Those who call pandemic-driven church closings “persecution” don’t know the real thing
A sermon clip from last year of a prominent pastor in conservative circles—the Reverend John F. MacArthur—recently resurfaced on Twitter. In it Rev. MacArthur denounces religious freedom in America. Ironically, the very freedom he condemns protects his ability to share those views from the pulpit. As National Religious Freedom Day approaches—Sunday, January 16—we should pause to appreciate, rather than lament, what we enjoy in the United States. It is far from the global norm.
National Religious Freedom Day marks the date of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. The Statute became a foundational document for American religious freedom, presaging the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—a kind of first draft.
The Virginia Statute was a declaration of independence for religious freedom, putting forth revolutionary ideas for colonial America—and for many parts of the world, still. Declaring that “God hath created the mind free,” it proclaimed that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever,” and that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
The statute was written in the age of kings and forced adherence to a state confession, when authorities could levy stiff penalties against those either practicing faith differently or practicing a different faith. Reading the Virginia Statute in light of contemporary persecution abroad demonstrates both how far we’ve come as a nation and how others continue to suffer. Jefferson would recognize the many “tyrannical” types of oppression listed in the Statute that millions experience worldwide today.
The global environment for religious freedom is unquestionably dark, violent, and hostile. Governments persecute and terrorists terrorize men and women for their beliefs. Communist China continues its genocidal campaign against Uighur Muslims as well as its unrelenting assault on Tibetan Buddhists, while also bulldozing churches to the ground. Consider the public flogging of free thinkers in Saudi Arabia for merely questioning the Kingdom’s Salafist orientation, and the Taliban’s hateful theocratic rule in Afghanistan. Or blasphemy laws in Pakistan, converts and religious dissenters jailed in Iran, and discrimination and violence against Christians and Muslims in India.
While we in the United States have work to do at home to combat antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and other forms of religious discrimination, the United States experiences none of these extreme violations. Yet over the past two years allegations of religious persecution in America have percolated among those who view COVID-related church closures as on par with these extreme violations. In point of fact, “persecution” comparisons actually make evident our expansive domestic liberties. While church closures certainly frustrated corporate worship and were at times excessive, they do not constitute persecution. Not at all.
What National Religious Freedom Day also does is underscore the United States’ unique position in addressing global persecution through our unparalleled global reach and influence. For the last twenty-four years, the United States has advanced international religious freedom through a special State Department office, a truly distinctive part of American diplomacy. In a burst of December bipartisanship, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Rashad Hussain as President Biden’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, installing an experienced advocate and the first Muslim American to hold the position.
For Ambassador Hussain and the Biden administration to move the needle, consequential diplomacy that extracts a cost for oppression is required. The recent decision to delist Nigeria from the State Department’s blacklist for religious freedom violations was an inexplicable mistake, but the administration has correctly called out Saudi Arabia for its lack of churches and continued the Trump administration’s genocide determination regarding Uighur Muslims in China. The challenge of global repression requires further bold leadership. We should encourage them to do more.
Understanding the global environment makes evident why, contrary to Rev. MacArthur’s opinion, we should celebrate American religious freedom. As the Baptist Faith and Message stated, “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” Thanks to the Virginia Statute and its progeny, Americans of all faiths and no faith enjoy broad freedoms of belief and practice. The American system protects soul freedom.
The Virginia Statute ends with an exclamation: “We are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind.” Our domestic religious liberties are a blessing. And while this is a hotly contested topic worthy of attention and constant perfecting, we must remember that domestic challenges pale in comparison to the dire international situation. We should celebrate these freedoms on January 16.
Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on combating religious persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.