Barely a Victory

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Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Smauel Alito Jr., Elena KaganI seldom speak of political issues on this site. However, a recent decision by the Supreme Court makes a religious point that all churches, faith-based charities and religious schools needs to take notice of. Today, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision upholding the rights of Christian business owners to operate their business—at least when it comes to benefits offered—in keeping with their religious convictions. While this is a great victory that we should all celebrate, it is also a shot across the bow that we should all take seriously.

Several years ago, during the middle of the previous administration I got into a discussion about faith-based initiatives. Being a Christian, everyone seemed to assume that I was for such programs, which were being pushed by the Bush Administration to bring the government to the aide of religious charities offering certain services. The Christian friend I was speaking to was quite offended that I would oppose such a program, though his only defense for it was how much could be accomplished. When I asked if such an arrangement was the right way to handle these problems or if such an arrangement would be in the long-term interest of the Church, he seemed confused that anyone would ask any question beyond the immediate pragmatic one.

My argument has always been that such arrangements make the church dependent on the government. What happens when the government says, “You are receiving these government funds, but to keep receiving them you must change certain doctrines or practices that we don’t like.” I shared this with my friend who responded, “This will never happen. Bush is a Christian.” I asked my friend if he realized that future presidents might not be so friendly to our faith. He, of course, argued that the Constitution would protect them from such incursions. Interestingly a few months later it was major news that the Salvation Army (legally a nationwide Christian denomination) was changing their position on domestic partners for benefits, because of government pressure, to continue certain grants they had been receiving (and this was during a so-called “Christian” administration). I asked my friend about this, but he didn’t want to discuss it.

Yet, today’s decision seems to stand against my argument and support my friend’s contention that the Constitution can be relied upon to protect religious liberty from even the most anti-Christian of government incursions. After all, the Obama administration wanted to force Christian business owners to pay for insurance products that would violate their religious convictions. The Supreme Court struck a fitting blow for religious freedom and supported the protections enshrined in the Constitution. It was a great victory. However, does this mean we can always rely on the Constitution to protect us? Will the Constitution and this court always keep us secure enough to let down our guards and accept entanglements that one day could be used against us?

This is the clear victory for Constitutional protection as is being trumpeted. The decision was 5-4. Five voted for freedom and liberty supporting the Constitution. Four were able to lay these aside and ignore the plain meaning of the documents they are pledged to uphold. Given enough time and enough changes to the court and this balance can easily shift. The Supreme Court today already votes in ways that totally contradicts courts of the past (since FDR threatened to pack the court with supporters the Supreme Court has been a shell of itself). This doesn’t mean the documents they consider (the founding documents of this country) change. How can we be sure that a future court will not overturn this decision?

Our Churches need to keep in mind that such things are possible in the future. Pragmatism is not the only consideration. We need to consider the deeper philosophical, ethical, and theological ramifications when the Church jumps into bed with Caesar. We must always understand that no matter how righteous the one holding office, their primary interest is maintaining power. I truly believe we should be actively involved with getting Christians to run for office, and get them into office. However, once they are in office we must view them differently. While they may be a friend to the faith, they are still an office holder whose primary interest is best served by getting re-elected. Yes, some will be true statesmen, and be unwilling to violate their convictions, but such strength is rare once in office.  Even those who act in a principled way may be putting on a face for the public—Machiavelli strongly encouraged rulers to pretend to be pious and religious to get and keep power but to not be fettered by such things in their exercise of that power.

I find it interesting when so many Christians who follow the command of scripture to examine those who preach, and the word they preach will uncritically follow a politician mouthing words of faith. We want to believe we have something in common with the powerful. We want to trust those who wield such power, because the idea that they might misuse it can be frightening.

A Supreme Court decision won by only one vote shows us the insecurity of religious liberty in this country. If any decision should have been unanimous, this one should have been. Of course, many will point out that this decision was for a mandate that only affected Christian owned for-profit businesses and had no impact on non-profits and churches. Keep in mind this was only because that was the way the law was written. Had the courts supported the administration in this, how long do you think that exemption would have remained in force? If the Supreme Court had decided the other way, and the next election went in favor of a certain side of the aisle, you can be sure it would likely be a very quick change.

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