May 12, 2014

Christian Duty and Secular Law

Photo Credit: www.citizensproject.org

The increasingly sharp conflict between the duty of Christians as disciples of Christ to obey God above all else, and the requirements of the secular state means that Christians must defend both their unconditional obedience to God and a correct understanding of freedom. This was the basic conclusion from presentations and panel discussion at the “Truth, Conscience, and Religious Freedom” conference recently held at Franciscan University. An earlier article by this writer discussed the conference’s treatment of the religious and philosophical doctrines justifying religious freedom.

Dr. Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute discussed how Christian duty can be defended from a correct understanding of freedom. Americans have increasingly sharp divisions about the meaning of freedom. Schmiesing held that the Catholic view of past generations was that American freedom aids the Church, while Protestants historically saw religious freedom as being freedom from priests. But for all traditional Christians, freedom is understood not as personal autonomy, but as freedom to make the right choice. It might be added that while different religious standards may require somewhat different “right choices,” freedom should protect a conscience bound by some duty, not personal caprice. But Schmiesing noted that while the Catholic Church is increasingly seen as the enemy of freedom because it opposes the sexual revolution, the social issues that the sexual revolution involves are really rational questions, not exclusively questions of faith. Similarly, Schmiesing pointed out that religious exclusivism is held to be the enemy of freedom of thought and action. Yet truth is by nature exclusive, and a genuine search for truth should result in discovery of an objective truth by which one is bound, not a self-constructed reality. Many non-Catholic Christians have now become allies of the Church in this struggle for freedom of action based on objective truth and morality, while social liberals and secularists continue to use old arguments about the clerical (now understood as the religious) threat to freedom.

Schmiesing pointed out that Catholics (and other Christians) can no longer say they are in general agreement with the wider American society. Because Christian sexual morality is now condemned by the dominant elements in American society, the status of religious freedom has become degraded. “Institutional martyrdom is at hand,” he claimed.

Schmiesing believes the solution is to reinvigorate the old idea that freedom is based on what promotes human flourishing. Religious liberty specifically must be presented as fundamental to human flourishing, with Christianity on the side of freedom. Some examples of Christianity advancing freedom were: 1) Christian Europe got rid of slavery; 2) the insistence of churchmen on rights of non-Western natives; 3) the role of the church in limiting the power of government, and the distinction between religious and civil authorities; while 4) abortion can be seen as a reversal of progress. To ensure that the Christian subculture has legal protection, the idea of corporate liberty should be emphasized rather than individual liberty.

Dr. Kenneth L. Grasso of Texas State University discussed how America’s commitment to religious freedom has been turned to its opposite, making the fulfillment of Christian duty difficult or impossible within the new legal environment. Historically, America has been committed to religious pluralism. Never have there been two Americas confronting one another, as post-revolutionary France has seen two Frances, one Catholic and one anticlerical, confronting one another, Grasso said. In America, an “intra-Christian pluralism” was united to the social consensus in a “common Biblical culture.” The First Amendment’s “articles of peace,” which guaranteed religious freedom, depended at least in part on articles of (Christian) faith. As a result, there was both civic unity and religious integrity for different varieties of Christianity. A stable and united body politic was forged amid pluralism, with general agreement on the moral and political principles of the public good.

The past century witnessed a gradual erosion of faith in Christian doctrine and morality, however. This has been accompanied by a “judicialization” of church/state relations, with the nation’s religious commitments restricted by judicial fiats. There has also been an increase in secularization and an increase in some non-Christian religions.

As a result, today law and public policy are turning religious pluralism into a secular monism. In the past, however, any “kulturkampf” against traditional religion was restricted by limited government. State legislatures had greater freedom in the past. The fact that church and state were distinct restricted government to civic matters, leaving aside issues that have to do with the meaning and value of life. Intermediate institutions of civil society were focus of social life, rather than the government.

Grasso held that the unraveling of the “common Biblical culture” has resulted in a polarization of the nation into religiously orthodox and progressive factions, as noted by Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter. The orthodox hold that there is an “objective, binding, universal morality from a transcendent source,” while the progressives, rooted in the radical Enlightenment, hold that “moral truth is perpetually unfolding, humanly created, and linked to the liberated individual.” The current social conflict pits the radical Enlightenment against Judeo-Christian morality. This conflict supersedes all historic conflicts in American society, and because the radical Enlightenment seeks to transform the world rather than accommodate human behavior to a fixed reality, dialog becomes a virtual impossibility. America’s “long holiday from history is about to end,” Grasso declared.

The HHS mandate (requiring religious believers and institutions to pay for goods and services they believe are immoral) marks a dramatic escalation of the conflict. “The gloves, as it were, have come off.” This is the focus of an effort to transform the pluralistic public square into a monistic one, reducing civil society to an “omnicompetent state.” It necessarily involves the subordination of the church. It also involves the alienation of millions of (orthodox Christian) Americans to “dimmitude of a sort.” The attempt to implement the HHS mandate has intensified divisions, but even if the HHS mandate fails, it has damaged Americans. It is a new “civil war carried out by other means.” However, it only the first battle in a protracted conflict, Grasso believes.

The church must reckon with the new secularist vision now being advanced if it is to successfully proceed into the future, distancing itself from the American mainstream, while avoiding the temptation of ghettoization, Grasso maintained. Christians must be “alien citizens,” recognizing that our “true homeland lies elsewhere.” But at the same time, we “must be down in the trenches for a long-term fight.” Grasso asked if liberal democracy is compatible with Christianity. His answer was that a particular vision of liberal democracy centering on human autonomy is the problem. Although the immediate challenge for Christians comes from politics, it is ultimately a religious conflict. The culture war, he claimed, began in the churches and spilled over into politics.

William Saunders, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life, a noted human rights lawyer, and a board member of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, asked in his presentation how well the United States respects religious freedom, using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (promulgated in 1948) as a standard. Article 18 of the Declaration covers freedom of religion. One of its implementing instruments, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (a binding treaty, ratified by the United States) indicates beliefs cannot be restricted. Limits on religious freedom must be narrow and few, otherwise the limits swallow the rights. The manifestation of religion which the Covenant guarantees is not limited to freedom of worship. ICCPR respects the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. America has (so far) respected this in the Supreme Court’s Pierce decision (1925, upholding religiously based education), and Yoder decision (1972, sanctioning homeschooling). Religious freedom cannot be limited even in time of emergency that threatens the life of the nation (conscientious objection to military service recognizes this).

The Universal Declaration is very much like Catholic social teaching, Saunders maintained. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Smith decision (1990, denying constitutional protection for religious duty in conflict with generally applicable laws), does not conform to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, Saunders claimed. He held that restriction on religious belief and practice together may violate Article 18. If a nation has an official ideology, it must not restrict religious freedom; but secularism, as currently being advanced in the West, is violating religious freedom. Saunders pointed out that the Pew Research Center reports that restrictions on religion are also on the rise around the world. Currently, three fourths of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religion. Government restrictions and social hostilities are growing in the U.S., Saunders noted, and he believes that social hostilities may be growing due to government restrictions. In response, he claimed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR should “be talked about in the public square rather than conceded to the Left – religious liberty is strongly defended in them. Christians need to go on the offense.”

A strong defense of Christian truth and the natural right to live in accordance with it is only part of what is required to be faithful to God, however. Noncompliance with unjust requirements of the state is also necessary, but much more difficult when one is really confronted with such a situation. As this writer referenced in an earlier article, careful analysis of moral duty shows that it is not right to require action believed immoral. Obedience to God in both words and action is, most importantly, the only way to fulfill our duty to God, but also the most effective way of eventually restoring religious freedom.


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