Once there was a young Christian pastor who enjoyed leadership of a medium-sized congregation in mid-America. He and his church enjoyed the full protections afforded them by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. They had full liberty to do whatever they liked. He led opening prayers at the city council meeting, the Rotary Club, and home football games. He actively promoted political candidates from his congregation. He held gigantic freedom rallies every Fourth of July.
One day, the pastor decided that he wanted to teach his congregation the value of religious freedom. He read about a pastor in Arizona who was taken to jail for holding church services in his own home. “Gross violation of religious freedom!” the pastor shrieked. “Christians are being persecuted in our very own country! What will they do next? Will they close the doors of our beloved sanctuary?”
The people came running, and rallied around their pastor. They wrote letters to congressional representatives and called the White House. They wrote letters to the editor and marched in the streets.
Then they discovered that the Arizona pastor was actually guilty of sixty-seven violations of building code. And had a criminal record.
The people huffed, “That’s not a violation of religious freedom. Don’t cry wolf like that.” They returned to their homes.
But the pastor was determined to teach his flock about liberty. When he heard about the nation’s new healthcare law, he discovered that Catholic institutions would be required to provide their employees with contraceptives. Even though the pastor himself believed in contraceptives – boy, did he ever! – he didn’t think it was fair that Catholics would have to support something their religion forbade.
He began screaming again: “Our religious freedom is being threatened! Who knows what they will force us to pay for next – abortions, euthanasia, mercy killings? This is unprecedented!”
Again, the people came running. They took up their letter-writing and phone-calling campaigns again. They got to know the Catholics in their community. They burnt effigies of the President. They started petitions and websites and blogs.
Then they realized that it wasn’ t the Church itself that had to provide contraceptives; it was only their institutions that provided non-religious services, like hospitals and school, which had to include them as part of their health insurance plan.
The people then realized that there were lots of things which they paid for — generally through taxes — which they didn’t necessarily agree with. Some opposed the war in Iraq, yet never stopped paying their military taxes. Others opposed the Wall Street bailout, but didn’t stop paying their taxes.
The people scratched their heads and said to the pastor, “That’s not a violation of religious freedom. That’s a political disagreement over what should be included in a list of covered benefits. Don’t cry wolf like that.” They returned to their homes.
Yet the pastor was not finished. He was determined to alert his faithful members to the dangers that lay all around them. Now he became furious because he heard that the ACLU had sued the state of Virginia to have the Ten Commandments removed from public places. This was surely a sign that Christians were becoming a persecuted minority in the country.
“We no longer have the freedom to post the signs and symbols of our faith!” he shouted. “This country was built on Christian values, but these values have been stripped, degraded, and mocked. When will they come and make us take down the cross off the top of our steeple?”
The people came running, this time with a vengeance. The Ten Commandments were the foundation of Christian civilization. They demanded that the Ten Commandments be put back up. They called radio talk shows and launched online campaigns. They printed up posters of the Ten Commandments and sent them all over the country.
Upon closer investigation, however, they realized that the commandments had been posted in public schools, where children of other faiths also attended. They began to understand that, if the Ten Commandments were posted publicly, then passages from the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao, and the Book of Mormon would also have to be posted.
This angered the people. They approached the pastor and said, “This also is not about religious freedom. In fact, we’ve had it with your doomsday warnings. We have freedom to worship and believe as we like, and that is enough for us. We also have the political freedom to change laws if we don’t like them. Stop telling us that the sky is falling. We won’t listen to you anymore.” And they went home.
The pastor felt chastened and demoralized. He went home and kept quiet for several weeks.
But then something happened that really did threaten religious freedom in America. Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee wanted to build a mosque to accommodate their growing population, but anti-Islam residents of the community tried every legal trick to stop it. One man from Texas was arrested because he threatened to bomb the site. Meanwhile, the construction site has been vandalized numerous times, and equipment has been stolen and burned. The mosque is still unfinished.
The pastor saw the story on TV and read the reports. Oddly, this story did not make him angry. He did not rise up and cry out to his people.
Instead, he said, “Thank goodness those God-less Muslims don’t live in this community,” he said. “We don’t need those kind here.”