That Cut Flowers Kind of Religious Liberty

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So I want to make a point I have made before, and I want to do it yet again, but this is perfectly all right because it is a point that cannot be made enough. And here it is again:

Religious liberty is not a secular value. Religious liberty is a religious value, and not all religions value it equally, or even at all. Those who prize religious liberty must therefore realize that many worldviews cannot or will not support religious liberty. There is only one faith that supports genuine religious liberty, but it does so because we adopted it because we believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and not because we were pursuing the idol of religious liberty. The Christian faith is true, and that is why good things grow there.

I really don’t mind making this point repeatedly because it is about as hard as hitting the ground with your hat, and besides, it is usually fun being right. At the same time, that fun is admittedly short-lived, because it is no fun being right on an issue of such monumental importance in a world when secularism—with its black little totalitarian heart—is pretending to be fully supportive of what they call religious liberty. But as soon as you ask one or two pointed questions about why they think we should have religious liberty, that secularism develops a serious case of the cutes.

The Chasm

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes reference to an old observation of Aristotle’s on the meaning of democratic behavior. Does democratic behavior mean behavior that democracies like, or behavior which will preserve democracy? There is a chasm between the two.

If we want to maintain a robust view of religious liberty, we must make the same distinction in a different realm. Does religious liberty mean giving free rein to whatever religious people might be persuaded to like, or does it mean preserving, in a principled way, the maximum amount of actual religious liberty for the most people?

Did anybody really think that you can throw into a cauldron any number of different religions, with all their different practices, from peyote to polygamy, melt them all down, and have someone come into your kitchen and say, “Ooo! What’s that smell? Is that some religious liberty you are preparing for us?”

And that is just with the comparatively innocuous things that have been done in the name of religion. In the cauldron illustration above, I left out suttee, honor killings, female genital mutilation, and baby tossing.

So kick it up a notch. If we say that we want no restraints at all on religious liberty, we are actually saying that the ultimate ground of all religious conviction is the individual conscience. We have absolutized it. But we run into practical problems immediately. When individuals decide to exercise their religious convictions by flying airplanes into skyscrapers, we can’t unabsolutize it. I mean, unabsolutize isn’t even a word.

So we just wave our hands over the problem or, depending on how angry we are, we wave our fists over it. “Jihadism is fanaticism, and not religion.” Thus it is that a secular president of a secular nation gets to pronounce on what constitutes true Islam. “Thanks, awfully, Imam Bush.” So we get around the problem neatly, albeit dishonestly. We say we believe in religious liberty for all, provided the religion in question fits our definitions of religion. And since such individualism is always a philosophy that allows for and feeds the growth of the state, we find that we will soon have a Department of Approved Religions. This would be the department that is in charge of the religious liberty handouts from the state.

As the famous illustration goes, it is as though someone claimed that all the fish in the pond were larger than one inch across. Intent on proving this, he dragged the pond with a net that had one inch squares. When the inevitable protest came—all the fish smaller than one inch could just swim through the net—the logician’s response is simple. “What my net don’t catch ain’t fish.” Only approved religions get religious liberty, and we are in charge of approving religions.

Statist secularism therefore believes in religious liberty for all religions that have come to resemble an inert gas, like helium or xenon. If you agree to limit your religion to what you are thinking behind your eyes and between your ears, and if you follow it up hard by agreeing to keep it all to yourself, then you are free to exercise all the religious liberty you want. Knock yourself out.

But if you think that we shouldn’t be killing babies in the womb because of what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai, then you are by definition a transgressor. A disturber of the peace. That is religious extremism, and cannot be tolerated. Our evangelical leaders have overwhelmingly capitulated to the secularist philosophy that underlies this—but the internal contradictions involved are rapidly catching up with all of us. Religious liberty that cedes all activity in the public square to motivations that can be rendered as secular is not really religious liberty.

