A family member recent shared an open letter written to Franklin Graham from a Lutheran pastor, Rev. Peter Olsen. Here is his letter, followed by my response:
Dear Rev. Olsen,
A family member of mine shared your letter on her Facebook page and, being a supporter of Rev. Graham and a pastor myself, I was interested in what you had to say.
Interested - and then saddened - by how you misrepresented him and President Trump. I was reminded of Jesus' lesson about taking the log out of your own eye before helping someone else take a speck out of their own. I admit that I often do the same thing and am trying to be intentional in these divisive times to be very aware of my own presuppositions before I speak or put pen to paper, well, fingers to keyboard. With that in mind, I would like to share my perspective on the persecution of Christians in our country.
You are quite correct that Christians are not being physically persecuted in America like they have been throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world. Rev. Graham is intimately aware of those dangers through the work of Samaritan's Purse. Recently, that organization set up a hospital outside Mosul, Iraq. I've been supporting them, other than Christmas Shoe Boxes, since 2014 when they stepped in to help the Yazidi's being murdered by ISIS. They are on the ground in that region with a front row seat to the persecution of Christians, Muslims and others. He knows what religious persecution looks like.
So when Franklin Graham talks about the loss of religious freedom in the United States, perhaps we should pay attention and not dismiss him out of hand. You say in your open letter to him:
"Of all the things that worry me, the loss of religious freedom for Christians in America isn't one of them. I can't say I have ever experienced anything in this country that could reasonably called a restriction on my religious liberty, much less persecution."
I respectfully suggest that you consider taking the log out of your own eye and look around. The restrictions are there, and I am concerned, like the frog in the pot of boiling water, you just don't sense the change in temperature.
The Founders of America acknowledged that governments are created by God to protect the rights and liberties God has given to humanity. God is the lynchpin that holds our American experiment together. The founders did not want a theocracy or even a state sponsored church, but they did not want to abandon God in the process. Our system of government, John Adams wrote, is dependent upon a moral and religious people. God would rule, but through the hearts and minds of citizens who controlled the power of government through their votes and participation.
To have a moral society, there must be moral citizens. Morality, to be binding and consistent, needs to be based in God, not the whims of people. As America slowly abandons God and increasingly seeks to determine what is good and evil apart from our Creator, we have repeated the sin of Adam and Eve. You know, all that stuff about wanting to be like God.
For most of America's history, the majority of the citizens agreed on moral precepts of their Judeo-Christian faith. Discerning God's will can be a messy business. Sometimes America got it right, sometimes we got it wrong, and sometimes, like now, it seems that we are increasingly ignoring God altogether.
Why are we ignoring God? Over the past fifty years or more, there has been a concerted effort on the part of some (call them secularists, progressives, Marxists, or whatever) to steadily marginalize Christians and Christianity. As a result many have abandoned the faith and many more have not come to faith in the first place. Our culture is reaping the result of abandoning God as central to American life.
Many of today's Christians faithfully fight daily battles to live out their faith and restore faith in God to our nation. They feel the heat. These are the "persecuted" people Rev. Graham was talking about.
Within academia and the political classes there has been an ongoing effort, mostly through the rewriting of American history, to uncouple the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution. The mantra of "separation of church and state" and a "godless Constitution" have been repeated so often that folks believe them to be true. But when Jefferson told the Danbury Baptists that there would be a "wall of separation between Church & State" he was addressing their concern that the government might meddle in church affairs. He assured them the government would leave the churches alone. Today's interpretation that the church should not unduly influence the government turns Jefferson's words on their head. The church, and the moral teachings thereof, are essential for our form of government to work.
As for our "godless constitution," the principle that "All men are created equal" loses its power when you take away the reality that it is God who created us equal; people didn't just decide that one day. If we decide we are equal today, we can just as easily decide we aren't all equal tomorrow. It is God who gives us rights - like that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" stuff. And God designed that these rights are to be protected by governments. It is God our "Creator" who has provided us with the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God. " It is God who as the "Supreme Judge of the Universe," holds us accountable to those laws, and who, in his love and mercy wants us to rely on His "Divine Providence." Those are all the ways God is described in the Declaration of Independence, by the way. We do not have a "godless" constitution, we have a God-infused Constitution. To deny the bond between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is to deny God's involvement in our political lives. Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?
The courts have removed The Ten Commandments from view as a "religious" document rather than celebrating it as the best moral code humanity has ever known. Speaking of the courts, why are they making decisions about so many issues, like abortion and same sex marriage, that rightly should be put before our legislatures or in some cases the people themselves. I would vote based on my understanding of Christian teaching. Your vote would count too. Then I would live with the result, but I resent the courts' intervention in these matters. Christians, and all citizens, are being prohibited from having a voice on changes in our laws that impact deeply held convictions. Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?
