Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects and Religious Liberty

Stan Guthrie | Author | Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects and Religious Liberty

In his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedomand the American Future, Os Guinness quotes from James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” written as an answer to Patrick Henry, who was advocating a religion tax for the new republic.

“We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth,” Madison wrote, “’that Religion or the duty to which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. ... This right in its nature is an unalienable right.”

Yet this “fundamental and undeniable truth,” codified in the First Amendment, is slowly being undermined, much as a wooden bridge over a raging torrent is weakened over time by termites. You don’t see the structural damage to the bridge until it is too late.

As just one example, George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, worries that the bipartisan coalition in defense of religious liberty, which passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Clinton administration, has crumbled, and the reason is not hard to find:

“A distinguished rabbi, asked some months ago whether the RFRA coalition could be stitched together once more, suggested, sadly, that it would be like putting Humpty-Dumpty together again: ‘You want to know what happened to the RFRA coalition?’ he asked a constitutional scholar. ‘I’ll tell you what happened: gay rights happened. It’s created an irresistible force against an immovable object.’”

Indeed. The Obama administration consistently has sought to make our First Amendment religious rights subservient to an agenda promoting so-called sexual freedom. Weigel says a Catholic bishop points out that “the protection of believers’ rights and consciences … is in direct conflict with the ideology of the sexual revolution. That’s why the flashpoints in the current religious freedom battles have been abortion, contraception, sterilization and marriage.”

The Executive Branch has sought consistently to place its agenda for “reproductive freedom” and the redefinition of marriage above people’s religious freedom. Earlier this year, in the Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC, it unsuccessfully argued that religious organizations are not exempt from employment antidiscrimination laws — thus undermining freedom of conscience through the force of law.

Last year the administration said that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, duly passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton. DOMA defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. CT reports, “Many observers believe such an inclusion would allow the government to invoke a ‘compelling government interest’ in forbidding faith-based organizations from considering some sexual ethics questions in employment decisions.”

Contraceptives, sterilizations and morning-after pills — which prevent implantation of a fertilized egg — are at the heart of a conflict with the Catholic Church (and other faith-based groups such as Wheaton College) with the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says that employers must provide them in employee health plans. Those that fail to go along face crippling fines. Although churches are exempt from the requirement, religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities are not.

Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are also being undermined overseas. Yet President Obama has issued a memorandum saying that ending discrimination against homosexuals is “central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights.” The U.S. Agency for International Development says that it “strongly encourages” grant applicants to adopt its hiring policy of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Several groups, including World Vision, sought language protecting their religious convictions in hiring but were denied.

According to Open Doors USA, a leading advocacy organization, attacks on religious liberty show no signs of slowing down outside the United States. Its website lists the following recent incidents: a massacre by Muslims at a church in Nigeria; a convert from Islam in Sudan who had his family taken away; and the refusal of police in Pakistan to prosecute cases of raping and beating Christian women by Muslim men. Yet the administration is focused on gay rights.

All this points to, according to Weigel, “a serious erosion of American political culture since the early 1990s — and at the root of that deterioration are profound confusions about the human condition. If everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable — if there are no givens — then claims to ‘my truth’ on which you cannot legitimately impose ‘your truth’ make sense.”

And when long-held moral verities — such as marriage being only between a man and a woman — are thrown out, so is some of our civility as a people. Take, for example, the case of the Family Research Council, which was labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its Bible-based stance on marriage. Should we be surprised when an unstable individual walks into the FRC’s lobby with a backpack full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, says he doesn’t like FRC’s politics, and starts shooting?

“We can make inroads through quiet, unassuming, authentic displays of Christian love, dispelling stereotypes and surprising those who believe conservatives are rigid, harsh, and simplistic,” says the FRC’s Rob Schwarzwalder. “We can appeal to thelaw written on the heart ”(Romans 2:15), touching the conscience within each person to sway opinions and encourage sound action.

“Yet we must always bear in mind that Paul, Peter, and many of the early Christians were thoughtful, articulate, gracious,and martyred. Are we ready to follow in their stead?”

Even if Christians do everything right, we may well get hurt when an irresistible force and an immovable object come together.

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at

Publication date: September 5, 2012

Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects and Religious Liberty