Religious freedom is rare in this world. For most of human history, people have been forced to conform to the national religion of their country or live in fear of persecution. Even today, about three out of four people in the world live in a nation where serious restrictions are placed on the free exercise of religion. In many Middle Eastern nations, people can even be fined, jailed or killed for crimes of blasphemy or apostasy.
For the fortunate few living in a nation that guarantees religious freedom, it is easy to forget how historically unique it is to be able to live according to the dictates of their conscience without fear of persecution. As recently as two centuries ago, Europeans were fleeing across the Atlantic Ocean in search of religious freedom.
Even in the New World, however, religious freedom wasn’t ensured until Rhode Island became the first place in the world to guarantee religious liberty as a tenet of its royal charter. A century after the death of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, this principle of “separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” stirred the framers of the United States Constitution to guarantee religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.
The Baptist preacher and evangelist John Leland worked tirelessly alongside American founders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to convince the Virginia State Legislature to guarantee Virginians the same religious freedom as already existed in Rhode Island. Their efforts finally bore fruit with the passing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. It was the text of this statute that served as the primary blueprint for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
This is why Americans commemorate January 16 each year as National Religious Freedom Day.
Despite the lip service paid to religious freedom each January, however, most Americans take freedom of religion for granted. Because the general populace doesn’t understand what America’s founders meant when they wrote about the “separation between church and state,” a radical secularist movement has convinced millions of Americans that “freedom of religion” actually means “freedom from religion.” Building on this premise, government officials have dismissed religious concerns as irrelevant and used the power of the state to coerce Christians to act contrary to their faith, such as subsidizing abortion procedures and participating in homosexual wedding ceremonies.
In recent years, this erosion of religious freedom has advanced rapidly. While President-elect Donald Trump has promised to protect the rights of Christian denominations from this secularist assault, many wonder if he can and will actually restore religious freedom.
Whatever twists and turns American politics takes in the months ahead, however, the infallible word of the Bible reveals that religious persecution against true Christians is going to intensify.
Fight Over Abortion
During the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the federal government spearheaded the greatest assault on religious freedom in modern American history. Instances and examples of this assault are abundant.
To take one example, the Affordable Care Act enacted on March 23, 2010, mandated that employers provide employees with contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations. Even though several U.S. religious organizations believe that contraception and abortion are sin, the Obama administration refused to exempt religious institutions from its sweeping health-care mandate. Washington insisted that a woman’s right to abortion-inducing drugs is more important than employers’ right to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.
In response, the Pentecostal business owners of Hobby Lobby and an organization of Catholic nuns challenged the Affordable Care Act in court, and the Supreme Court granted Hobby Lobby a religious exemption. However, several other religious organizations are still awaiting the final outcome of their lawsuits challenging this Obamacare provision.
In September 2016, Hobby Lobby founder and ceo David Green endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential election after initially opposing him solely because of the candidate’s promises to appoint federal judges who would defend the religious freedom of Christians.
“The Christians are being treated horribly because we have nobody to represent the Christians,” said Mr. Trump in a May 2015 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Believe me, if I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time.”
Some have interpreted promises like this as a sign that Donald Trump may prioritize the rights of evangelical Christians above the rights of religious minorities. Muslims and Mormons in particular have expressed such concerns. While it is still too early to know how a Trump administration will deal with issues involving freedom of religion, this much is sure: A fight is brewing between evangelical Christians and radical secularists over a range of issues.
At the state and local level, Christians have been forced to provide homosexual couples with wedding cakes and photography services against their deeply held religious convictions.
Aaron and Melissa Klein ran a bakery in Portland, Oregon, for seven years before a lesbian woman asked the Christian couple on Jan. 17, 2013, to bake a cake for her same-sex wedding. Mr. Klein said his business didn’t cater same-sex weddings due to his religious beliefs. Later that day, the woman’s mother challenged him about his belief in the Bible. He responded by quoting Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.”
Soon after, Oregon officials informed the Kleins that they were being prosecuted for violating the Oregon Equality Act of 2007. The lesbian couple had filed a claim with the state, stating that the Kleins’ refusal to bake them a cake had caused them to suffer from 88 symptoms of mental anguish including “doubt,” “surprise,” “uncertainty,” “worry” and a “dislike of going to work.”
The Kleins protested that the ruling violated their religious liberty. But their case wasn’t even tried by a judge from the Oregon judiciary; it was tried by a bureaucrat from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, who ruled that the Kleins owed the lesbian couple, Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman, $135,000 in damages.
Labor Bureau Commissioner Brad Avakian told local media that the real reason for the fine was to persuade the couple to change their religious beliefs. “The goal is to rehabilitate,” he said. “For those who do violate the law, we want them to learn from that experience and have a good, successful business in Oregon” (emphasis added).
Although Rachel Cryer could have easily found another cake supplier, the Oregon government deemed it important to make an example of the Kleins. According to the official catechism of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, a Christian couple’s right to religious freedom takes a backseat to a lesbian couple’s right to a cake.
