What Should the Government Do When a Citizen Exercises Religion?

For many years US Christians have lived according to the teachings of their faith, secure in the protection of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Many people of other religions have enjoyed the same protections. For many years the First Amendment has kept government within the bounds set by the authors of the Constitution. Those days appear to be almost over.

Today, government appears to have broken open the boundary fences in the Constitution, and it remains to be seen what will be required in order to recapture it and return it to its assigned limits.

The US Constitution includes an amendment that was written to prevent government from running roughshod over the personal convictions of people who considered their obedience to God to pre-empt their obedience to any other authority. The amendment actually does not name any particular god as being more important or more worthy of obedience than some other. It recognizes the sundry religions practiced in the US by both native residents and immigrants. The First Amendment to the Constitution was enacted because early citizens recognized the propensity of any government to seek power and to increase its power toward the ultimate goal of absolute power. The Constitution was enacted for the precise purpose of limiting the power of government to specific areas. The First Amendment was written to prevent the government from compelling any citizen to act against his conscience. The Constitution and the First Amendment were written by people who believed that every man of any character had a conscience educated by his religious faith, and they believed that every man who had any real character would suffer death itself rather than act against conscience. The men who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to assert the principles of the Declaration of Independence against the most powerful nation on earth in 1776 were acting on conscience.

In Oregon, in this year of 2013, the protection of the human right to choose a religion and live by it is being threatened. The owner of a bakery who refused business because of religious conviction is being accused of discrimination. The state’s laws apparently allow the government to set a fine that has no upper limit, and the state’s Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian has said publicly that what the business owner needs is rehabilitation.Avakian’s exact words were: “The goal is never to shut down a business. The goal is to rehabilitate.”

Such a statement evokes memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or of the Soviet labor camps featured in The Gulag Archipelago. 

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution and in the Soviet Union people learned to watch what they said and what they wrote and what they did, because people who were out of step with the government were deemed to need re-education.

  • They needed to learn to be ashamed of thinking for themselves instead of learning the way the government wanted them to think
  • They needed to learn what the government wanted them to think
  • They needed to have the government language and thought branded in their minds by torture and profoundly inhumane and abusive treatment
  • They needed to be examples of what would happen to anyone who dared to think and speak and write and act on principles the government did not recognize.

This image is precisely what comes to mind when Americans hear a government official talk about rehabilitating someone who has acted according to conscience instead of according the moral standard of the day as defined by the government.

When bakery owner Aaron Klein declared that his Christian faith prevented him from participating in a lesbian wedding, the prospective customers should have behaved with respect for Aaron KIein’s religious convictions and moved on to some bakery where the owners don’t share that conviction. Aaron Klein expressed a fundamental truth of Christian teaching: Christ must reign over every part of a Christian’s life. Christians may not always live up to their deepest convictions, a truth that can be observed about people at large. Many is the person who has failed to live by his own best principles, and many is the person who therefore feels deep guilt and personal shame for that failure. It cannot be appropriate to say that the failure of some Christians to live up to the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sin justifies a demand by the culture for all Christians to deny and abjure that teaching. For Christians, Christianity is not a set of rules that are held high inside a building during ritual ceremonies and left to molder inside that building when the Christian leaves. Christianity is a way of life, and one element of Christian life is to honor God’s created order which includes the union of a man and a woman as the foundation of the human family. The culture may include enough activists to outvote Christians with regard to the issuance of marriage licenses, but the culture has no right and the government has no right to compel Christians to deny and act in denial of fundamental Christian teachings.

Only a totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union or the Chinese Communist government would believe that it had a right to act this way. The language of Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is the language of a totalitarian dictator. Dictators demand that everyone think the same thing and they pretend that they have the right to reprogram the minds of their citizens, because they and they alone know best for everyone. They don’t believe in any god or God or any other power greater than themselves, and they don’t submit to any power or to any sense of human rights.

This idea may fly in countries like the old Soviet Union or even in contemporary Communist China where Christians who do not participate in the government-authorized version of Christianity are subject to rehabilitation in labor camps. This idea is an outrage in a country with a Constitution and a First Amendment right to the “free exercise” of religion.

Just this week, a group of Christians gathered in a private home somewhere in the USA to study the Bible. During the discussion of Luke 17:20-26, one woman said, “I am struck by the words, ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ It seems to me that if God reigns within me, then every part of my life must be subject to him.” She was precisely correct. This is exactly what it means. No Christian can separate his life into separate sections, one part for secular rules and one part for Christ’s rules. A Christian lives one life that is a single integrated whole, completely subject to Christ. Christ reigns at the dinner table, on the highway, in business meetings and in the decision to accept or reject clients.

Secular thinkers say that people in business have no right to exercise their faith, because they have opened their doors to conduct business. This attitude is wrong for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that people who have religious convictions may shape their business according to those convictions. To the secular thinker, a Christian baker is simply selling an object to people who have money to pay for it. However, to the Christian baker, he is being asked to be part of a ceremony that is deeply offensive to his faith. Yes, that is right. Deeply offensive.  It is outrageous for any government to expect anyone to participate in any act that is deeply offensive. It is the behavior of a totalitarian domineering government.

What should the government do when somebody’s religious conviction gets in the way of the government’s power to impose acts against conscience on its citizens? It should stop. Any law that actually authorizes and demands such acts by the government must be considered unconstitutional, because the Constitution clearly forbids the government to do any such thing. Maybe the government doesn’t need rehabilitation, but it might need re-education. Let all people in government read and re-read the Constitution and then live by it as the founders of the USA intended.