The landmark ruling in Hobby Lobby induced a heavy sigh in the chests of some Christians who are tired of culture-warring. Eager for détente, these types tend to view those of us in debates at the nexus of faith and culture with suspicion. They place fault on fellow believers for being too-easily aggrieved, and accuse us of being motivated more by the need to sustain our culture-war industrial complexes than by principle. Recently, one such observer curiously described the Hobby Lobby decision as a win for the Green family, but a loss for religious liberty.
These skeptics are mostly well-intentioned. Yet by elevating a stripped-down version of the Gospel, wary of anything that might obstruct access to Jesus but ready to embrace anything that might increase his appeal, they offer an idol.
The Church can do better.
Unapologetic Christian conviction vying in the public square does not exacerbate the gulf between Christians and others. For what fellowship can darkness hath with light? The Gospel is good. It is true. It is life-giving. Therefore even the clumsiest act of evangelism is an act of love. If competing for public policies that reflect our Gospel-centered values is an impediment we ought not cease fighting, but instead demonstrate to our fellow citizens that we are fighting for them.
The skeptical view fails in a second way. It emanates from a lack of understanding about the good of differences. Recognizing what distinguishes one person or group from another is a good thing. Our shared commitment to the task of living peacefully as unique beings in a shared place is the promise of liberalism. We can all thrive. The prevailing of a foundational principle of justice and the common good like religious liberty cannot be a loss. It certainly is not a loss merely because it inflames the passions of those who would have preferred another outcome. Such controversial decisions reinforce the latticework of human rights that form the foundation of the American experiment, and protect us all.
This ought to be foremost in the minds of Americans as debates over sexual politics become more common. Religious free exercise is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights alongside other basic human rights for a reason. The founders understood the universality of religious experience.
All people ask questions of ultimate significance, such as “Where did I come from?”, “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my role in the universe?” Many conform the patterns of their lives to whatever answers they find to these questions. These acts are, essentially, religion. Any entity that impedes this process interrupts a sacred relationship between a person and his or her God. In doing so, the impediment itself becomes like God.
If an entity can fill this role in the religious life of an individual, what is to stop it from curtailing other human rights? The answer is: nothing. By highlighting the schism between the law and their religious beliefs, and winning the right to defer to their Lord, the Greens and Hahns have furthered the rights of everyone.
Abraham Lincoln understood that the rights enshrined in the Constitution are interdependent. The abolitionist movement brought to the fore the threat slavery posed to the inalienable human rights of every person, slave or free. Proponents of slavery, as clear a violation of basic human rights as exists, violated other rights—of whites and blacks alike—to further their primary interest. Lincoln spoke of the Civil War as a test of whether a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could survive.
Diana Schaub elucidates this central premise of the most famous speech in American history in her exposition of the Gettysburg Address:
As Lincoln understood, there was a perverse logic that led from theoretical denial of equality, as expressed in the South’s heretical view that slavery was just, to the denial of majority rule, as expressed in the South’s attempted secession. The Declaration’s truths are intertwined. Deny one and the others crumble too. The dynamic of despotism was such that the rejection of first principles led inexorably to an assault on constitutional rights, as the defenders of slavery sought to undermine the rights of speech, press, assembly, and petition (whenever they were exercised by slavery’s opponents, that is).
The abolitionist Frederick Douglass memorably described the same dynamic:
I understand the first purpose of the slave power to be the suppression of all anti-slavery discussion. . . . One end of the slave’s chain must be fastened to a padlock in the lips of Northern freemen, else the slave will himself become free.
Religious liberty is not an absolute right. There have been instances when religious liberty claims rightly lost to compelling state interests, and there will be others. Where to draw the line is the question. As we debate, amid the raucous arguments and passionate appeals, let us keep in solemn mind the magnitude of our choices. Weary evangelicals must understand that depriving citizens of their fundamental rights harms us all. By fighting—and winning—for ourselves we reinforce a system that benefits everyone.