January 24, 2007

The New Congress and the Adventist Agenda

2007 1503 page8 capN THE 200-YEAR HISTORY OF THE SWINGS of political power in American democracy, the 2006 election will go down as one of the more dramatic.
In one fell swoop American voters transferred power from Republicans to Democrats in both houses of Congress. Modest Republican majorities in the House of Representatives (230-202) and Senate (55-44) evaporated as election night progressed. Democrats nearly reversed their position in the House (232-202), and achieved a slim majority in the Senate with the aid of two independents (51-49).
For the first time in 12 years, Democrats now chair all the committees in the House and Senate. They set the legislative agenda, and they wield the formidable subpoena power of Congress to probe and investigate. The president’s nominees to the Supreme Court now must pass through a committee chaired by a Democrat. All treaties must be approved by a Senate with a Democratic majority.
It is a whole new world on Capitol Hill.
2007 1503 page8But is it a better world? What do these political and ideological changes mean for religious liberty and other public issues important to Seventh-day Adventists? Will the future be kinder—or more difficult—for those who believe that American democracy must protect the constitutional guarantees of free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion?
It all depends whom you ask. Seventh-day Adventist membership in the United States is as diverse as the national population, and this diversity extends to political viewpoints as well. Some Adventists are relieved because they believe that the ascendant Democrats will save us from an impending theocracy imposed by the Religious Right. Other Adventists are convinced that political liberals will open the door to moral evils as our society “slouches towards Gomorrah.”1 Still others believe that the business of governing is a dirty, nasty affair at odds with spiritual life—that governance and governments are distractions believers ought to completely avoid.
Should Adventists Be Involved in Public Policy?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never engaged in partisan politics, a historical fact that underlines the church’s primary allegiance to a Lord whose “kingdom is not of this world.” Church cofounder and prophet Ellen White strongly condemned those who use their church positions to support political parties or candidates. At the same time, however, the Adventist Church has always been actively engaged with critical issues in the public square, some of which inescapably have a political dimension to them. From our earliest days Adventists fought crucial battles to preserve religious liberty,2 led in the movement for prohibition of alcohol, urged the abolition of slavery (and adamantly refused to obey the Federal Fugitive Slave Law),3 advocated for the rights of the poor, and firmly opposed war.
Explaining the rationale for Adventist public policy activism in 1892, Ellen White wrote: “Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be. Every individual exerts an influence in society.”4
Put another way, by our very existence as a faith community within a society, we have an influence. With that influence comes responsibility—at minimum, to witness to saving truth as the world approaches its end; more amply, to prepare the ground for the gospel by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. Doing nothing in the face of social evil is complicity, not neutrality. Passivity in the face of human need is actually sinful indifference. Adventist Christians reject complicity and indifference in favor of carefully considered public action. We are our brother’s keepers just as fully as we are commandment-keepers, which means that we cannot fail to be good neighbors to those in need. We are responsible to our Lord and to our fellow citizens to use our influence to make our society happier, healthier, and morally upright. These commitments are not extras, grafted onto the stock of who we are, but core features of our God-given identity as a people raised up to witness in earth’s last days.
We tell our children the Bible stories of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, who used their time on earth to exert an influence on the public policy of the societies in which they lived. Should we not be telling one another such stories as adult believers—drawing out the lesson that believers today must also exert a godly influence on their own communities? When we see suffering, we are called to act. When we see oppression, we are called to speak.5
But how do Adventist Christians do this today? How do we “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free”?6 How do we “speak up for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute”?7 How do we “defend the rights of the poor and needy”?8
The agenda points for Adventist public policy in the United States have changed from decade to decade, but each item harkens back to fundamental commitments this movement found in Scripture and expressed in its earliest years. We still fight for religious liberty; we still champion temperance; we still advocate for fundamental human rights; we work to achieve racial equity both in the church and in the wider society; we remain concerned about the moral climate of society.
What will the new shape of things in Washington mean to those efforts?
The Election and the Causes We Care About
For more than 120 years, Adventists have been at the forefront of the ongoing battle to protect the religious liberties of individual Americans, and for this activism the church has earned a sterling reputation among the friends of freedom. Religious liberty isn’t a nebulous concept or a philosophical abstraction: it’s an eminently practical effort to ensure that you can practice your faith without experiencing prejudice, coercion, or full-scale persecution—in a land where there are constitutional guarantees designed to protect your freedoms. It is, at its heart, about protecting the unfettered right to share the love of Christ through word and deed.
