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RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- A letter recently published on my local newspaper's editorial page helpfully summarized the view of many secular folks when it comes to religious expression in public.
We "stand for separation of church and state," the letter writer declared. "Pick your religion, believe what you want, pursue greater knowledge toward that end. Do it for yourself -- and keep it out of public discourse. That's where the left stands."
I appreciate his honesty, if not his all-too-common misunderstanding of church-state separation. Open hostility toward freedom of speech is better than paying lip service to it while working behind the scenes to silence it. Either approach, however, is wrong.
"Keep your views about God and His commandments to yourself," society increasingly tells believers -- particularly conservative evangelicals, traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews. "Socially accepted truths and morals have progressed beyond your antiquated theologies. If you can't embrace the new normal, just keep your mouth shut. If you don't, we'll shame you, shut you down, call you a bigot. We might even take you to court and charge you with 'hate speech.'"
Such responses to religious speech undercut the spirit of the First Amendment. You have every right under the law and the Constitution to express almost any religious belief in public. If those views happen to be unpopular or minority positions, you still have the right to express them. That's why the First Amendment exists.
Free religious expression in the United States didn't come easily, as I wrote in a 2008 column, and it won't endure without vigorous exercise and defense. State church tyranny was the main opponent in the nation's infancy. Baptists, who experienced persecution by state-controlled churches in Europe and early America, played a key role in helping forge religious freedom in the new nation. Today the threats to religious speech are coming primarily from secular extremists who see biblical Christianity as "intolerant" and evangelism as "hate speech."
By far the greatest threat to religious expression, however, is the self-censorship practiced by believers. We fear offending someone more than we care about telling him or her the truth. We don't want to be thought intolerant. We don't want to go against the pluralist grain.
Let's find some inspiration and backbone from followers of Christ in tougher places who put everything on the line to share truth.
Recently I met several Muslim-background believers in North Africa and the Middle East. They are taking full advantage of new freedoms gained with the "Arab Spring" revolutions last year to spread the Gospel and make disciples. After generations of enforced silence, people in a number of Arab countries feel freer to express their opinions and seek their own answers, at least for now.
"Sometimes I even get calls from ," one believer told me. "They just want to know who is the right God. … So I think God is really working after the revolution."
Another believer was arrested multiple times for telling people about Jesus before the revolution in his country. He just could not stay silent about the wonderful truth he had found. He's wiser now about when to speak and when to be quiet, but he's just as bold.
"Before, I was controlled by the government," he explains. "I had to go and sign in every three months and tell them everything -- what I did, where I moved. If I was having any guest , I had to go and ask permission. I really hated that. I feel freer now in doing God's work."
Even if the new freedoms disappear, however, these believers will keep telling others that Jesus is the only way to God. If they aren't afraid to talk about the truth in places where the hammer could come down at any moment, why should we be?
Don't squander your freedom in the land of the free. It's not guaranteed.
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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