The “Religious” Aspect of Religious Liberty

by Jim Winkler. James Winkler is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. As President and General Secretary, he speaks for the Council, works with staff, board members, Christian, and interfaith leaders and is responsible for providing leadership and management of daily affairs and operations. Prior to his work with the National Council of Churches, he served as General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.


Frankly, we’re at war. That’s blunt, but it’s true. Two worldviews are locked in mortal combat right now in our politics, our popular culture and our courts and legal system.

The first worldview says that free speech and freedom of religion are the basis for the founding of this nation—the fundamental inspiration of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This side believes, with James Madison, that “conscience is the most sacred of all properties,” and that the first duty of every citizen and every public servant is to preserve and protect the freedoms that ensure our rights of conscience.

The other side contends that these freedoms are not essential, but negotiable—to be altered or diminished, depending on who is yielding power.

As I said, this is a war, not a battle or momentary conflict. We must encourage each other, teach our children, engage our leaders and flex our strength at the ballot box. The essential freedoms we have cherished so long are no longer a given for any of us. May God give us the grace to stand and defend the incredible legacy of liberty He’s entrusted to our nation.

These words by Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom appeared in Decision magazine, the publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association just before the 2016 election.

Scary stuff. Sears says we’re in a war to defend religious freedom. Franklin Graham often employs similar language. Our way of life is at stake. The government and various bad guys want to destroy America and our religious liberty and we have to fight back.

I know one thing: I’m sick and tired of war. The U.S. has been at war nearly my entire life.

In 1 Maccabees, the story of the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes is recounted. Antiochus conquered Israel and Egypt. He seized the holy temple in Jerusalem and decreed the people should abandon their faith in favor of his.

He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land.”[1]

The king’s officers who were enforcing apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: ‘You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.’

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: ‘Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.’

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. [2]

Here we have a biblical story found in the deuterocanonical books of the bible of the struggle for religious liberty. A new king comes to town and demands that everyone follow his religion. The faithful who have been conquered say, “Hell, no” and even kill one of their own who has collaborated with the conquerors.

They said, “You may have conquered us, but we’re not abandoning our faith. Better to die than be forced to worship other gods!”

On October 16, 2016, the Washington Post printed a full page ad titled “Declaration of Dependence upon God and His Holy Bible.” Among the signers were David Barton, who continues to twist American history to insist this is a Christian nation, televangelists such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, James Dobson, a variety of megachurch preachers, and retired Gen. William Boykin, who characterized US military operations as a battle between “our God” (Christian) vs. Satan or “idol” God of Islam.

The ad said, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Since our Creator gave us these rights, we declare that no government has the right to take them away. Among these rights is the right to exercise our Christian beliefs as put forth in God’s Holy Bible.”

They go on to denounce abortion, same-sex marriage, polygamy, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion and state, “We therefore respectfully reserve the right to refuse any mandate by the government that forces us to fund or support abortion.”

So these American religious figures, like Mattathius, are saying to the government you may be in charge but we won’t abandon our religious beliefs.

There are those in this nation who believe the freedom to practice their religion is under assault by the government. These are not fringe elements. The two largest denominations in the nation, the Roman Catholic Church, with some 70 million members, and the Southern Baptist Convention, with 15 million members, have made these charges for years.

Also on October 16, 2016, a flyer titled, “It is a Mortal Sin to Vote Democrat” was distributed at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in San Diego. “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell,” it said.

The flyer was an insert into the bulletin distributed to those in attendance. It also stated that Hillary Clinton is under the influence of Satan. The pastor, Fr. Richard Perozich admitted to the New York Daily News that he had told churchgoers they would go to hell if they vote Democratic.

I think folks always get in trouble when they are convinced they are the one true church or the one true faith or consigning presidential candidates to hell. A friend of mine who grew up in the Church of God told me it was named the Church of God because they honestly thought everyone else would wake up and realize they had the true faith.

The Southern Baptists experienced a fundamentalist takeover in the late 1970s. The first SBC president in the right wing era of the SBC was Adrian Rogers who once said,

This is going to sound almost like megalomania, but I believe that the hope of the world lies in the West. I believe the hope of the West lies in America. I believe the hope of America is in Judeo-Christian ethics. I believe that the backbone of that Judeo-Christian ethic is evangelical Christianity. I believe that the bellwether of evangelical Christianity is the Southern Baptists Convention. So I believe, in a sense, that as the Southern Baptist Convention goes, so goes the world.

He was right. It does sound like megalomania. And when you adopt this line of thinking it’s easy to feel those who don’t agree with you are wrong and are trying to destroy you and the true faith. So when we talk about respecting everyone’s right to worship as they see fit, that just doesn’t work for those who feel there’s only one right way to worship and believe.

This country is far more diverse than when I was a child. The Washington Interreligious Staff Council in Washington now includes Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, and Baha’is. And, right here in Arkansas, there is an interfaith network. My Arkansas grandparents would probably be shocked.

The ecumenical movement has helped to foster understanding between many Christian denominations and tamp down ‘one true church’ claims. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Pope and the Lutherans had a big worship service in Europe to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and pledged to continue working for unity.

