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Liberty of Conscience

Photo credit: catholiclane.com

By Rick Plasterer

Anyone understanding Christian discipleship, and that certainly includes many ordinary believers, knows, however imperfectly, that what is involved is obedience to God, as he has revealed himself in scripture, and obedience without compromise. This can be relatively easy or very difficult, but it’s clear from such scripture accounts as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Daniel’s friends willingness to enter Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, and the roll call of the faithful (and martyrs) in Heb. 11 that Christian commitment is absolute, regardless of other considerations or penalties, however severe.

We do seem to live in “the best of times and the worst of times.” Generally we hold jobs, have access to varied resources for Christian faith and life unimaginable to previous generations, and comfort and support in Christian churches that we find to be sufficiently in line with the Word of God. On the other hand, the world in which we must live is becoming increasingly hostile to this absolute commitment, and is giving this hostility practical application through government denial of liberty of conscience in many places in the West. What now goes by the name of secularism endeavors to establish a rival moral vision without reference to a creator and lord; consistently applied it would make this absolute obedience to God any area of life illegal, with religious commitment allowed only on the sufferance of the state. This is increasingly withheld, as the conflict between living life in obedience to God and individual autonomy becomes more and more acute.

Secularization in the West seems to mean not only less religious commitment in the population, but also diminished intensity of commitment. The Pew Research Forum noticed, in an article released late last year, that nearly half of Americans think of themselves first as Christians (46% vs. 46%), only secondarily as Americans, whereas in Europe, the majority of the public consider national identity more important than Christian identity, with France particularly noted by example (with only 8% thinking of themselves first as Christians).

Conflict between the Christian conscience and its imperative of obedience to God and the state sponsored morality of personal and social autonomy occurs increasingly at the level of ordinary life, not in laws or governmental policies that penalize religious believers per se. No area of business or professions is safe from threat to liberty of conscience; nor indeed is internal family and church life safe from state intervention.

One of the sharpest areas of conflict at the present time is in business or the professions. Here the issue is a Christian employee, professional worker, or businessman faced with the requirement to provide goods and/or services that facilitate what Christian morality declares immoral. A particularly aggressive secularist policy will require the provider of goods or services to fill the request without referring it to another provider or protesting to the customer. The federal court with jurisdiction in Washington state, for instance, found that pharmacists were being specifically targeted to provide contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs. Similarly, pharmacists in Illinois prevailed against an attempt to require them to violate their consciences. Alternatively, the provider may be allowed to refer the customer to another provider, although this involves indirectly facilitating behavior deemed to be immoral.

Legal success appears to be far less if the claim of liberty of conscience involves a protected group. In 2008 a case lost in a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court determined that doctors did not have the right to decline to personally provide artificial insemination to a lesbian couple upon request, even though they referred the couple to other providers and had a policy of not providing the service to unmarried couples. This and many other cases have shown that where homosexuality is involved, the determination of the courts to repudiate traditional morality with respect to homosexuality as being cruel supersedes all other considerations, unless protection against conscience violation is specifically provided in law, and maybe not even then (if the court manages to invalidate the law).

If a denial of liberty of conscience can be construed as required by “civil rights,” then there is little hope that even common sense will prevail against it. As noted in an article by the Witherspoon Institute, the “lesson of civil rights legislation” is that social practice legally determined to be oppressive must be penalized, even (or perhaps especially), if it is against the will of the majority. Thus, boys identifying as girls must be allowed to enter girls’ restrooms in Massachusetts public schools, with any student objectors disciplined. Similarly, in Colorado, religious conscience may soon be denied in any public accommodations, forcing Catholic adoption agencies to close and generally requiring all providers of goods and services to the public to provide whatever services that facilitate homosexual behavior that providers may deem immoral. As Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, noted, the reason is that the LGBT community insists that its hurt feelings at refusal of requests for moral reasons should supersede any other considerations. The rental of property to unmarried or homosexual couples should be especially noted, with Christian bed and breakfast proprietors commonly losing in court, as recently happened in England. And since the biological order is deemed accidental by secularists, compelling the great majority into uncomfortable situations in the interest of “progress” is the only “rational” way to proceed. This despite the fact that the Constitution specifically provides for religious liberty, not “sexual liberty.” But by insisting on government solicitude to claims that past American society was oppressive, the priority the First Amendment obviously intended for religious freedom is set aside.

The logic of the secularist morality of autonomy enforced by the state through civil rights legislation has the potential to drive traditional Christians from much of business and the professions, since it deems the requirements of the Christian conscience with respect to faith and morality to be oppressive. The judgment that Christian faith and morals is oppressive is not really open to criticism. What is the role of science and technology and reason? Without God or any other metaphysical reality, surely not to restrict liberty, but to enhance it. Since traditional Christian morality is based on obedience to God, it is itself harmful to a self-sufficient society, and cannot be accommodated (as can often easily be done, by having other providers provide the objectionable goods or services). The clash over liberty of conscience then is not really a clash between faith and reason, but between two commitments of the heart, the one of obedience to God, the other to a world living without God.

As the sexual revolution continues to be increasingly enshrined in law, faithful Christians will find more and more situations where they must either violate their consciences or face the penalty (of loss of job, fine, prison, etc.). It is crucial (not to the truth of the gospel, but to glorifying God and obedience to him) that we take the penalty. This, of course, is easier to say than to do when one is faced with the demand to violate one’s conscience. But it is what Christ’s lordship demands. While the partisans of the sexual revolution are currently saying that their war is won, it is not really won in society at large unless Christians acquiesce and violate their consciences. They are counting on our weakness and rationalizations to win. We must disappoint them and be faithful to God.