Last year, an ostensibly evangelical college in England sacked a professor, Dr. Aaron Edwards, over a February tweet advocating a biblical view of sexuality and marriage. The incident was only one occurrence of religious persecution in Western democracies in 2023; dozens more are catalogued in Family Research Council's updated report, "Free to Believe? The Intensifying Intolerance Toward Christians in The West." That list is "not exhaustive," noted Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Rather, it's "just making the point."
Edwards taught Christian theology at Cliff College, a Methodist-affiliated school in England, which he described as "the last bastion of evangelicalism" in British Methodism (with the term "evangelicalism" here referring to those who still hold to the biblical gospel).
During a panel discussion at the 2024 International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF), Edwards explained that United Methodism was enmeshed in controversy over an upcoming vote on same-sex marriage. The Cliff College faculty was divided, too, and Edwards had engaged his colleagues in many respective debates -- that is, before a simple, viral tweet ended his teaching career.
"Homosexuality is invading the church," Edwards had tweeted. "Evangelicals no longer see the severity of this b/c they're busy apologising for their apparently barbaric homophobia, whether or not it's true. This *is* a 'Gospel issue,' by the way. If sin is no longer sin, we no longer need a Saviour."
Edwards explained the reason why he felt the need to take a stand on the issue. "People saw their sexuality as their identity, which makes it very difficult to argue about it theologically," he said. "The age we live in is one where anthropology [the study of man] is the line of heresy in the public square."
But the Cliff College administration wasn't interested in hearing his explanation. After his tweet went viral, the college condemned it before even contacting him. The summarily suspended him, produced a 17-page investigative report on the tweet, reported it to the government as potential hate speech, and fired him.
American professors are not immune to the effects of this cancel culture; in fact, in many places it might even be worse. Dr. Paul Teller of Advancing American Freedom explained that colleges have been captured by a Marxist ideology which divides everyone in "oppressor" and "oppressed," based on characteristics "predefined by the Left," such as race, sex, and class. They are then morally judged based on these largely inherited traits, which have nothing to do with their personal behavior or merit.
"There have been so many violations of religious freedom here in America," Teller insisted, pointing to the unequal restrictions on religious gatherings during COVID and the steady stream of attempts to force people in the creative professions (bakers, photographers, florists, web designers) to violate their consciences. COVID "really gave governments an excuse to use their power to squeeze churches," director of Family Research Council's Center for Religious Liberty Arielle Del Turco said on "Washington Watch." "Unfortunately, it looks like the trend's continued even though COVID is gone," added Perkins.
Teller was particularly shocked by the official government response, or lack thereof, to the recent spike in incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses. In response to a written inquiry, the Department of Education told his organization they had updated their website and sent some memos. "There really is no official U.S. government action to combat this," he concluded.
The situation is even worse in Europe, where residents in many countries lack a right to free speech as robust as that in America's First Amendment to the Constitution. Not only have European countries passed laws that criminalize speech and compel people to say things they don't believe, but a recent law in the U.K. even criminalizes thought. Elizabeth Francis, legal counsel for ADF International, highlighted recent incidents in her home country where people have been fined for praying silently, in their heads, for having a "wrong" thought in the wrong place.
Even high-ranking government officials have faced relentless persecution for espousing basic Christian beliefs in the public square, according to new methods in which "the punishment is the process," Francis added. Consider the case of Päivi Räsänen, a member of the Finnish parliament and a former minister.
She has faced multiple criminal trials spanning five years, simply for tweeting what the Bible says about human sexuality. Francis recounted how the Finnish prosecutor has tried to destroy her reputation, dug through her life back to 2004, and caused her life to be reported on throughout the international press, despite losing at every court along the way.
In a situation like Räsänen's, Francis said, "winning the court case does not mean winning the battle." True victory would be a culture in which religious freedom was actually respected.
In fairness, the type of religious freedom violations most prevalent in the West -- a lost job, a spurious legal challenge, a fine for speech violations -- are less severe than those encountered by believers in, say, China, India, or Nigeria, where Christians are killed or imprisoned for their faith. Canada's first Ambassador for Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett expressed thanks that the "violations in most of the world have not come to our shores." But that does not mean the trend is not real, concerning, and worsening.
"People often think about the worst cases," said Del Turco. "We would be remiss to ignore what's happening in the West because it not only affects us ... it also affects our ability to advocate for those around the world. If there's no religious freedom in the West, there's no one to speak up for the persecuted."
Del Turco added that religious freedom violations in the West are most common around "hot-button cultural issues," such as same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and abortion. In other words, "when Christians go against the secular orthodoxy, they're going to get punished," she said.
Bennett explored the reasons why Western democracies are slowly but surely "pulling back on religious freedom." He argued that secularism gave rise to a "deep amnesia," in which people have simply forgotten what religion is, why religious people do what they do, and even that religion can be a public good. He believed most of the secular crackdown on religious ideas stemmed more from ignorance than malice. Religious beliefs against same-sex marriage, for instance, are interpreted as bigoted and hateful simply because the secularist lacks all comprehension of another way of looking at the world.
A connected problem is what Bennett described as the "myth of secular neutrality." Secularists who work to purify the public square of all reference to religion believe "that the secular state is neutral in matters of religion," he said. "It is not." Secular states merely mimic other religions with a civic religion, complete with its own doctrines, sacraments, and moral code.
Bennett lamented that the modern amnesia about religion has even infected churches. Many Christians, he said, have implicitly embraced a "modern" understanding of religion as something private.
But religions cannot be merely private, especially not Christianity. Jesus did teach about private religion. But he also declared, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18) and instructed his disciples, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
"How do you think Christianity got to America?" Edwards asked. "Because that's a long way from Jerusalem." It only came here because of "Christians who really believed," he answered. In fact, many early American settlers came here for the express purpose of publicly living out a Christian walk.
Genuine religious conviction must begin in the heart and cannot be faked, Edwards added, but they also need to be lived out. "You need to believe your beliefs and live as if they are true," he said. "If you don't speak out your beliefs and live out your beliefs, they will likely erode." This is just as true of institutions as of individuals. "The colleges and seminaries that don't stick to this wither and die," he warned.
Bennett added that it must be this way. "Human beings are hard-wired to seek meaning and seek truth," he said, "and, once we find it, to live it out."
Edwards quoted a passage of Hebrews that has sustained him through his own fiery ordeal:
"But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. ... But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls" (Hebrews 10:32-35, 39).
From this scripture, Edwards pointed out that Christians are called to endure, even if they sometimes face public ridicule, injustice, and even state-sanctioned oppression. Christians can endure because of faith in "a better possession and an abiding one."
Then Edwards drew this conclusion: don't shrink back. "I'm sorry, Jesus is Lord. If we believe that, we're going to live it out," he said.
Living according to biblical principles does not mean Christians should be arrogant jerks, Edwards hastened to add. Rather, living as a Christian "should make you love your neighbor." He quoted Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all," adding, "but not always the way in which we're told." In discussion, he urged his hearers, "be persuadable -- and be persuasive." Bennett agreed that "niceness" can be taken too far. "Politeness can be a vice if it prevents people from speaking honestly," he said.