Freedom and Conscience

by on July 4th, 2013

. . . Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders . . . (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

These words written by Paul to the Thessalonians are ringing strange in our ears. This sounds more like a description of the Amish than mainstream Christianity. Yes, I am taking the passage out of its context but not by much. Paul is writing to those who are on the verge of a new wave of trials and persecutions for which Paul says, “for you know quite well we are destined for them.” Destined for trials and persecutions. I can’t help but think that is never more true than today. On the day that the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, I remarked on face book that two ethical concepts just took center stage: Freedom of Conscience and Discrimination. The majority opinion in that case was written by Anthony Kennedy. In his third ruling on Gay Marriage, Kennedy argued that liberty required the court to strike down federal prohibition of Gay Marriage:

The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws. . . While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.

Not for nothing is a recent analysis of Kennedy’s career called The Tie Goes to Freedom.  When you read Kennedy’s majority opinion two concepts stand out: Equality and Liberty. Kennedy says that it is unfair for some marriages to be treated unequally and DOMA violates the liberty of states to regulate marriage. DOMA unfairly discriminates between hetero and homo sexual marriage. I’m sure most of you are saturated with discussion of the ruling. I won’t bore you with my two cents.

However, what does this mean for Christians? Do we retreat from the public square completely as the Amish do? Do we redouble our efforts to make sure the states that don’t have gay marriage stay that way? How do we make it our ambition to live quiet lives in the wake of this decision? Its ironic that the Thesssalonians of course had no recourse when the persecution came down. They could not write to their congressmen. They had, if they were Roman citizens, certain rights, but representation was not one of them. Freedom of speech wasn’t either. The most perplexing issue for me as a Christian has been how does the Christian worldview mesh with representative democracy and our cherished freedoms like freedom of conscience? The freedom to act on the basis of our conscience has always been a troublesome freedom. Do my religious beliefs allow me to offend others or deny them equal access to facilities, institutions, etc? This is at the heart of the debate over whether pharmacists have the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill and now it will be whether caterers have the right to refuse to cater a gay wedding. Will churches have the right to only rent out their facilities to heterosexual wedding receptions?

These are questions that will be vital in the next few years and you bet your judicial robe that Justice Kennedy will be facing these questions. For his part, President Obama has attempted to soften these fears . . . sort of.

On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital.  How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions.  Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages – changes that.

Now this statement is a far cry from what the Washington Examiner says in the headline: “Obama: I won’t make churches conduct gay marriages.”

Furthermore, such statements might sound like cold comfort. Thank you Mr. President for that sort of assurance. But um, you don’t make those decisions. A lot of people make decisions about what constitutes discrimination and violations of the 14th amendment. Obviously I’m not offering a solution and I am sure not offering a call to arms over anything. I don’t know what will happen but I suspect that charges of discrimination over weddings, invitations, hiring, etc are coming. The President went on to say:

The laws of our land are catching up to the fundamental truth that millions of Americans hold in our hearts:  when all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.

Not necessarily Mr. President. Sometimes freedoms conflict and we must decide which freedoms are most important. You are a lawyer, you should know that.

The Fourth of July celebrates life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Its that last one–pursuit of happiness–that has been the sticking point. Freedom of Conscience–the right to refrain from doing something against my conscience–is arguably part of my pursuit of happiness. In this case, I am not convinced that I have nothing to worry about. But as always, our Fourth of July–our celebration of freedom–was articulated long before 1776. Paul announced it to the Thessalonians and we announce it still. Though persecution may come. Though we be reviled, hated, and dismissed. Ours is a kingdom not of this world and we shall endure until it comes. Nothing will stop us from loving and living according to our conscience. As always I welcome your comments and suggestions. Happy Independence Day.

One response to “Freedom and Conscience ”

  1. Howard says:

    Jonathan, your two cents have never been a bore! May this ministry be richly blessed, for I am blessed richly by this ministry. Happy birthday America!!

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