A Lesson American Evangelicals can Learn from Iranian Christians Regarding Making Religious Liberty an Idol
Philip O Hopkins
In the last few months, the Supreme Court has ruled upon cases that involve religious liberty. In one judgement, SCOTUS, in a 7-2 decision determined in favor of a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to make a marriage cake for a homosexual couple. In a second verdict, in a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS upheld the Trump administration’s ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US. The first pronouncement has been lauded by evangelicals who support religious liberty while the second has had mixed reviews. Religious liberty, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and part of the foundation and fabric of American society, assures all Americans the right to practice their belief system without undo governmental restriction. Regarding the first case, Phillips is back in the news because he is suing the Colorado governor for discrimination. Concerning the second instance, academics with Iranian heritage and people from other ‘suspect’ nations were denied visas into the US (including those with British and European citizenship) for the 2018 Association for Iranian Studies conference in Irvine, CA, a symposium held every two years in different places throughout the world that centers on Iranian scholarship, a conference that evangelical American Christians could have attended and shared Christ with Iranian academics living in Iran – some of whom may never have heard the gospel.
At least one Iranian leader has praised the origin of the American system that protects divergent and conflicting beliefs. Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president of Iran (1997-2005), in a 1998 interview with CNN stated Puritan Christians were a positive example of faith united with religious liberty: 'The American civilization is founded upon the vision, thinking, and manners of the Puritans … The Puritans constituted a religious sect whose vision and characteristics, in addition to worshipping God, was in harmony with republicanism, democracy, and freedom … In my opinion, one of the biggest tragedies in human history is this confrontation between religion and liberty which is to the detriment of religion, liberty, and the human beings who deserve to have both. The Puritans desired a system which combined the worship of God and human dignity and freedom'.
Rights, the Great Commission and Great Commandment, and Idolatry
In discussing religious liberty, while a right granted by law, Christians believe it is first and foremost a gift from God. Religious liberty does not need to be given and can be taken away at any time for any reason. In God’s eyes, no one is entitled to it. God’s gifts are for his purposes – namely, to spread his glory through Christ by the Great Commission (Matthew 28.18-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22.37-40). Christians’ time, money, and effort are (or should be) spent on deepening their relationships with Christ and making the gospel known to people from all tribes, tongues, languages, and nations (Revelation 5.9 and Revelation 7.9). Caring enough about the souls of others that Christians willingly sacrifice freedoms is one beauty of the faith. When battling for religious liberty, acting in a Christlike manner never hinders God's plans.
When Christians pursue God’s gift over God himself, they make the blessing of God into an idol. As Tim Keller explains, an idol is ‘anything more important to you than God … If I have that [whatever ‘that’ may be] I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’ When a ‘political or social cause [of] making progress and ascending in influence or power’ gives life meaning, Keller writes, the goodness of helping and/or persuading others becomes an idol. Similarly, while there are significant advantages in having certain freedoms in the US, when Christians feel so strongly about religious liberty that it takes the place in their hearts of where God only should be – if religious liberty gives meaning to life or gives one hope outside of God’s grace alone, intentionally or unintentionally – it becomes an idol.
What if God were to remove his gift of religious liberty from American Christians? What if churches and religious institutions were taxed? What if pastors were required legally to perform marriages of homosexual couples? What if American Christians could only talk about their faith privately and it was illegal to proselytize? God taking away religious liberty would not necessarily be a punishment. It could be a purifying element and be strengthening to the church. He could replace religious liberty with another gift: suffering.
American Christians are experiencing a Christianity that is not normative. It is a Christianity, in comparison to most of the world, that is without persecution. In some ways this is detrimental. In thinking about freedoms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous invitation comes to mind: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him [to] come and die’. Famous early church father Tertullian’s reported words arise as well: ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. More importantly, Scripture states that being a Christian means one will suffer. Second Timothy 3.12 asserts that ‘everyone who wants to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’. First Peter 4.16 declares that Christians should not be ashamed to suffer for Christ. Philippians 1.29 indicates that suffering for Christ is a gift.
As an American Bible believing Christian researcher who has lived outside the US for over a dozen years and has studied academically the history of Christianity in Iran, a country where freedom of faith is not so free, if not careful, American Christians will take the gift of religious liberty and make it an idol … if they have not done so already. In looking at the above biblical passages and seeing what is happening in Iran where Christianity is growing even though there are far more restrictions, are American Christians focused so much on religious liberty that they have lost their first love?
The Example of Iran
When Protestant missions to Iran began at the start of the Protestant Modern Missions Movement in the early 1800s, missionaries often relied on their connections with various Iranian and Western administrations. However, among Muslim Iranians, after 150 years of missionary investment, there were no more than 500 converts by the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. While Christians were protected, Christianity was identified as a Western religion associated with an unpopular secular government, and Western missionaries were seen as its carriers.
Today, with a Muslim government and little presence of Western missionaries, estimates of Iranians turning to Christianity range from the hundreds of thousands to over a million. One news outlet suggests Iran is where Christianity is growing the fastest. Christians are protected under Article 13 of Iran’s Constitution, but often this has been interpreted to mean only ethnic Iranian Christians (largely Armenians and Assyrians) who do not evangelize, and not Muslims who convert to Christianity. Even with the safeguards that Article 13 guarantees, the above ground church is watched. Under Iran’s current administration, Christians are at best looked upon with suspicion and at worst considered to be enemies of the state.
