Human freedom is a precious thing: frequently curtailed, dearly bought, and easily lost. If we are free—free to speak the truth without fear of punishment, free to worship unmolested, free to work and live and build and go where we wish, we should thank God. Many have not enjoyed such freedom.
Yet, in a fallen world, freedom must always have limits. Freedom must be curtailed by law, otherwise it is (by definition) anarchy—which, in a sinful mankind, means uncontrolled wickedness. Few people want anarchy, but we dispute the proper boundaries of freedom; and such disputes are often, in the end, disputes about the basis of freedom.
In contemporary American society, there is an essential tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals about the boundaries of freedom, which reflects a fundamental disagreement about the basis of freedom. The foundational disagreement is between a nation founded on the idea that freedom was bestowed by God, as described in the Declaration of Independence, and which conservatives try to conserve, and the liberal pursuit of a nation where freedom is provided by the government, in accordance with secular ideology.
Such different bases for freedom obviously suggest different boundaries within which it may be responsibly exercised. If freedom is a gift of God, then it ought be exercised in accordance with the truth, which God has declared and to which nature testifies. If freedom is granted by the government, then it will be bounded by the prevailing ideology, whatever that may be—in our case, the identity politics of the American elites. There is, of course, common territory between the two; there are also stark differences.
This is the framework within which current cultural and legislative waves are swelling. George Weigel rightly points out the ideological militancy, that in a time of so many pressing issues, with so much constructive governance needing to be done, these culture war offensives are being launched:
“So what did the House of Representatives do on February 25? By a vote of 224-206, the House decided to criminalize Genesis 1:27 by passing the “Equality Act,” a Newspeak misnomer reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.”
The so-called “Equality Act” is a piece of legislation intended to codify another level of the liberal vision of freedom—freedom for people who claim a certain identity (LGBTQ+) to act in accordance with their ideology without consequences, while simultaneously taking away freedom from people with Christian (and other) religious convictions to operate according to conscience. These two visions of freedom are in direct opposition, and conflict is inescapable. Certainly, compromises have been attempted, but the Equality Act, with its denial of religious exemptions for various religious organizations, is not one of them.
We have to understand that a whole battle of worldviews is playing out here. That can be obscured by some ways of framing the issue. Take a recent opinion piece by David W. Keys in the leftist Religion News Service, “Religious freedom protects our right to worship. It doesn’t protect discrimination.” The title tells you all you need to know; for Keys, despite his claim to Christian identity, the boundaries of freedom are set by contemporary secular moral vision, with its basis in nondiscrimination, rather than by adherence to the truth as revealed by God and attested by nature. Your religious freedom ends at the doors of the church (if it extends that far), and society is to be governed by a moral code built on the mores of our corrupt cultural elites.
The fundamental question is whether government is to be the guardian of freedom given by God, or the god who gives, and therefore gets to define, freedom. Secularism has consequences, and one of them is that it shifts government from guardian to god. That is to say that the secularizing impulse is, in its own peculiar way, an idolatrous impulse. Our civilization has been going down this road for a long time—but it’s not too late to turn around.
Whether or not that happens, the church needs to have her head on straight. Whether we find ourselves in Christendom or Babylon, we are called to be a culture set apart. Sometimes that means defiance; may God give us strength to persevere, wisdom to judge the times, and spines to stand.
Jesus is Lord.