Liberty of Conscience: Keep on Walking, Keep on Talking About the Culture War

Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty.

As the culture war over Christian morality rages on and on, both in the churches and in society at large, and in recent years with a coercive legal side to it, faithful Christians need to beware least they be drawn into believing that the results of legal and social battles are binding on what they will or will not do. We may argue for liberty of conscience to say and do things that social liberals find abhorrent, but that must not mean that if we are finally legally required to disobey God and compromise with sin, we will do so. As the Manhattan Declaration so well articulated the matter early in the Obama Administration "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

All persons are required by God to obey His commands, regardless of their wishes or beliefs (Rom 1:20-23; 2:12-16). The disciple of Christ strives to obey God unconditionally. Scripture is clear that this is particularly true when the state requires that we disobey God (Dan. 3:14-18; Acts 5:25-32). Scripture is also clear that we are to obey God no matter how badly we are pained, or how badly anyone else is pained, even those we love (Matt. 10:34-39; Lk 14:26-27).

We must resist the persistent messages of popular culture that sin is normal, and that we must accommodate homosexual sin as a matter of "rights;" no one should have the right to require conscience violation – reasonable accommodation can be made. Nor do people generally have the right to require conscience violation because they are offended. Soldiers do not have the right to require a pacifist photographer to take a celebratory photograph, nor do butchers have the right to require a vegetarian photographer to photograph their shops. But we live in a society in which part of that society, and especially influential parts, are unwilling to accommodate the Christian conscience, because they believe that the particulars of the Christian conscience are wrong. If this is the direction which Western society is going, and there are many cases in which liberty of conscience has been defeated where it conflicts with liberal/left liberation doctrine, then there comes a point in a society in which it becomes so hostile to God's commands that faithful Christians must become an harassed minority, arguing for the truth of God's Word and the truth about the world, but persecuted because we are faithful to the truth. Western society is approaching that point, although it is not yet fully there, particularly in its parts that remain more Christian.

Our faith and hope is in God to deliver us from all threats, including the legal requirement to disobey Him, and to save us in the end. Nevertheless, at the level of civil law, the common sense that the majority of people share is that people should not be required to take action against conscience because other people are offended. The state should not judge conscience; especially a state which professes religious neutrality should not judge the religious conscience. It should be noted that the conscience claims

Christians make today, which concern sexual morality and the sanctity of unborn life, pale by comparison with conscientious objection from military service, which if sufficiently common, would risk the life of the nation. Yet conscientious objection from military service was allowed even in World War II, when the nation's life was indeed at stake.

Christians are not asking to discriminate against a category of persons, but for conscientious objection to be allowed from providing services that are religiously objectionable (i.e., contribute to behavior believed to be sinful). Racial discrimination in the provision of services to the public focused instead on service to a class of persons, not their behavior, was based on the superficial characteristic of race, not the profound one of sexuality, and was a cultural preference rather than religious precept for most people. Certainly it cannot be reasonably derived from the Bible. Religious freedom has to protect religious beliefs and practices regardless of popular or governmental objection if it has any serious meaning. There is no good reason why part of the population should be required to act against what they believe is ultimately right and wrong because of the moral intuition of another part.

We must not compromise and acquiesce in sin, which in our time often means facilitating sinful behavior, since this is itself sinful (Matt. 18:7-9). We must not acquiesce even under protest, since it is absolutely wrong to sin. Conscientious objection only makes sense if one is absolutely unable to take the action human law requires. This means that one cannot take action against conscience even if there is never a legal accommodation of conscience. And this raises the possibility that orthodox Christians will become an underclass in society, excluded from business and the professions. This may be what will happen, but faithfulness to Christ demands that we take this route, and never be disobedient to God.

However, perseverance over time may result in accommodation; it is the only strategy that reasonably will result in accommodation. We must heed the old civil rights song and "keep on walking, keep on talking." It is likely this that the cultural Left fears more than anything, because they know that this worked for them. But our concern is not only with what works, but above all with what we ought to do. If we really do believe that God's Word is true and should be obeyed, then despite defeats in the heartland states of Arizona and Indiana, we will not acquiesce and agree that accommodation of sin must be part of our life, we do not discover that life goes on as usual when we change our beliefs and practices, and we do not accept that the loss of religious freedom is final, but continue to argue that Christian morality is correct and that religious freedom should be respected.

American Evangelicals at this point share a common body of praise choruses, maxims, and general religious practice that has developed in the generations beginning in the mid-twentieth century. One especially familiar praise chorus has as its most familiar words a quotation of Psalm 63, "Thy loving kindness is better than life." Think about these words, they say the value of God's goodness is greater than life itself! A similar idea is in the twentieth century Evangelical maxim that "Jesus is Lord of all, or He isn't Lord at all." These are really fierce, absolute commitments, so often made in the comfort of affluent, middle American life. But now, put to the test, do we mean them?

Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty. He attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) receiving a B.A. degree in history and sociology, and an M.S. in library science from Drexel University.

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