How is it that Christians are often persecuted for their faith? Let’s restrict our consideration to persecution that comes from governmental sources. As an American citizen who came of age in the second half of the twentieth century, I never imagined that I would ever have to be concerned about being persecuted for my faith unless I left the country. I was taught that my faith, along with a whole range of other aspects of my life, was protected. I was free. This was the land of liberty. Glory to God!
But I have seen a sea change in terms of my government’s disposition toward people of the Christian faith. I have seen a hostility and a threat that I never thought I would see. Can this develop into persecution? I believe that it can.
It seems to me that the two spheres of authority represented by “the church” and “the state” have had varying amounts of overlap throughout history. When Christianity was brand new, there was no overlap between the two spheres of influence. Governmental authorities had the ability to arrest, punish, and even kill Christians. (As we see in the book of Acts, chapter 12 when Herod puts James to death and imprisons Peter.)
Later in history, the Christian “church” and the “state” in most of Europe were joined to the point that they appeared inseparable. The overlap was virtually complete. State authority depended on church authority for its legitimacy, and the church essentially used the state as a tool for power and influence.
At the founding of America an exciting and interesting experiment emerged that we now call “separation of church and state.” The founding fathers specifically tied the hands of their new government to prevent it from empowering any specific church (or inhibiting the free exercise of religion). At the time of this official “separation,” there were small differences in worldview between the Christian and the secular. Because of the way European history had developed, the “secular” looked a lot like the “Christian.” The overlap between church and state was still substantial, but with the adoption of the US Constitution, this overlap was no longer a legal requirement.
Both Christians and secularists saw the separation of church and state as a wise and beneficial move. It would benefit the church by ensuring that faith was a legitimate act of the will. It would benefit the state by ensuring that a democratic republic would be built on freedom and opportunity for people of all faiths or none.
In the time since our country’s founding there has been a slow, gradual shift (until recently) in which the secular worldview (which our government represents) and the Christian worldview have drifted apart. In recent years the two perspectives are rapidly diverging. Where these two spheres of influence and power diverge, we have areas of law that do not originate in the Christian worldview. Some laws are designed to permit things that the Christian would prefer not to permit. These laws pose no threat to the Christian, although they may make the Christian uncomfortable. There is a natural evolution of law however. Laws that emerge in order to permit an activity often evolve into laws that encourage that activity. Laws that encourage an activity sometimes evolve into laws that require that activity. At that point, laws that require Christians to engage in activities that are against their faith lead to persecution of Christians. And this is the reason that I am concerned for the future of Christians in America. I see more and more evolution of laws that trend in the direction of forcing Christians to behave in ways that their faith does not permit.