Thursday, September 20, 2012

Christianity and the Bill of Rights (part 1)

For the next several weeks between now and the election, I am going to include a weekly discussion between some of the articles of the Bill of Rights and Christian Theology. How do our rights as Americans intersect with, compliment, and/or run contrary to our living out being followers of the way of Christ?

The first amendment seems on its face to be most connected to religious life. It is the law we give thanks for when we thank God for the ability to assemble in worship without fear of government intervention.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is commonly misunderstood as the law providing for the "separation of church and state." At our beach service, one year a woman interrupted our communion service to complain about our worshiping in public on public ground (with a permit): "Haven't you ever heard of the separation of church and state! Gosh people!"

The first amendment explicitly allows for people to gather and to worship whoever they like whenever they like. It also explicitly impedes the right of the government to prohibit or interfere with that worship. It works the same way for speech, the press, the right to assemble, etc.

We are allowed to worship without government interference.
We can teach what we believe the gospels to teach without concern of censorship.
If we are inclined to offer a prophetic word to the government that is critical in nature, we are protected to do so.
If we chose to form an assembly to demonstrate on behalf of disenfranchised people, we are protected.

The Bad
Everything we said about "the good" is true for those with whom we disagree. The first Amendment protects lies as much as it protects truth-telling. It protects hateful speech as much as it protects loving speech. In contrast to God's commands, the first amendment provides allowance for worshiping God's other than the God of the Jews (The God we believe raised Jesus from the dead). It allows for false witness. I can misconstrue your words and knowingly misrepresent your ideas and so long as I don't slander you in clearly false and quantifiable harmful ways I'm protected. God may not like it, but our constitution allows for it.

The Ugly
Groups Like Westboro Baptist Church, the pornography industry, and other clearly destructive expressions of this freedom are completely protected. In fact, this is an aspect of our law that we are seeing non-western people struggling to understand. While The United States as a whole may not approve and encourage such things as the burning of Qurans or the making of videos that insult religious beliefs--these are also protected free speech. People in some parts of the world wonder why this irresponsible activity cannot be punished--and they find it hard to believe such content is protected.

So we give thanks for the 1st Amendment, for the right to assemble and worship without concern for organized persecution. But we should also remember that the constitution is not the gospel. It is good--and we can be proud of our country. But in it is not the life giving good news and commands that we find in scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. We would be wrong to assume that we could not worship without the American Constitution--we just may find such worship to get us into more trouble.

Just because the constitution gives us certain rights does not mean everything that is protected by those rights is ordained by God. Bearing false witness is still bearing false witness. Worshiping other gods is still idolatry, and loose and angry tongues cause a great fire and can even leads to murder.

How do you give thanks for the 1st Amendment while also lamenting some of the negative consequences of it?

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