Is Human Charity Service to Humans, or is Human Charity Service to Christ?

Every Christian knows that Christ taught people to be generous. Even people who are not Christians know that Christ taught his followers to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Secular thinkers who completely reject any form of religion recognize that charitable action is a characteristic of most Christians. It isn’t charity performed by Christians that secular thinkers reject; it is the testimony.

Here is an example. In Illinois, until 2010, Catholic Charities provided adoption services to about 2500 children each year. Today all those agencies are closed. In 2010, Illinois passed the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. This law established a process for the civil union of same-sex couples and authorized parties to such unions to receive all the rights and benefits of a “spouse.” Religious groups were supposed to be given the freedom to perform or refuse to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples in the language of the law: “Any religious body, Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group is free to choose whether or not to solemnize or officiate a civil union.” This statement was publicly lauded as a protection of religious freedom, but the law’s full language was subsequently interpreted to reject the claim of Catholic agencies that their right of religious freedom allowed them to deny adoption to same-sex couples; the foundation of the interpretation is the fact that a party to a civil union is classified legally as a “spouse.” Advocates for LGBT rights interpret Catholic commitment to a definition of marriage taught by the Catholic Church as an excuse to discriminate, not as a testimony to their faith.

Religious groups in general believed that the language of the law meant they were free to treat parties to a civil union as unmarried if that view was part of their fundamental teachings. They failed to take account of the full scope of a law that gave spousal benefits to parties to a civil union. Catholic charities routinely do not place children with unmarried parents, and in Catholic teaching, two people of the same gender may not be married. After Illinois authorized civil unions and spousal benefits in this act, Catholic Charities discovered that their state contracts for adoption services were at risk. Religion New Service reported that “Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled Thursday (Aug. 18, 2011) that state officials can cancel contracts with Catholic Charities after church officials said they could not comply with a new civil unions law that could require them to place children with same-sex couples.” Catholic leadership protested, but to no avail. Unable to continue operating without state funding, Catholic adoption services in Illinois came to an end. The law did not compel Catholics to perform and bless weddings of same-gender couples, but it was interpreted to require Catholics to provide spousal benefits to parties to civil unions, even though the law did not require Catholics to officiate at civil unions.

Catholics no longer provide adoption services in Illinois. Agencies formerly associated with Catholic Charities who have severed that relationship continue to provide adoptions, and they place children with same-gender couples. Secular thinkers, whose ideas have taken solid form in Illinois law, did not set out to reduce the number of agencies engaged in the charitable action of adoption. Their agenda was to suppress Christian testimony expressed in a refusal to place adoptees with same-sex couples. The language and interpretation of Illinois law link two secular ideas: 1) that the definitions of marriage and family can evolve within human society, and 2) that religion and religious views are irrelevant and need not be accommodated by the society due to their reliance on evidence that science cannot measure. The result is that secular culture demanded a law whose consequence is suppression of the freedom to live by a religious conviction.

The argument is poisoned by the money issue. Social services are expensive, and religious agencies cannot help as many people if their only source of funding is private donations. They argue for their right to participate in the distribution of taxes right along with any other not-for-profit group, and they argue for their Constitutional right to express their religious principles in their operations. There is a biblical model for exactly this sort of confrontation between faithful living and the legitimate expectations of government.

Daniel and his three friends were exiles in Babylon. They were among a large group of young men selected by King Nebuchadnezzar and trained for leadership in his administration. They were Jews. They believed in only one God, and they believed that they owed obedience to God in word and deed. Their commitment to live their faith was tested over and over. During their leadership training program, they had to prove that they could do the work and still live their faith. When the king later demanded that people pray only to him, Daniel had to pay the price for praying to God by spending the night in a den of lions. When a later king demanded that everybody worship his golden statue, Daniel’s three friends were all thrown into a furnace. Refusing for the last time to worship that statue, they all agreed, “Maybe God will rescue us if you throw us in, but even if he won’t, we will worship only him.” (See Daniel 3:16-18) Daniel and his three friends were vindicated in each of their confrontations, and each time, the king accommodated their beliefs, but the real lesson of their experience lies in their complete willingness to lose the battle. The statement that “even if he won’t [rescue us]” they would persist in faithful behavior is the point Christians must absorb.

If we twenty-first century Christians want to be faithful to Christ in word and deed, we have to be willing to pay the price. If the government will not permit us to take its money and use that money according to our own principles, then we must be willing to do without that money. The Catholic Charities of Illinois need to raise funds from devout Catholics and other people who support their principles and re-open their agencies. The court said that they can’t take government money and refuse to place adoptees with same-sex couples, but nothing says thy must take government money. The same is true for any Christian group that is restricted in its testimony by rules for the use of government money. If Christians cannot be true to their testimony while using government money, then don’t use government money. All those first-century Christians who refused to worship the emperor are looking down at us from heaven and wondering what we are fussing about. Giving up government money is not like being thrown to the lions or crucified or beheaded.

(This is not to say that the secular culture will allow Christians to live their faith unimpeded if the Christian behavior offends secular sensibilities. Currently, Illinois law is not trying to universally suppress Catholic agencies from refusing to place children with same-gender couples. Currently the law only forbids them to received state funding to do so. There are other cases in other locations that suggest there is a bigger move under way that threatens any behavior that expresses religious convictions contrary to secular cultural standards. This is a topic for other posts.)

Anne Hathaway supposedly cares so much for animals that she required vegan footwear in all her scenes in Les Miserables. She garnered vast public praise for her stand. Yet when Catholic employers say that they care so much for God that they won’t participate in behavior that is disobedient to their commitment to him, they are not praised at all. Rather, they are reviled, by the very same people who fawn at the mention of Anne Hathaway’s name. Without any animosity toward Anne Hathaway for doing what she believes in, I simply ask: why isn’t the same respect and regard granted to Christians for doing what they believe in? The answer is obvious: Anne Hathaway believes that humans can save the world, but Christians believe that it is God who redeems humankind and all creation. Anne Hathaway believes that she is helping to save animals of the world by wearing vegan footwear. Catholic charities believe they are serving God by protecting God’s standards for a family, standards they believe are part of God’s work on earth. The culture respects and regards those who think it is all up to humans while it rejects a commitment to a religious principle.

There has always been a secular element in our culture. There have always been people who believe that any and all religions are myths. Today is really not all that different from any other era. The question for us has always been whether Christ really is first, or not. The issue of religious freedom always hinges on one thing: do we live our testimony, or not? Secular forces will admire, even encourage, our charitable work, as long as we leave Christ Jesus out of it.