Much has been made this election cycle about Religious Liberty. Many of the Republican candidates for president have been speaking vehemently about the First Amendment protection of the “Free Exercise of Religion”. There is fear among many Americans that the government will be interfering in the practice of their religion through enforced support of gay marriage. However, I want to suggest that this attitude is a poor imitation of what the law and our religion actually call us to. It is not the only the freedom of religion from government interference, but that we have the freedom to fully exercise our religion, something our atrophied churches demonstrate we have not been diligent in practicing.
The free exercise of religion is a not only a right but also a duty of every American Christian. It is not given that we may go to church and hear an uncensored sermon every week before we get back to our lives. It is given that we may embody Christ in our everyday lives. Our country was founded on the presupposition that the Christians would be Christians and should be left alone to do so, a presupposition that doesn’t seem to hold in today’s consumer Christianity. Whereas in other countries Christians have to exercise their religion in secret or with civil penalties for doing so, we have the blessing of a clause in the Bill of Rights guaranteeing our freedom to be the most Christian we can without fear of reprisal. So why do we seem to not be taking advantage of this blessing?
For just one example, the Bible contains hundreds of orders for followers to take care of widows, orphans, and the poor. It is a central to Christianity that we make personal sacrifices to benefit those who cannot give back. It makes sense to me for slothful Christians to abdicate our responsibility for loving our neighbor by voting for higher taxes to pay for social welfare programs that take care of the poor and needy. Then, the Christian could claim that the government was fulfilling Christ’s commands so the personal impetus to obey wasn’t as strong. It doesn’t compute in my faith that a Christian would ignore this overwhelmingly clear command to love the poor while also voting for small government and lower taxes. Who then is obeying God to take care of the poor? We have a sacred responsibility to minister to Christ by ministering to the least of his children, and the Church has known this for 2000 years, yet I don’t see a strong dedication to life-on-life community transformation with the poor as a cornerstone of Christian culture. Let me be clear: if you are a Christian who is voting to lower taxes and cut social safety net spending, it needs to be because the government isn’t doing as good a job as you will and is fundamentally unable to give that which the needy crave most: personal unconditional love. A Christian who doesn’t serve and give isn’t recognizable as a Christian.
We are to be known for our love for each other and those who are marginalized. The early church in Rome was known for rescuing infants left in the garbage to be killed through exposure. Why isn’t the church in America known for having families banging down the door at each abortion clinic begging to adopt the child? Abraham was known for his hospitality to strangers and foreigners in contrast to Sodom and Gomorrah who would rape to death travelers and the homeless. Why isn’t the church in America known for welcoming immigrants of any legal status and championing their safety, education, integration, and economic well being? The church in the middle ages was known for staying in cities with plague outbreaks and tending the sick, even though it often meant their own lives. Why isn’t the church in America known for providing free health care to the poor, needy, and elderly?
Granted, there are many churches and groups who are lovingly doing the work of God, but why do they seem to be few and far between; the exception rather than the rule? Most particularly, why has my religion of peace and care for the needy been associated with greed and disdain for the poor? We should be campaigning day and night for the government to get smaller so that it would get out of our way! Food stamps should be abolished because no one wants them, they are being fed better by the church. Medicare should be abolished when everyone prefers to go to the Christians who don’t just send a nurse but a friend who will love and care for an elderly person in their last years as a community member and child of God, not a statistic waiting to be buried. Taxes should come down because it would mean more money we could give to our churches and charity organizations. What if the average Christian had a giving rate above her taxation rate? What if Christian businessmen took their tax breaks to employ ex-felons and pregnant mothers who will need maternity leave within a few months of being hired, knowing they wouldn’t contribute the most to the bottom line, but they need a job and in exuberant joy the businessman wants to provide it for them?
In conclusion, I think the most Biblically sound position for the Christian to take in contemporary America is to give radically and exorbitantly of themselves, their time, and their money. Once they have maxed out how much they can give, they need to petition the government to shrink out of their way so that more people may be loved and served. The poor are ours until the end of time, promised by God as a blessing and responsibility to us. Let us exercise our right to love and serve them each day, that our strength as a church in a nation may increase, and God’s name may be made great through our sacrifices.