We must obey God rather than any human authority. Acts 5:29
Over my lifetime I have heard many people use the term freedom of worship as if it were synonymous with the freedom protected by the First Amendment. Certainly that freedom is protected, but the words of the First Amendment protect a much broader freedom than the right to worship. The First Amendment is about the freedom to live by the tenets of your faith. Secular thinking defines religion as the act of worship and thinks of religion as acts of worship that take place in a space dedicated to worship. Because secularists view religion this way, they tend to see advocacy for freedom to live religiously in all contexts as a demand for privilege, not freedom. The culture of the USA is becoming increasingly secular. Many secular thinkers hold high elective office and serve in a variety of administrative, legislative and judicial posts. As a consequence, interpretation of the First Amendment is at risk. More than forty lawsuits currently making their way through the courts are attempting to affirm the original principle stated in the First Amendment. In the court of public opinion there is a great deal of fractious rhetoric. This post will focus on the text of the First Amendment and the threats to its intent in one government regulation.
The motivation for this post is a definition of religion that is buried in the regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act:
a religious employer is one that— (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization described in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code. Section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) and (iii) of the Code refers to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.
This definition is found in the Federal Register /Vol. 77, No. 55 /Wednesday, March 21, 2012. It applies to DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, 45 CFR Part 147 [CMS–9968–ANPRM] RIN 0938–AR42 and the title of the rule is Certain Preventive Services Under the Affordable Care Act.
The definition of a religious employer is probably a reasonable one. What is unreasonable is the way this definition is being used. In the administration of the Affordable Care Act, widely and uncharitably known as Obamacare, a religious employer is entitled to have a conscience objection to some features of the law. There is no provision, however, for any other sort of employer who has religious principles which shape his life. The First Amendment protection says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….
The free exercise of religion is not limited in the First Amendment to exercise by religious employers. The First Amendment protects the right of every citizen to choose and to exercise his religion. The exercise of religion permeates all of life. People exercise their religion when they use its teachings to decide what is right and what is wrong. They exercise their religion when they act on the determination that something is right or wrong. The right to make these decisions and act on them is granted by the Constitution to every citizen. This protection applies whether a citizen is an employer or an employee or unemployed. The definition of a religious employer applies a regulatory limit to religious liberty that is at odds with the Constitution.
To limit a conscience exemption this way is to say that the federal government respects freedom of worship but it does not respect religious liberty.
For more than two hundred years, the USA has been the place where people seeking freedom of religion ran for refuge. If the definition of religious employer in the regulations of the Affordable Care Act is allowed to override the First Amendment, religious freedom in the USA will be dramatically reduced. Many Christians who do not live according to the teachings of Catholic theology think this struggle has nothing to do with them. They should not feel this way. Every person of faith, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic or Baptist or any other religion, is affected by this act. If the Catholics can be compelled to disobey the tenets of their faith by the federal government, then no person of any religion can claim protection for the right to live by the teachings of that religion. Christians and all people of any faith must resist the attempt by the federal government to force any person to disobey the teachings of his faith. In Laos today, some government officials have decided that it is in the compelling interest of their government for Christians to be compelled to drink water blessed by a shaman and then to renounce Christ. In the US today government officials have decided that it is in the compelling interest of the government for Catholics to be compelled to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion, services they believe to be sin. Persecution for religious reasons takes many forms in many places. Today in the USA it takes the form of a pretense that freedom of worship is freedom of religion.
What should you do about it? Please pray for God’s guidance. You can write your Senator or Representative. You can even write to the President. You can blog or write a letter to the editor of your local paper. You can call a local talk radio host. Trust God’s guidance and follow it. Everybody can pray about this problem, even people who are not religious employers.
