Religious freedom champion and former Congressman Frank Wolf warned a Harvard audience that freedom of conscience is endangered in the United States and conservative Christians may have to engage in civil disobedience because their views are considered intolerant.
"When tolerance is demanded, when orthodox Christianity is deemed intolerant and when government and even society fails to extend tolerance to people of faith, we are headed down a perilous path," he said.
Wolf, who retired last year after serving 34 years in Congress, delivered the May 7 address, "After Hobby Lobby: What is Caesar's and What is God's?" as part of an event hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center and the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Initiative on Religious Freedom and Its Implications at Harvard's Center for American Political Studies.
His main point was that freedom of conscience has long been understood as important for religious freedom, but recently there has been a trend of violating the conscience protections of conservative Christians, particularly over the issues of abortion and marriage.
Citing a resolution passed by the Continental Congress to protect the conscience rights of pacifists, Wolf argued, "our conscience is not ultimately allegiant to the state, but to something, and for many people, Someone, higher." And this is important "because if our conscience belongs to the state, the state can choose to violate it or compromise it at will."
Recently, however, there has been a "subtle but insidious trend" in which the government is expanding into areas that are more likely to infringe upon conscience rights. This trend was "at the heart" of the recent Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned craft supply chain, and the Obama administration's birth control mandate. While the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, are pro-life, the Obama administration sought to require them to pay for health insurance coverage for contraceptive pills that could cause an abortion.
Citing a Yuval Levin article, Wolf argued "we are witnessing the imposition of a new state religion" called "progressive liberalism."
Wolf also pointed to opposition to Religious Freedom Restoration Acts as part of the trend.
In particular, he pointed out the inconsistency of corporation leaders, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, who opposed RFRA, a law to protect conscience rights, while exercising their own conscience rights. Apple removed from its products an app by the pro-life and pro-marriage group The Manhattan Declaration. Plus, Cook opposed Indiana's RFRA over supposed "fairness" toward gays while doing business with Arab countries where homosexuality is illegal, and China, a nation that "has one of the worst overall human rights records."
"Freedom of conscience is good for all," he said. "If Apple and other companies want to protect their own rights, they ought also to protect those of others. If they wish to run their companies according to their conviction, they ought not deny other companies the same right."
Wolf's third example of religious conscience infringement was the trend of Christian groups on college campuses being forced to choose between leaving or remaining faithful to their beliefs.
"These legal realities and emerging policy norms, coupled with fears of compromised livelihoods and tarnished reputations, risk driving people of faith out of the public square," he said.
Wolf hopes, though, that in the face of these religious freedom infringements, Christians will not "retreat form the public square" but "boldly stay, regardless of the cost." He then recalled the "rich Christian tradition of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws" exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King.
After recalling the many biblical figures who were jailed for remaining faithful to God, and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and put to death for opposing Hitler, Wolf asked, "Is prison the fate of people today who dare to stand up for what their conscience, informed by their faith, dictates?"
Wolf ended by quoting the Manhattan Declaration's implied promise of civil disobedience in the face of religious conscience violations: "I will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will I render to Caesar what is God's."
Wolf is currently Distinguished Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and Wilson Chair of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, a religious freedom advocacy organization he joined after retiring from Congress.
While in Congress, Wolf was one of the most outspoken defenders of global religious freedom. He authored the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the State Department. The act also allowed for sanctions to be placed on nations that infringe upon its citizens' religious freedom.