Confronting the Antidiscrimination Regime

by (@RickPlasterer) January 4, 2014

Liberty of Conscience of Crushing Tyranny

Liberty of Conscience Crushing Tyranny
Photo Credit: rambambashi.wordpress.com

Do Christians really believe, and are they committed to the claims of Biblical faith, to God’s lordship, the uniqueness of His truth revealed in the Bible, and the moral precepts set forth in it? Our liturgies, sermons, and prayers resound with claims of God’s lordship, and its superiority over anything else. Anyone who has spent any time in an Evangelical environment has heard, and if a participant, has sung, that Jesus “is risen from the dead, and he is Lord,” and yet it is precisely God’s lordship in all of life which is the most controversial legal issue about Christian discipleship today.

Points of conflict about God’s lordship have varied over the millennia. In Biblical times, idolatry at times seduced, at other times, coerced, God’s people. The ancient church struggled with Christology, the medieval church with corruption and violence, the modern church with the doctrine of salvation and the challenges of science and reason. None of these controversies are entirely passé in our day, but for contemporary Christians the real issue on which we are pressured to compromise or surrender our commitment to revealed truth is the sexual morality expounded in Scripture and which was dominant throughout the Christian era. The pressure comes through the antidiscrimination law and policy surging through the Western world, which increasingly makes public choices based on Christian sexual morality illegal discrimination.

For those who remember the mid-to-late twentieth century, and who have been striving to follow Christ in their lives, the conflict over sexual morality that began in that time has changed in the early twenty-first century. No longer does the state generally support traditional marriage and the family in its laws and policies, nor do those who lead Western society – academics, journalists, entertainers, and the world of business and the professions. And finally churches, the bearers of the religious tradition which is the source of this traditional sexual morality, are slowly falling away from it. Not only are the historic Protestant denominations in varying degrees of acceptance of what was once universally regarded as immorality, but voices for accommodation are now heard in what was, less than a generation ago, bastions of traditional morality, the Evangelical and Catholic worlds, evidenced now, although to what real extent remains unclear, even in papal pronouncements.

Anyone following the ominously advancing debacle of religious liberty now denied by the antidiscrimination regime is well aware of the cases. Perhaps the most (in)famous at the present time is that of New Mexico photographer Elaine Huguenin, fined because she respectfully declined to provide photography services for a lesbian ceremony. As I noted in the linked article, there are numerous other cases in this country and about in which liberty of conscience is denied where homosexuality is concerned: a florist in Washington state, a baker in Oregon, two bed and breakfast establishments in Illinois, a professional counselor in Georgia, an inn owner in Vermont, a tee-shirt company in Kentucky, and doctors in California.

The same sad denial of liberty of conscience is occurring throughout what was known as the “free world,” as conscience requirements based on what is held to be “reactionary” beliefs are judged “discriminatory” and illegal. Britain has particularly stringent antidiscrimination (or “equality”) laws and regulations that deny religious liberty, a political and judicial establishment, and a large part of the public, that adamantly supports such denial. A recent high profile case was that of Christian bed and breakfast owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who in recent weeks lost their case to a unanimous U.K. Supreme Court, even though their policy of requiring couples they served be married applied to heterosexuals as well as homosexuals (the case began before the arrival of homosexual marriage to Britain earlier last year). As noted by the Christian Institute, a majority of the court found the Bull’s policy to be “direct discrimination,” a minority “indirect discrimination,” but in either case illegal.

The public sentiment that supports denial of liberty of conscience in Britain was well expressed by Deborah Orr in an article in the Guardian at the end of last month. Orr frankly states that “religious rights” (historically the “first freedom”) must come second to “human rights” (i.e., “gay rights”), as if religious freedom were not a “human right.” But this is really based on a judgment that the ideas religious freedom protects are wrong. Orr frankly advances the idea of “progress” as superior to religious commitments, and her article clearly involves the claim that the religious condemnation of homosexuality is wrong. This is not neutrality. From the fact that there is no general agreement on the answers to ultimate questions about truth and reality, it does not follow that the state ought to construct a new society based on its own estimate of what the good life is. It isn’t the function of the state to address the meaning and value of life, as Western governments are now effectively doing in penalizing as “discriminatory” practices based on is Biblical condemnations of homosexuality (notably the conscientious refusal to provide goods or services that facilitate homosexuality). The state ought to exist to ensure civil peace between different groups and individuals, and that mandates that the religious conscience with respect to sexual matters be respected by the state, even when others are offended by it. The author of the article clearly thinks that subordinating religion to her idea of inclusivism provides the only way differently minded groups can co-exist; in fact she proposes a society in which what in Christian theology would be called universalism (i.e., everyone is accepted by God, or whatever the ultimate standard is supposed to be) is the doctrine of the state and binding on all society. Real coexistence would allow people to obey the precepts of their religion if the only harm to others is hurt feelings.