Sunday’s readings Acts 1:15-17. 21-26 Psalm 11 John 5:9-13John 17:6-19
Recently news was received from the tiny country of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. The US doesn’t get much news from that part of the world, and this news was not published in the New York Times or even on the Drudge Report. It arrived via a newsletter from OpenDoors.com. The news stated that Christians were hopeful they could continue meeting in private homes while they continue to attempt to be classified as a legitimate religion in Bhutan. In this remote Himalayan country, the official religion is Buddhism. Bhutan is classified as a kingdom, but it is transitioning to a form of democracy which already includes a legislature. Early in the process of learning democracy the national legislature passed a law called The National Religious Organizations Act. Religions not named in that act are considered to be unlawful. Furthermore, no religion, even presumably the lawful ones, may engage in proselytizing, particularly if some inducement is offered to converts. Christians have difficulty making their case for legitimacy due to allegations that they offer a reward to people who agree to convert. There was no hint in the news article what the alleged reward is, but it may be that the promise of eternal life is deemed by the government to be an inducement.
From the comfortable vantage point of the USA it is difficult to imagine a country where religions must be recognized by the government in order to be allowed to exist. This problem is more common than Western Christians realize. In Africa and Asia it is not at all uncommon for there to be strict regulations for religions. In our country we can call join any religion we like, or none at all, and we meet wherever and whenever we wish. We are free to publicly argue all sorts of religious question among ourselves. Christians get upset when people want to stop using the greeting “Merry Christmas,” but that complaint looks quite lame compared to arrest, imprisonment and even torture, which are common in many countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We can hardly imagine that there are at least 50 countries in the world where it isn’t always safe to be a Christian.
Jesus could imagine it. He knew it was coming. In fact, the night before Jesus was scourged nearly to death and nailed to a cross to finish the job, he prayed for the Christians in Bhutan, and Laos and Eritrea and China and North Korea and all the other countries where simply claiming to be a Christian is risky business.
Today’s gospel is only a small selection from John 17, a chapter sometimes labeled “Christ’s High Priestly Prayer.” Our reading does not include the words that made the prayer so far-reaching in scope, verse 20 where Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Facing misery and grief none of us can really imagine, Jesus paused to pray for the disciples he already knew would abandon him in his hour of need, and for all the people who would be their descendants in the family of faith, including you and me.
We need his prayers. We may not be at risk of arrest if our neighbors find out we are Christians, but we have received the same commission the disciples received, and the pressure from the world around us to shut up about it is immense. On this fateful night Jesus told his disciples that they could expect to be hated, and he did not pray that they would not be hated. That is our kind of prayer. We pray to be rescued. We want to prevent bad things from happening. We hope God will put up a shield around us so we don’t get hurt. It is almost shocking to read that Jesus did not pray that we be rescued. Jesus prayed instead that we be sanctified.
Jesus knew that we would face personal insults, cultural rejection and both cultural and state persecution. Yet he prayed that we would meet our attackers with sanctification. He asked us to be dedicated and consecrated and blessed, but he did not ask for us to escape our enemies.
The prayer for our sanctification builds on his words to the disciples. Jesus had given the disciples the words his Father gave to him. The disciples treasured those words the way the Psalmist in today’s reading treasured Torah. Jesus had promised that when the disciples were dragged away by their persecutors the Holy Spirit would remind them of those words and give them the right words to speak their testimony. The disciples later wrote down Jesus’ words and deeds and we have them for our nourishment in the Bible. Since Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, the words the Holy Spirit gives us in the time of need are weapons of love and truth. Jesus prayed that his followers under threat would be sanctified, and the history of the church confirms that this is what happens. The stories of the martyrs who suffered and died for the faith over the past 2000 years are clear evidence that the persecuted are blessed by the Holy Spirit with powerful testimony, they are consecrated to love and service to Christ above all other loyalties, but very seldom are they rescued.
