CHARLOTTE – On July 7, the North Carolina Values Coalition held a virtual summit, with many of the speakers presenting from Graceway Baptist Church south of Charlotte, to equip Christian leaders to “resist growing attacks on religious freedom.” Multiple speakers who have lost jobs for their religious views, or were even imprisoned for sharing their faith, as in the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson who spent two years in Turkish prison, spoke on what they see as a growing hostility to Christianity in mainstream American culture.
Dr. Leon Threatt, a former police officer and Marine who now serves as senior pastor of Christian Faith Center Charlotte, was the moderator of the event and gave the first speech.
He began by welcoming those tuning in for the streaming video, and then saying, “We find ourselves today, as the Body of Christ, in an unusual time in which our identity is being redefined, and we know, from truth, that our identity is found in Christ Jesus alone.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest spoke briefly, thanking Graceway Baptist Church for hosting, and saying, “A strong community and a strong state start with the same thing: a commitment to the values we in North Carolina hold dear — values like responsibility, hard work, humility, service and the sanctity of life.”
The next speaker, Dr. Kelvin Cochran, was fired after a 34-year career as a firefighter from his position as Atlanta Fire Chief after a controversy over a book on Biblical sexuality. He said he made the book to distribute to his private men’s Bible study at his church, but city officials say he distributed the book while on duty and to employees. The book was mainly controversial due to his perspective on homosexuality and premarital sex, and Cochran was subsequently let go.
He said his talk was called, “The blessings of sufferings,” because suffering is a necessary part of a Christian’s walk with God. He recounted all the times in the Bible where suffering was used to achieve something greater for the kingdom, including with Jesus Christ himself. So as the culture begins to crack down, Cochran said, Christians shouldn’t run from persecution and suffering, but stand strong and fight.
“My story is just one of a growing list of many and many where a government entity and special interest groups have worked together to impose adverse action on another American for publicly proclaiming a position of faith based upon Biblical truths that are not consistent with popular culture and the shifting pluralisms of political correctness.
“The adverse action I’ve experienced came against me, get this, as the result of a book I wrote on my own time and published with my own funds for a Christian men’s Bible study.”
Cochran called people to be the “united Christians of the United States of America” across racial, denominational and geographic boundaries.
“The question becomes, are you prepared to do your part to stand against the enemies of life, the enemies of family, the enemies of marriage, and the enemies of religious liberty.”
He then walked the audience through “preparedness statements,” which he said are used in the fire service, to see if people in the audience were prepared to fight for their beliefs. Cochran gave examples from Egypt, Kenya and Afghanistan where Christians had to choose between their lives and their faith, and how time and again, they chose their faith in Jesus Christ.
Dr. Andrew Brunson detailed his time in prison and his concerns about religious freedom in America now that he’s returned. Brunson was imprisoned for two years by the Turkish government, who accused him of spying for the United States, and his case became an international media story. President Donald Trump negotiated his release and Brunson returned to his home in North Carolina.
Despite being a missionary in Turkey for 25 years, after returning and seeing the condition of American faith, Brunson says his attention is no longer focused abroad.
“For the first time in my life I have a real burden for the United States. I just feel a sense of urgency for this country.”
He said the cultural pressure is like a 1-mph current of a river that has been slowly but surely shifting the nation into a more hostile place for Christians. The river, he said, is speeding up to a 5-mph current though, so Christians should ask, “how am I going to stand when the pressures increase even more?”
“It’s going to get worse,” Brunson said, referencing how Christians are treated in institutions like government, academia and even corporations.
“There’s no avoiding this hostility and the pressure that will come for following Jesus. We cannot escape it. What we do have is a choice whether we’ll stand or whether we will not.”
He began tearing up, saying his children’s generation “is not ready.” Brunson thought he was tough after working in harsh, unstable areas in the Muslim world, he said, but when he was put in prison, “it overwhelmed me.” Brunson said he thinks many are not prepared, and when things get hard, fear will overwhelm them, and they will run away like Jonah.
“What will you fear more, the rage of the Twitter mob, or standing before God with no fruit? Will you fear the consequences of obeying God, or the consequences of not obeying God?”
He also called on Christians to lead on racial reconciliation, saying in his time overseas, he’d seen deep hatreds among rival ethnic groups being put aside after long troubled histories.
But Brunson said the issue in the United States has been hijacked by voices that “will not bring reconciliation, but more division.”
Speaking next was Dr. Carol Swain, a former law professor at Vanderbilt University, who was “chased out” of academia after she spoke out against Marxism and Islam.
Swain talked about growing up black in rural Virginia in a family with 12 children in a two-room shack with no indoor plumbing. Despite dropping out of school by 8th grade, she eventually got her high school equivalency and then pursued higher education. Swain then taught for 28 years.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, where radical Muslims killed many in the satirical newspaper’s office, Swain wrote an article denouncing elements of Islam, especially its history of violent reactions to any criticisms of the faith.
The negative response from her colleagues was quick and brutal. She said, “There was a firestorm in response to that article. In fact, the day after it was published, I knew that my life in academia was over — just instantly.”
She said a big part of the changing dynamics on campus was the growing influence of Marxism. “What I saw happen, was the tenets of Marxism became just part of the university, with political correctness and microaggressions.” Whereas early in her career, she says, “You had conservatives, you had liberals, you had competing ideas. Overtime though, Swain said she’s “watched universities become factories of indoctrination.”
She also spoke on racial reconciliation, saying Marxists are using race as a “battering ram” to beat people into silence, especially Christians who feel ashamed for their country’s past racial mistakes. She said Black Lives Matter is a true statement but the organization is a Marxist group with few goals in common with Christians, and that voices of black Christians, like Threatt, Cochran and Swain, are not welcome or represented.
Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom, gave basic legal guidelines to pastors and other Christian leaders, so they can remain within the law during the election cycle.
The main topics he discussed were sermons and speech, voter education, using facilities, lobbying, and gifts and money. Tucker said the IRS guidelines for tax-exempt organizations can be complicated, but Alliance Defending Freedom would always be available to give advice and their general guidance can be found at 2020legalguide.com.
For sermons, he said the Johnson Amendment, named after then-senator, but eventual-President Lyndon B Johnson, doesn’t allow speech that favors one candidate over another from the pulpit. But the same pastor could go outside the church and in their individual capacity speak on behalf of a candidate and endorse a candidate at an event.
“In most instances, as long as you’re acting in a neutral, non-bias manner, you’re going to be fine,” Tucker said of activities within a church setting.
He said churches can host get-out-the-vote campaigns as long as they aren’t for a specific candidate or party, can hand out voter guides explaining the views of multiple candidates fairly.
Churches can also allow the building or website to be used for one candidate, but they then would have to make clear to the other candidates in the race that they are invited to also use the facility.
The final speaker was Roger Severino, who is the current director of the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
He gave greetings on behalf of President Trump and called the current administration, “the most pro-life and pro religious liberty in history,” and said Trump has “backed up his commitment not just with words but with actions, and the actions are bearing fruit.”
Under Severino, the HHS Office for Civil Rights also created an entire division, the “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division,” to make sure the over two dozen laws that protect conscience in health care “are given full and vigorous enforcement, just like every other civil rights law.”
Pastor Threatt then returned and encouraged the attendees to “not to be afraid,” and to “do your part,” ending the event by saying, “Thank you, but now the work begins.”