Dangerous New Trend: Governments Defining Christian Doctrine
Jacob Rudenstrand’s Stream article Friday on Christian refugees being denied asylum in Sweden and the United Kingdom is disturbing on multiple levels. These governments have taken on the authority to determine Christian doctrine. They’re deciding who counts as Christian. This is just wrong.
In Britain, reports Rudenstrand, “the government quoted Bible verses” to argue that Christianity isn’t a religion of peace. In Sweden, officials regularly give asylum seekers “pop quizzes on theology to determine whether they are genuine believers.” Some of those questions have been so complex, “not even experienced pastors have been able to answer.” That’s bad. Worse yet, though, “the testimony of churches and pastors counts for little.” The Church doesn’t decide who’s Christian. The state does.
It’s two instances of the same thing: the state taking control over what counts as Christianity.
Who Defines “Religious Acts”?
These are new developments, but the ideas motivating them aren’t. Four years ago I reacted to a Frank Bruni New York Times op-ed arguing that religious freedom was fine for believers “in their pews, homes and hearts,” but baking a cake, arranging roses or running an inn “aren’t religious acts.” My question for Bruni then was this: Christians say these acts are religious. Can the state then overrule Christians on our doctrine? Does the state claim it can actually decide Christian doctrine?
Bruni is infamous for his hatred of Christianity, so his opinion is unsurprising. But now we see this happening in Europe, openly and egregiously. It’s not authorities disagreeing with Christian belief and practice. It’s about the state redefining it. You’re not really a Christian unless the state says you are.
Christianity Is a Public Religion
It’s not unlike what’s going on when the government tries to tell Hobby Lobby it has no religious duty — and therefore no freedom — to follow Christian ethics in its corporate ethics. The same goes for Christian wedding service providers.
It’s also on display when the state exempts individuals and churches from legislation like the pending Equality Act, but not the businesses Christian individuals own and operate. It’s sending a message: Your business has nothing to do with your religion, and your religion has nothing to do with your business.
But Christianity is a public religion. It always has been. Its beliefs and instructions apply to our relationships and practices in business, in politics, in all of civil society. A merely private Christianity is a distorted, corrupted Christianity. Freedom of religion, then, properly means freedom to practice our beliefs in public.
More and more, though, the state seeks to encapsulate Christianity in spaces invisible to the rest of society. Under the previous administration, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent up trial balloons along these lines, speaking of “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.” Christian observers caught their language and condemned it as contrary to the First Amendment. Mere freedom of worship is a pale shadow of of the Constitutional right to the “free exercise” of religion.
Encroaching On Religious Thought, Not Just Practice
But things may be tending worse than that. Bruni signals the change with his insistence that baking a cake, arranging roses or running an inn “aren’t religious acts.” Britain and Sweden punctuate the point: Governments taking it upon themselves to define redefine Christian doctrine.
This isn’t just an infringement on religious practice; it’s an encroachment on religious thought. The one is bad enough; the other is far worse.
The state has some legitimate interest in defining what counts as religion, for First Amendment purposes. It would be easy — and it has been tried — to invent “new religions” specifically to take advantage of First Amendment rights.
But Christianity has been around a long time. It has been a public religion since Pentecost morning. There’s no question of believers of manipulating our creed to gain special privileges. Instead we’re starting to see it the other way around: the state manipulating Christian beliefs to steal our inalienable First Amendment rights.
Christians must be on guard: It isn’t just freedom of Christian practice that’s under assault. It’s our freedom to define our own beliefs, thought and doctrine.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.