Public Morality and Religious Belief

While reading the periodical Liberty, I ran across this quotation:

“In a pluralistic society a fundamental assumption of public policy is the recognition that everything immoral need not be declared illegal. The public morality that is expressed in law reflects a consensus derived from public debate…Social realities as well as religious principles must be taken into account in judging the wisdom of any legislation. Citizens who come to different conclusions are not necessarily immoral or unchristian. The tendency to so brand one’s political opponents suggests a kind of moral fascism.” -from an editorial in America dated 9/13/1980.
These sentences reflect a profound understanding of the Constitution’s freedom of religion clause. Too often many religious and non-religious people have forgotten these truths. We live in a nation where every worldview is acceptable. The humanist, the Christian, the scientific, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, atheist, etc. All of these worldviews are essentially religious for each of them posit a claim to the manner in which Truth can be known. To some it is the teaching of a leader, to another it is the a person himself, and to still another a method of inquiry, but all of them are religious, for even to deny religion is a religious belief in itself which is as dogmatic as any faith commitment.
The struggle then becomes allowing each person to pursue their conscience freely and in a manner which doesn’t force any other person to violate their conscience. This is where the rubber meets the road. Take for instance gay marriage. Personally I am opposed to it, but to deny another the ability to “marry” is to force my beliefs upon them. That said, to dictate that I must marry them and accept their marriage is to force their beliefs upon me. I am not opposed to gay marriage as much as I am opposed to telling an employer they are required to provide benefits to same sex marriages when those marriages violate their consciences. Or telling me that to speak in opposition of gay marriage is somehow a hate crime. It isn’t, it is a matter of conscience. The road must go both ways, and that is a lesson many religious and non-religious folks forget. And regardless of the issue, the right and left inside the Church often forget it about one another.
The question then becomes – When can one person’s religious liberty be forced upon another? When can one’s beliefs become the norm by which all other beliefs must conform? The answer comes from Christ – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Only when you are willing to allow their beliefs to become your absolute, can you lobby for your beliefs to become their absolute. This simple lesson, if remembered would curb many of the political fights that exist today.
If you want to be able to deny someone benefits because of some choice they are making, then they have every right to deny you benefits because of some choice you are making (the number of children you have, for instance). If you want to fire someone, or hire them based upon their religious persuasion (you could also read political, environmental, socio-economic, etc.), then you must grant them the opportunity to do the same thing. Then and only then will we find out the true nature of our actions and the true motivations of our politics.
Under this schema, St. Paul’s statement, taken out of context I realize, has some bearing. “All things are permissible, but not all are beneficial.” When we grant liberty broadly, individuals will find out very quickly which choices are permissible and which are beneficial, then their “issues of conscience” will be shown for what they are religious freedom or religious fascism. For if they are willing to live with the consequences of their choice(s) and not impinge upon another’s freedom, I would submit they are truly issues of conscience. However, if they are unwilling to live with the consequences and instead are willing to override another’s conscience in order to have their own ways, then fascism, whether of the right or the left, is at play.
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About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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