It’s easy to see the many ways that our world today is fallen and broken. This is increasingly evident in the context of the state of religious liberty in the United States.
When Thomas Jefferson originally wrote about the “wall of separation” between church and state, he was primarily concerned about the state infringing upon the vital work of churches. But over the past century, progressives and secularists have slowly twisted and warped this idea into an all-out attack on religious liberty.
Now, protections that previously safeguarded religious believers from government interference are under assault.
We can see this in the long legal battle between the government and the Little Sisters of the Poor—nuns who have taken a vow of chastity and poverty in order to care for the elderly poor. The Obama administration sought to fine the nuns $70 million per year for their refusal to participate in the HHS mandate to distribute birth control, in violation of their conscience.
At the same time, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the government exempts secular enterprises like Pepsi, VISA and Chevron. These non-religious entities have no moral objections to the HHS mandate, and yet nuns serving the poor face litigation in federal court! This shows the government’s blatant preference for secular entities over religious ones.
Nonetheless, although the nuns are called the Little Sisters of the Poor, as Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist has pointed out, they are the truly rich ones because they live out the dictates of their conscience, which is neither for sale nor receptive to an invasion by government bureaucrats. They exemplify the Biblical admonition from 2 Corinthians 10 to have nothing and yet possess everything.
This battle, like many that have come before it, illustrates how the rising size and scope of government will likely lead to more collisions between state power and religiously affiliated institutions.
In the past several decades, our work at the ACLJ has helped keep these religious liberty protections strong through numerous Supreme Court victories, revealing that the free exercise of religion is inextricably intertwined with our freedoms of speech and association.
Today, unelected bureaucrats and courts attempt to limit religious freedom to the boundaries of church worship services. Christians know that our faith dictates all aspects of our lives and propels our engagement in parachurch ministries and other nonchurch activities. Even First Lady Michelle Obama articulated what we all know to be true when she said, “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon and good music and a good meal. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well, especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives.”
Religious liberty, when defined by some on the Left as merely the “freedom of worship,” denies interests that originate in the human conscience. This puts at risk those individuals and groups who operate faith-based businesses, or who serve as nuns, or Christians who serve as pharmacists or physicians.
How did we arrive at a point where the walls that protect religious conscience from government intrusion have been broken down? One answer is that the government has pushed them down.
Why is this the case? Our leaders, elites and many citizens subscribe to the highly contestable view that a truly secular society is possible. Therefore, they falsely believe that religious liberty isn’t important and that religious zeal belongs to the primitive, while nonbelief or privatized belief belongs to the more advanced.
In truth, as French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted when traveling through America in 1831, the founding documents of the United States accurately reflect a tension between secular values and religion. Arriving after Thomas Jefferson released his proclamation that the religion clauses in the Constitution created a wall of separation between church and state, Tocqueville traces this conflict to its root: a nation characterized by two foundings drawn from radically different sources—Biblical religion and secular philosophy. Tocqueville’s understanding of this tension appears to be consistent with James Madison’s great claim that religion was free in the sense that it was wholly exempt from government’s intrusion.
But then came the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to the 1920s), with its appeals to human-driven progress. Progressives reveled in government power and its exponential growth, particularly at the federal level, thus diminishing the power of the states. The expansion of federal government power sowed the seeds for conflict that led first to the crumbling of foundational beliefs and then to what Patrick Deneen calls “the direct repudiation of the faith of the ancients.” People began to put more faith in human ability and human power, to the point that our culture has elevated radical human autonomy as a guiding philosophy.
Together, these developments largely ended the debate between Biblical religion and secular philosophy as elites and courts placed their thumbs on the scale. This led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1992 in the abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which individual human choice was elevated to hallowed status. As more people placed their faith in human progress and discounted the need for transformation from a source outside themselves, the inevitable result has been a political and juridical culture that is purged of the sacred.
Institutions such as churches, families, clubs and community groups have lost their influence. Alexis de Tocqueville found these institutions to be the greatest strength of the American experiment. But Christians and non-Christians alike have become dependent on an expanding federal apparatus led by fallen men and women—an approach that is destined to fail ourselves, the neediest in our society and our culture as a whole.
As we see the erosion of religious liberty in America, we could easily slip toward unproductive thinking about what might have been if judges were more devoted to eternal principles, if bureaucrats were less committed to the pursuit and application of unreviewable power and if the nation returned to its foundations. But that would ignore our own participation in this process.
Fortunately, Scripture provides a remedy for such thinking. Second Chronicles 7:13-14 states: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
No one should assume that repentance, a return to our foundations or a return to prayer will be easy. But all of American exceptionalism is rooted in sacrificial service to God and to our neighbors—to something outside ourselves.
Yes, we must participate in shaping our culture as well as our families, churches and communities. And yes, this is a critical election year with significant implications for religious liberty. Christians must go to the polls in November and cast their votes because elections have important results and consequences. But so do the prayers of a humble people.
In light of the erosion of our nation’s religious liberty and in light of the devastation occurring in homes and in Planned Parenthood clinics, the pertinent question becomes: If not now, when?
We can and must continue that fight to stand up for the preservation of life—to stand up to rebuild and restore religious liberty in our nation—to stand up against a culture that belittles and attacks the Christian values that have played such a critical role in the growth and development of this great nation.
In prayer and humility, the work must begin today. ©2016 Jay Sekulow
The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on constitutional law.