In Bhutan, Christians are under threat from both the culture and the state. Yet, scorned culturally and persecuted by their neighbors and by the government, they continue to live their faith and give their testimonies. We can be thankful that we do not need to worship in secret and hide our religion when we apply for work or buy a house. We can be thankful that nobody is likely to take our Bibles away from us if we show them in public. The story of Bhutan Christians ought to inspire us to emulate their courage when we are the object of scathing insults on the internet, or when our employers forbid us to say, “Merry Christmas.” Jesus prayed for us to be strong in the world and to be prepared for its hatred, and to be ready with a response that is loving and truthful. May we live in deep relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit in order to be ready to respond to the onslaught of cultural and legal attacks on Christianity with a sanctified testimony.
I have heard this question more than once in my life, but every time I hear it I think of Pontius Pilate asking Jesus this question. This scene is quite instructive. It puts the emphasis right where it belongs, and it demonstrates the problem we all face every day. What is truth? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of ‘truth’ is.
Truth. We think that when we hear something that accords with the facts as we know them, we have heard the truth. When I ask my child if he took a cookie out of my cookie jar, knowing that a cookie is missing, and knowing that nobody is in the house except me and my child, I think the child is not telling truth if he says he did not take the cookie. I know the facts, and I know he is the only person who could have taken the cookie. I feel that I know the truth, and he did not speak the truth. To know truth in that setting seems very easy. It is not so easy in other situations. If I want to live my Christian faith in a culture that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to Christian teaching, I will discover that there is no such thing as ‘the simple truth.’
Bill Clinton’s answer about the meaning of ‘is’ actually does illustrate an important factor in truth-telling. Words have meanings. For any word in the language, there is at least one dictionary definition. There is a cloud of connotation, interpretations and relationships that color my understanding of the word when I see or hear it. Most of us know to look in dictionaries and thesauruses for enlightenment on this sort of understanding of a word. Yet even these perspectives do not provide the whole story on words. Words that come to be used in daily speech because of their common use in some current political issue take on meanings that can only be described as political. The same thing is true with religious beliefs and practices. Christians who use the word ‘prayer’ almost certainly mean something different than a Buddhist might mean when using the same word. Because of all the usages and relationships a word may have, it is quite difficult at times to know if someone is telling the truth. We might well ask “What is truth?”
This problem is well-developed and clearly exemplified in the current political conversation about what our political leadership calls ‘contraception.’ The set of all political speech about ‘contraception’ has intersected with the set of all political speech about ‘the free exercise’ clause in the First Amendment and with the set of all political speech about ‘religion.’
The conversation is about the ‘truth’ about contraception, the ‘truth’ about free exercise of religion, and ‘the truth’ religion itself.
I will start by saying that I would never have taken any contraceptive medications if I had known that they did not prevent conception from occurring. Is that not the natural assumption when you hear the word ‘contraception?’ Yet the medications that are labeled ‘contraceptives’ actually do not prevent conception. Despite the fact that the drugs are designed to prevent ovulation, they actually do not reliably achieve that goal. Studies have found that the medications sold to prevent ovulation, and thereby to prevent pregnancy, successfully prevent ovulation between 40% and 70% of the time. If ovulation is not prevented, sexual intercourse can result in the fertilization of an egg. The moment of fertilization, the moment of conception, is the moment a baby first exists. If an egg is fertilized, a living human being is created. Medications that do not prevent fertilization may still prevent implantation, but if a living human being exists, then a failure to implant becomes an abortion. Contraceptive medications and devices cannot be relied upon to prevent conception. This is the first lie – the first challenge in our search for truth. The word ‘contraceptive’ was chosen as the label for the medications in order to lead people to conclude that these medicines prevent conception – ‘contra’ means ‘against’ and ‘ception’ means ‘conception.’ Women have been taking these medications for more than fifty years, and it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them, like me, assumed that when they took those medicines they would not conceive a baby. The truth is that contraceptives do not prevent conception.
