Christians and the Surveillance State

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations of domestic spying two years ago, I have given a lot of time to reflection on how a Christian should view such a government policy. This is an issue that doesn’t really divide across party lines — at least not any more — with most Republicans and Democrats being in support of a strong surveillance state ostensibly for our own protection, and it seems that most evangelical Christians are as usual eager to go along with the mainstream Republicans on this one. There are a few dissenters who point to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, who complain that our government’s surveillance of its own citizens is a violation of their right to privacy, and who point out that such surveillance has never actually stopped a single terrorist attack, but these dissenting viewpoints have definitely received the minority of attention in the media, possibly (but not necessarily) meaning that it is by far the less popular opinion. “After all,” it is always smugly claimed, “I have nothing fear because I have nothing to hide.” This may be true, at least today, but thought is seldom given to tomorrow or next year or next generation.

I’ll spare the reader the details of the debate as I’m sure s/he is well aware of the points given the recent to-do over the inappropriately-named USA FREEDOM Act. What I want to think about is how should Christians react to all this? It’s true, Christians have nothing to hide — we’re not murderers or drug dealers or terrorists. But will we have something to hide tomorrow? Jesus warned that we will be hated by the world because of the very fact that we are Christians, and indeed we have recently seen a sharp turn in popular sentiment against us. More and more frequently the traditional Christian stance is vilified, we are often accused of hate speech, we are sued for refusing to participate in celebrations of sinful lifestyles, etc. Evangelical Christians and Catholics are already classified by the military as “religious extremists” right alongside al-Qaeda, the KKK, and Hamas! Sure, supposedly the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion in America, but is it really so hard to believe that one day it will go the way of the Second and Fourth Amendments and be diminished to the point of mere powerless words on a page in favor of safety or that ever-nebulous “common good”? We have the right to bear arms, but our government has severely restricted that in the name of keeping the public safe from mass shooters. We have the right to privacy, but our government has severely restricted that in the name of keeping the public safe from terrorists. We have the right to free speech, but the government has severely restricted that in the name of keeping the public safe from slander, defamation, and pandemonium (e.g. if someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium). Is it that far-fetched to suspect that the government, bowing to popular sentiment, might someday soon severely restrict our right to practice our faith in the name of keeping the public safe from evangelism and hurt feelings?

And when this happens, how long before they start using their widely-accepted domestic spying programs to enforce it? Right now, they claim to just be using it against terrorism suspects. How long before they use it against gun owners, possible drug users, those with discrepancies on tax returns, criticizers of government officials, or believers in banned religious viewpoints? It seems to me that, of all people, Christians should be the least supportive of domestic spying programs, not the most supportive as they sometimes appear to be.

Now, I have heard it said, to my surprise, that when that time comes, it will simply be doing the Lord’s work to be oppressed in that manner and to stand firm regardless, but I find that shockingly short-sighted and ignorant — how can it possibly be “the Lord’s work” to hamstring our ability to share the gospel by allowing and even encouraging our faith to become a banned and spied-upon practice, lumped into the same category as terrorism?! No, it seems far more prudent to preserve our liberty, not out of fear for the future, but because that way we preserve our right to openly evangelize and minister to the lost. How many more souls will we be able to win while we’re free to worship and reach them openly than if we have to do everything in secret, not even discussing it in email or on the phone lest the NSA find out what we are?

This does leave us with the uncomfortable prospect of terrorists plotting out there somewhere undiscovered, but I am confident that we can find some other way to stop them that honors both liberty and our faith. This is the subject for another conversation, but it might behoove us to figure out what really causes terrorism (as opposed to just accepting to what is spoon-fed to us by the media and power-hungry politicians) and see if there’s a way to fix that, rather than just accepting that terrorism is going to happen and implementing reactionary programs in an effort to keep it under control.

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