Adventists! Avoid pendulum swings

Last month, many Seventh-day Adventists joined others to debate the legal right for Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses because of her religious beliefs. Because she was a government official, the courts found that she could either perform the marriages or get out of the way and let her subordinates perform them. She refused and the matter went through the legal system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that refused to issue a stay of a lower court order that required Davis to issue the licenses, or allow her deputies to do so, and she was ultimately jailed for contempt of the lower court order.


The discussion then turned to the Supreme Court’s right, in the first place, to either allow or deny same-sex marriage. Some Adventists argue that since marriage and the Sabbath were first instituted at creation, the two gifts are therefore intertwined and granting same sex couples the right to marry will ultimately lead to the destruction of the Sabbath.

The problem with this argument is that Adventists have historically believed that the state should not institute a specific day of worship and that the decision to worship (or not) is solely between the individual and God. In fact, the right of Adventists to worship has not been compromised by the fact that others can worship on other days. Therefore, it follows that the sacredness of the heterosexual bond will not be compromised by the fact that same-sex couples can marry.

Certainly there are issues currently in the pipeline where rights of conscience will need to be protected, particularly among Christians in the wedding industry, and those issues will wind their way through the courts. 

An expansive, though not exclusive framework of religious freedom has been engrained in the Adventist denominational DNA from its founding in the 1800s. Because of the unique beliefs of Adventists, they remain a distinct religious minority in the Protestant tradition and therefore remain fiercely protective of the rights of other minority groups with whom they may fundamentally disagree on matters of faith.


Adventists still follow portions of the Bible that other Protestants have abandoned long ago. For example, Adventists still keep a holy day free from work. After the Civil War, several states passed Sunday rest laws, spurred on by Protestants calling themselves "Sabbatarians", who wanted the nation to "return to God”. Adventists were considered the rebels. Adventist historian Richard Schwarz notes that between 1885 and 1896 over 100 Seventh-day Adventists were arrested and fined for the "crime" of breaking Sunday laws in states such as California, Tennessee, and Arkansas (Lightbearers to the Remnant, 252).

Today, Adventists are among the only Christians to seriously observe a day of rest even when it is not convenient to do so, or at the risk of their jobs. Adventists take advantage of civil rights laws that protect religious accommodations in the workplace. Yet some have trouble recognizing that these same rights are also extended to those with whom they may disagree or even to non-Christian, religious groups.


Similarly, when it comes to diet, Adventists join with orthodox Jews and Muslims in promoting government policies that promote accommodation of various religious dietary restrictions. However, the religious right has periodically claimed that making these accommodations to Muslim groups accedes to so-called "Sharia law." Along these lines, Adventists have also promoted legislation opposed by "Christian America," that would permit people of faith to wear religiously required garb in the workplace as long as it does not interfere with health and safety requirements.


Likewise, when it comes to evangelism, Adventists have joined Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons advocating for the rights of colporteurs to go door-to-door, selling books or sharing their faith.


Adventists have also, at least historically, championed non-violence and encouraged members around the world who faced the draft, to register as non-combatants. At the same time, many other Christians around the world promoted nationalism.


Examples like this are important because they illustrate the fact that regardless of how much Adventists have in common with others, they remain a religious minority. In addition, Adventists need to be particularly vigilant when members of the religious majority use their status to bring about laws that enforce their brand of religion. While the religious-political pendulum may sweep left and right, Adventists must remain off the pendulum, and stay firmly planted in their own convictions, recognizing the harm that swings in either direction can bring.

In 1889 Senator H.W. Blair (S. 2983) made a serious attempt to enact a Sunday law. At the time, Alonzo T. Jones, one of the chief architects of the Adventist position on religious liberty, said words that ring true today: "The time has come for us to assert the right of others to believe as they please, and to assert it at all times and places. If you or I sit idly down and see another's rights invaded and taken away, and do nothing, because it does not harm us we will have no right to complain when ours are invaded. ... The question is not who is right, but what are the individual rights" (1889 Campmeeting Sermons - Teach Services, 11).

Today, freedom in the United States is in a precarious position as we approach the 2016 election. As the pendulum begins its directional change from left to right, Jones' statement that "the question is not who is right, but what are the individual rights" is hard to discern. In a manner not seen in elections in many years, the 2016 front-runners are gaining steam by directing their rhetoric against something called "political correctness" and are blatantly using the rhetoric of fear to attack the supposed beliefs of religious minority groups, such as Muslims, and are openly opining that they should not have the right to hold political office. In so doing, politicians who make such statements open their own faith background to otherwise unnecessary scrutiny.
To hear others talk about America's core values, including religious pluralism, it would seem that America has outgrown its history of true religious freedom, that opened its doors to all peaceful people of faith. Many believe there needs to be a temporary rollback of rights to stop the tide of immorality and godlessness. 

James Madison warned in 1785, "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties." He asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever" (Memorial and Remonstrance).

America cannot be made great again by imposing God on our nation from the top down. The Holy Spirit works within the heart of individuals who can then freely choose to follow. America will not be made holy through forced vain repetition of prayers or publicly funded displays, or by taking the rights of minorities away. When this happens, it is time to be alarmed