Last fall, the Supreme Court agreed to review two religious liberty cases surrounding the Obama Administration's contraception mandate. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties maintain that the federal requirement is an unlawful infringement upon religious liberty, and this year we'll find out if the highest court in the land concurs. In support of the cases, a notable group of Christian pastors, theologians, activists, and intellectuals have filed an amicus brief in which they lay out the Christian conception of work and how this understanding makes compliance with the mandate an impossibility for faith-based organizations and other Christian-owned businesses.
At first blush, nothing in the brief should surprise anyone with a passing familiarity with the Christian faith, but in a nation that is fast losing touch with its Judeo-Christian moral heritage, such an explanation has sadly become necessary. First, the brief reminds the Court that Christian doctrine requires that faith govern every aspect of a Christian's life. President Obama and his Secretary of Health and Human Services have repeatedly insisted that their contraception mandate should have no impact on the conscience of Christian employers. This is because they view religious faith as an exclusively private matter, and they don't acknowledge any connection between a person's religious beliefs and their professional actions.
Christians know better. At the heart of Christ's gospel message is the idea that one's conduct should reflect one's beliefs. Jesus was critical of the religious elites of his day precisely because their everyday behavior didn't reflect the love and mercy of the God they claimed to serve. Christ set the counter-example by practicing exactly what he preached. In the Christian faith, belief involves more than mere intellectual assent. Belief must be translated into behavior. The Book of James reminds us that faith, without works, is dead. James exhorts Christians to "… prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James 1: 22 NASB). It is no good to proclaim faith in the risen Christ if you are unwilling to live out the implications of that faith in your daily life. This is the principle at stake before the Supreme Court.
The brief also addresses the Christian concept of vocation, stating ". . . an individual's vocation is ordained by God as a spiritual enterprise in which Christians must serve in accordance with their spiritual callings." Vocation is derived from the Latin root vocare, "to call." For Christians, the ideal profession is one to which we feel called by God. The idea here is that God blesses each and every person with unique talents and gifts, and that the exercise of these gifts honors and delights him. This concept was articulated by the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, whose life was portrayed in the film, Chariots of Fire. "I believe God made me for a purpose," Liddell explained, "but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." Whether a person's gifts lie in business management or woodworking or foot-racing, Christians believe that all work can and should be done in God's honor and to His glory.
The brief points out to the Court that "it is a sin for a Christian to enable or aid another in doing what the Christian believes to be sin." This point is critical to the plaintiff's case. The Obama Administration maintains that it should not trouble the conscience of a Christian employer to offer insurance plans that cover birth control and abortifacients. Reproductive choices are a private matter, they reason, and so long as a Christian employer conducts themselves in a way that accords with their moral beliefs, it shouldn't matter to them what their employees do. Such a view overlooks the fact that Christians are called to stand up for the principles of human dignity and justice in all cases. We are commanded to care for "the least of these." We believe that every human being is created in God's image and possessed of inherent dignity. A Christian employer could thus never in good conscience finance medication calculated to result in the termination of nascent human life, i.e. the morning-after pill.
For these reasons, the brief concludes that it is a substantial burden upon the free exercise of religion for the Obama Administration to force Americans to choose between civil law and God's law.
Hugh Whelchel of the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics is a co-signer of the brief, and captured well the inextricable relationship between Christian faith and work at play in the HHS mandate lawsuits:
"This case throws into sharp relief the problems that can arise when the Christian doctrine of work is not properly understood. We as Christians cannot compartmentalize our faith from the work we do every day, whether we're a pastor, a plumber, or business leader. The Bible teaches that all of life is integrated and matters to God. This fundamental doctrine needs to be preached more often in our churches as well as understood in our courts."
If the Court decides this summer that a Christian employer's religious faith is not protected by the First Amendment, then the "free exercise of religion" as it has historically been viewed under our Constitution will have little meaning. Exercise implies action, and action takes place in both the public and private spheres. A Christianity confined within the mind of the believer or to the four walls of one's home or church is no Christianity at all.
This is truly a momentous moment in American jurisprudence and American culture, and the outcome will have dramatic consequences regardless of which way the Court decides.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty." He is also the Distinguished Fellow in Law and Human Dignity at the John Jay Institute's Center for a Just Society.
Publication date: February 5, 2014