Mr. DeVries is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Those of us who live in America are ruled by a government the seeds of which came from the ungodly enlightenment thinkers. These thinkers proposed that all authority came from the people and not from God. They proposed a violent revolution to overthrow what they perceived as an oppressive regime. Our country’s founders thought this was an acceptable means to an end, freedom. We as Reformed Christians obviously disagree with that view of the government, revolution, and freedom.
Nevertheless, God in His providence has now, for well over two hundred years, provided us a country that is governed as a democratic republic that affords us many freedoms. This has allowed the church of Jesus Christ to worship freely, proclaim the gospel, and form Christian schools with little or no interference to this point.
Our constitution calls for three branches of government that check and balance each other and make sure that those that govern do not abuse their power. To further mitigate this risk and ensure our freedoms, we have certain rights guaranteed by amendments to the constitution, which have become the rule of law for the land.
Of those freedoms, the ones we hold most dear have to do with the freedoms of religion that we now enjoy in our land. The 1st and 14th amendments set out two guarantees of religious freedom. The guarantees prohibit an establishment of religion (the Establishment Clause), and any arbitrary interference by government in the “free exercise” of religion (the Free Exercise Clause). Those of us who are Christians living here in America should be thankful for these freedoms. We know the Bible indicates that as we come to the last days there will be less and less toleration of true Christianity. There will even be outright persecution in the entire world, and ultimately the one-world government will also control religion. Therefore, it would behoove us to know a little about the challenges to these clauses over the years and how these clauses have been interpreted recently. This will allow those with an understanding of the times to prepare for what will come in the future in these regards.
We don’t want to be ungrateful or become complacent about protecting these freedoms. Compared to the level of government control in other countries such as China or Myanmar, where we see God’s people struggling to meet and proclaim the gospel, we have it very good. There have been many landmark cases in the U.S. involving religious freedoms involving both the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.
The Establishment Clause, or the separation of church and state, as it has been fought in the courts has largely had to do, in one way or another, with religion and education—issues such as prayer and the use of the Bible in public schools, teaching of evolution, seasonal displays, etc.
While the right to hold varying religious beliefs is currently protected under the Free Exercise Clause, the right to act on those beliefs is not. The Supreme Court has recognized that the right to practice one’s religion must yield to the interests of society in some circumstances. A parent’s right to refuse medical treatment for a sick child, for example, may be subordinate to the state’s interest in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of its minor children. Similarly, polygamy and child labor laws have been upheld in the face of free exercise.
We may agree with those rulings, which are largely against various cults and adherent religious groups, but yet, in light of increasing government control in our own country, one is left to wonder how much longer we as conservative Christians will be afforded these freedoms—especially when it comes to preaching and practicing our own distinctive beliefs, which increasingly run against societal norms.
The Supreme Court is the main part of the branch of the government that has the responsibility of checking the power of the other two branches. Their rulings make sure other branches remain within the constraints of the constitutions. By doing so, the high court sees to it that the constitutional rights of the individual are not being trampled by the government, including the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses.
However, in some cases the Supreme Court has shown willingness to level the Free Exercise Clause by making it subordinate to any governmental objective, so long as that objective was nominally rational and evenhanded. This leaves an opening for challenging our own Reformed, biblical beliefs and practices in the future.
As was noted with some alarm in my last article published in the Standard Bearer (September 15, 2008, p. 494), the government is using the “economic crisis” to control the mortgage lenders and banks. Now, since that article was published, we see the government taking increasing control of other sectors that were in private hands. Our government has taken controlling interest in the auto industry, and now is debating how much it should control the health-care industry.
The founding fathers of our country knew that the more spheres of the private sector that the government ends up controlling, the less freedom the people will enjoy. If we become uninterested and apathetic toward those dangers, the problem is no longer complacency, but outright dependence on the government for just about everything. When more and more of the citizenry is dependent on the government, they will not be in the position any longer to question the actions of the government or to fight the encroachments of the government upon religious freedoms.
Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court. The Senate hearing to decide whether to confirm her or not was set for July 13. There has been much debate already in the media whether the nominee will exercise judicial restraint or activism if confirmed and does indeed become a Supreme Court Justice. By taking a look at Sotomayor’s oft-quoted “policy is made” statement of 2005 in reference to her role on the U.S. Court of Appeals, it appears she will lean towards the latter. Considering the liberal nature of this nominee, this is a very dangerous way of looking at the role of a Supreme Court Justice, for those of us who value our freedoms as guaranteed in the Constitution.
The debate over Sotomayor’s nomination will probably be long over before this article gets published, but it might do us some good to look at a similar debate our country had over twenty years ago. Ronald Reagan had nominated Robert Bork in 1987. Bork was a nominee who also was accused of practicing judicial activism, only this time with a conservative slant. It would be profitable to re-read the article by a very capable SB writer, James Lanting, in the December 1, 1988 issue of the SB in an article entitled, “A Nation of Laws or Lawlessness?”
As Mr. Lanting wrote back in 1988, whether the nominee practices judicial activism or not in an “undemocratic way” is important for our “democratic rights,” but it is not the larger issue. The larger issue is whether we, or any nominee to the Supreme Court, should put our faith in a legislative body that is swayed by public opinion, or in the Bible, for moral direction. Unfortunately, a Reformed and Christian jurist who looks to God’s Word as Law will not be nominated.
We must be men and women who have an understanding of the times. It is important that we follow these nominations carefully and understand that these events can have an effect on our church life as well as our individual freedoms as Christians.
I will end with a fitting quote from Mr. Lanting’s article of December 1, 1988.
But the Reformed citizen is called to more than passive obedience. He has a mandate actively to be the salt of the earth by witnessing to the government by speaking to or corresponding with his elected representatives, lawfully demonstrating when necessary, and exercising his right to vote and take office. Finally, the Christian citizen will pray for his legislators and judges that “God may rule and guide them in all their ways, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (Belgic Confession, Art. 36).