Serious challenges confront the Adventist Church on both the domestic and international fronts:
Workplace Religious Freedom Act
The most serious religious liberty problem facing American Adventists today is the increasing intolerance to Sabbathkeepers in the American workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that between 1993 and 2003 complaints regarding religious discrimination surged 82 percent—a massive increase, particularly at a time when complaints relating to other types of discrimination held roughly steady during the same period.
2007 1503 page8The Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA) was introduced in the 109th Congress to fight that growing intolerance. It seeks to protect the religious liberties of persons who want to practice their faith, and mandates that employers make reasonable accommodations to allow for persons wishing to keep the seventh-day Sabbath, for example.
WRFA has only two problems: powerful allies of the gay rights lobby (usually associated with the political “left”) oppose it, and commercial interests (usually on the political “right”) dislike it as well.
In the 109th Congress WRFA got mired in a Senate committee chaired by Senator Mike Enzi (Republican—Wyoming).9 Senator Enzi, who notes on his Web site that he is a Sunday school teacher and also a successful small business owner, was hardly an enthusiastic supporter of WRFA. As he noted during an informational meeting, he sometimes required his staff to work on Sundays when he was a small business owner—why should Sabbathkeepers expect any different treatment?
With the shift in Senate control that occurred this past November, Enzi no longer keeps his pivotal job as committee chairman.
The incoming chairman, Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat—Massachusetts), begins with a friendlier stance toward WRFA, but at this writing his ultimate opinion is unclear. His expressed support for the bill emerged before the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) became active against it.
The ACLU claims that by providing basic protections for people of faith, WRFA will permit the harassment of homosexuals in the workplace and limit access to abortion. These claims are far-fetched, but they are claims that have an impact on political progressives. According to one Democratic Senate staffer, “As long as the ACLU opposes the bill, right or wrong, you are going to have problems on our side of the aisle.”
Fortunately, not all Democrats have seen the opposition of the ACLU as a bar to supporting WRFA. Senator John Kerry (Democrat—Massachusetts) has been a leader in the fight to pass WRFA, and Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat—New York) has also been a strong supporter. Eliott Spitzer, now governor of New York, publicly stated his support for WRFA based on the experience of New York State, which has a state version of the bill:
 “I have the utmost respect for the ACLU, but on this issue they are simply wrong. New York’s law has not resulted in the infringement of the rights of others, or in the additional litigation that the ACLU predicts will occur if WRFA is enacted. Nor has it been burdensome on business. Rather, it strikes the correct balance between accommodating individual liberty and the needs of businesses and the delivery of services. So does WRFA.”10
Time will tell whether Senator Kennedy finds the logic of his fellow Democrats more compelling than the clamoring of the ACLU. Since the bill was not moving in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, the change in Senate leadership can only improve its opportunity for passage in the 110th Congress.
Establishment Issues
Most advocates for religious liberty have observed that the U.S. House of Representatives has grown increasingly careless in recent years about the way it approaches the relationship between church and state—a collection of concerns often labeled “establishment issues” because they emerge from the provision of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment that asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Recent legislation, for example, attempted to erode restrictions on churches advocating for political parties or candidates. Other bills attempting to strip the courts of jurisdiction over critical religious freedom questions have received significant support. The new Democratic majorities in both House and Senate are unlikely to be as lax on these matters as their predecessors, with the result that Adventists can expect the “wall of separation” between church and state to remain in fairly good repair in the 110th Congress.
International Religious Freedom
2007 1503 page8Most political pundits have it as an article of faith that Democrats are more interested in human rights than Republicans, perhaps owing to the frequency with which language regarding human rights appears in election speeches or political party platforms. But listening to speeches or reading promotional materials is invariably a poor way to assess any legislator’s actual commitments.
Concern about international religious persecution is, fortunately, a bipartisan issue, meaning that both Republicans and Democrats care about it. But it is at the top of the agenda for only a few members of Congress, the majority of whom currently are Republicans. Further, while many Democrats speak regularly about human rights, the issues at the top of their human rights agendas don’t necessarily comport with Adventist values. By human rights, these legislators mean advocacy for international trade unionism, funding of abortion services by international agencies that receive financial support from the United States, and support for gay rights in both the U.S. and other nations.