Let's think a minute then about the bakers who lost their business. You mentioned the importance of following the law and I agree. But they reached a point where the law violated their understanding of the sanctity of marriage and choose not to participate in a same sex marriage. They wouldn't cross that line. Where is the line for you? Would you perform a marriage for two people of the same sex? Would you insist that I do? Under what circumstances would you participate in civil disobedience in order to follow God? Sadly to say, as laws and regulations in America become increasingly less dependent upon Biblical principles, more Christians will be forced into civil disobedience. In a nation based on Christianity, why are we people of faith having to decide between right and the law? Shouldn't we work hard to see that our laws are right and just in God's eyes? Isn't this a restriction on Christianity?
Our education system fails to reinforce Christian values and virtues taught at home and in churches. Prayer and the Bible are no longer permitted in public schools, although they were the basis of public education for the first 150 years of our constitutional republic. How does a Christian raise their children if the schools won't even acknowledge there is a God, let alone that a significant part of human nature is our spirituality? We are more than the sum of our cells, are we not? Isn't the outright denial of a Creator in the education of our children a restriction on Christianity?
In popular culture and political punditry, Christians are sometimes demonized, but most often ridiculed and bullied. TV shows and movies rarely if ever show Christians in a positive light. Those that do are often cancelled. And as you know, many Christians are lights whose example would benefit the world.
Again and again I read and hear folks like me - conservative Christians - referred to as "xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted and misogynist." It has almost become a catch-all among the main stream media to describe a person of faith. Often it is expanded to include the "angry, fearful" descriptor you added for Rev. Graham. Criticizing sincere Christians who don't have a hateful bone in their body is just another way to marginalize and silence people of faith.
For the record, I am not xenophobic because I love America; I welcome immigrants who will follow our laws; I am not homophobic because I believe God designed marriage for men and women; I am not a bigot because I believe all lives matter; and I am not a misogynist because I believe God created men and women to be different and equal. All of us are God's children. All of us are due dignity and respect. All of us are sinners in need of His grace. All of us will be held accountable by God for what we do and say.
Following God's will is a whole lot easier if we struggle to discern it together but how can we do that if we are discouraged - and sometimes prevented - from talking to each other. It is hard to speak up for your faith when you see people who think like you regularly ridiculed. Making fun of Christians is almost a new sport. Sadly, it has chilling effect on the free speech we also hold so dear. Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?
Now, a bit closer to home. Do the members of your congregation feel free to express their faith at work or school? Or have they been shunned or disciplined for having a Bible on their desk, a quote from Scripture on their iPad, or inviting someone to church or on a mission trip? Have they bought the lie that faith is a private matter, not to be shared in public. I think Jesus' command to go and make disciples is very hard to do if you can't tell folks about Him. Do they feel that their Christianity is restricted?
What about you, have you ever been asked to pray at a public event, but been told to keep your prayer generic so as to not offend anyone? I, too am a Christian pastor (United Methodist), and I pray in the name of Jesus when asked to pray at public events. I would expect others to pray in their traditions as well. To not pray in Jesus' name would make me feel like I am some how ashamed of Jesus. And I'm not! I am not ashamed of the cross, and no pastor in America should be put in that position. That is a restriction on Christianity.
So while American Christians are not being physically persecuted like our brothers and sisters around the world, there are many in our country who are, and have been, working hard at eroding the soul of Christianity in our nation. All levels of government, schools, and popular culture seem hell-bent on denying God in any way that can. The persecution of Christians in America is spiritual - but no less deadly. The churches seem to be doing little to fight back.
Even though you say you haven't experienced it, I think you have. Can you see, perhaps a bit, how and why some Christians in America are feeling ridiculed, marginalized and persecuted? We believe that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and as the strength of those principles diminishes in public life, so will the strength of America. We are in a fight for the soul of America. I hope you can see it now, and will join us.
I'll be writing you another letter soon to respond to other issues you raise in your letter to Rev. Graham. In the meantime, may God continue to bless your life and ministry.
And by the way, you mentioned pastors doing funerals for people whose conduct we don't "approve of." I'm not sure exactly what you meant by that, but if you mean how difficult it is to do funerals for some folks, I know it can be a struggle. Here is a bit of pastoral advice. I once had a parishioner tell me that she hated going to funerals because pastors always lie and never tell the truth about the life the deceased had led. So you know what, I quit trying to sugar coat the lives of those I buried. I do the funeral, give an honest (although sensitively worded) account of their lives, and entrust them to the mercy of Jesus. Powerful stuff. Trust me, those who mourn do appreciate it.
Rev. Susan Schrier Clouse