An address to the Western Conservative Summit, July 13, 2019, Denver, Colorado:
Our concern in this gathering is the assault on religious liberty now experienced within the United States and throughout Western Civilization. The very civilization that paid such an incalculable price through the centuries in order to defend and preserve human rights and human liberty, now grows hostile to the most basic liberty of all. History’s most courageous experiment in self-government, predicated upon unalienable rights, now seeks to alienate the unalienable. The cultural Left in the United States now dares to use the term “religious liberty” only with scare quotes.
How did this happen?
I believe that conservatives in the United States have vastly underestimated the reality and comprehensiveness of the challenge we face. All of us see parts, but it takes concentrated attention, a devotion to history, and a serious reckoning with ideas to see the whole—the vastness of our crisis. We see religious liberty denied when a cake baker in Colorado experiences sustained efforts to put him out of business, or worse, accompanied nationwide by florists and photographers and a host of others. We see the Fire Chief of Atlanta, Georgia removed because he dared to teach a biblical pattern of human sexuality, and then dared to put his convictions into print—primarily for his own church. We see Christian schools and ministries confront unprecedented challenges across several fronts and we see a continual effort to coerce Christians to surrender to the new regime of sexual rules, gender identity, intersectionality, and identity politics. The enemies of religious liberty are playing hardball, and we were warned.
Chai Feldblum, formerly of Georgetown University Law Center and later appointed by President Barack Obama to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, over a decade ago admitted in a public statement that religious liberty would have to give way to the new sexual or erotic liberty. This new sexual liberty was invented by moral revolutionaries, enshrined by the U.S. Supreme Court, and now used as a weapon of cultural and legal warfare. Then, looking to the day when same-sex marriage would be legalized and religious liberty would be inevitably denied or redefined, Feldblum said: “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win… Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States, President Obama’s Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, was asked if the legalization of same-sex marriage might require a Christian college to be coerced into compliance on the question, for example, of married student housing. The Solicitor General responded candidly: “It will be an issue.” Indeed, it will.
It will be an issue for every Christian school, college, or university. It will be an issue for every Christian in the professions, in business, in public service, in uniform. It will be an issue for us all, and particularly for our children and their children and their children’s children.
Denis Diderot, the philosopher of radical Enlightenment, once infamously stated: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” The agents of coercive secularism evidently believe that the American public will not be safe until the last religious symbol is pried off of the last square inch of public property. They lost their challenge to the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland a few weeks ago, but they will be back. Rest assured of that.
Every vestige of Christianity – every single symbol of theism – haunts and infuriates a cultural elite and a secular movement which denies God and are determined to erase his memory.
How did this happen?
My argument tonight is very simple, but essential. I want to argue that we cannot understand our stewardship without three essential words: God, truth, and liberty, and in that order. Every one of these words is indispensable. Each of these words is controversial. There can be no lasting defense of religious liberty without understanding how these three words hold together, and in what order.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once spoke of hearing older Russians explain the disasters their nation had experienced in the twentieth century. Their witness: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” I remember older Americans citing these words of Solzhenitsyn, one of the bravest voices of any age, as they explained Soviet tyranny. But these words ring differently in my ears now. We are living in our own age of threatened liberties. Men have indeed forgotten God, and that is indeed why all this has happened.
We are living in an age of accelerating secularization. The causes and courses of secular motion are debatable, but the essential truth is beyond question. Belief in God, any theistic belief, is in eclipse. This is especially true among the intellectual elites and the cultural creatives. Decades ago, Yale law professor Stephen Carter argued that the intellectual elites had reduced God to a symbol and religion to a hobby. Now, those same elites see God as a dangerous symbol and religion as a scandalous hobby.
Consider the argument made by Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times. He just put into concise words what many in the political class have been saying for years – that religious liberty is to be tolerated so long as believers keep their religion in the hearts, homes, and pews. No public significance. Keep your religious beliefs where they belong, out of public view. That is the denial of religious liberty.
I am not arguing that there can be no defense of religious freedom among unbelievers. I am not arguing that there were no Deists among the Founders. I am arguing that there can be no sustained defense of religious liberty without intellectual respect for belief in God and cultural respect for religious devotion. Even when Americans claim to rest their argument for liberty, for human rights and human dignity on a secular foundation, they are actually borrowing intellectual capital from Christianity. Even their form of non-theism requires the inheritance borrowed from theism. But I fear, and fear is the right word, that we are witnessing the collapse and retreat of any secular notion of human rights and human dignity that would include religious liberty.
The Declaration of Independence, our most foundational national charter, spoke of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” We should not over-read this statement, but we dare not under-read it. The Founders claimed an authority higher than themselves and natural rights and liberties that were pre-political, pre-constitutional, pre-governmental, and prior to our own respect. When belief in God recedes, the only secure ground of human rights and human dignity recedes as well. Solzhenitsyn had it right. You ask how this happened. Men have forgotten God. That is how all this has happened.