The new alignment of Congress will move the discussion of how Americans ought to relate to governmental oppression of persons of faith in other nations to new speakers and new platforms, but it’s unclear at this writing whether there will be any new groundswell of support for tying American foreign aid to greater respect for religious liberty in recipient nations.
The American Family
Adventists have long believed that God’s plan for human society is founded on the family unit, and that maintaining strong, morally healthy families is a vital component of preserving the fundamental personal and social freedoms the United States was founded to protect. Thus, individual Adventists and the wider church in North America can look only with dismay on facts such as these:
  • Almost 50 percent of American children now spend at least part of their childhood in single parent families.11
  • Rates of every form of child abuse have dramatically increased.12
  • Almost half of all Americans will contract a sexually transmitted disease during their lifetime. Sixty-five million Americans are currently living with a viral STD.13
  • Children are regularly exposed to ultraviolent images and the basest pornography.
Each of these problems is a complex social phenomenon resulting from the moral decisions of individuals and the ways in which government and social network action—or inaction—have affected behaviors. Whether we believe it should or not, public policy does have an impact on individual decision-making, and there can be little debate that a series of public policy developments in the last four decades accelerated the deterioration of the American family. These include the creation of relatively easy “no-fault” divorce; the relaxation of local legislation that formerly restricted promiscuity; new legislative and judicial activism to grant homosexuals the legal status of marriage; and easy access by children to violent, pornographic content via television, video and DVD, and the Internet—often in the name of “First Amendment” freedom of expression.
Neither political party has a lock on moral virtue, and cynics have had a field day decrying the hypocrisy of public figures whose personal lives are much at odds with their public image as protectors of virtue. The emergence of more socially conservative Democrats in the 2006 election, particularly in the U.S. Senate, suggests that the passage of family-friendly legislation may be possible. To succeed, however, the new legislators will have to overcome powerful Democratic constituencies.
The Adventist Church in North America is continuing to support a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco—classifying tobacco as a drug, and thus allowing restrictions on its production and sale. The shift in political power in Congress will give additional impetus to that effort as there are a number of powerful Democrats strongly supportive of the measure.
2007 1503 page8A Time for Personal Responsibility
I met with a senator four years ago to ask for his support for a critical religious liberty bill. Initially, he insisted that he was extremely busy and didn’t know if he could add this to his agenda. As we talked further, however, he eventually looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll do it because it is the right thing to do.”
A month ago I went by the same senator’s office to wish him well as he reenters private life after losing his bid for reelection. I asked him what he was going to do.
He responded with a line I won’t soon forget.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I am just thankful that when I had the chance to do some good, I did it.”
Yesterday he was part of the most powerful club in America. Today he is unemployed, looking for another job. His time of influence has come and gone.
His story is in many ways like our stories. We each have a short time span here on earth. Our ability to be the influence for good and right that Ellen White wrote movingly about is limited. Are we going to stand up and support religious liberty, temperance, policies that build strong families, and advocate for justice for the poor? Or are we going to let everything else in our crowded lives drown out the witness our nation and our society so much need?
Now would be a good time to find your voice.
1Robert Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah (HarperCollins, 1996).
2When addressing challenges to religious liberty, Ellen White urged: “We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, pp. 713, 714).
3Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp. 201-204.
4Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, pp. 387, 388.
5Speaking of Abraham’s dramatic rescue of the hostages, Ellen White wrote: “It was seen that righteousness is not cowardice, and that Abraham’s religion made him courageous in maintaining the right and defending the oppressed. . . . Abraham regarded the claims of justice and humanity. His conduct illustrates the inspired maxim, ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 135, 136).
6Isaiah 58:6, NIV.
7Proverbs 31:8, 9.
9Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
10Eliott Spitzer, “Defend the Civil Right to Freedom of Religion for America’s Workers,” The Forward, June 25, 2004.
11Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States.
12For example, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the incidence of child sexual abuse increased 458 percent between 1980 and 1993.
13American Medical Association Journal and American Social Health Association.
James D. Standish is the associate director of the General Conference Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, charged with representing the church to the U.S. Congress, the White House, and administrative agencies. He also serves as executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association.