The fundamental, founding structure of our American nation is relatively simple. While the federal government should seek the common good, its first responsibility is to secure the liberty of its citizens. Conversely, while citizens should seek to influence their nation through government, their first responsibility is to exercise their liberty toward virtuous ends. This is the essence of the ordered liberty envisioned by the Founders. Government protects our “unalienable rights,” yet at the same time our Constitution is made for a “moral and religious people” and is “wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Failure on either end — failure of the government to protect liberty or failure of the people to be virtuous — breaks the compact and places unacceptable strains on our nation and culture. As Christian communities face increasing governmental hostility and struggle with declining church attendance, it’s time for both sides of our nation’s religious culture war to confront their role in disrupting these core principles of the American founding. Here are two painful truths: Secular government is breaking its promise of liberty, and the American church is breaking its promise of virtue.
First, the mainly progressive effort to restrict the free exercise of religion is plainly illiberal and contrary to the constitutional order. If there is one single legal strand that ties together the myriad threats to religious liberty and free speech in the United States — efforts to coerce Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies into violating their convictions, to toss Christian student groups off campuses, to force Christian institutions to facilitate access to abortifacients, to compel the speech of Christian creative professionals, or to place in doubt the accreditation and tax exemptions of Christian educational institutions — it’s that they depend for their success on inverting the proper constitutional order.
Progressive government passes sweeping and intrusive statutes and regulations and then treats the free-exercise and free-speech claims of religious individuals and institutions as a form of special pleading. Yet this gets the legal hierarchy upside down. The Constitution — including the First Amendment, of course — is the supreme law of the land, and statutes and regulations are making claims against it. Thus, the default proposition is that free speech, free exercise, and voluntary association enjoy protection, with that protection to fall away only in the face of compelling governmental interests, enacted through the least restrictive means.
Efforts to chip away at this default structure aim to disrupt the primacy of liberty and the legal primacy of the Constitution. So, when people of faith decry attacks on religious freedom, they’re not merely an interest group seeking accommodation; they’re citizens seeking to maintain the core principles of the American founding.
This brings us to the second truth. Even while religious conservatives are right to fight for their liberties, we need to understand that no government or cultural institution is more responsible for the decline of the church than the church itself. All too many Christians look at falling Sunday-morning attendance and increasing faithlessness and lash out — at Hollywood, at academia, or at (to take a recent example) “drag-queen story hour.”
Instead, we should be more focused on lashing in — at hypocrisy, at adultery, at abuse, and all the sins besetting our nation’s congregations. Drag-queen story hours could populate our libraries from coast to coast and they would do far less damage to American Christianity than the continued proliferation of the Catholic/Protestant abuse crisis.
Not one Christian parent has to take his or her child to see a drag queen at the library, but all too many Christian parents have had to explain the moral collapse of pastors and church leaders to their kids. All too many Christian wives have had to deal with the devastation of a husband addicted to porn, and all too many Christian spouses have had to pick up the pieces after infidelity and divorce.
Even worse, we often do the opposite of the thing that Paul commanded — we are oh so understanding of our own failings while oh so intolerant of the world’s sins. First Corinthians 5, verses 9 through 12 are among the least-observed and most-defied verses in the Bible:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
He wrote those words from within a depraved Roman culture — a world that was replete with temptations of the flesh. While he did not ignore the world’s sin, his disciplinary focus was inward, even as his evangelistic focus was outward.
Wise members of the church are beginning to recognize this truth. Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — no slouch in the defense of Christian freedom — decided to change the focus of its annual conference to examine the crisis of sex abuse in the church. My wife has publicly discussed her own experience of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a youth pastor, and that dreadful event had more adverse impact on her faith than any secular academic class ever could.
If we want the church to thrive, we should protect liberty, and that means progressive governments should be held accountable under law for their illiberal attacks on free exercise. But absent our own faithfulness, every legal or political victory will be for naught. We’ll continue to bleed members, lose our witness, and close our doors. Our true challenge lies not with the drag queens without but rather with the adulterers and abusers within.