Seeing the conflict over religious conscience as a conflict of ultimate commitments which the state is incompetent to judge is key to understanding why the religious conscience must be respected in the public world. Religious freedom did not arise to accommodate mere preferences. Some people like the Latin mass, others prefer “contemporary” Evangelical worship, others may like traditional Protestant hymns, and others may be attracted to the life and celebrations of some other religion. In this revised, liberal version of religious freedom, liberty exists merely to facilitate quality of life, to ensure that people can have the life that they want. It is then easy to see why a religion’s historic requirements must bend to an overarching secular concept of the good life.

But in fact, religious freedom arose slowly and painfully in the West over the last several centuries to accommodate hard, inflexible religious requirements, which are binding on religious adherents regardless of any other considerations (such as, indeed particularly, the law of the state). While love of God should surely be the chief reason to obey what one believes to be His commands, not uncommonly, it is also believed by faithful religious adherents that disobedience to religious requirements will result in dire consequences from a supernatural reality (such as consignment to hell, or at least divine disfavor). All this led people to accept death by burning, torture, exile, and other severe consequences, rather than disobey God as they understood his commands to be.

Clearly, religious freedom must be understood in terms of the struggle to live in truth, and a clear understanding that the state cannot pronounce on ultimate truth. If secular considerations about including everyone in a state defined good life take precedence over traditional religious precepts, then the state is saying, really based on a moral intuition, that it does have a truth which is superior to any other.

James Hitchcock has incisively discussed the conflict between the objectives of contemporary liberalism and traditional religion. A good recent article from late 2012 notes the extensive contemporary legal opinion that opposes religious freedom where it conflicts with the state defined good life. It also notes the use of government control of health care to define what “health” is, and thus what virtue is. As Hitchcock emphasizes, it is held that there can be no dissent from this secular, “this worldly” vision of society.

How can Christians respond to this refusal to accommodate their beliefs and their consciences? First, our ultimate commitment is to God, and to obey His commands, regardless of what justification for religious freedom exists or can be developed for secular legal systems. Thinking or living outside the secular box is precisely what secularism will not tolerate, but what we must do. The framework for Christians is circumscribed by God, but that is a claim to a basis in absolute truth. The secularist legal and cultural elites that rule the West offer by contrast only their own refined opinion. While they may protest that claims to religious freedom are claims to put religious considerations “above the law,” or give religious persons “a license to discriminate,” the fundamental rights to which they are appealing are, in their own estimate, their own creation, human tools to be used in human conflicts. They really cannot claim a moral position that informs both the law and the public, if it is only their creation.

Some agreement on religious freedom will only be possible if traditional Christians and secularists coincidently agree that it is a good thing (there cannot be fundamental agreement since the basic commitments, obedience to God and self-actualization, are so different). As noted by contemporary historians, religious freedom originally developed as a Christian doctrine, with thinkers such as Tertullian, Lactintius, and later Pope Gregory I holding that religious commitments must be a matter of conviction, not coercion. This view was later advanced by both Roger Williams and John Locke. The same view was more recently expressed in the Manhattan Declaration. As for secularism, it can hardly claim to be a comprehensive rule for life if it is in fact only elite opinion. The propriety of dissent from the liberal project to build a self-sufficient society with self-sufficient individuals is therefore only reasonable.

While the state itself can never concede that its laws may be disobeyed, no one truly believes that the state’s laws ought always to be obeyed, regardless of what they say. Abolitionists were right to defy the Fugitive Slave Law, and pacifists, if they are correct about military action, were right to defy the draft. It is to cope with this tension between enacted law and morality that we have laws protecting liberty of conscience. Religious freedom means nothing, in fact freedom in general means nothing, if it can be set aside when other people are offended. Legally protected freedom is only needed when someone objects to our speech or action, freedom is not needed for what offends no one. All of life is discrimination, picking one thing and not another. If the government denies liberty of conscience because people feel offended and discriminated against, we are living in a totalitarianism, with the government able to prescribe the details of every aspect of a person’s personal or work life.

Nothing is more vital to freedom than liberty of conscience, nothing is a greater injustice to the individual than the government requiring that person to violate his or her conscience. If people are required to do what they are convinced is wrong, the formerly free societies of the West will effectively become a tyranny, which has no regard for the worth of the lives of its subjects.

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