The recent uproar over the Obama Administration refusing religious organizations exemption from purchasing health insurance that covers abortion related drugs and procedures has left me feeling uneasy. My discomfort is partly due to the fact that churches are battling for freedoms unknown to our first century brothers and sisters (and to many contemporary followers of Christ).
While I value religious freedom, I am a concerned about the place we give it in the larger narrative of the Church (both historical and contemporary).
Herein lies a significant challenge for the Church in America. We simply have no explicit parallels in Scripture to a democratic form of government.
I realize that Biblical truths and principles about government reach God’s people in all places with both binding authority and overlapping application (Daniel 4; Acts 17:26-27;Romans 13:1ff; I Peter 2:13-14). We can look to the prophets and learn much about divine concern for justice and protection of the vulnerable. In Jesus, we find teaching on non-resistance as a personal ethic for His followers (although, I hesitate to apply this ethic too closely to how the followers of Jesus function in the context of government — particularly law enforcement). But none of this biblical instruction was delivered to people who lived in democratic forms of government.
So what does responsible citizenship look like for Christians when they are part of “We the people….” Are we called (by God) to be a voice at the table as a matter of responsible citizenship? Does non-participation equal disobedience? More importantly, what does Christian participation look like in attitude, posture, voice, and overall influence?
On the current matter, we can make deep connections with the commandments of God and the cry of the prophets when defending the life of the un-born. But things get a little tricky when the argument being used is focused on freedom of religion. What does one do when freedoms (perceived or otherwise) conflict?
A big part of our challenge is the fact that we live in an age whose highest value is “the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess…”
When our defense of religious freedom appears to require others to give up their freedoms, we appear to be fighting for the same moral ground. I realize that we (Christians) connect our concerns to what we believe to be a divinely ordained, transcendent morality. Yet this kind of argument either falls on deaf ears or comes off as imperialistically oppressive in a pluralistic society.
How then do we establish laws and policies without jeopardizing someone else’s claim to freedom? More importantly, how do we fight for good freedoms while opposing an ethic of absolute personal liberty? This is part of our dilemma?
We’re right to believe that, “unconstrained personal license might actually serve to make society as a whole less free by making others powerless against the consequences of the ‘rights’ we choose to exercise…” (David B Hart, Ibid., p. 88). This is partly what drives our opposition to abortion. The rights of the unborn are being destroyed by those who defend their right to “choose.” But others see this argument as a threat to the god of unconstrained personal freedom.
David Hart stated well that, as a society, “we are devoted to — in a sense, we worship – the will; and we are hardly the first people willing to offer up our children to our god” (In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, p. 88).
Christian living and witness is more complex in a democratic society than many realize. But this complexity intensifies where the ethic of absolute personal liberty is widely embraced.
“…. a society that believes this (ethic) must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any higher value than choice, or of any transcendent Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make from a universe of morally indifferent but variable desirable ends unencumbered by any prior grammar of obligation or value (in America, we call this the wall of separation).” (David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, pp. 1-2).
Here are some well-stated concerns that raise matters deeply connected with Christian ethics.
“The very dynamism of modern democracy has contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others—neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future—we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)
“Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance [that is, the willingness of each citizen to govern himself], democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question.” Montesquieu
“We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we choose well. For to choose poorly, through folly or malice, in a way that thwarts our nature and distorts our proper form, is to enslave ourselves to the transitory, the irrational, the purposeless, the (to be precise) subhuman” (David B. Hart, Atheist Delusions).
For another excellent discussion of this topic, see:We Dare Not Defend Our Rights and Should Christians Really be Standing up for their Rights?