In 1982, constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead started a civil liberties organization providing pro bono defense for people whose religious liberties have been threatened or violated. The Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute routinely handles cases in which Christians have been fined or fired for expressing their beliefs on the job, in schools or in the public square. Whitehead, 59, recently spoke with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe: Why is it important for Christians to be aware of pending legislation and court decisions?
WHITEHEAD: For Christians, itÕs not only important, itÕs morally required. WeÕre to be stewards of our freedoms and that means we have to be informed. ItÕs important not only to watch the news, but also to analyze the news to make sure weÕre being told the truth. Many times the news we get is convoluted and not absolutely true. ItÕs important to get news from different sources, including Web sites.
If you see something that is undermining freedom generally, or undermining Christians in particular, thatÕs when you contact your elected representatives and complain by telephone, e-mail, letter or fax.
tpe: What is happening this year that Christians should know?
WHITEHEAD: Prayer by Christians at public events is a hot topic right now. We just filed an important lawsuit for a minister who wanted to mention Jesus Christ at the end of the prayer at a Fredericksburg, Va., city council meeting but was told he couldnÕt. We filed suit, saying his free speech rights were violated.
The nation is becoming more religious — in an ecumenical sense. ThereÕs competition in the religious marketplace. The Islamic and Wiccan religions are growing quickly. Unfortunately, Christianity is seen as the majority religion. Thus, to be politically correct, officials remove Christian prayer at many city council and school board meetings.
Another issue is intelligent design. Children at school should be able to get at least part of the truth about the origins of life. The case in Dover, Pa., ruled that intelligent design was fundamentally religious and therefore unconstitutional.
We have teachers contacting us who want to mention thereÕs an alternative theory to evolution — that God actually created the universe. ItÕs an academic freedom issue.
tpe: Are there better ways for Christians to
make a point besides boycotts and letter-writing campaigns?
WHITEHEAD: Do the positive. Be inclusive. For example, removing a book you donÕt want in the public library is extremely difficult. But putting a book in is fairly easy. Many libraries accept donations of Bibles or books by Christian authors. A positive action avoids a lot of time and energy that would be expended in a court case.
But sometimes you have to boycott and write a letter. Sometimes you have to file a lawsuit. That shouldnÕt be the first response, but in a society where most things are decided by legislative acts and court decisions, sometimes you have to fight back if the other side is unreasonable.
tpe: How can the person with a full-time job and three young children be involved?
WHITEHEAD: Some of the greatest agitators who ever lived had jobs and they protested in the evenings and on weekends. People say, ÒI have to spend time with my family.Ó But itÕs good to get the family involved instead of sitting around watching television. I took my children with me when they were elementary-school age to watch me argue cases in court. Three of them are working with me today. The people who make the most difference have full-time jobs, but they are willing to put in extra time to make sure we still have freedoms.
tpe: If Christians donÕt get active in the political landscape what will this country look like in another 10 years?
WHITEHEAD: ThatÕs not the problem. Christians have to be careful they donÕt make politics their religion. I see many Christians who try to make their faith a hybrid political-religious philosophy.
We have to realize there are no political saviors. There is only one Savior: Jesus Christ. The president is not going to save us. Our congressman is not going to save us.
Even though they may be politically active, the true Christians often are on the outside of the system. The word politics essentially means to compromise. And in most instances, true Christians canÕt compromise because they believe in absolute truth.
A lot of times Christians will be on the outside, like John the Baptist, saying, ÒWhat youÕre doing is morally wrong.Ó In many cases, the president, Congress, your city council and the majority of the American people wonÕt agree with you. Ultimately, saying the truth means you have to suffer consequences, just like John the Baptist. Most of the apostle PaulÕs epistles were written from jail cells, because he was willing to speak the truth. And it got him into a lot of trouble.
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