The present dust-up between President Obama and certain members of the Christian community is being touted as a Constitutional crisis. The President insists employers must provide birth control and day-after abortion services to all women in their employ, and his backed-down "accommodation" is not really much of an improvement on his original edict.
Religious leaders are decrying the government's attempt to force its values on them in a manner contrary to their religious teaching and traditions. They insist this is an infringement of their first amendment right to the free exercise of their religion.
And they're correct, up to a point. Do they actually want to insist that government should have no ability to regulate the practice of religion? Any religion?
Those same religious leaders, I suggest, would be quite happy for the federal government to outlaw the practice of Sharia law in this country. Or to forbid polygamy in the name of religion, or the use of certain hallucinogenic drugs. The issue here is not whether or not government should be able to make laws affecting the practice of religion. So the situation is not a Constitutional crisis, not ultimately.
The issue is - which religion? And by what authority shall government be bound as it makes such laws?
While this situation does represent a Constitutional crisis, it is even more a crisis of authority. By what authority shall governments govern and religions practice their religion? We want the government to curtail strict adherence to the Koran, as well as the practice of certain Old Testament civil laws.
But on what authority? Majority rule? And what if the majority changes its views over time?
This country was founded under the implicit authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as defining the terms of religious and moral life. The Declaration of Independence makes that clear, as do the many colonial statutes which defined legal and moral practice during the period of the Framing.
The issue is not whether government should be able to have some say in how religion is practiced. The issue is what authority will guide government as it makes laws affecting the "free exercise" of religion.
This situation provides an opportunity for Christians to assert the necessity of recovering the fixed standard of God's Word as the guiding perspective for American moral and religious life. Appeals to the Constitution won't resolve this issue. How will we appeal to the Constitution when Muslims in Oklahoma get to work defending their right to live by Sharia law? Or when polygamists anywhere declare this practice to be integral to their own "free exercise"?
Appealing to the Constitution won't help us here. We'll need a higher authority, and that authority is going to be either the temper of the times or the unchanging Word of God.
And the way things are drifting rather rapidly toward the former, we who hold to the latter had better speak up, or, as they say, forever hold our peace.
Related texts: 2 Timothy 3.15, 16; Romans 13.1-5; John 19.9-11
A conversation starter: "Are we sure we don't want government to have any say in religious practices?"