But What About Religious Freedom?

Lincoln E. Steed January/February 2021

My last editorial comments, written of necessity a few weeks before the U.S. presidential election, and this editorial, written unavoidably some weeks before the U.S. presidential inauguration, bracket a time of great moral hazard for all freedoms, not the least of which is religious liberty. It may be that calm settles again upon the land. It may even be that the immunizations so hoped for as a counter to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic are having an effect. It may be that the dangerous frustrations of airborne hazard, financial meltdown (both personal and national), social distancing, and political impasse have melted away like the morning mist. Probably not!

I have been editing Liberty magazine for only a few weeks shy of 22 years. It has been my privilege over that span to continue this magazine’s enduring commitment to religious freedom for all. Liberty built on the early Adventist experiences with the various blue laws in the late 1800s, which often criminalized worship on Saturday, instead of the general Sunday expectation. The increasing Seventh-day Adventist  emphasis on religious liberty of course looked to the United States Constitution and its First Amendment guarantee as a civil security. However, they looked at their Western Christian heritage with a keen eye to the religious awakening of the Reformation and its continuation in the New World. Seventh-day Adventists were a people stirred, as were many Christians in the mid-1800s, with biblical statements that seemed to indicate the “end” of secular history and the imminent return of the promised Jesus Christ. They looked to prophecy and saw evidence that the United States would play an important role in those last events: a role eventually at odds with its longtime protective and sheltering stance toward conscience. All of this has informed the Liberty magazine “package” for about 115 years and, under another name, several before that.

When I read the early issues of the magazine, I am struck by how forthrightly it addressed the various political issues of the day. How could it be otherwise, when religious freedom is part of the legal and political dynamic of our society! But Adventist cofounder Ellen G. White put it very succinctly to those who were arguing, and preaching even, on issues of the gold or silver standard following William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Ministers and teachers with such partisan political views, she wrote, should resign or be fired. Liberty has never been and cannot be partisan---but if it ever goes silent on the great issues of the day that impact civil and religious freedom, then it will cease to be relevant.

Over my tenure as editor I have fielded many questions and letters to the editor. Most have been positive; some not so friendly. And like all editors, I take them very seriously, and extrapolate the comments of the few motivated to take the trouble to contact the magazine as representing a far larger if more silent voice. Those that differed, I have usually called or corresponded with. Very often I was able to clarify the point of contention, and we ended up agreeing. Other times we parted amicably, realizing there was an essential difference of viewpoint but not an intent to attack. Rarely was there something more elemental in the difference. That is, until several years ago. It was roughly at the beginning of the last administration. 

Now, anyone who has read Liberty for more than a few years knows that at any given time there are national and local issues that impact religious liberty. Any administration has strengths and weaknesses in this area. Liberty deals with them as they occur. We are not, cannot be, Republican, Democrat, or even just opposed or automatically for a certain party or leader just because we like or do not like them in the main. We are for the issue of religious liberty for all; always.

Several years ago a thread of contact emerged that troubled me more and more. Many of them were members of my own church; many more claimed to be from the wider Christian community. Their common attitude was belligerent and closed-minded. They made attacks on Liberty and me that did not quite compute. The labels they threw at me ranged from liberal to socialist to Communist to feminist; and they were not to be reasoned with emotionally or factually. They also often had a view that the administration was not to be questioned. It was, at first, thoroughly mystifying to me, as I had been at pains to feature in Liberty positive statements and proclamations on religious liberty made by the president, and to run features on events like the first-ever Ministerial  for Religious Freedom. It was impossible to ignore some of the moral inconsistencies of the administration on such issues as immigration, but we were careful not to personalize the critique. In covering a Christianity Today editorial that shook the evangelical world, we were critical of the wrong attitude to politics that lay behind the whole situation. No matter, the troll-like e-mails now pepper my inbox. The question begs: Is it possible to communicate and dialogue on religious freedom anymore?

There is a topic that has long occupied Liberty magazine—long before my tenure. It is the danger to religious freedom posed by Christians seeking direct political power for their religious views. James Madison put it powerfully this way: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?” Unfortunately, that is the dynamic that has been revealing itself of late.

In the buildup to the election of 2016, then-candidate Trump courted the politically dominant Christian coalition. It was his choice to make, and hardly a political no-no. In anointing him their man, the coalition may have acted in good faith, but in bad church-state judgment. They further exacerbated the situation by continuing the opprobrium uncritically even for actions contrary to basic Christian tenets. This is not wise in secular politics, let alone from a faith perspective. And it laid the ground for the most dangerous us versus them, good versus evil polarity. Its bitter fruit is the demonization of the political opposition and the pulling down of the temple of democracy. To be sure, the besetting deficit of the twenty-first- century American republic is gross ignorance of and respect for the Constitution. But just as religion was inextricably entwined with the cultural formation of the United States, so its warping takes us in directions that I find more than hinted at in Scripture (see Revelation 13).

The United States experiment in republican representative democracy has inspired many worldwide; but it has not been without setbacks and contradictions.  A great and violent divide in society brought about the Civil War. And religion was both an instrument of division and the salve to that conflict. In  his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln, the man whose very election had precipitated the conflict, said this: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.”

Article 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."