Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Freedom of Religion or Freedom of Worship?

Since the 18th century "Enlightenment" Christianity has been under attack in Western culture from those who hate the West and the ways in which Christianity has shaped Western culture. But the removal of Christianity from its role as the religious basis of Western science, law, religion, morality and art creates a vacuum which must be filled by something. The assumption that many well-meaning people have always made is that what comes after Christianity is pluralism or tolerance of a wide diversity of viewpoints. This idea implies that people of various traditional religions and various secular philosophies will be able to live out their convictions without being forced to adhere to an established, state-sponsored religion. Sounds good, right? But what if it is a practical impossibility?

We are not only living in a post-Christian era of Western culture, we are living on the cusp of a new civil religion of secularism. So far it has appeared that we could manage our way through the thickets of tolerance of diverse lifestyles, but now the intensification of the sexual revolution's attack on the family as manifest in the advent of "homosexual rights" has brought us to a point of near open civil war. There seems to be no way to give the homosexual rights advocates (many of whom, it should be pointed out, are not homosexuals) what they want without crushing the rights of Christians.

This is why, as this story notes, we are witnessing the shift in the language of the Obama administration from "freedom of religion" (a wide concept) to "freedom of worship" (a much narrower concept). Freedom of worship is similar to what the old USSR meant by freedom of religion, a concept which was enshrined in the Soviet constitution but interpreted so narrowly that parents could be forbidden to take their children to Sunday School. Freedom of worship applies to the private thoughts you think to yourself, but it does not necessarily extend to your speech in public. Freedom of worship covers what you do for an hour in a private building on Sunday morning (or Friday night), but it does not extend to how you dress for work or school or to conscientious objection to performing abortions if you are a nurse, for example. Freedom of worship allows a state to appear tolerant and open as it assumes a totalitarian control of the speech and actions of citizens outside a narrow band of activity so thin as to be insignificant.

The relentless narrowing of the freedom of Christians to be Christians in public that is occurring in contemporary Western culture is a lot more serious than simply banning prayer in public school or firing a professors for teaching Catholic doctrine or requiring nurses to go against their consciences by taking part in abortions. All these issues are serious and important, but no one of them would constitute a legal, political and social emergency in itself. But when they become a pattern of events evidently flowing from a unified and organized ideology promoted by the power of the state, then we have a major cultural crisis.

Christians have to come to grips with the possibility that the current era of religious tolerance, in which Christianity was neither established or persecuted, is drawing to a close and the establishment of a new religion based on secularism, scientism, relativism and the will to power is at hand. It may be the case that what we took for the dawning of the age of tolerance was merely a transitional phase between the fall of one religion and the consolidation of the power of its replacement. And we may have to come to grips with the fact that the new religion is far more oppressive, far less benign, much more detrimental to minorities, women, and yes, even homosexuals, than officially-established Christianity ever was.

The new religion is based on cultural and moral relativism, rather than natural law, so law will fluctuate as the revolving door of "powers that be" shifts and changes. There will be no absolute principles, no bottom line values, no laws than cannot be undone by the stroke of a pen after a vote in the legislature. Such a world will be ideal for the powerful and rich and hellish for the weak and the poor. People make assumptions all the time about what this brave new world will be like and, in particular, they assume that liberal humanitarianism will be embraced by all. But there is no logical or historical reason to suppose that the new world will be more like the US than the USSR, that it will be characterized by social democracy rather than the Gulag, by universal human rights than by the enslavement of the weak by the strong.

A culture based on relativism, scientism and secularism must necessarily be one in which there are no absolute principle upon which human rights, human dignity and human freedom can be based. Think about that for a moment. That is what we lose by purging Western civilization of its Judeo-Christian foundations. Is that really liberation? Or is it a surrender to slavery and the unleashing of greed?

If we as Christians admit the argument sketched above, what then are we compelled to do? The answer has to do with the issue of freedom of religion. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, Christians must contend for the re-establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the West. It is painful for me to admit this because I labored long under the illusion that we could preserve freedom and tolerance with Christianity as a persecuted sect and now I have to admit that this simply is not possible. Western culture has created a society in which there is more room for personal freedom, more respect for human dignity and more regard for the weak than any other civilization in the history of the world and Christianity has been the lynch pin of this achievement. Those who deny this are culpable in the fall of the West and the rise of tyranny and these people must not be allowed to seize control of our culture.

Reluctantly, the conclusion I have come to is that we need to re-invent the idea of the Christian West. We need to understand ourselves as officially Christian - not in the sense of having state churches on the European model - but as a Christian society with religious freedom as in the United States. The only way we can do this is by the preaching of the Gospel and prayer for a God-sent revival. But when the revival comes, we must not be shy about "imposing" our principles upon our society. We need to make our society more Christian and re-establish natural law as the foundation of our law, politics and culture. This will not be done by pagans; it can only be done by Christians and Jews working together with people of good will who recognize the natural law. To expect a secularized society founded on relativism to recognize the metaphysical principles that undergird ordered liberty is unrealistic.

Freedom of worship must give way to freedom of religion and the greater the freedom Christians and Jews have to practice their religion in public the greater good will flow to all members of our society. This is the bedrock conviction upon which all effective Christian political activism depends. Forget the revolution and socialism; long live man in the image of God, limited government, the Ten Commandments as the basis of jurisprudence and all the social blessings that flow from these unchanging metaphysical truths.

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