From the beginnings of the Islamic Republic, those aligned with its vision have persecuted Iranian Christians. In the 1990s, some of the worst intimidation occurred. Iranian pastor Hussein Soodmand (Soodmand, 30 April 2012, p. 13) was hanged for apostasy without a trial. Armenian-Iranian pastor Haik Hovsepian-Mehr was killed days after pastor Mehdi Dibaj, a former Muslim, was released from jail after being accused of apostasy and sentenced to death (Dibaj, 23 April 2012, p. 14). Another Armenian-Iranian pastor, Tateos Michaelian, who translated more than 60 Christian books into Farsi, was shot to death for his faith (Van Gorder, 2010, p. 226). More recently, in 2013, Armenian-Iranian Robert Asserian, the pastor of Iran’s largest Pentecostal Church, the Central Assemblies of God Church in Tehran, was imprisoned. The church closed this year after its leaders were accused of being funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Nonetheless, the Iranian church has strengthened. Iranians seem welcoming towards Christ. At the Westminster Hearing in 2012, an inquiry regarding the persecution of Iranian Christians done by members of the UK parliament, an interviewee named Catharine stated: 'Iranian people are one of the most open people to the message of Christianity, so I didn’t have any problems with the people, my friends in the university. Our neighbours loved and trusted us more than anybody else. And generally people of Iran are very open about Christianity ... I have never heard or never seen one Iranian reject a Gospel when we were sharing our testimonies' (Catharine, 12 April 2012, p. 8).
Indeed, underground house churches in Iran, which would be absent if it were not for persecution, give Iranian Christians the opportunity to express their faith more freely. A trust factor is present, which is important because there is always a chance of Iran’s secret police finding out about the church, raiding it, and arresting its members. There is more accountability. Testimonials are expected and there is collective ownership. Converts to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds enjoy a like-mindedness with one another that fosters intimacy in a setting where members can be vulnerable. The churches are also evangelistic, which have allowed them to grow rapidly.
Looking to Iranian Christians as an example of what can be done with a government that opposes Christ and restricts choices is one manner that may give American Christians perspective. Iranian Christians do not have religious liberty, but their faith has flourished. While numerical growth and spiritual growth should never be equated as Christians believe the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts and opens the eyes of unbelievers so that they can repent and place their faith in Christ, the example of Christians in Iran indicates that relying on government to sustain and protect is not wise. At the same time, staying connected to society and respecting those in authority is a powerful Christian witness. H. B. Dehqani-Tafti, the first Iranian Anglican bishop of Persian origin, whose son was martyred in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, stated: '[The] Christian faith demands the utmost participation in the culture of one’s birth and this, in turn, means a high regard for all within that culture that has made it historically what it is and what it will remain … [Christianity] ought to be dissolved into society. We are part and parcel of our nation, it doesn’t matter if we have identities or rights or boundaries or land or associations or organizations; what matters is whether Christian individuals have the spirit of Christ – the spirit of the cross – in them wherever they are' (Dehqani-Tafti, 2000, pp. 230-31).
As Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Convention states, religious liberty is not just for Christians, but for other faiths as well, including Muslims and those who do not believe or who are unsure if there is a God. Moore’s reminder fits well within Philippians 2.3-4 that commands Christians to put others’ interests above their own. Serving non-Christians is a beautiful way to share Jesus’ love practically and an invitation for others to ask about the faith. Indeed, it is easy for Christians to cloister in ghettos where they feel safe and secure, but that is not the pattern of Scripture. If more Christians participated in policymaking, maybe religious liberty would not be as much of a concern. Non-Christians would see their dedication, but more importantly they would see their love for Christ and their love for them. When Christians are wronged or deceived as they inevitably will be, 1 Peter 2.18-25 is a reminder that suffering patiently for doing good is commendable before God.
There may be a time when American Christians do not have the same type of religious liberty as they do now. Some might argue it is slipping away already. However, Christians can be their own worst enemy. Gandhi reportedly stated he would have been a Christian if it were not for Christians. Speaking freely is a right under the US Constitution, but the Bible – Christians' ultimate authority – commands in Ephesians 4.15 that it be done in love. While challenging in an environment where freedoms are restricted – like Iran – maybe that type of atmosphere would foster greater speech that reflects the truths of Scripture in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Likewise, the more Christians understand the nuances of different viewpoints and act justly with sympathy when discussing them, when problematic questions arise that surround Christianity, queries can be answered truthfully and accurately. Within the context of a relationship, when answers are different, disagreements are seen more out of respect for being forthright and honest about beliefs and not about feeling the need to be right or to win an argument. In looking to Iranian Christians as an example, evangelical American Christians can see that their brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced extreme difficulty and persevered with their gospel witness. Being thankful for freedoms possessed in the United States is honoring and admirable; however, making God’s gift of religious liberty into an idol is not.
‘Transcript of Interview with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’ (7 Jan 1998), in http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/9801/07/iran/interview.html.
‘Tim Keller’s Definition of Idolatry from Counterfeit Gods’ (17 July 2013), in https://www.kevinhalloran.net/tim-kellers-definition-of-idolatry/.
‘20 Idol Crushing Questions by Tim Keller’ (5 March 2018), in https://jamedders.com/heart-idols/.
Alex Murasko, ‘Growth of Christianity in Iran “Explosive”’ (20 August 2012), in http://www.christian post.com/news/open-doors-growth-of-christianity-in-iran-explosive-71946/.
‘Exclusive: Jesus is Building His Church Inside Iran, Millions Watching Christian Satellite TV’ (28 Jan 2018), in http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2018/january/exclusive-jesus-is-building-his-church-inside-iran-millions-watching-christian-satellite-tv.
‘Iran: Church Retreat Centre Confiscated for “Being Funded by CIA”’ (12 Dec 2016), in https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2016/12/iran-church-retreat-centre-confiscated-for-being-funded-by-cia/.
Russell Moore, ‘Religious Liberty for All’ (25 July 2016), in https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/religious-liberty-for-all.