August 24, 2017

The Threat to Freedom of Religion

Don Johnson

A recent survey by George Barna has garnered some attention: “Many pastors wary of raising ‘controversy’“ (HT: SharperIron). The linked article suggests that theologically conservative pastors are unwilling to raise political issues in their congregations. Here is Barna himself:

“What we’re finding is that when we ask them about all the key issues of the day, [90 percent of them are] telling us, Yes, the Bible speaks to every one of these issues. Then we ask them: Well, are you teaching your people what the Bible says about those issues? – and the numbers drop … to less than 10 percent of pastors who say they will speak to it.”

The survey and comments are interesting enough by themselves, but my question is this: do pastors and churches have any reason to fear if they are outspoken on any public issues? (No issues are specified in the linked article.) My thoughts on this topic are influenced by a bit of American history that most readers might find surprising.

In 1862, a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis, Missouri determined to keep politics out of his pulpit. The time was of course the American Civil War. Rev. Samuel B. McPheeters had taken an oath of loyalty to the United States government, but he believed the church should be neutral so that members of varying points of view could worship together under the same roof. Some members of his congregation took exception to his views and on Dec. 13, 1862, published their displeasure in The Missouri Democrat, “a staunchly Republican paper.” This brought the preacher to the attention of the military governor of Missouri, Gen. Samuel Curtis. The attention resulted in Special Order No. 152 on Dec. 19 which forbad the preacher from his pulpit and banished him from the state itself. The Provost Marshall of the state, Marshall Franklin Dick boasted, “If the President will sustain me, I will rid the State of Rebel Preachers.”

McPheeters traveled to Washington and secured a personal interview with Abraham Lincoln, only to find that the President was predisposed against him. “If this order should be revoked it would be considered a secession triumph,” he is reported to have said. Lincoln attempted to steer a middle course between full reinstatement and outright banishment, leaving the matter in the hands of local authorities while offering the guidance that McPheeters be allowed to remain in Missouri. The military governors persisted in keeping the preacher out of the pulpit, however, and McPheeters was not allowed to preach in his church for over a year, from December of 1862 to January of 1864. (His troubles were not over because he was soon defrocked by his denomination in a bid to bolster the Presbyterian loyalist credentials.)[1]

I don’t know what you might think of McPheeters. Surely most of us would think that he could have been more forthright in either opposing slavery or supporting the Union, but we are long removed from that controversy. I relate the story to point out the consequences of public opinion and public pressure. Paul tells us that the state “beareth not the sword in vain,” even if the state wields that sword unwisely or unjustly (or unconstitutionally). Public opinion of the day, especially among the Union governors and the Northern states would be strongly against a neutral clergyman. It is all well and good to believe in separation of church and state when the political views of the church are shared by a sufficient percentage of the population as to make them at least tolerable to the majority, but when one is decidedly in the minority, much pressure is put on the notion of church/state distinction. In this story, Lincoln is reported to have made some comments that “the war had blurred the line separating church and state.”

We are concerned with our day, of course. I was trained for the ministry in a time when the nascent Christian Right was beginning to flex its muscles. Many a political statement was made from many a pulpit, especially in America. I remember a conversation with a Canadian clergyman where he complained about his perception of “those American preachers” and their outspoken politics. We Canadians were apparently above such sordidness – he maintained a pulpit position not unlike Rev. McPheeters, strict neutrality.

In a recent article, I discussed the public pressure put on athletes with respect to the homosexual agenda. Today’s athletes are not allowed to take a position of neutrality, at least not publicly. Those of us in the ministry in fundamentalist Baptist churches are not known for a position of neutrality on this issue. As we speak, however, public pressure is growing on this point. If you try to raise a protesting voice in the public sphere, you will be at least hooted down. In many cases you will not be allowed to speak. So much for freedom of speech.

How long will it be before you are not allowed to preach? How long will it be before homosexuality becomes a wedge issue to deny tax-exempt status to churches? Or, in fact, to shutter churches permanently? One would hope that it won’t ever come to that, but no one imagined we would be where we are today on this issue even a few short years ago.

History isn’t on our side either. While most would view President Lincoln positively, the fact is that he was prepared to sacrifice many expediencies to the cause of winning his war. What would you say of current political leadership? Would they be more or less likely to honor the constitution and protect the rights of free assembly, free speech and free religion? When the current administration changes, what are the prospects for those who follow them, on either side of the aisle?

We cannot rely on tradition, politicians, or even constitution as we seek to preach the truth to our generation. We need to rely on the God of heaven and his word. We need to be prepared to proclaim the truth of Scripture without regard to the threatenings of men.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. For more details of this story, see “The Preacher and the President” in the New York Times excellent Disunion columns on the Civil War. []


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