Friday, December 25, 2009

Religious Liberty

Religious liberty is one of our most cherished ideals. Humans have struggled and yearned for religious freedom from the start. Attorney Sam Ericson has pointed out that when Cain killed Abel, committing the first murder, the motive was religious: Cain was angry that Abel’s way of worshiping God was not only different from his own, but was more pleasing to God. Rather than “convert”, Cain killed his brother. People have been persecuting each other over religious differences ever since.

Christians remember the decades of persecution of Christianity under Rome and other governments. This persecution of Christians still continues today in many places around the world. Christians from non-established churches or dissenting churches remember the persecution and pressure applied to them by the national churches of various countries. In addition, horrible crimes have been committed because of national and ethnic prejudices linked with religious language. The founding fathers of the USA remembered these terrors, too, and sought to avoid them through the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Religious liberty is America’s first freedom, the most important cornerstone of our Bill of Rights. And yet, religious liberty is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to achieve and maintain.

For over a hundred years religious liberty in America was not a huge issue. Churches were allowed to meet in US government buildings even during the Presidency of that most liberal and secular of the founders, Thomas Jefferson. In fact, he attended services in government buildings while President. Most Americans were members of a limited number of protestant Christian churches, or shared the worldview of those churches, or were at least happily accepting of those who did. It was understood and accepted by many that religious faith was important for social order and the self government of citizens. As Os Guinness has pointed out, it was important that most people not only obeyed the law, but did what was ethical and moral without being coerced to do so. It was also important, except on a few very difficult issues, that most people had agreement about basic moral ideas and principles. America was nearly destroyed by the one great disagreement she had: slavery. Everybody knew that slavery was wrong but many people were reluctant to stop doing something that was so linked to the old Southern way of life. People increasingly tried to justify it as right as the 1800’s went by. The great war and conflagration which followed magnified other smaller issues and tensions, and caused some people to lose their faith rather than continue to believe that morality could justify or require the carnage of the Civil War. They lost their conviction that freeing the oppressed sometimes requires great sacrifice, including the use of force and the suffering of force. Sadly, without the moral guidance of Abraham Lincoln, and with the great bitterness raised by the war, America did not completely free the oppressed, but continued to discriminate on the basis of race for many more decades. Our laws are still affected by the philosophical gymnastics used to justify laws that sanctioned slavery and discrimination even though everyone knew that the natural law did not. (See my prior post, “When American Law Went South”).

Nevertheless, America had great religious renewal in some parts of the country following the Civil War. This recommitment to Christianity also resulted in great reform of the law, including laws against prostitution, abortion, and human trafficking. Do people today realize that the same women who were lobbying for the vote were also lobbying for these issues, which were near and dear to their hearts?

The first real battles over religious liberty didn’t happen until the 1960’s. It was at this point, strangely enough, that some very old tensions asserted themselves. Some protestant members of the Supreme Court of the United States were concerned about the rise of Catholicism and the influence of parochial schools. Afraid that parochial schools would benefit from government help and that Roman Catholics might lead prayers in public schools, the Supreme Court was willing, with the sanction of many religious believers, to ban public prayer and much of the public support of Christian works that had gone uncontested for nearly two hundred years. As atheism became more popular in America, and as more Americans either stopped taking the Bible seriously, or decided to re-interpret it to mean whatever they wanted it to mean, a radical political liberalism that sought to separate government policy and law from morality became a dominant sentiment in American law schools. (Or should I say a dominant faith? The truth is, all beliefs about reality involve a faith commitment of some kind.) The religion clauses of the first amendment were reinterpreted from their old meanings. Instead of merely preventing the federal government or the states from establishing a particular church as the official church of the government, the establishment clause has now been used as a bludgeon to protect government from any religious influence and atheists from any reminder of God’s existence in any public place. This has been done to such an extent that children attending public schools today must surely be convinced that God does not exist and is not important because otherwise He would have a greater role in the knowledge of reality that they are given through their public education. The scope of religious free exercise has also been diminished by many recent court opinions that were more concerned that religion would be used as an excuse for license than with preserving genuine religious liberty and freedom of conscious.