The first lie has led to a second one. After pharmaceutical companies recognized that conception could still occur despite the fact that a woman faithfully took the medicine as prescribed, they were made aware that some women were quite sensitive to the life-threatening situation that existed if conception had taken place but the resulting embryo could not implant due to the second effect of the medications – the thinning of the uterine wall. The drugs in the ‘contraceptive’ medications caused the uterine wall not to thicken and become ready for the implantation of an embryo. Embryos which came into being due to the failure of the drug to prevent ovulation might very well be aborted due to the success of the drug in preventing implantation. Using this situation as an opportunity, the drug companies redefined the word, ‘conception.’ They defined ‘conception’ as what occurs when an embryo successfully implants in the uterine wall. The embryos that fail to implant have not, by that definition, been conceived. Contraceptives, by this definition, do prevent conception, and the companies can safely continue to use the label ‘contraceptive.’ This statement, too, is a misstatement, due to the fact that some embryos do, in fact, implant despite the use of contraceptives. Contraceptive drugs do not reliably prevent conception, the formation of an embryo, and they do not reliably prevent pregnancy, either, the implantation of an embryo in the uterine wall.
You can read the details of this information at http://www.prolife.com/BIRTHCNT.html where the research is documented with resource listings where you can dig as deep as you like into the research.
All this verbiage is clearly a way of masking, if not completely hiding, truth. At what moment do the sperm and egg change from being zygotes to an embryo? They change at the moment that a fertilized egg contains the DNA that codes for a complete human being. As soon as this happens, the fertilized egg is an embryo, the first cell of a complete human being. I have been involved in discussions in which some participants questioned if a fertilized egg were even alive. Some questioned if the embryo were even alive when it failed to implant. I defer to the scientist called The Father of Modern Genetics, Jerome Lejeune, who said, “Each of us has a very precise starting moment which is the time at which the whole necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg, and this is the moment of fertilization.” From that moment forward, a human being is growing, a process which continues until that human dies. If that human is unable to implant in the uterine wall of the mother that human will die. The death is not the end of “it.” The death is the death of him or her. The embryo has gender, among all the many other traits of a human being.
Contraceptives do, in fact, produce abortions when they prevent the implantation of an embryo, conceived because they failed to prevent conception, the process implicit in the label of the drugs – contraceptive.
None of this matters if a person chooses to believe that an embryo is not a human being, or that a fetus is not a human being, or that a newborn baby is not a human being. There is no way to deny that an embryo is living, because only living cells grow and divide. However, in order to get past that truth, the argument has now devolved into an argument about when the living cells become human. Unlike Dr. Lejeune, who considered the fertilized egg a human being, people who find babies inconvenient have devised any number of new definitions that diminish the humanity of a baby sufficiently to fool people into a willingness to kill them. Last week I saw the first suggestion that people ought to be allowed to kill newborns they don’t like. I am shocked by this suggestion, but not surprised. If the embryo is not human, and if the implanted fetus is not human, when exactly does that ‘product of conception’ (another semantic word game) become human? What is the truth?
All my concern with definitions and truth is rooted in exactly the same issue which has led the Catholic Bishops refuse to comply with the President’s edict. They contend that the conception of a baby is an act of God’s will that human beings must not tamper with. They believe God has the right and the authority to decide who lives and dies. They believe that human beings should not try to usurp God’s will by interfering with the creation and birth of human beings. Whether you agree with them or not, the point is that this conviction about the will of God and the right of a human being to live is a conviction rooted in their faith. It isn’t a personal principle; it is a religious conviction. Just as Jews believe they must mourn their sins on the Day of Atonement, Catholics believe they must not interfere with God’s work of creation in the act of human procreation. Catholics believe that the only godly method of birth control is abstinence. They do not support contraception, and they would not support it if it did prevent conception. They reject contraception, abortion and sterilization, considering them to be sins against God. For the federal government to compel them to pay for and distribute and provide and counsel contraception, abortion and sterilization is to attempt to compel them to deny their faith and commit sin against God. If any Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim or Baha’i ignores this problem because this conviction is not holy to him or her, be careful. What will you do when they come for you?
