Governments and Religion
“He said unto them, Then render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25, scriptures from Revised Version Improved and Corrected, RVIC).
Lawmakers in the French parliament’s lower house overwhelmingly approved a bill that would strengthen government oversight of mosques, schools, and sports clubs to safeguard France from radical Islamists and to promote respect for French values. In addition, the bill would allow temporary closure of any religious group that spreads ideas that incite hatred or violence. Religious organizations would have to obtain government permits every five years to continue operating, and have their accounts certified annually if they receive foreign funding. The bill applies to all houses of worship, including churches and synagogues, although it is aimed at mosques and Islamic organizations. The Law Reinforcing Respect of the Principles of the Republic bill would empower the government to permanently close houses of worship and dissolve religious organizations, without court order, if any of their members are provoking violence or inciting hatred.
In the United States, some groups are pressing the Biden administration to restore the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects faith-based exemptions from some health care, funding and nondiscrimination laws. From 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion — laws, policies, and actions by State officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices — increased markedly around the world. Social hostilities against certain religious groups has increased since 2007, the year Pew Research Center began tracking the issue. More than 50 governments today, including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia, and Russia, now impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. And the number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the decade-long tenure of the study.
Government laws and policies restricting religious freedom (such as requiring that religious groups register in order to operate) and government favoritism of religious groups (through funding for religious education, property and clergy, for example) have consistently been the most prevalent types of restrictions globally and in each of the five regions tracked in the study: Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle EastNorth Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Both types of restrictions have been rising in the past decade.
Government limits on religious activities and government harassment of religious groups also have been rising over the past decade — and in some cases, even more steeply. For instance, in the survey, government limits on religious activities in Europe (including efforts to restrict proselytizing and male circumcision) have doubled since 2007, and the average score which rates government harassment in the Middle East-North Africa region (such as criminal prosecutions of Ahmadis or other minority sects of Islam) has increased by 72%.
In the U.S., a Leaning Towards Civil Religion
In America, debates on where to draw the line between religion and government have gone on since the days when William Penn established Philadelphia as a haven from religious persecution especially in Europe. (It was not by chance that the emergence of the focus on the Second Advent and the Truth movement had their beginnings in Pennsylvania.) The United States has long been known for what sociologists call “civil religion” — a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on patriotism, the nation’s founding documents, and God.
In the U.S. now, however, the inclusion of God in this group is waning as so-called nones — atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” — have risen to one-third of the U.S. population (2020 Harvard University survey). It is not known what might happen when those categorized as “nones” penetrate Congressional ranks, where 88 percent of those serving still identify themselves as Christian (2019 Congressional poll).
Within the American population, more than six in-ten adults (63%) say churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics, while an even higher share (76%) says these houses of worship should not endorse political candidates during elections. Yet more than a third of Americans (36%) say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters. (The Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, prohibits tax-exempt institutions like churches from involvement in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate.)
Sociologists say that as participation in organized religion has plummeted below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling, politics has now become a quasi-religion. From Make America Great Again (MAGA) devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism has often combined with religious worship for many (2020 poll). Many religious Americans tend to choose their congregation with an eye toward partisanship — to the point where the choice of presidential candidate can lead someone to move to a new church.
Jesus’ Principles of Citizenship
“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities: for there is no power but of God; and the authorities that be are ordained of God. Therefore, he that resisteth the authority, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves condemnation. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the authority? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:1-4).
When the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus by questioning him about paying taxes, his answer in our theme text suggests certain principles for a consecrated Christian’s interaction with government. Paul further defined these principles in the Romans passage cited above. These guidelines can be summarized as follows:
● Allegiance to God should not deter respect for the government
● On the other hand, one should not exhibit thoughtless consent
● A revolutionary movement isn’t the way to deal with injustice
● A true Christian should exhibit an influence for righteousness
● A Christian’s principles should be exhibited within their circle of influence
Peter wrote of a rightful respect for the government: “Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to a king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well” (1 Peter 2:13-14) Yet he did not render it equal to God’s authority in our lives. We are never sanctioned to endorse sin, even when governments do. If governments seek to force Christians to betray their commitments to Jesus’ commandments and Jehovah’s requirements, they must take the stand which Peter taught elsewhere, “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, We strictly charged you not to teach in this name: and behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. But Peter and the apostles answered and said, We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29).
Our interaction with society should focus mainly on the welfare and responsibility of individuals. We are to remain a judging and transforming influence for righteousness in a world filled with the darkness of sin. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).