With the rise of the great social issues; abortion; cloning; embryonic stem cell research; killing of the aged, the unfit, and the suffering; and a desire to eliminate the globally acknowledged understanding of marriage in favor of a sort of contractual, sexual free-for-all, the debate over religious liberty has been raised to a fever pitch because some people seek to impose their views of abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, etc., upon society through education and law to such an extent that even religious faith and conscience will not be an excuse for dissenting from particular political views on these topics. Those who favor abortion, etc., have also adopted the tactic of claiming that laws against abortion or against gay marriage interfere with their religious liberty. In a recent First Thoughts blog post, Matt Cavedon, mentions how Brian McGrath Davis has argued that the house healthcare bill “discriminates against religious freedom” by forbidding the use of public funds for abortion (I was unaware any religions still required child sacrifice). These new political tensions are only the tip of the iceberg, grating against the side of the ship of state.

An even bigger issue than the desire to mobilize the religious liberty argument as a way to foreclose political arguments on various topics is the friction between some of the worldviews in our heterogeneous globalized world. Modern radical political liberals are frustrated by the fact that evangelical Christians do not feel they have religious freedom unless they are able to witness about Christ anywhere, anytime, and in any way they wish, including in the public square. Atheists, agnostics and religious liberals often feel that granting evangelicals what they would consider religious liberty would in some way impinge on what they believe is a right of their own to be free from religion. They do not feel religiously free if they are reminded of the existence of God or the moral claims made in the Scriptures. For them, religious freedom means complete toleration of what used to be thought of as moral and ethical license, but is now accepted as a progressive lifestyle. This conflict is not the only one. While there are many types of Islam, and they are not all in agreement with each other, there are sectors within Islam that do not feel religiously free unless they have Shari’a law. They also require, for a feeling of true religious freedom, that their people must not hear about Christianity, and must not be allowed to convert to Christianity. Even beyond this, if anyone says anything about Islam that would be likely to make people unwilling to convert to Islam, even if those statements are historically true or endorsed by Muslim documents themselves, some Muslims do not feel religiously free unless they can ban and prosecute such comments as “hate speech” or what we used to call “blasphemy”. Among high ranking academic elites today there is actually talk about forbidding parents from having any religious influence over their children in the name of “religious liberty”. Obviously most parents would regard the need to share their religious faith with their children as paramount and that any ban on such communication would be the ultimate interference with religious liberty by the state.

Needless to say, these competing understandings of religious liberty create a problem: they are mutually exclusive of one another. It is probably not possible to create a regime or a settlement in which radical Muslims, radical atheists, radical political liberals, and evangelicals Christians all feel free. Our system of government is designed to try to accommodate all the major variations in religion, and yet these conflicting world views threaten to destroy the American system itself. This is a serious difficulty. In the long run it is going to require a great public debate and a new settlement of exactly how religious liberty works and what it means in practice.

One of the things that is difficult about this for Christians who take the Bible seriously, is that the difficulties outlined above form a sort of pincer movement. If we protect our ability to use truth to influence the state we also protect the ability of radical Islam to influence the state. If we take steps to limit radical Islam, those same steps may be used to shackle our own religious liberty and deprive us of the ability to teach truth to our children or to use truth to influence the state.

I would argue that history shows that commitment to true religious liberty is critical. On the one hand as Os Guinness has pointed out, we don’t want the complete banning of all religious dialog and ideas in the public square. On the other hand, we do not want an established religion, whether it be Islam, secular humanism, or evangelical Christianity. But maintaining a balance in which everyone is free to discuss ideas, even though they may come from a religious worldview, while at the same time not creating what would objectively be oppression, or what could amount to persecution of Christians, is increasingly difficult. I do not believe that it has become impossible. But I think that the ultimate solution to the problem can only rely on a spiritual awakening and a recommitment to objective moral truth rather than on greater liberalism and greater relativism.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

May God bless you and lead you to an increased knowledge of Him as we celebrate His incarnation. God, who being fully God, became fully man too. He lived among us and is called Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, died on our place, and rose from the dead. He did this so we who believe what God has revealed through the Bible could be forgiven, reconciled to God, have Jesus' righteous life accounted to us, be resurrected when Jesus returns, and enter into an eternal life of joy with God. This is truly good news. Merry Christmas.