When Should Christians Engage in Civil Disobedience?
Recently, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) heaped contempt upon five ministers called to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The men were there to raise religious liberty concerns over the Health and Human Services Department's policy of forcing institutions to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to their employees, even when the institutions found these options morally objectionable. Though Romans Catholics were particularly stung by this policy, four other members of the clergy---two Baptists, a Lutheran, and a Jew---came as co-belligerents for the cause of freedom of conscience.
Connolly's fulminations included the charge that they were being used for "shameful" acts of political demagoguery. He mocked their speaking "as if people are going to jail over this. Shame! Everybody knows that's not true."
Actually, a lot of people know that it may well be true, and American Christians are preparing for the day when the state will no longer tolerate their "obstructionism," their "phobias," and their "offensive utterances." Thus a half million believers have already signed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which says, in part,
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's.
If this means jail time over refusal to pay fines, so be it. Of course, the specter of thousands of esteemed ministers in holding cells, getting rap sheets, may cause the commissars to go wobbly and back off for fear of the political repercussions.
Fuss Over Nothing?
Could Connolly be right about this being an overheated tempest in a teapot? After all, America is no Iran or Saudi Arabia, where Christian conversion and gospel preaching land you in prison, and even the grave. We're a liberal democracy, a pillar of Western civilization, with its constitutive freedom of conscience.
But that status is tenuous. Classic liberalism (following Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, not Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) is dying in the mainline Western nations as paternalists, cultural relativists, sensitivity police, and decadence-normalizers move in with their speech and tax codes to cow the faithful.
Åke Green and Daniel Scot are two cases in point. Green, a Swedish Pentecostal pastor on the little island of Oland, was sentenced to a month in jail for "hate speech" and "agitation against an ethnic group" for preaching a sermon against homosexuality. Fortunately, the Swedish Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling.
Scot, a math professor and Assembly of God minister, had fled Pakistan for the safety of Australia, only to be convicted of "vilifying" Islam when he spoke in churches, explaining the roots of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was ordered to purchase tens of thousands of dollars in ads in Melbourne papers, apologizing to Muslims. He refused, at great legal expense, and the case went to the Victorian Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. And Americans of biblical conviction are also beginning to feel the heat. For instance, a Methodist retreat center in New Jersey lost its tax-exempt status for excluding same-sex marriage ceremonies from its grounds.
When Should We Take a Stand?
Of course, this raises the question of when it is appropriate to take a stand, and when it is better to simply retire from the field, as did Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, when it stopped its adoption ministry because the law said it could not discriminate against same-sex households. After all, obedience to the law is the default position for Christians. That's the teaching of Romans 13:1-7, which Paul wrote when the government was in many ways unsavory. But this is not an absolute duty, for we rightly celebrate the stand of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3 and Peter and John's defiance in Acts 4:1-21, where they ignored an order to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus' name.
Still, we have to avoid the temptation to become hypersensitive to every affront to our scruples. I may be incensed over where some of my tax money is going, but I shouldn't turn my back on the IRS in protest. And I may dislike the order to move my abortion protest across the street from a "clinic," but I don't need to provoke a trip in the paddy wagon by ignoring the mandated buffer zone.
So where do we draw the line? We can certainly follow Peter and Andrew in insisting that our gospel preaching is inviolate. And there are moral outrages that no men of conscience could countenance, such as an order by Nazis to turn in Jews for transport to the death camps. But sometimes, the outrage is more particularly anti-Christian, as when 17th-century Japanese were required to show their disrespect for the faith by stepping on a tile bearing the image of Jesus (fumi-e) or face torture and death. In contrast, in the modern West, speech codes and their supporting humiliations and fines are the bludgeons of choice. But in either case, believers must not flinch from speaking the truth in love, whatever the cost.
What shall we say, then, of that gray area where we're not murdered or muzzled but merely mugged? I suggest we consider our witness, whether we might be bringing glory or embarrassment to God. For comparison, we might consider our take on other faiths' possible complaints of ill treatment. For instance, I think we would rally to the side of Muslims forced to serve pork in their rescue mission. Government pressure at this point would be gratuitously offensive, whatever the rationale---whether a recent study placing pork at the base of the food-guide pyramid or the need to sustain the nation's pork farmers by broad purchase and distribution of their product. But when an American Muslim woman (or her husband) insists that she wear a niqab for her driver's license photo (not an issue in Saudi Arabia), then popular sentiment rightly shifts to the government's side, which counts an ID showing only the eyes an absurdity. By extension, we should reflect on how reasonable or absurd our own complaint might be.
Should Even Unreasonable Religious Beliefs Be Protected?
Of course, the public may not "get it" the first time through. We may need to strive mightily to make our point that a certain religious conviction or principle is crucial to us and that when the state slights our conscience, it behaves badly. Such was the burden on the Miami-area Santeria, the cult sacrificing chickens in their worship. Defenders did well to note that their killings were humane and that there was already a lot of bird "sacrifice" in the land, whether by KFC or the members of Ducks Unlimited.
Some beliefs, though, are not only curious, but dangerous: a Jehovah's Witness refusing a C-section meant to save her unborn child because she objects to the accompanying blood transfusion; a Christian Science couple declining treatment for their son's bowel obstruction that could rupture and cause death from peritonitis; a Christian school proudly declaring itself exempt from the general fire code. But the government can be just as unreasonable in pressing its will upon the faithful.
As we make our case for liberty, we need to show our logic, expose the illogicality of our foes, link arms with co-belligerents, exhibit dignity in the face of indignities, and make it very clear that there are limits to our flexibility. The five ministers who testified before the House committee---Meir Soloveichik, Matthew Harrison, Craig Mitchell, William Lori, and Ben Mitchell---served us well in this regard. But the public debate continues, and it may well happen that Representative Connolly and his ilk will not grasp the gravity of the situation until the jail doors slam on dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of clergy.