Amid Threats to Religious Liberty, Summit Provides Warnings and Hope

Keynote speaker Dwight Nelson suggests what church members can do.

Laura Gang, Pacific Union College, and Adventist Review
Amid Threats to Religious Liberty, Summit Provides Warnings and Hope
Dwight Nelson was the keynote speaker at the Northern California Conference’s annual Religious Liberty Summit in Angwin, California, United States, March 1-2. [Photo: Pacific Union College]

The Northern California Conference’s annual Religious Liberty Summit, hosted by Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, March 1-2, featured keynote speaker Dwight Nelson, who recently retired after 40 years as senior pastor of the Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University. Besides Nelson, breakout sessions featured two Superior Court judges, a community organizer, the chief of staff for a California state senator, and a historian. The weekend event culminated in a panel discussion on pressing religious liberty issues.

“I’m grateful to be coming to PUC — because I believe young adults are the strategic key to waking America up to this critical moment in history,” Nelson said. “We as a nation are fractured on practically every level of life and culture — racially, spiritually, economically, politically, socially — and I’m convinced the young are God’s essential endgame move to bring healing to America.”

Where Is the Focus?

On March 1, Nelson delivered the first message in his three-part series. He began by recalling a conversation from last Thanksgiving, where he asked friends and family gathered around the table, “What do you think America is going to be like next Thanksgiving?” The response was a chorus of groans. His point? Regardless of the outcome of the 2024 presidential election, America will still be deeply divided.

“I need to be candid,” Nelson said. “I’m concerned about an entire wing of Christianity that has staked its existence — at least its future — on the outcome of this election coming up.”

Nelson highlighted the problem of blending politics and religion, especially among evangelical Christians, which he noted in some ways could extend to Seventh-day Adventists. Then he asked, “Are we elevating politicians to the status of idols, the way a teen might idolize a pop star? Are we investing quality time in the Bible and nurturing our relationship with Jesus, or are our energies consumed by politics and current events, draining our spiritual vitality?”

Christianity and State Authority

During the second session on the morning of March 2, Nelson delved into the prophetic imagery of Revelation 13, focusing on the beast emerging from the earth with two horns resembling a lamb, but speaking like a dragon. He interpreted this as partly symbolizing what he terms the “American Apocalypse,” where Christianity becomes intertwined with state authority, potentially threatening religious liberty and the U.S. Constitution.

Nelson reminded the group of the Adventist belief in the prophesied loss of religious liberties in America, regardless of who eventually assumes leadership.

“ ‘Christian nationalism’ is a brash movement attempting to rewrite American history in hopes that church and state might be yet joined in a coalition to rule this country, both politically and legislatively,” Nelson said. “But as Jesus warned, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ ” Against that background, Jesus is the sole source of hope, he emphasized.

What to Do?

In his final message, Nelson began by noting that there has been a significant religious shift in America and also shifting political divisions. “So, what should we do?” Nelson asked.

First, he emphasized the importance of believing and proclaiming the truth about Jesus. “You can take all the universal truth and put it into one sentence,” Nelson said. “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.” He shared verses from the book of John to underscore God’s unconditional love for all.

Drawing from Christ’s Object Lessons by Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White, Nelson spoke about this current era of misunderstanding God’s character and the need to spread his message of love. “ ‘At this time, a message from God is to be proclaimed, a message illuminating in its influence and saving in its power,’ ” Nelson read from White’s book. “ ‘The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love’ ” (p. 415).

Nelson said that Ellen White emphasized the significance of practical actions over mere words in sharing Jesus’ message. Our responsibility goes beyond meeting physical needs to addressing spiritual ones, he said.

Encouraging everyone, particularly students, Nelson suggested engaging in acts of kindness, such as visiting the inner city to pray with people and meeting needs through initiatives like basketball camps, teaching English to migrants, and providing job skills training. 

In his closing remarks, Nelson again emphasized the importance of modeling love. “Love on people,” he said. “Say, ‘The Maker of all things loves and wants me, and I want you to know He loves and wants you too.’ ”

On Saturday (Sabbath) afternoon, workshops included “Service to God and of Service to Man” with Judge Marla O. Anderson, Judge Allison M. Williams, Aaron Brieno (a California legislative aide), and Alan Reinach. Reinach, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the Pacific Union Conference of the Adventist Church, served as moderator.

Daniel Rodela, a professional fundraiser and faith-based community organizer, led a second workshop, “Community Organizing for Church Leaders.” Finally, historian Leigh Johnsen led the third workshop, “The Case against Christian Nationalism.”

The Religious Liberty Summit concluded with a panel discussion at the PUC Adventist church facilitated by NCC religious liberty liaison Steve Allred.

According to Allred, the summit at PUC is timely and relevant not just for the college community but also for Seventh-day Adventists and the nation at large.

“Adventists have a uniquely biblical understanding of religious liberty, and our view is one that can add a lot to the discourse in our country regarding religious liberty,” he said. “Historically, Adventists have been proponents of the separation of church and state.”

But that idea is increasingly under attack, he said, from other Christians and certain political groups.

“On the other hand, we Adventists also believe in getting involved and making society better.  We’ve been involved in promoting societal morality and justice, including, for example, the abolition of slavery and advocating against coercive religious Sunday laws in the 1800s and the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century,” Allred said. “This nuanced position on religious liberty is not often heard in our world, and we need to be sharing it.”

Nelson agreed. Christians can be engaged in politics and government. Voting itself is an engagement in the world, he said.

“But any effort to turn the government into a spiritual-political confederacy to legislate Christian doctrine in this nation is doomed even before it starts. Because ‘Christian nationalism’ (or theocracy) is precisely what the Founding Fathers worked so diligently to prevent in creating the Constitution of the United States and its First Amendment,” Nelson said.

“While ‘Christian nationalism’ may end up being where America ends up, for very different reasons, it is vital we, too, engage this culture … to win the hearts of Americans of every persuasion, to win new friends for Jesus before He comes again.”

Laura Gang, Pacific Union College, and Adventist Review