One of the consistent themes in Christian social teaching is the recognition that this world has both material and spiritual realities. As such, it is not only important that we think about the moral, political, and economic structures that contribute to set the stage for human flourishing but that we also pray for those who are suffering that they would be free to live out their callings as human persons made in God’s image.
The stunning news that the United States may be the most surveilled society in human history has opened a fierce debate on security, privacy, and accountability, says Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School. He says religious believers should be particularly concerned:
Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity. According to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, real dignity requires that human beings “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty.” Such responsible freedom is the basis for both the establishment of friendships and the maintenance of family life. Without the possibility of non-coercive self-disclosure, which is vitiated by unfettered intrusion, such relationships are fatuous.
In the same way, conscientious religious commitment also requires a personal fiducial response to the divine. Thus religious freedom presupposes the recognition of privacy as an expression of human dignity. By no means is this a strictly Catholic or even Christian issue. The Southern Baptist Convention was right to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in Houston this month defining religious liberty as “the freedom of the individual to live in accordance with his or her religiously informed values and beliefs,” and citing in support Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
The Great Awakening (1730 – 1760) was central to America’s revolution and independence. It united the colonies and gave them a new spiritual vitality. It made churches more American and less European. These changes wedded with enlightenment thought allowed Americans to see the world with new eyes. Ties to Europe, and England especially, began to unravel. “The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background,” says historian Paul Johnson. “The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event.”
These truths are too often dismissed today and the kind of liberty that emerged from the colonies is being forgotten. As Lord Acton said so well, freedom is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
At my church service Sunday, my minister delivered a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 , legalism, and spiritual pride. At the end, he took a few minutes to address events going on in America and even read a portion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent dissent on the ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act. Foreshadowing the coming religious persecution he quoted Scalia’s line, “It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.” My pastor made the point that because of the looming threats to conscience and long established worldviews held by Christians, America is setting itself not as indifferent but hostile to Christian teaching and truth. We are and have been experiencing a new revolution against our foundations. It’s a harrowing thought, that points to a puffed up pride by leaders who can exact change with little precedent and unconstrained by a higher accountability.
Contrasting that kind of rebellion, there are some great sources that highlight the importance of America’s brand of spiritual liberty. One of the best is Political Sermons of the American Founding Era 1730-1805 published by Liberty Fund. Below is a great excerpt from “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America” by Samuel Miller. Delivered in 1793, Miller was an ordained Presbyterian minister and professor of church history and government at Princeton. Miller simply lays out the significance of the Christian contribution within American independence and government:
Christianity, on the one hand, teaches those, who are raised to places of authority, that they are not intrinsically greater than those whom they govern; and that all the rational and justifiable power with which they are invested, flows from the people, and is dependent on their sovereign pleasure. There is a love of dominion natural to every human creature; and in those who are destitute of religion, this temper is apt to reign uncontrouled. Hence experience has always testified, that rulers, left to themselves, are prone to imagine, that they are a superior order of beings, to obey whom, the ignoble multitude was made, and that their aggrandizement is the principal design of the social compact. But the religion of the gospel, rightly understood, and cordially embraced, utterly disclaims such unworthy sentiments, and banishes them with abhorrence from the mind. It contemplates the happiness of the community, as the primary object of all political associations—and it teaches those, who are placed at the helm of government, to remember, that they are called to preside over equals and friends, whose best interest, and not the demands of selfishness, is to be the object of their first and highest care.
On the other hand, Christianity, wherever it exerts its native influence, leads every citizen to reverence himself—to cherish a free and manly spirit—to think with boldness and energy—to form his principles upon fair enquiry, and to resign neither his conscience nor his person to the capricious will of men. It teaches, and it creates in the mind, a noble contempt for that abject submission to the encroachments of despotism, to which the ignorant and the unprincipled readily yield. It forbids us to call, or to acknowledge, any one master upon earth, knowing that we have a Master in heaven, to whom both rulers, and those whom they govern, are equally accountable. In a word, Christianity, by illuminating the minds of men, leads them to consider themselves, as they really are, all co-ordinate terrestrial princes, stripped, indeed, of the empty pageantry and title, but retaining the substance of dignity and power. Under the influence of this illumination, how natural to disdain the shackles of oppression—to take the alarm at every attempt to trample on their just rights; and to pull down, with indignation, from the seat of authority, every bold invader!
Hobby Lobby, the privately owned popular craft store chain that filed suit opposing the HHS mandate which forces employers to provide “preventive care” measures such as birth-control and “morning after” pills, won a significant — albeit temporary victory last week when the trial court granted a temporary restraining order against enforcement:
Today, for the first time, a federal court has ordered the government not to enforce the HHS abortion-drug mandate against Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The ruling comes just one day after a dramatic 168-page opinion from the en banc 10th Circuit recognizing that business owners have religious liberty rights. This was the first definitive federal appellate ruling against the HHS mandate.
