Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.
On Friday, February 1, the President announced a new rule for the administration of the Affordable Care Act. Last February, when the original rule defining religious exemptions from the employer mandate was announced, the government also created what it called a “safe harbor” for some employers for a period of one year while the government reviewed the problem posed by employers whose religion rejected certain required coverage. However, the safe harbor only applied to employers with some religious connection to the business itself, and the newly-announced accommodation in the rules implementing the Affordable Care Act retains that limitation. A university operated as a ministry of the Catholic Church can be exempted from paying for health insurance that provides contraceptives to employees, but a hardware manufacturer who lives by the teachings of faith is still required to fund that coverage.
The President and his administration still do not understand that a Christian lives by the teaching of his faith at all times, not just in church. The administration remains of the opinion that religious convictions apply only within the bounds of religious organizations. The original conscience exemption definition was limited to the walls of a church or its organization, and this new announcement barely reaches outside to ministries that are governed by or closely attached to the church body. Clearly, the President and his administration share a common secular misconception about the Christian faith. They all believe that people express their faith inside a church and its organizations. This is a solidly secular view of religion of any sort. It is not true of Christianity, despite the secular perception that Christianity is defined by church rules and hierarchy. Jesus called people to live selflessly, putting obedience to God ahead of all other loyalties in every area of life. The US government does not understand that when a person receives Christ the commitment to serve Christ applies to every moment of life. A Christian does not divide life into sacred and secular partitions. Every part of life is sacred. Christ is Lord at all times. Jesus died to redeem all of life, not just the part that takes place in a church building or a denominational organization.
The men who wrote the Constitution understood what it meant for all of life to be subject to God. This is the reason they wrote in the First Amendment that Congress could not write any law to limit or proscribe the “free expression” of religion. That freedom is not bounded by the location where religion is expressed, by the organizational connections of the group expressing it, or by the work that the individual is doing while expressing it. The religious liberty protected by the First Amendment applies to all citizens at all times.
The Sermon on the Mount is a long speech by Jesus. It is a guide to life that clearly covers every facet of life. Nobody reading this text would confuse it with a worship guide. It is about business and family, friends and neighbors, life and death. Most students of Christianity, whether or not they put their faith in Christ, recognize that in this sermon, Christ called people to a way of life, not a ritual. The men who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the birth of the nation that became the United States of America recognized that religion was not simply an obligation to attend worship on Sunday morning. They knew that whether a person put his faith in Christ or Vishna, the faith teachings shaped a way of life, not a worship schedule.
Until recently Christians believed that the First Amendment protected Christians, and all other people of all faiths, from the kind of oppression that other governments in the world showed toward religion. Some governments suppress all religion, preferring that citizens not put any loyalty ahead of service to the government. Other governments favor one religion above all others and suppress any competitors. Sometimes the suppression is expressed by government order, and sometimes the suppression is expressed by allowing violence against religion to proceed unacknowledged by government. In the US, we have believed that our government protects all citizens and restrains itself from interfering with anyone’s faith convictions because of the First Amendment. We are learning that it is possible for the government to say the words of the First Amendment without meaning what we think the words mean. This latest announcement makes it clear that we must continue in prayer and action to assert the full religious liberty protected by the First Amendment.
History teaches that when citizens permit any government to restrict freedom, the restriction only grows tighter with time. If we want the freedom to live our faith unhindered by government, then we must exercise both our civic responsibilities and our Christian faith. As citizens, we must use our right to speak with our elected leaders and influence them to comply with the Constitution. As Christians, we must pray for our elected leaders and for our own courage to stand firm in faith.
One footnote. Some Christians have said that they do not agree with the employers who reject the employer mandate for religious reasons. They are quite comfortable in compliance, and they see no need to speak or act in support of individuals and businesses who feel persecuted by the mandate. We do not need to hold the same beliefs in order to agree that every person has the right to express his faith in his life. The issue is not whether we agree theologically; the issue is whether we will give up the freedom to live by our faith. If one faith loses that freedom, all faiths lose that freedom. Pray. Speak. Act. Do not permit our religious liberty to be lost forever because it is not your toe that is being stomped.
Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. Acts 5:29