Acton Institute Powerblog

Religious Liberty and the Regulatory Road to Serfdom

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Perhaps for the first time in American history, orthodox and traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others may need to form a new alliance in order to defend their religious liberties in an America that’s increasingly less tolerant of principled diversity.

Religious and cultural progressives, secularists, and militant atheists pose a significant threat to religious freedom all in the name of “fairness.” What is not “unfair” is that religious communities are not free to not embrace cultural morality. In the coming years, fairness will be forced upon traditional religious groups by progressives (secular and religious) to destroy religious liberty. Religious communities that hold to classical teachings will not necessarily have their freedom directly undermined by a single President, specific laws in Congress, or maybe not even judicial activism, but primarily by the unchecked power of government regulatory agencies who operate essentially as our fourth branch of government.

Government regulatory agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Center for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and hundreds of others, are free to interpret and apply federal law without accountability to America’s legislative process. Congress has no control over any of the regulations issued by these agencies. It is the lack of due process that will render these agencies so dangerous in the coming years for those who hold to the traditional practices and beliefs. These agencies are free to interpret the law as they see fit without having to answer to anyone in the process.

Regulatory coercion is often missed because it functions behind the scenes. Federal agencies coerce by withholding certifications, accreditation, “approvals,” and licenses to legally operate often, giving groups two options: (1) comply with the regulations, or (2) lose the ability to legally operate. For example, since universities have to be accredited by a regional agency of the Department of Education in order to grant legitimate degrees, schools must comply with whatever regulations come from Washington, D.C. in order to participate in the federal loan program. Any actions interpreted to fall outside of the regulatory vision could jeopardize accreditation and/or federal availability for students.

As the social mores of America continue to shift away from those of religious traditionalists, the verdict is out on whether or not religious organizations and institutions will be able to keep their non-profit status, their licenses to operate, and so on if they do not comply with ideologically driven government mandates regarding sexuality, marriage, religious hiring, end-of-life issues, abortion, and so on. If recent actions by the Obama Administration are a vision into the future, there is much to be concerned about. We have already seen religious liberty flair up with the government’s attempt to coerce institutions into compliance with Health and Human Services mandates regarding contraception and employer-provided health insurance. Christians have had to fight in federal courts all over America just to opt out of the mandate on the basis of their religious liberty to not embrace the cultural norms. These agencies simply have too much unchecked power.

Thomas Sowell is helpful here as well:

The real danger to us all is when government not only exercises the powers that we have voted to give it, but exercises additional powers that we have never voted to give it. That is when “public servants” become public masters. That is when government itself has stepped over the line. . . Someone once said, “any government that is powerful enough to protect citizens against predators is also powerful enough to become a predator itself.” And dictatorial in the process.

No American government can take away all our freedoms at one time. But a slow and steady erosion of freedom can accomplish the same thing on the installment plan. We have already gone too far down that road. F.A. Hayek called it “the road to serfdom.”

Here’s the bottom line: The installment plan to undermine religious liberty will likely be through these hundreds of federal regulatory agencies. If religious leaders, across the faith spectrum, do not lock arms they could all stand to lose their freedom to fully participate in America’s pluralistic society. If that happens serfdom will be America’s future.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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