Interreligious dialogues and organizations have fostered understanding and solidarity. Groups like Shoulder to Shoulder exist to enable Jews, Christians, and Muslims to respond to anti-Muslim bigotry. We’ve come a long way to and yet we have a long way to go.

Just as white Protestants foolishly attempted more than 100 years ago to stop Jews and Catholics from coming to the United States, so, too, will the efforts to stop Muslims from entering be unsuccessful. We’ll have to figure out how to accommodate one another.

We have to wonder if some of the religious right figures have more faith in the political process than they do in Jesus. Here’s what Robert Jeffress, pastor of 1st Baptist Church of Dallas, a Donald Trump supporter, said a few months ago:

You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’ I said, ‘Heck no. I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.’

As I consider the public witness made by the National Council of Churches and its member churches and most of the faith groups we work closely with in Washington, we are trying to expand rights—for women, racial and religious minorities, young people, to end war, to care for the environment, to protect everyone’s right to privacy, to end poverty, to end mass incarceration.

When we approach elected officials, it is on behalf of the last, the least, and the lost, not for ourselves. We’re not trying to restrict rights of immigrants or of same-sex couples nor are we making the preposterous argument that giving same-sex couples equal rights is a form of discrimination against us.

We don’t face any problems in expressing our views in the halls of power. Just prior to the election, a video of Mike Pence was aired at Sunday services in many churches across the nation. In it, Pence said Trump will repeal the Johnson Amendment. “The Johnson Amendment has literally been on the books since the 1950s and it essentially threatens tax-exempt organizations and churches with losing their tax status if they speak out against important issues facing the nation from the pulpit,” Pence says. This is simply not true.

There’s a difference between us and the religious right—we’re not trying to control everyone’s life, we’re not claiming persecution, we’re not suggesting our religious liberty is abrogated if we don’t get our way.

Further, I believe most people of faith in this country are more hopeful than fearful, more tolerant than intolerant.

I agree with Russell Moore who said,

Many times we Christians are quick to claim persecution when we’re merely facing personal offense. It is not persecution when the woman at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart says ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’

The greatest threat to our religious liberty may actually be some of the religious people in this country.

[1]  1 Macc. 1:52

[2] 1 Macc. 2:15-28

The “Liberty” Aspect of Religious Liberty

by Jim Winkler. James Winkler is the President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. As President and General Secretary, he speaks for the Council, works with staff, board members, Christian, and interfaith leaders and is responsible for providing leadership and management of daily affairs and operations. Prior to his work with the National Council of Churches, he served as General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.


I’ve always thought religious liberty is all about “believe and let believe.” Even though my faith is best, you have the right to be wrong.

I saw a guy on a bridge once who was about to jump. I yelled to him, ‘Don’t do it!”

He said, ‘Nobody loves me.”

I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, ‘Yes.”

I said, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, ‘A Christian.”

I said, ‘Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, ‘Protestant.”

I said, ‘Me too! What franchise?”

He said, ‘Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, ‘Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, ‘Die, you heretic!” And I pushed him over.

He was free to believe as he wished and I acted on my beliefs!

The National Council of Churches (NCC) issued a statement on Religious and Civil Liberties in the United States of America in 1955. The NCC said then that it

holds the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to mean that church and state shall be separate and independent as institutions but to imply neither that the state is indifferent to religious interests nor that the church is indifferent to civil and political issues.

The National Council of Churches defends the rights and liberties of cultural, racial and religious minorities. The insecurity of one menaces the security of all. Christians must be especially sensitive to the oppression of minorities.

The exercise of both rights and liberties is subject to considerations of morality and to the maintenance of public order and of individual and collective security.

Religious and civil liberties are interdependent and therefore indivisible.

The Committee on Religious Liberty (CRL) was under the auspices of the NCC for many years. Prior to my service as president of the NCC, the Council went through a significant restructure and the CRL now resides with the Religious Freedom Center.

The NCC remains part of CRL as does the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Secular Coalition for America, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church & State, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the ACLU, the Church of Scientology, and a host of other groups. There are few committees with broader representation.

Their meeting earlier this year dealt with, for example, the Jim Thorpe case. (During the traditional burial after his death, his estranged wife interrupted the ceremony with sheriffs, etc., took his body away and sold it to a Pennsylvania village which renamed itself for Jim Thorpe. The Sac and Fox Nation and two of his sons filed a lawsuit to reclaim the body for the Nation under a federal law for repatriation of his body. The Third Circuit sidestepped the federal law saying that the application of the law would yield an “absurd” result. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert.)

Among other things, the CRL also discussed Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk who claimed a religious conscience exemption from the requirement to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The CRL pays serious attention to legislation and legal cases related to religious liberty.

In other words, there is an infrastructure of organizations keeping an eye on threats to religious liberty in legislatures and the courts. These groups stay in touch with one another despite deep theological and ideological differences and, when necessary, work together to defend religious liberty.

Additionally, the US State Department has an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. That ambassador happens to be my good friend, Rabbi David Saperstein. David is constantly traveling around the world working on religious freedom. The NCC has briefed the State Department on religious freedom issues in Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere.

