McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“Christianity [in America] reigns without obstacles, by universal consent,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville. The French historian and political scientist rendered his analysis of America’s religious scene in the early 1800s. It is safe to say that if ol’ Alex were to take the religious pulse of the United States today, he would probably not come to the same conclusion.
What de Tocqueville encountered when he toured America in 1831 was a government that respected the right of all religions to exist and to function freely. However, it was abundantly clear that Christianity was the religion of choice and its tenets provided the moral framework — the worldview if you will — by which society functioned.
No doubt if de Tocqueville were rendering an analysis of 21st-century America he would still point to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as a guarantee that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is to operate “without obstacles.” However, he would also find sufficient evidence to cause him to conclude that Christianity no longer “reigns … by universal consent.”
The times have certainly changed in the almost 170 years since de Tocqueville recorded his observations in “Democracy in America.” So much so that David Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Tennessee, observes in “Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars” that, “Adherents of biblical Christianity constitute a minority of the population of late twentieth century America. As such it is unfortunate but to be expected that our values have lost much of their sway with the American public as a whole.”
There seems to be a growing body of evidence that not only have Christian “values lost much of their sway with the American public as a whole,” but Christian values even engender hostility in some portions of the nation.
Recently America’s westernmost states — which happen to be populations that eschew religion in the greatest numbers — have proved to be fertile ground for hostile actions against religion in general and Christianity in particular.
For example, for a period of time King County, Wash., imposed moratoriums on all church expansion programs, and one small church in Portland, Ore., even had its social programs shut down and attendance at its weekly services regulated. According to a report on CNSNews.com, a city in California is currently taking steps to seize a church’s property through eminent domain. It seems the city of Cypress would prefer to see a shopping center on the church’s 18-acre tract of land rather than a house of worship. While the situations in Oregon and Washington have since been rectified, it is alarming that in a country with religious freedom woven into the very fabric of its constitution that such situations could even occur.
Once upon a time it was considered a positive aspect of your neighborhood if church was located therein. In some areas this is no longer the case. Television station WKMG in Orlando, Fla., reported on its website recently that Orange County, Fla., has a zoning law that “operating a synagogue or any function related to synagogue or church services is not permitted use in a residential zoned area.” Rabbi Yosef Konikov is running afoul of the ordinance by hosting a weekly prayer meeting that is attended by anywhere from 10 to 20 families. Unless the rabbi stops his Saturday gatherings, he is soon to be penalized. It seems as if “religious free zones” are already beginning to be in vogue.
The founders of the United States understood that faith and religious practice were crucial to the strength of America. They believed these were matters of personal conscience and that government should not infringe upon them in any shape, form or fashion. The founders were of the conviction that faith, while personal, should never be regulated in such fashion so as to keep it only private. Hence the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteed the free exercise of religion.
I am not certain if Christians, whose worldview and values have dominated the United States for most of its history, have fully appreciated the First Amendment. Perhaps now that we “constitute a minority of the population” can Christians fully grasp the wisdom of the founders in providing freedom for all religions — especially those in the minority. Because of this provision that includes the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble, we can still have a voice, even an influential one, in society and the affairs of state.
De Tocqueville’s observation concerning no obstacles for Christianity in particular — and religion in general — still holds true. However, people of faith must take full advantage of the freedoms available to us, lest because of “the choice of silence” we one day have imposed upon us “the obstacle silence.”
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.