In his recent book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, eminent U. S. historian George Marsden offers a compelling definition of what we could call the American soul: it is an intellectual fusion of European Enlightenment thought and evangelical Protestantism. More than any other book I’ve read, Marsden’s short monograph makes sense of the different elements of the American public square.
These two influences have long worked for similar ends: the promotion of personal liberty in various directions chief among them. Now, however, it is clear from Marsden’s foundational work and a basic sense of our fractured society that the Enlightenment impulse and the Christian impulse are working at cross purposes.
By my own accounting, our modern secular consensus–derived from the Enlightenment–champions what I call unprincipled freedom, personal liberty without any restraints, moral or otherwise. Christians (with many popular American religious groups) champion principled freedom, personal liberty within certain moral constraints (many of which our government has historically enforced, to our collective good).
At the policy level, these competing conceptions of the same ideal have meant very different stances from the two groups. Those who advocate unprincipled freedom end up pursuing a one-size-fits-all policy that forces all other groups to recognize and even endorse their “rights.” Those who advocate principled freedom resist this trajectory and seek instead to preserve the rights of every group to pursue courses of action that are inherently just and moral.
There is a delicious irony in all this. The group that champions unrestrained liberty ends up dropping a hammer on the group that champions morally qualified freedom. If you doubt the historical nature of this statement, I point you to the French Revolution. The party animated by “liberty and fraternity” ended up taking the reins of the state and spilling the blood of thousands of those type-cast as evil and repressive (including many Catholic and Protestant clergy). The Enlightenment does not look so luminous in retrospect as it did in the sweaty heyday of revolution. We can be thankful, as pastor Rick Warren recently wrote in the Washington Post, that founding father Thomas Jefferson married his zeal for the French Revolution with the recognition that conscience, and the freedom of religion, is fragile and must at all costs be protected.
This very week the two competing conceptions of freedom are meeting head to head. Tomorrow, the U. S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in cases entitled Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. The Hobby Lobby case is the more prominent of the two and has attracted considerable attention due to the explicitly Christian faith of David and Steve Green, the founder and current head of the chain store. In sum, through the “HHS Mandate” of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration seeks to compel organizations and businesses like Hobby Lobby and its corporate heads to provide health care coverage that includes abortifacient drugs. Green has resisted this directive. The Obama administration has promised to levy a considerable penalty on the chain and other similarly-acting businesses that fail to provide health-care coverage per its mandate.
This is a momentous week in America, and especially for religious groups seeking to continue to exercise principled freedom. This ability is grounded in the freedom of religion that is spelled out in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. For centuries, because of the First Amendment, religious groups and religious individuals have enjoyed the liberty to operate by their own beliefs in life, work, worship, and all other spheres. This liberty is now imperiled. In sum, unprincipled freedom is poised to run roughshod over both the American conscience and the American public square.
We have already witnessed the force of this impulse in our culture through the drive, hugely successful thus far, to redefine marriage. Marriage has been rewritten according to personal preference, not moral concern, biological reality, or the creation and nurture of children. This same impulse is operative in the Hobby Lobby case, as the Obama administration seeks to bring all to heel and to compel all businesses and institutions to provide health-care coverage that covers abortion.
There are several appropriate responses on the part of Christians to this injustice.
The first is anger. Caesar, powered by a force stronger than big data can measure, is over-reaching here. It is right to be upset by unjust action.
The second is concern. Religious groups and individuals are seeing their freedom to live and think according to their conscience placed in danger. Businesses and institutions that do not comply with the HHS Mandate will, if the Court sides with the Obama administration, face steep and even crushing penalties. Lest churches and non-profits think this is a case outside their area of interest, they will in turn reap this terrible harvest. Giving will be drastically affected. One thinks of even just David Green himself, a famously charitable man. He is just one example of millions of a generous Christian who will be deeply affected by a verdict finding for the Obama administration.
Churches and pastors who have zoned out of public square matters in the past need to snap awake if they still day-dream in our time. True religious liberty is gravely threatened. It may not seem like it’s all that much of a big deal if some corporation out there somewhere has to pay a fine, but it will seem like a big deal when our people are financially squeezed and giving to churches decreases.
This leads to the third and most inhabitive of responses for the believer: prayer. With a number of friends, including my buddies Phillip Bethancourt and Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, I encourage you to join me and thousands of others in praying for Hobby Lobby. Actually, let’s modernize this: #PrayforHobbyLobby. Prayer is the most powerful force in the world, far more potent than evil and injustice.
Tomorrow morning at 10am, arguments begin in Washington. Ask the Lord to restrain Caesar’s grasping hand. Ask him to overcome immoral policy. Ask him to preserve his church, protect it from weakening, and leave it stronger and triumphant in the end. Ask him to have mercy on his enemies, those who would crush his people, and to enable us to act–whatever the outcome of these cases–in conviction and love even toward those who oppose us. This is not a culture war, after all, but a contest for the soul, both societal and individual. One cannot engage in this contest with the weapons of the world, with demonization and name-calling. One needs the character of Christ.
This does not mean inaction. As I make clear in my book Risky Gospel, I do not think the church of God needs to take these events lying down. I do think, however, that the way we respond to the decisions in these cases will affect our witness in a watching world.
Tomorrow, join a whole bunch of organizations and individuals. On Twitter, Facebook, and social media, promote #PrayforHobbyLobby. This isn’t a gimmick. It’s a real, live movement. We are Christians who care about our country, who want all people to flourish, who want freedom of religion to endure. We are joined by many friends in our quest to uphold the freedom of religion.
We recognize, after all, that if we do not possess this freedom, another form of this ideal will take its place. This is not true freedom, but a counterfeit, one that speaks the tones of liberation and justice but in reality is no freedom at all.