The Secular Creed’s Threat To The American Experiment

Nov 16th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The American democratic experiment is in trouble.  Founded on the principles of equality and liberty of all citizens before the law, the Constitution protects the “free exercise” of religious beliefs in the First Amendment.  Throughout the history of this Republic, the national government has fought to protect the free exercise of religious beliefs.  But, as I argued in a previous Perspective, “roughly 70 years ago, argues [Steven] Smith, America’s Supreme Court abandoned the wisdom of the American settlement. It committed the ‘basic blunder’ of granting official preference to ‘one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies.’ Beginning with a series of decisions from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Court declared the secular interpretation of America to be the nation’s official dogma. Though still widespread at popular and ceremonial levels, providential ideas—such as the claim that the source of our human rights is God rather than the state, or that man’s law is but a mask of God’s law—would no longer be permitted any official role in America’s law, government or public education. The nation went officially horizontal, creating at the core of American society a massive, ever-expanding governmental dead zone devoid of providential thinking or reasoning.” This critical shift is revealing dangerous results.

Among those results is a potentially mortal threat to the free exercise of religious beliefs, guaranteed in the First Amendment.  Consider this exchange:  At a recent CNN Equality Town Hall, moderator Don Lemon asked the former Texas congressman and presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke, “Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities — should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”  O’Rourke answered “Yes.” He added: “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”  Or consider this:  “Elizabeth Warren was asked a revealing question: How would she respond if an “old fashioned” voter told her that they believed that marriage is between one man and one woman? She retorted with, ‘I’m going to assume it is a guy who said that,’ before answering, ‘Well then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’  There was much applause. However, she then shrugged, adding, ‘assuming you could find one.’ The audience roared with laughter, further insinuating that any person who held such values is so out of step, bigoted, homophobic, and small minded that he could not find someone who would be willing to marry him.   But let’s be honest: that’s really not the issue. The issue is: Can people dissent from what is now the majority view of marriage? As we saw, Warren not only mocked those who disagreed but advocated for policies that seek to marginalize and penalize those who do hold a biblical view of marriage.”  Arguably, these are stunning exchanges, for each evidences the absolutism of the secular creed, which in turn poses a mortal threat to religious liberty in America.

  • First, consider the taxation issue Beto raised: Columnist Michael Gerson argues that “The taxation of churches according to their moral views would be inherently and massively intrusive. In the majority opinion of Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (1970), Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that any taxation of churches would mandate extensive interaction between government and religion. ‘The exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, and far less than taxation of churches,” he said. “It restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.’”  Beto denies the validity of the First Amendment and the vision of our Founders in maintaining a separation of church and state.  The creed of secularism—in this case forced consent on the matter of same-sex marriage— cannot be forced down the throats of religious people.
  • Second is the importance of The Equality Act of 2019 (passed by the House to provide sweeping Civil Rights protection for the LGBTQ community), which is widely supported by the Democratic presidential candidates. This act has significant implications for the very institutions that Beto mentioned—charities and colleges. “The Equality Act would in essence say that our beliefs are unacceptable and that we must change. As the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) explains:  The Equality Act fails to provide essential religious liberty protections that would allow a diverse group of social service and civic institutions to continue to thrive. In particular, as it relates to the sector of faith-based higher education that has religious convictions around marriage, human sexuality and gender, including CCCU institutions, these laws would conflict in ways that would put at risk their ability to hire and operate in accordance with their religious missions and would restrict student choice in an unprecedented way by preventing middle and low income students from being able to take their federal student aid to these institutions. Faith-based higher education has always been an essential element of the diversity of the higher education system in the United States—many of the first colleges and universities in the United States were religious—and it is essential that any protections for LGBT persons be paired with the essential religious freedoms that maximize freedom for all.”
  • Third, editorially, the Dallas Morning News commented that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment guarantees the protection of religious freedom for two reasons: “First, because they provide for the common good. Organizations in our city like Catholic Charities, Baylor Medical Center, Islamic Council of North America Relief, Dallas Life Foundation, Genesis Women’s Shelter, Jewish Family Service, and hundreds of others provide vital charitable benefits to society. And while all of those organizations may not share the same beliefs on topics like God, humanity, sexuality or politics, they nonetheless make North Texas a better place to live.  The second reason is more germane: the Constitution’s establishment clause is meant to safeguard religious freedom by imposing limits on the government’s regulatory and taxing powers. The religious landscape in America is as close to a free and unregulated market as may be found anywhere in the world. Our government doesn’t regulate religion. It doesn’t keep a registry of congregations. It doesn’t support one kind of religious belief and restrict others. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had it right: The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
  • Finally, the creed of secularism poses a genuine threat to religious liberty. Attorney General William Barr recently gave a speech at Notre Dame University’s Law School.  As Columnist William McGurn summarizes, Barr advanced two broad propositions.  “First, the waning of religion’s influence in American life has left more of her citizens vulnerable to what Tocqueville called the ‘soft despotism’ of government dependency.  Second, today’s secularists are decidedly not of the live-and-let-live variety.”  Barr:  “The secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor.  It is taking on all the trappings of religion, including inquisitions and excommunications.  Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake—social, educational and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.”  Furthermore, Barr blamed social pathologies such as drug addiction, family breakdown and increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males on the secular creed:  “Whereas religion addresses such challenges by stressing social responsibility, the state’s answer is merely to try to alleviate bad consequences.  So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion.  The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites.  The solution for the breakdown of the family is for the state to set itself up as an ersatz husband for the single mother and an ersatz father for the children.  The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with this wreckage—and while we think we’re solving problems, we are undermining them.”  Finally, Barr stressed the irreplaceable role of religion in cultivating the morality citizens need to be capable of self-government.  In contrast, the secular creed posits a view of the state that views its citizens as subjects “who can’t really govern themselves.”

 

The American experiment in democratic-republican government is at a tipping point:  The absolutism of secularism is “determined to marginalize and destroy anyone who dares dissent from [its] own uncompromising orthodoxy.” That dissent is now being championed by Christians exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and the “free exercise” of their beliefs about life, marriage and family.  If these freedoms are suppressed by those advancing the secular creed, the American experiment will be in mortal danger of collapse.

 

See Ed Stetzer, “The #EqualityTownHall Was Loud and Clear: The LGBTQ+ Community, Beto, the Equality Act, and Evangelicals” in Today in Christian History (11 October 2019); Michael MsGough, “Beto O’Rourke’s ‘church tax’ idea plays into conservative paranoia about same-sex marriage” in LA Times (11 October 2019); Editorial, Dallas Morning News, “Beto embraces divisions by wanting to tax religious organizations over gay marriage” (11 October 2019); William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal (15 October 2019); and Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (14 October 2019).

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