The second set of speech in this search for truth is the set of speech related to the concept generally labeled ‘freedom of religion.’ The First Amendment to the Constitution states that Congress may not “make a law … prohibiting the free exercise of [religion].” In 2010 Congress passed a law more than 2000 pages long, and it is reasonable to assume that nobody who voted for it envisioned it as a law that might breach the protections of the First Amendment. However, the law gives extraordinary powers to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who ruled that an exemption from certain requirements of the law would be available only to worship entities, the entities we all call ‘churches.’ Only churches could opt out of the requirement to pay the premium for coverage of services designated as preventive services that included contraceptive medications, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs such as the medication commonly called ‘the morning after pill.’ The Secretary acknowledged that there might be churches whose ethical teachings prohibited them from even encouraging the use of such services, but the Secretary drew the line at houses of worship. She dismissed the idea that schools, hospitals and charitable services founded and operated by the churches had any right to the exemption. Churches one and all found such institutions as an outgrowth of their obedience to God to love and serve their neighbors. They consider the institutions acts of ministry. This ruling raised a huge outcry, and the President subsequently announced an accommodation that would force insurance companies to pay the costs being rejected by the institutions, but that accommodation was also rejected. In the end, the original ruling was published in the Federal register, and that is where things stand today.
What is the truth about the definition of the phrase ‘free exercise of [religion]?’ (I bracket the word ‘religion’ because the amendment itself has the term ‘thereof’ which refers backward to the word ‘religion in a prior phrase.) What exactly constitutes ‘free exercise’ for purposes of applying the First Amendment protections? It is a question which would never have come up in a culture where the dominant life patterns of the people were permeated with Christian teaching. People just assumed that if a school or a hospital was started by a church, everything the church taught was embodied in that institution. In fact, if the institution did allow anything contrary to church teaching, people were shocked, even dismayed. It seemed as if some very fundamental truth had been violated. Yet today, the President has invented a separation between churches and the ministries of churches. He says the reason is that the institutions serve many people who are not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches, and that many employees of the institutions are also not ‘coreligionists’ of the churches. Because the population employed and served by the institutions is not confined to ‘coreligionists’ the President has declared that exemption of the institution from certain requirements of the healthcare law by reason of conscience does not apply. Many, many citizens think this declaration is nonsense, but our culture that is no longer dominated by Christian teaching includes many very vocal citizens who think this decision is very good.
What is the truth? Is an institution founded and operated by a church an extension of the church or a completely separate entity from the parent church whose ethical standards may not be imposed on the institution?
Which leads to the third set – political language about religion. The usage of the term ‘religion’ is much murkier than you might think at first glance. Several years ago I read an article about bookstores in which I learned that, at the time, the most popular subject in the store, after ‘self-help’ category was ‘Buddhism.’ The reason? Customers said they liked to read about Buddhism because it wasn’t a religion; it was a way of life. Christians rebut that image, saying that for them, the way they live is the substance of their religion, but many non-Christian citizens do not see it that way. It is a subject for some other post to explore why people feel this way, but the fact is that they do. In the political discussion under way, many people, including the President, believe that Christianity is what happens in churches while what happens in hospitals and schools is something else, no different from the humanist concept of charity. It will take a Supreme Court case to sort out the issue, maybe more than one, but the fact is that it is not the simple truth we might think it is. What is truth? How is a Christian to respond to this issue while remaining true to his faith?
What I see is that living our faith openly has become a minefield. If religion is what happens in churches and if religion may not legally be expressed in public, then we have serious challenges ahead of us. I don’t think we have quite reached that place. Yet I find the whole confrontation between the President and the Catholic bishops very disturbing. I think this situation, along with the language around contraception, abortion and sterilization will require all of us to pray and think and be alert.