Eventually, natural rights will not be recognized if those natural rights are intellectually separated from their supernatural origin. That is now sadly demonstrated in the course of modern history. God, our Creator, has indeed revealed human dignity and human rights in the natural order, accessible to all, but men who will not recognize the Creator will soon not recognize the rights the Creator has revealed in nature – indeed in human nature, by the imago Dei.
I believe that this word might actually be the most neglected of the essential vocabulary of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they stated, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Every one of these words demands our rapt attention, but do not move too quickly over the word “truths.” A defense of religious liberty (and all other self-evident liberties) is predicated upon an assertion of truth – not mere opinion, or judgment, much less “values.” The worldview that will alone sustain liberty is a worldview that is established upon a defense of truth – the objective existence of reality and the necessary correspondence of statement and objective truth.
Why would we expect an academic and elite culture now pervasively shaped by postmodern notions of truth to defend religious liberty? If objective reality does not exist or cannot be known, then politics is reduced to what Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon correctly calls ‘rights talk.’ Politics collapses into nothing more than an endless succession of battles over contested ‘rights.’
The modern denial of truth as real and knowable reminds us of the prophetic warning of Francis Schaeffer, who argued a half-century ago that those who believe in objective truth would have to declare our belief in ‘true truth.’ The American Patriots declared their belief in truth, not only in objective reality, but in the self-evident truths for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, their property, and their personal honor. These truths were their bold argument, not these opinions, these values, or these social constructs. No truth, no liberty.
The postmodern, social-constructivist, non-realist view of truth is hardly debated in mass culture any longer – not because it is so rare but because it is everywhere. Driven by academia and those who create the cultural capital, it has become the atmosphere of American life. But if there is no true truth, there are certainly no self-evident truths, and the foundation of the American experiment in liberty—including religious liberty—disappears.
The Founders not only asserted truth claims – they defended liberties. They went further to argue that the proper function of government is “to secure these rights.” To secure them, not to invent them, or to create them, or even to discover them. Instead, the function of government is to secure rights and liberties that pre-exist the government, and certainly pre-exist the state. Religious freedom is truly the First Freedom, for without this prior freedom all others become fragile and contingent.
As a Christian theologian, I would ground that First Liberty in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible. The Book of Genesis tells us that God created human beings in his own image, each a living soul. Human dignity is grounded in the loving and glorious creation of the self-existent omnipotent all-glorious God, who revealed himself perfectly–incarnationally in Jesus Christ, verbally in the Holy Scriptures, and clearly even in the very structures of creation. We owe every human being, created in God’s image, the full recognition of human dignity and the sacredness of every human life—including life in the womb.
Make no mistake. These issues are not unrelated. The right to life and the right to exercise liberty, including religious freedom, are deeply related. It is no accident that that a society that devalues life in the womb will also devalue religious liberty. If we are cosmic accidents and there is no inherent meaning to our lives, then there is no sacredness to human life—any human life—and liberty is just another word for my preference over yours. The eclipse of the biblical worldview makes every arena of life deadly and dangerous—from the womb to the classroom to the courtroom to the bedroom.
God, truth, and liberty. We need to discipline ourselves to say these words together. We must teach them to our children and to our neighbors. We must cherish them in our schools and in our homes.
And teach them in our churches. The great challenge to religious liberty in our times is no threat at all to liberal religion. Those churches and denominations have long ago surrendered to the moral revolutionaries and they simply do not believe anything sufficiently theological to get any of them into trouble. They can afford to put quotation marks around “religious liberty.” They long ago put quotation marks around “God.”
We must defend the right to believe in enough theology to get us into trouble with anyone, anywhere, in a secular age. We must defend the right of Christians, along with all other believers, to be faithful in the public square as well as in the privacy of our own homes, hearts, and churches. We must defend the right to teach our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We must defend the rights of Christian schools to be Christian—and to order our institutions around the Word of God without fearing the crushing power of the state. We must defend the right of generations of those yet unborn, to know the liberties we have known and now defend.
Oddly enough, this will mean defending florists and cake bakers and fire chiefs, and pharmacists, and teachers, and preachers, and moms and dads who dare to resist the secular powers that be.
For Christians, eventually it all comes down to our faithfulness in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and nurturing biblical churches and raising our own children in the grace of God.
No God, no truth. No truths, no liberty. No liberty, and nothing remains but the heel of someone’s boot.
Those who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Sacred honor. How dare we pledge, to one another and to our posterity, anything less?
Remember this: Liberty depends upon the existence of truth. Truth depends upon the existence of God. No God, no truth, no liberty, no human dignity, no human rights, no religious liberty.
But do not despair.
God is not dead. Truth is not a dream. And liberty is ours to defend.
May God grant us grace for the challenge we face.