Have you noticed that Christians are now at the point where they celebrate a judicial victory that allows them to keep a religious symbol up on public land—say the most recent Peace Cross memorial case at the Supreme Court—and they celebrate this despite the fact that the ground for the decision was that the cross doesn’t mean anything anymore.


If you want a fuller grasp of the incongruities in all this, just try to imagine James and John, sons of thunder, entering an air guitar contest, and winning it. Yeah, I can’t imagine that either.

Form and Freedom

All societies are presented with the challenge of form and freedom. Free societies are those which maximize both, keeping them in a position of balanced equilibrium. Ideological societies are those that pick their (arbitrary) value, and pursue that value regardless of the consequences. If they pick form, then they run themselves into a regimented nightmare. If they pick freedom, they run themselves into the chaos of moral disorder, which gets to be too much after a bit, at which time they all lurch back into a regimented nightmare.

The great Thomas Sowell once said that conservatives think in terms of trade-offs, while progressives think in terms of solutions. Not only does the progressive think in terms of solutions, because his natural habitat is politics, he invariably thinks in terms of short term solutions, solutions that can be touted within one election cycle. He advances the solution that will solve the problem of the hour, blithely unware of all the problems he is creating. The conservative knows that whenever you touch this side of the spider web, the other side of it trembles.  

And so the conservative Christian wants the maximum amount of freedom that is consistent with the maximum amount of order. Not only so, but he wants the maximum amount of order that is consistent with the maximum amount of freedom. This kind of balancing act requires a transcendental grounding. We are not wise enough to manage it ourselves. Left to ourselves, we will veer off in one direction or the other. We will become authoritarian, or we will become chaotic and then authoritarian.

The Bible teaches that we become like what we worship. If the basic cultural assumption is that Parmenides tagged it right and his monism is the ultimate reality, then that fact will be reflected down here below. How could it not? Imagine a fixed and motionless block of invisible concrete extending infinitely in every direction. That divine monad is going to result in a society that values conformity. Unity is all. And if the basic cultural assumption has made Heraclitus its prophet, and Whirl is King, ten tons of confetti dumped into an F5 tornado, then that reality is going to be reflected down here below.

The only way you are going to get a society that respects and honors form and freedom both is if that society’s ultimate assumptions are shaped by the Christian faith, in turn shaped by the Trinity and the Incarnation. That is what we once had, and that is what we are currently engaged in throwing away. That is what we had, and that is why the tradition of religious liberty grew up in the West. If you want religious liberty, then say whatever you will about it, you actually want a Christian civilization. Or, to be a bit more accurate, you want your Christian civilization back.

You cannot want an ongoing supply of Honey Crisp apples without that desire also entailing an appreciation for Honey Crisp apple trees. Or so it seems to me.

Lewis again, always Lewis: They castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful. They remove the organ and demand the function. And what is the line taken by our evangelical lobbyists for religious liberty? We stand there, hat in hand, wanting to know if we can share in their abundant fruitfulness once the geldings are all castrated.

An Appeal

So here is the appeal. Sit down and think it through.

When Christians appeal to secularists, asking them to respect our religious liberty as a matter of fairness, we have to recognize that said fairness is an element in a particular system of morality. It is defined by a system of morality. But whose system of morality? But they don’t define fairness the way we do.

The character of your religious ethic grows out of the character of your religion. You become like what you worship, and the god of secularism is hostile to the risen Lord. So a view of religious liberty that depends upon asking the secularists to play fair is like making Simple Simon, just back from the fair, into the founder of your faith community.

The scales we are asking them to weigh their treatment of us in will either be secular scales or true scales. If they are true, we have abandoned secularism. If they are not true, then we are going to get a raw deal.

Watch the Flowers Die

The kind of religious liberty we are talking about these days is a cut flowers kind of religious liberty. It does not matter how expensive and beautiful the vase might be—the flowers are going to die. And it does not matter if we are invited to take our “place at the table” if the only thing we are allowed to do there is gaze at the centerpiece as we watch the flowers die.