The followers of Christ in the first and second centuries would think we are timid cowards. They knew real persecution. They were imprisoned and tortured and thrown into battle with animals and gladiators. Their property was confiscated. They had to meet in secret and dared not even speak the name of Christ in the hearing of a non-believer. Not all the threats were legal. As in any culture, the legal climate set the stage for private vendettas against Christians. The current legal battle over the freedom of the church institutions to express the same religious principles as the parent churches creates a climate that some individuals view as a green light to disparage and belittle Christianity and Christians in general. I will write more in future posts about the way we live in such a climate. For now, I simply repeat my opening question: what is truth? Jesus said that when we knew the truth about him, that truth would set us free. The current political ‘truths’ are the sort of lies we need to be free from, but do not imagine that our freedom is a license to abandon our wits. Jesus also said that we need to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. We may have thought for two hundred years that our country was a place where Christian faith expression would never be threatened. We are discovering that it is possible to twist the language, to pervert ‘truth,’ in such a way that the government and the culture can attempt to suppress free faith expression under the guise that our First Amendment freedom means something it never used to mean. We must love everyone who is twisting the language and perverting the truth. We must wisely act in defense of our freedoms as long as it is possible to do so. We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must pray to be ready for whatever comes.
How was Hitler able to persuade the Jews to march docilely off to their own deaths? He lied to them.
How does any government achieve goals that require people to cooperate in their own destruction? The government lies to them.
This blog is devoted to discussing the way we as Christians live in a secular humanist culture. We will talk about faith practices that help us mature in the faith, and we will talk about issues that arise when our faith becomes visible to other people and powers in our culture.
Today’s question is: How will Barack Obama succeed in fooling Christians into agreeing that it is okay to suppress religious expression? The answer is: lie to us.
We need to be very clear that the issue is not about women’s health or contraception or fairness to poor women. The issue is whether our constitution permits the federal government to require people of any faith to do things which their faith regards as sin. The question applies equally to Hindus or Muslims or Baha’i. At the moment, the focus of this discussion is the teaching of the Catholic Church and the interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Most of the media and many Democrat leaders have attempted to change the subject of the conflict away from freedom of religious expression. They have tried to make everyone focus on whether it is a woman’s right to receive contraception services at no charge to herself, and whether such services have become a right because they are integral to her good health. This issue is a political agenda item, not a fundamental right belonging to a human being by virtue of that human being’s existence. The right to express faith freely without hindrance by government is a God-given right, a right due to the very nature of being human, a right protected by the First Amendment.
We must not be diverted from the real issue, because unless we face the real issue, our own faith convictions are at risk. Last week we saw how collaboration between government and media can lie to us by diverting our attention from the real issue to something else. The government lie is that the big argument is about whether a woman ought to have to pay for her contraception. The truth is that the big argument is whether the federal government has a right to force anyone to act against the principles of any faith.
As a person of faith, you must consider two things in regard to this situation. First, are you willing to speak up and be counted among those who believe that an exemption for conscience is demanded by the First Amendment? Second, when the government demands something of you that conflicts with your faith, will you hold firm to your own faith? Be sure that if the federal government does not shun a battle with the Catholic Church, no religion is exempt. The Catholic Church has both a large membership and prodigious resources with which to fight for its position. Few denominations could begin to rally either the numbers of people or the money that the Catholic Church can pour into the battle.
Every person of every faith needs to stand with the Catholic Church in this matter. When you do that, you are not addressing the issue of free contraception for all women. You are demanding compliance with the First Amendment protection of religious freedom. Every person of faith ought to treasure and assert that protection. Christians in ancient Rome would have loved to have such protection. They were compelled to fight wild animals and savage warriors with their bare hands, because there was no protection for their right to serve God and refuse to worship the emperor. Think not that the US government is different. The principle that threw Christians to the lions in the Roman Empire was this: Must a human being obey every demand of government, even if it requires disobedience to God? That conflict was not about contraception or abortion or free healthcare; it was about power. Today’s conflict that is being portrayed as centered on healthcare is not about healthcare at all; it is about power. Christians today of all stripes, as well as any other people who have any other faith would be well advised to recognize this truth. This battle is about every human’s right to serve God and to put God ahead of government. This is a war for your spirit, not your health.