The Meaning of Religious Liberty

A business owner is a citizen and a human being. What is so strange about a human being who chooses to assert his right to exercise his faith at all times in all places?

In an article about the recent judgment that exempts the owners of Hobby Lobby from fines for failure to provide 16 forms of contraceptives in the health insurance for their employees, the government’s lawyer, Michael Heaton, was reported to have been surprised that a person’s constitutional rights extended to the operation of a business. How can that be so strange? A business is operated by human beings. Human beings have natural rights, including the right of free exercise of religion, which are not expressed as being limited to any particular location or setting. In other cases it has been reported that the government tried to assert that a person’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion ends when he engages in business. No person who has religious convictions could possibly understand this point of view. Religion is about life, the totality of life.  If there is a religion that confines itself to ritual and ceremony in dedicated religious space, it must have very few adherents.

In truth, the people who believe that religion has no place in business – or in government, or in schools, or in any location outside its worship space – are secular thinkers. Only secular thinkers actually believe that religion is naturally confined to worship spaces or to the acts of worship. Secular thinkers grandly pose themselves as supporting “freedom of worship,” and they point to lovely buildings where people gather for that purpose as if that were the definition of religion. When they make this claim, they betray how ignorant they are of the scope and meaning of religion in the lives of human beings.

Christianity has often been accused of being a religion of rules and strictures that people chafe against in the real world, but it has always been present in the person of believers in every realm of human life. When the early explorers crossed oceans in search of new worlds, they took their religion with them. Captain and crew alike were normally Christian, although there might be a sprinkling of people who followed other religions. Nevertheless, the captains of ships were often devout, and if they were, they enforced rules and practices that expressed their faith aboard the ships. It was not only normal, but it was expected.

Likewise, the European empires who sent soldiers for military conquest and businessmen for economic conquest sent religious leaders along to guide and to serve the religious needs of the men and women who were far from the familiar worship spaces of Europe. They didn’t live their faith only in cathedrals; they lived their faith in counting houses and courtrooms and factories.

Secular thinkers and others who doubt or reject the Christian faith are quick to point out sinful behaviors of believing Christians, and they are correct to notice that. Unbelievers often confuse Christian salvation with reformation to pious perfection. Christians teach that we are forgiven by God’s grace through salvation and that we are called to live by Christ’s standards, not those of satanic greed and selfishness, but Christians know that every Christian remains imperfect, forgiven but not yet holy. Perhaps this paradox of human nature is what makes secular thinkers believe that the Christian religion, and all others as well, simply have no place in commerce – or law, or education or other human endeavors. They are wrong. The fact that some Christians fail to live up to the best Christ asks of us does not mean that we are not all working toward that goal. We are all called to Christ’s standard. The failure of some to achieve that standard does not lower the standard.

Christians can rejoice that Hobby Lobby can now be added to the list of businesses which have successfully challenged the HHS employer mandate in the courts. Christians can rejoice that there are still judges who understand the Constitutional protection for the free exercise of religion. Christians must not, however, become complacent about this victory for religious liberty. Michael Heaton’s statement is clear evidence that secular thinkers will not relent in their efforts to circumscribe and restrict the free exercise of Christian faith, and all other faith, for that matter. Christians must continue to pray and call on the power of God to act in this ongoing conflict. Christians must continue to write and call their Representatives and Senators to persuade them to enact legislation that repeals the mandates of the oppressive and unaffordable Affordable Healthcare Act. And all the while, it behooves every Christian to recognize that every victory for religious liberty shines the public spotlight ever more brightly on Christians and their behavior. If Christians want the right to live their faith in all places at all times, then they need to be exercising their faith in all places at all times. Jesus said that people would know we belong to him by the love we show to each other and to all the people we encounter. If we want to continue to have the liberty to live our lives by Christ’s standards, we must be ever more vigilant to do exactly that.