Acton Commentary

Religious Liberty versus Secular Tyranny


James Madison called religious freedom the “lustre of our country” and a guaranteed right elevated above political authority. But in today’s America, some leaders, including President Obama, are trying to redefine the inherent meaning of religious freedom by renaming it “freedom of worship.” This revision implies that you are free to believe and practice what you want as long as it is confined inside the walls of physical houses of worship – a hollow promise compared to the robust guarantee offered by the First Amendment.

This narrowing definition of our first freedom is modeled today by the Obama administration’s attempt to force employers to violate their religious conscience by way of the HHS mandate. Likewise, a number of other high profile lawsuits seek to vacate the rights of churches and individuals to practice their faith in the public square. Just one example: The ACLU is currently suing Catholic hospitals to require them to perform abortions, which clearly violates the very faith that inspired the building of these hospitals.

Last week at a conference at the American Center for Progress, religious freedom was absurdly called “Christian Privilege.” For centuries, it has been the dream of progressive secularism to create a new heaven and earth free from the perceived restraints of the divine. “The Christian religion,” declared philosopher Bertrand Russell, “is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”

But what would Western Civilization look like without God, and more specifically the Lord Jesus Christ? In The Word of Life, theologian Thomas C. Oden noted of Christ, “Western history would not be Western history without him.” The role of women, the welfare of the destitute, the care of the sick, the value of education -- really every sphere of society -- have all been deeply impacted by one man, Jesus Christ.

The secular scheme to free us from the influence of faith in the public square promises a progressive world of peace and human advancement. In reality, throughout history, it has more commonly offered the opposite.

As the West rushes to repaganize itself, ironically, it is only reverting back to the kind of tyranny and despotism that predates Western Civilization’s championing of progress and freedom.

In truth, as we are reminded this Christmas season, it’s not progressive secularism that redeems the world, but Christ. The secular world and even many people of faith have lost sight of the fact that it is faith and the Christian life it inspires that reflect and bring us closer to the restored world promised by Christianity.

Christ of course will outlast any secular attempts to scrub his influence from society. But the current threat to religious freedom is real, and very dangerous. Unfortunately, the whole of society will reap the consequences. Charities will be negatively impacted or even forced to close their doors. More and more people will look first to a bankrupt and broken government for moral guidance. People’s capacity to seek truth and knowledge for their life will diminish.

Elevating the state above the Church as the source of moral guidance and truth inverts the natural order of things, with disheartening and ultimately disastrous results. “The Church is the conscience of the state,” declared Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. When government tramples inherent rights such as religious liberty, tyranny ensues. Now more than ever, it is essential that the public square be influenced not by commands emanating from the granters of political power, but by commandments issued by the Granter of our ultimate liberties.