The experiment in liberty and self-government known as the Unites States of America is premised upon an affirmation in liberty and human rights that only makes sense within and can only be sustained by a worldview that is based on at least an inherited Christian conception and an affirmation of natural rights.
The Declaration of Independence states this affirmation in the most unequivocal of terms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This same spirit gave birth to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution itself would never have been ratified. Religious liberty is the first freedom, the foundational liberty, upon which every other enumerated liberty depends.
Religious liberty becomes fragile in a secular age. Indeed, all liberties become fragile in a secular age. The very idea of human dignity will not long survive in a secular season, for once dignity is grounded in anything other than the act of the Divine Creator, human dignity withers to whatever dignity humanity can accord itself. The twentieth century should be warning enough of what happens when human dignity is grounded in a merely secular conception of humanity or dignity.
But religious liberty is also seen as problematic and out of date for those who see liberty in its most urgent form as liberation from shackles of religious belief, divine revelation, and revealed morality. The prevailing winds of a revolution in sexuality and morality now threaten to sacrifice religious liberty as injurious to human freedom, sexual liberty, transgender liberation, and a host of new imperatives. In this view, religious liberty is just another way of allowing religious citizens to threaten the newly declared liberties of long oppressed and invisible.
Consider the fact that religious liberty is now described as religious privilege. By definition, a privilege is not a right. It can be revoked or defined as circumstances may dictate. It can be withdrawn or subverted by the courts in the name of liberation and justice. And in our day, privilege is suspect in the first place – an embarrassment to be identified and corrected.
Things are falling apart as Christian cake bakers, florists, photographers, graphic artists face coercion or even expulsion from their livelihoods. In California Bill 2943, all sales were banned that would represent orthodox biblical Christianity with regards that sexual orientation or gender identity might be changed. We are now witnesses to a collision with newly declared and invented sexual liberties.
When a sexual revolution like this happens, it is always followed by coercion (not persuasion). Al Mohler, often cites Theo Hobson about the reality of the moral revolution. Hobson argues that three conditions must be met, First, condition is that what is condemned must be celebrated. Second, what is celebrated must be condemned. Finally, those who will not celebrate must be condemned. It is the coercion of those who will not, cannot, celebrate.
We find a basic moral and realistic logic of liberty within the First Amendment. We also find an interdependence of liberties. Thus, we should not be surprised that the freedom of speech and freedom of the press are also at risk. Americans are often shocked, and even offended by the claims that free speech is often denied, but on many of our elite college and university campuses, free speech is dismissed as a bourgeois value. The University of California has now grown hostile to free speech, with many students and faculty arguing that freedom speech renders the campus “unsafe.”
And for far too many, freedom of the press means freedom for the press they like, an impulse that can appear on both the Right and the Left. But freedom of the press means the freedom to print, publish, broadcast, post, and communicate as a logical and necessary extension of freedom of speech. Without freedom of the press, the populace is force fed and misled, increasingly unable to even recognize the truth, and freedom of speech disappears.
Religious people, according to Frank Bruni, need to understand that freedom of worship means the freedom to hold whatever position you believe and to teach whatever you want to teach in your homes, in your hearts, and in your pews. Freedom of worship and religious liberty are not the same thing.
The Declaration of Independence expressed the convictions of this nation in stating boldly that we hold these truths to be self-evident. These “truths,” not mere opinions or beliefs. “Held,” not merely argued or asserted. To hold is to exercise stewardship. We hold these truths, not merely for ourselves and for our time, but for our children, and our children’s children, and all those who will become a part of this grand experiment in self-government. But we also hold these truths for the world and before the world. Such a stewardship requires the defense of these truths, the careful definition of these truths; truths that should be, but often are not, recognized as self-evident.
The First Amendment will not save us. Without prior and enduring commitment, the text is only words on paper. As Christians, we give thanks to God alone, who made us in His image, gives us life, and endowed us with these rights. Only Jesus Christ can save, and He saves to the uttermost. That is the great Good News. The sacred freedoms we cherish secure our right to worship God in spirit and in truth, to tell the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And to teach the whole counsel of God.
The First Amendment will not save us, but it now falls to us to save the First Amendment. “We” hold these truths. May God give us wisdom as we hold these precious truths in perilous times.