This week, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear the most important religious liberty case in a generation, and it’s time for us to pray. The cases are Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood specialties versus the United States government’s mandate that employers provide insurance for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Behind that is the larger question of what it means for the Constitution to guarantee the free exercise of religion.
And behind that is the even larger question of soul freedom for all.
We need to pray because this case isn’t about politics or culture wars. This case will set the tone for the next hundred years of church/state jurisprudence in this country. This case will tell us whether we’ve bartered away a birthright paid for with our forebears’ blood.
Richard John Neuhaus rightly argued years ago that it’s a mistake to see the two clauses of the First Amendment’s religious liberty guarantee—no establishment of a religion by the state and no restriction on free exercise of religion—as too sharply divided. They are two sides of the same coin. A government that sets up a religion is restricting free exercise, and a government that restricts free exercise is setting up some alternative church. He’s exactly right, and that’s what’s happening here.
As a Baptist Christian, I can say that we’ve seen this before. My Baptist forebears objected to the state licensing preachers to preach. This was, the government said, simply a matter of paperwork. The state license, though, was about more than a fee and a piece of paper. It was about a government that had overstepped its authority. My Baptist ancestors objected to paying taxes to support the Congregationalist established churches of New England.
Isaac Backus, a courageous preacher, was told that this was “only a contending about paying a little money.” Backus responded with fire, “It is absolutely a point of conscience with me; for I cannot give in the certificates they require without implicitly acknowledging that power in man which I believe belongs to God.”
That’s exactly what’s at stake here. The government is telling the Hobby Lobby owners, the Green family, that their free exercise rights aren’t relevant because they run a corporation. They’re telling these Anabaptist woodworkers and the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor and ministries of all sorts all over the country that what’s at stake is just the signing of some papers, the payment of some money.
Our government has treated free exercise of religion as though it were a tattered house standing in the way of a government construction of a railroad; there to be bought off or plowed out of the way, in the name of progress.
The government wants us to sing from their hymn book, “Onward, Sexual Revolutionaries,” but we can’t do that. We love and respect our leaders, but when they set themselves up as overlords of the conscience, we must respectfully dissent.
We cannot accept the theology lesson the government has sought to teach us, that religion is simply a matter of what happens during the scheduled times of our services, and is left there in the foyer during the rest of the week.
Our religious convictions aren’t reduced to simply the opinions we hide in our hearts, or sing in our hymns. Our religious convictions inform the way we live.
We support freedom of conscience not only for ourselves, but also for all. One of the reasons we oppose this sort of incursion into free exercise is that we want neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others. We do not ask the government to bless our doctrinal convictions, or to impose them on others. We simply ask the government not to set itself up as lord of our consciences.
Many Americans will disagree with us heartily about the things we believe. But even Americans of no religious faith at all have an interest in the protection of these liberties. Do we really want the sort of civil society in which the consciences of the people are so easily swept aside by government action?
If the federal government can force organizations and businesses to pave over their own consciences, to choose between being believers and being citizens, what will stop the government from imposing its will on anyone’s conscience next?
As Christians, soul liberty is about more than political principle for us. We believe, as our Lord commands, that we should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. The conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept into the federal treasury by government fiat.
So let’s pray that the Court listens to the case being made. Let’s pray for the justices. Let’s pray for the attorneys. Let’s pray, as the Apostle Paul commands us, for “all who are in high positions, that we may live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
Let’s pray that our court system would, like Jefferson and Madison in the founding era, recognize that religious liberty and freedom of conscience aren’t government bailouts but inalienable rights granted by the Creator himself. This isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. It isn’t just about the HHS mandate. It’s about whether the government is “under God” or all-encompassing. Our politicians, on their best days, might aspire to Mount Rushmore, but they don’t reign from Mount Zion.
Let’s pray to the One who does.