Thursday, October 1, 2015

Religious Freedom in America – a review

The Lord be with you

In volume 79, number 1-2, January/April 2015 issue of Concordia Theological Quarterly is an article titled Religious Freedom in America. It was written by R. Neely Owen. (A link so you can download the article can be found at the bottom of this review.) Because Owen is a sitting Judge, the following disclaimer appears at the bottom of the first page: 

Judge R. Neely Owen presently sits in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area hearing matters for an agency at the federal level. The views expressed within this article are entirely his own and should not be construed to indicate approval by any United States governmental agency or entity. He is solely responsible for the content and the substance expressed therein.

With such a disclaimer, one would expect Judge Owen might express certain “dangerous” opinions. He does not disappoint.

The article begins with a warning that the days of comfortable Christianity are over in the USA. He ends this section with a statement about his goal for the article.

Though I am Christian, and my faith is that Christ is the only way to the Father, this study addresses general principles concerning religious freedom as it has been developed in the United States. It concerns the essential right of everyone to express freely their faith through their speech and their lawful actions, both privately and in the public square. Unless these rights are preserved and protected for everyone—including those who believe differently than we do or perhaps believe in nothing at all—then we will find our claim to religious freedom a hollow shell.

Owen then moves to a history of religious freedom in our country which addresses the “developed in the United States” portion of his purpose statement. This, naturally, begins with colonial America (which mainly did have “establishment” churches). How did we go from having some specific denomination as “the” state supported religion to no religion having a monopoly?

The next portion of his paper deals with the history of jurisprudence in reference to religious freedom. It may seem odd to us, but the Federal court cases before the twentieth century are rather sparse. Owen explains that, until the twentieth century, the main body of thought was that the Constitution basically said the Federal government should keep its hands off, but states could do as they saw fit. Boy, has that ever changed.

Enter the 1960’s. Owen says that decade truly impacted our judicial system. The maps that guided public life were discarded, and there were no new maps that were generally accepted. He continues to review judicial decisions that have had a negative impact on religious freedom and why they threaten the First Amendment.

He ends the article claiming that there is indeed hope, but we need to be involved in the public square. If we don’t show up, then the voices that oppose religious freedom in general and Christianity in particular, will carry the day.

He also covers the question: “What if the Supreme Court rules incorrectly?” All one has to do is remember the Supreme Court’s Dread Scott v. Sanford decision to know that the Supreme Court can indeed rule incorrectly. This again calls for us to be in the public square.

Because I’m traditional and conservative in my views, I’ve heard many people complain about “activists” courts. So it was surprising to read, “It is the culture, by and large, that has driven the direction of judicial decisions.” With this view, it isn’t surprising that Owen urges Christians to clearly add their voices to the public debate, even if we are told to keep silent. He writes,

As Christians who still hold firmly to the truth, we may legitimately ask ourselves what can we do to affect our culture and to be a voice in the public square? For one thing, we must continue doing what we are doing. In the case of our seminaries, that means continuing to develop and train men for the pastoral office so truth may resonate loud and clear wherever they are called to minister. Likewise, deaconesses can serve a vital role as beacons of light that pierce a world shrouded in darkness. We must encourage these young—and sometimes not so young—men and women to engage the culture wherever and however they may find opportunity. They can write columns on culture, morals, and values for their local newspapers, write letters to the editor, or start a blog. Now is the time to bring back Lutheran Laymen’s League or Lutheran Women’s Missionary League groups where they have gone dormant or seek to reinvigorate those still meeting, engaging them in topics designed to focus on a culture gone awry and how it can be brought back to center. Above all, they must be encouraged to integrate themselves into their communities, performing acts of mercy and telling those who ask about Christ that he is the reason they are impelled to do so.

He goes on to write,

Our job as Christians is to stand in the gap—be present in the “in-between” place—and be the filter through which the discussions that matter take place—the substance that supports the values and mores being challenged and attacked by the culture and society. Our responsibility is to make clear our convictions regarding the truth and thereby to shore up those things that Satan is attempting to tear down.

In general, this was a good, informative and personally challenging read. I’d have to say that Owen achieved the goals he set for himself in writing the article. The question for all readers will be, “what will I do now?”

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Rickert

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