“Hobby Lobby and the Green family faced the terrible choice of violating their faith or paying massive fines starting this Monday morning,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represents Hobby Lobby. “We are delighted that both the 10th Circuit and the district court have spared them from this unjust burden on their religious freedom.”
In its landmark opinion yesterday, the 10th Circuit majority found that “no one” – not even the government – “disputes the sincerity of Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs.” The court ruled that denying them the protection of federal law just because they are a profit-making business “would conflict with the Supreme Court’s free exercise precedent.”
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.
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization of chaplain endorsers representing more than 2,000 current chaplains actively serving the armed forces, is concerned about the Supreme Court’s decision today to strike down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Chaplain Alliance calls on Congress to pass enhanced religious liberty protections for all military personnel.
“The court’s unfortunate decision to strike down the federal definition of marriage highlights the need for the religious liberty protections recently passed by the House Armed Services Committee and the full House of Representatives,” said CH (COL) Ron Crews, USAR Retired, executive director for Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty. “Most of the faith groups in our country firmly hold that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. They strongly believe that children deserve to know their mother and father. Chaplains from those faith groups will continue to minister with those convictions. Chaplains have been protected by DOMA as they minister to service members and their families in a manner consistent with those sincerely held beliefs. That freedom is now at significant risk.”
The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty submitted an amicus brief in support of DOMA explaining how the repeal of DOMA could impact the religious liberty of service members and military chaplains:
The Very Reverend Dr. Chad Hatfield, Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, echoed the Rabbi Cohen’s statements, telling CNA that “I think that there is a clamp-down on religious liberty in this country, but it’s so incredibly simple that we aren’t catching the signs.”
“If one religious identity’s freedoms are taken, then all suffer,” he added.
He warned, however, against over-correction, such as moves by the Russian Orthodox Church to establish Russian Orthodoxy as the official state religion. “There is a problem when the Church relies on the fist of Caesar to protect it rather than the loving hand of Jesus,” he cautioned, although he noted that “the government should guarantee us our freedom to express ourselves.”
Read “Diverse faith leaders unite over religious freedom concerns” at the Catholic News Agency.
There is little doubt that America is moving further away from the kind of broad and liberal religious freedom that was championed during the founding period. In terms of intellectual thought, that period was certainly the high water mark for religious liberty around the globe. As Americans celebrate their freedoms and Independence next week, I seek to answer the question in this week’s commentary about America’s ability to remain the land of religious liberty.
Sadly, the outlook is rather bleak, and America will need a fundamental shift in thinking to secure protection for the rights of conscience and houses of worship. It’s evident the significance of spiritual freedom is waning and can’t really be articulated by the wider culture. Spiritual freedom is essential to self-government and self-control. In fact, I make the point in my commentary that the most dangerous detriment to religious liberty is the popular notion that religion and faith constricts liberty. Obviously, just winning mere court cases is not enough. That ship has sailed.
I suspect today’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Defense of Marriage Act will only complicate matters of religious conscience for churches and dissent from culture and society becomes more dangerous. Secularization of society and the rise of centralized federal power is creating a government that seeks to operate above fundamental truths and the rights of conscience. It seeks to crowd it out and diminish its influence and limiting power upon the state. During his closing address at Acton University, Samuel Gregg explained so well how moral relativism now operates in a dictatorial fashion.
Just before the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, John Adams wrote a letter to his cousin Zabdiel that I think points to our inevitable path as a nation without a rejuvenated appreciation and understanding of religious liberty. Adams declared,
The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, They may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.
The audio of four lectures from Acton University last week focusing on topics related to the Orthodox Christian Tradition — two by Fr. Michael Butler, one by Fr. Gregory Jensen, and one by Fr. Hans Jacobse — is now available to stream free of charge on Ancient Faith Radio (here).
The lectures are as follows (click to listen):
- Fr. Michael Butler, “Orthodoxy, Church, and State”
- Fr. Michael Butler, “Orthodoxy and Natural Law”
- Fr. Gregory Jensen, “East Meets West: Consumerism and Asceticism”
- Fr. Hans Jacobse, “Why Aleksander Solzhenitsyn Matters”
If you would like to purchase the audio of the four lectures above, you can do so at our audio store (here).
In addition, we would like to thank Ancient Faith Radio again for sharing their audio with us of the Acton-St. Vladimir’s conference on Orthodoxy and Poverty last month (here).
Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg took to the podium on the final night of Acton University 2013 to deliver the closing plenary address for the conference. Below, Gregg closes the conference with a reflection on modern threats to religious liberty, and how the faithful can respond.