Nations has been co-opted to pass deleterious resolutions against defamation of religion. Resolutions that are a front for restricting religious dialog in the sponsoring countries It is a truly a sign of the Lord’s power that evangelism flourishes even as the religious liberty situation worsens.

Let me touch on some very real present impediments to religious freedom and the enabling Constitutional model in the United States.

We must not forget that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives has not gone away. That Bush-era plan dramatically empowered direct funding of church programs and their faith projection—radically threatening the safety of a separation of church and state and leading to the funding of certain favored religious groups. Under a new name the program continues, with both the promise of greater funding AND the threat of enforcing non-discriminatory practices in receiving church organizations. While non-discrimination sounds great in reality a church must be allowed to protect its faith identity or it be hollowed out from within.

For several years your church, in coalition with dozens of other faith groups has worked tirelessly to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. This proposed law will shore up religious accommodation in the workplace. To be sure workplace Union issues remain a real concern, but they have been joined by that of employers failing to accommodate or merely applying a “de minimus” rule—maybe one Sabbath off, then a claim that there can be no more accommodation. We need this law to reaffirm the right of religious accommodation as the default setting for an individual. After two congressional hearings and lots of good words from an array of political figures, the proposed bill has gone dormant. Pray that it comes to life!

Somewhat connected to this is the growing conflict between gay rights and religious rights. The gay community has attacked the proposed Workplace Religious Freedom Act as empowering Christian prejudice against gay co-workers. This has no basis in fact where similar state laws are already in place, but it reveals an increasingly evident challenge to a Christian’s right to have and express religious views at variance with the gay lifestyle. In Canada, even to repeat a Bible text on the topic is a potential offence—and we are moving toward that in the U.S.

The gay marriage issue, emotionally stirring as it may be for society, is not a religious liberty issue. It is a radical reminder for Christians of how far society has moved from historical and Christian norms. It is a reason to speak out and share God’s moral plan for mankind. But it does not restrict your practice of religion as such. It is only as the newfound rights of gays and other non-faith views are enlarged to the point that they specifically deny the rights of an individual to have and practice their faith that we have a religious liberty challenge. And we do see the beginnings of that! As I said before: we see the beginning of a conflict of rights in the workplace. We may soon see churches who took government money for faith programs forced to hire and not able to fire individuals whose moral and doctrinal views differ from the body of faith.

We already see and expect to see more religious educational and health entities required to follow government non-discrimination requirements While there may seem little harm in taking some money from the state, the religious liberty department has always cautioned against it. There are no clear marks in the sand along the way of depending on the state; just abundant evidence that it is the way to compromise and government control.

Maybe when you read this the public debate on torture will be over. I hope not. Not till U.S. society has repudiated it and the whole concept of “enhanced interrogation” from the viewpoint of it being an offence to the dignity of man and the “inalienable” reality that we are all creatures of a creator God. Something evil has entered the Western psyche with our embrace of torture, and it must be exercised soon, as it leads directly to conscience-free pogroms and cleansings—people thinking that they are doing the will of God and country. It is a religious Liberty issue; and not just because all this happens in the context of international religious conflict: it is happening at a time when we seek to find a national sense of faith and identity.

Adventist circles are abuzz with rumors of various Sunday laws in Europe. None of these are of course THE Sunday law. The 1996 Papal Document Deus Domini set it out clearly—even the call for a push for laws to uphold Sunday observance. As the religious patron for the rapidly-growing-in-power European Union, the Vatican is revealing its clear intention to link newfound call for community, religious values to counteract immigration policies and in the era of declining respect for the virtues of capitalism—an elevation of Sunday as a new talisman of human civilization. Other dynamics such as ruinous wars, continuing economic malaise, polarizing religious viewpoints and an increasing nostalgia for the past can only accelerate the trends toward Sunday in Europe and in the New World. One has only to read the finely crafted Papal Encyclical Caritas In Veritate, released in 2009 to realize how this logic of a global move toward faith values is needed AND leads directly to an re-examination of faith leadership. Not so coincidentally in the US a whole generation of Catholic leadership has moved into a dominant political role--just as Protestant identity has either lost itself spiritually or fallen under the thrall of the New Rome.

Liberty recently ran a series recounting the battles of a century ago to stop a national Sunday law and the Christian America movement. There seems little reason to doubt that even in this moment of moderate secularity, such a movement is growing toward another call to arms.

It is worth remembering that in the Great Controversy Ellen White sets the emergence of a national Sunday law in the United States in the context of a popular clamor, which the legislators are unable and unwilling to resist. In that regard I found the following letter from a Liberty reader most insightful. “I so much appreciate Liberty magazine,” wrote Dave. “The editorial is the first thing I read.” Well that comment did much to put me in a positive frame of mind! He went on. “In the present conflict over health care something is emerging. It has nothing to do with health care. It is what I call the dictatorship of the mob. John Adams and others warned against such a situation. He was aware of what occurred in the French Revolution. Front organizations for special interest can initiate and orchestrate a program to get their message across. The means do not have to be truthful. They only need to know the feelings, and how to use the feelings of those targeted, to get them to respond on their behalf. I fear how this ability to use modern communication will be used in the future.” Well said!

I am always at pains to remind our Liberty supporters that our religious liberty is God-given, and that no one can take it away—even though enemies of faith can make our witness for the Lord extremely difficult. The United States did not, in the final analysis, give religious Liberty—it acknowledged it. For that we are thankful. But we must never conflate the power to acknowledge with the power to confer—or to define a freedom. And definitions matter a lot in how we regard reality. It is possible—indeed likely—that we are well into a shift in what society deems to be religious freedom. At some point that shift in perception will likely move away from true religious freedom. Perhaps it has already happened.

It is sobering for me to look around at both my church and my society and see these changes in perception--a shift in reality perception itself. Do we define ourselves socially or spiritually? Do we care about doctrine, and what we once called preparation for the soon-coming Lord? Do we know the difference between loud, self-indulgent church services and a mighty rushing wind? I do believe our answer to some of these questions will determine whether we see any religious liberty stress at all in the developing situation. I read in my Bible that things soon to take place will deceive, if possible, the very elect. It could be that in a very real way, a little time of trouble has begun even here in the United States. Certainly a person committed to true Godliness is a very poor fit for most that our churches and society are interested in. It might be that all human systems are at root antagonistic to a true revelation of Jesus through His followers. It might be that we are on our way to the secular millennium, the land of spiritual lotus eaters. Who dares to suggest a different model of behavior at such times? We shall see!

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."

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