Some years ago the United States Congress created the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which is comprised of people appointed by the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both houses. USCIRF, as it is known, was recently reauthorized for four more years, although some of us unsuccessfully supported reforms that would have strengthened the bipartisan structure of the commission and encouraged better coordination between it and the State Depatment.

I’m not a specialist on religious liberty. I agree with Brent Walker, until recently the head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, who says, “The separation principles is simply another way of saying government should not try to help or hurt religion, but it should leave religion alone…In short, government must be neutral towards religion.”

But our freedom to worship God or not does not permit employers to refuse to offer health care plans that deny birth control to employees because they feel offended. It does not permit storeowners to refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples because they don’t like LGBTQ people. It does not give farmers the right to sell unpasteurized milk because it somehow contravenes their faith. Things have been turned on their head. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Not only are people, churches, businesses, and organizations claiming their own religious liberty is jeopardized if, for example, women have access to birth control, they are suggesting their religious liberty has been compromised if the government will not use taxpayer money belonging to all of us to fund their projects.

A Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri challenged a state decision denying a grant to its preschool which sought to replace the gravel on its playground with softer, safer material. The Missouri Attorney General says the state constitution expressly prevents tax dollars from being used to aid religious groups. The case went to the Supreme Court.

“They’re just kids,” says a church representative. But, if government tax money goes to help the church’s playground, why shouldn’t it be spent to fix the roof and otherwise generally help make the building safer?

“The issue is not whether the playground surface is inherently religious, but it’s whether the state government must fund an upgrade to a church playground despite a state constitutional ban on funding churches,” Hollman said.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply does not permit outright government funding or grants to churches and other houses of worship. “We do not look to government subsidies to build houses of worship; we should not fund capital improvements that way either,” Walker said.

Why not use government funds to support church work? Beats having to run the annual stewardship campaign. Perhaps the clergy can be government employees, too.

Your religious freedom is not limited because the government won’t fund your church playground. It’s limited when the government tries to stop the preacher from delivering a sermon in the church or in a public space designated as an open forum.

When President Bush announced his faith-based initiative, the point was made that religious institutions had been discriminated against in terms of receiving government grants. I’m not so sure that was accurate. Organizations like Church World Service and Catholic Relief Services receive millions of dollars of government money, but perhaps the focus was on local churches.

Quite a brouhaha erupted about what Bush was trying to do. I spoke in a number of United Methodist Church settings about it at the time and made the point that we needed to separate government money, tax funds, public money, that is, and church money. Public funds are for the benefit of everyone and we can’t, or shouldn’t, use tax money to push the agenda of our faith.

Now, if we want to apply for government money to run a homeless shelter or to build affordable housing or to run some kind of program then simply set up a separate corporation – but don’t mix church money and public funds. Otherwise, you may see on the nightly TV news footage of government agents walking out of your church carrying boxes of documents and your computers because they’re investigating whether you misused money that belongs to all of us—Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, and others. That money is different.

Our houses of worship have been built by their members for many years. Suddenly they require public money to keep going?

If an organization receives government money to help it run its hospitals or universities or relief agencies, then it has to abide by rules that apply to everyone. It can’t set the rules and it can’t whine about its liberty being infringed upon.

Bob Jones University used to ban black students. When it did accept them, the school banned interracial dating. As a result, it lost its tax-exempt status. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution arguing that the action violated churches’ constitutional right to operate without government interference, but Bob Jones lost, as well they should have.

When I was a boy, we Protestants used to oppose the use of taxpayer money to assist Catholic parochial schools. Our argument was that if you wish to have your own schools, that’s OK but you have to bear the expense. Tax money supports what the religious right now calls ‘government schools.’ We called them public schools.

Then came Brown v. the Bd. of Education and many a white Southerner withdrew their children from public or government schools in favor of newly created ‘Christian academies’, which were really just schools for white kids. Suddenly, these former anti-Catholics saw the virtue of seeking taxpayer money to support their private schools. And now they argue that if they don’t get public funding then it’s a form of religious persecution against them.

Plus, they want public money while they teach their version of the faith and reserve the right to fire teachers who get divorced, who are gay or support gay rights or who get pregnant outside marriage.

Where do we trace it all back to? A repudiation of civic commitment? Would American history have turned out differently if Protestants in the mid 19th century had not been virulently anti-Catholic? What if white Southerners had accepted the Supreme Court decision and peacefully merged white and black schools?

Meanwhile, some are arguing that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 is unconstitutional. That’s the law which provides churches and other nonprofit organizations with tax exempt status as long as they stay out of electoral politics. Mostly, it is the religious right that is making this argument. They want to retain their lucrative tax exempt status which they receive because they are viewed as providing a public good not seeking political power.

Battles over the Affordable Care Act, religious involvement in political campaigns, funding for church programs and charities, questions over zoning, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, persecution due to religious identity, hate crimes, and numerous other issues promise to keep religious liberty in the forefront for many years to come.

There is no certainty our nation will continue to enjoy religious liberty without the commitment of all of us.