Can Religious Liberty Survive COVID-19?

When Pastor Andrew Brunson returned to his native United States in October 2018 following a two-year imprisonment in Turkey, he was shocked.

In July 2016, Brunson was swept up in the mass detentions following the alleged coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who tried to use the pastor as a political pawn to manipulate the United States. The would-be dictator’s strategy fizzled in the face of the Trump administration’s hardline diplomatic response.

Brunson and I share a home church in a small North Carolina town, so I remember how his internationally prominent imprisonment consumed the congregation. He was subjected to four show trials before three pompous judges on a raised dais, who at one point refused to allow him to present a defense. During each trial, church members in North Carolina were gathered in the sanctuary to pray for him.

Because Turkey was 6,000 miles away and seven hours ahead, their prayer vigils took place in the early hours of the morning. Brunson’s persecution at the hands of a tyrant and his kangaroo court hit close to home, but still seemed so far away at the time.

Since then, Brunson’s experience has been creeping closer. After his high-profile release and return to the U.S., Brunson observed how much more “overtly hostile” American culture had grown toward Christians in just a few years. He also discerned what he believes are the warning signs that persecution is looming for Christians in Western countries.

“I think it’s coming to the U.S., that there will be persecution,” Brunson said during a July 2019 conference about religious freedom at Colorado Christian University. “I was isolated for a few years, and coming back to the states was almost like coming back to a different country in many ways. And I’m really astounded at the speed with which, I think, the U.S. is imploding.”

Brunson had been a missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years before Erdogan used the failed coup as a pretext for depriving Turkish citizens of their basic rights, which crumbled almost overnight. For this reason, he has unique insight into how quickly the tide can turn.

I have thought of Brunson’s prophetic warning often during the past year. After having unwittingly picked up the church lockdown beat for The Daily Wire, I have been surprised by the far-flung nature of government overreach toward houses of worship. The petty tyrants of Los Angeles County hassling Pastor John MacArthur’s church over a parking lot is not especially shocking. A bumbling power-hungry buffoon like Mayor Bill de Blasio breaking up an Orthodox Jewish funeral and threatening to shut down a synagogue could have been predicted.

But when authorities go after an uncooperative Idaho pastor’s teenage grandsons over stickers, or force a rural Alberta church underground after barricading their building and jailing their recalcitrant pastor, it should give everyone pause regarding where the entire Western world is headed. If basic rights are evaporating even in such remote places, is there any escape?

The case of Pastor James Coates and GraceLife Church near Edmonton, Alberta, is particularly troubling. In a move that eerily echoed the tactics of the Turkish court against Brunson, the Provincial Court in Stony Plain, Alberta, ruled last week that Coates will not be permitted to challenge the constitutional validity of Alberta’s Public Health Act during his trial on May 3. The court also ruled that the government will not be required to produce scientific evidence to support the health order under which Coates was thrown in jail for more than a month.

While he was still in maximum security prison for holding church services, Coates’ wife Erin echoed Brunson’s observation about the U.S. when she told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that she no longer recognizes her native Canada. Likening them to the proverbial frog in the boiling pot, Erin said many of her fellow citizens have been gradually led to surrender many of their fundamental rights without even noticing.

In his prescient and scholarly book “Idols for Destruction,” the late historian Herbert Schlossberg noted more than 30 years ago the threat posed by what he described as “idols of power.” One of the ways this idolatry manifests, Schlossberg argued, is through the worship of elite experts who claim to be concerned only for the public good.

Referencing the first-century cult that was one of Christianity’s earliest rivals, Schlossberg dubbed this worship of supposed expertise as “the new Gnosticism.”

“Not possessing esoteric knowledge, the masses have no choice but to turn their lives over to the elite to be managed,” Schlossberg observed. “Never ask the enlightened ones about their track record, which is a series of disguised disasters; just accept on faith that they have the secret to life.”

As I have noted before, one need only take a stroll through Washington, D.C., to observe this new Gnosticism. Residents rigidly obey the commandments of health bureaucrats with virtually universal conformity. Signs on lawns and in windows unironically pay bizarre, quasi-religious obeisance to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in many ways has come to embody the new Gnosticism’s unquestioned deference to so-called experts.

Particularly disturbing was Schlossberg’s prediction that such idolatry would lead to persecution. “If the ancient precedents are repeated, we can expect the new persecution of Christians to be led by the social and religious elite, in conjunction with the authorities of the state,” he wrote. “The warning of Christ was that those who were going to persecute his followers would think that by so doing they were serving God. This kind of persecution is extremely debilitating, because it induces in the victims doubt as to whether they are in the right, while convincing the guilty ones that they are.”

The pandemic has ripped the masks off many institutions and individuals. Troubling trends that many suspected were simmering below have been forced to the surface. If and when persecution does worsen, the pandemic has shown that large portions of the public will either remain silent or applaud what appears to them necessary steps taken by the experts for the public good.

Thankfully, some are pushing back and, as Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”

Related: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Petty, Hypocritical Tyranny Must Stop

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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