The Kleins are not alone in being forced by the government to choose between remaining faithful to their religious views and facing punishment. A baker in Colorado, a florist in Washington and a photographer in New Mexico have all been convicted of violating state antidiscrimination laws for refusing to offer same-sex couples the same services they offer to heterosexual couples.
The people being prosecuted weren’t denying services to customers because they were homosexual, but out of a religious conviction against participating in a same-sex wedding. The government is outlawing free moral agency in such matters of conscience.
This is a serious issue that the Trump campaign hasn’t addressed. As recently as the year 2000, Mr. Trump suggested amending the federal Civil Rights Act to include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. While such an amendment would likely make it a federal crime for Christians to refuse to participate in homosexual wedding ceremonies, it is again much too early to know how a Trump administration will deal with this issue. Many of the lgbt antidiscrimination laws on the books in America are incompatible with Trump’s pledges to restore religious liberty.
Government control over the content of religious sermons is something usually associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Communist Party of China. Yet state officials in both Iowa and Massachusetts have claimed the power to forbid Christian pastors from expressing biblical views on human sexuality in public.
In 2007, the Iowa State Legislature passed a Civil Rights Act that bans places of “public accommodation” from expressing their views on human sexuality if they would “directly or indirectly” make “persons of any particular … gender identity” feel “unwelcome.” Since there was some confusion over whether or not religious institutions counted as places of “public accommodation,” the Iowa Civil Rights Commission released a brochure in 2012 stating, “Iowa law provides that these protections do not apply to religious institutions with respect to any religion-based qualifications when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose. Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions.”
In short, this law means that pastors who work for “religious institutions” can only express their views on human sexuality if an Iowa bureaucrat decides these views are related to a “bona fide religious purpose.”
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination explained its restriction more clearly in a pamphlet released in September 2016. The state ruled: “[P]laces of public accommodation may not discriminate against or restrict a person from services because of that person’s gender identity. … Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.”
Massachusetts also makes it a crime to “discriminate” against individuals who identify as transgender by refusing to use their preferred pronoun. Thus, a Massachusetts church could be prosecuted if one of its members won’t refer to a man with female pronouns during a church spaghetti dinner.
As in Iowa, it is up to a state bureaucrat to determine which church-sponsored events are “secular” and which serve a “bona fide religious purpose.” If this seems confusing, it’s because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t actually guarantee religious institutions constitutional rights—it guarantees people constitutional rights. A person’s freedom to express religious opinions holds true whether inside or outside a church. As long as a person’s behavior doesn’t violate someone else’s constitutional rights, it doesn’t matter whether that behavior takes place in a church or not.
So-called antidiscrimination laws across America have subverted freedom of religion and freedom of speech in a bid to give homosexuals and transgenders “freedom from being offended.”
The absurdity of this new freedom should be obvious. There probably isn’t an opinion in existence that couldn’t offend somebody. Should businesses be banned from serving alcohol at events open to the public because that offends Muslims? Should atheist groups be banned from criticizing religion in public since that offends Christians?
These questions reveal that the agenda behind these “antidiscrimination” laws isn’t protecting the constitutional rights of homosexuals. The ultimate agenda is to force Christians to accept that homosexuality is natural, normal and healthy. America’s Christians may soon start to push back against such stifling government regulation, but to what extent a Trump administration will actually help them remains to be seen.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the future of religious freedom in America. Many are hopeful the Trump administration will make religious freedom great again. Others are pessimistic about the prospects of a thrice-married casino owner actually caring about the freedoms of conservative Christians. Still others are fearful that Trump will swing to the opposite extreme from Obama and start persecuting religious minorities in the name of evangelical Christians.
Regardless of what political analysts may say, however, Jesus Christ prophesied that in the time just before His return to Earth, His followers would be persecuted for their beliefs.
When His disciples asked Him for a sign of His Second Coming and the end of the world, He answered: “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. … Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:4-5, 9).
When Christ said His followers would be “hated of all nations,” He certainly included America among them. This means the First Amendment protection Americans have enjoyed for over two centuries will erode to the point where true believers can once again be persecuted for their beliefs.
The Prophet Amos wrote of a time when a leader of end-time Israel would expel out of the nation those who declare God’s prophecies (Amos 7:10-13). This isn’t just a warning for an ancient nation; it is a prophecy of events in modern times. In particular, two nations represent biblical Israel in this end time: the United States and Britain. (Request a free copy of Herbert W. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy, which contains abundant proof of this truth.)
Amos’s prophecy shows that the persecution culminates in a “famine of the word”—a time when God’s truth would no longer be readily available—caused by deliberate suppression of that message (Amos 8:11-12).
Based on these prophecies, we can know that the current assault on religious freedom will continue and intensify—not just in America, but also in every nation.
Thankfully, this persecution, and the famine of the word, is prophesied to be exceedingly short. The planet will undergo a time of immense suffering after God’s warning message is temporarily halted in America and Britain, but this time of great tribulation will be cut short by divine intervention. As Jesus Christ explained in Matthew 24:27, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”
After accumulating 6,000 years of evil and suffering, the human race will finally be ready to listen to God and to let Him show them the path to true freedom! ▪