Not A Pretty Picture

What image do you put on the cover of a magazine like Liberty? We do put a lot of thought into what article to feature and what artist to assign the illustration to. Sometimes we aim to startle you a bit. Other times we want the image to resonate with some current issue. And sometimes we want the cover to look “classic.”

And sometimes we just change our mind. The royal “we” might be misleading—sometimes I change my mind. Like this issue: the rather somber cover picture of a somewhat Catholic Paul Revere is attention-getting and well executed. But I had originally wanted the toppling statue of religion, now only on page 17, to be our cover. It too is effective! Perhaps too effective! In its final form I thought the image too stark and perhaps with overtones of fascist art to carry a cover without explanation. And, yes, I did expect our readers to get the analogy to the Saddam pull-down during the Iraq war.

How to put an image to our current religious liberty scene is of course more than a cover challenge for Liberty. It goes to the heart of where we are in the whole church-state/civil liberty construct.

Times change, and that change can be startling. Yesterday as I lay helpless in a dentist’s chair, and just before he lowered the drill with a grinder bit onto the tooth that had fallen apart, the monitor above my head flashed a picture of the president and I heard him announce that June is to be LGBT Pride Month—actually it was said in full as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.” “It’s a different world from when I was young,” said the dentist as he switched on the grinder. Little joy in the moment.

I’ll save a full discussion of the religious liberty ramifications of the new gay entitlement for a later issue. Enough to say that it should not come down to the stark choice between gay rights and religious rights, so long as both gay rights activists and religious alarmists don’t set it out that way. But we are headed into a very socially adventurous time, and the stakes for civil liberty itself are very high.

Perhaps it was inevitable that my mind wandered to a short story that we had to read back in high school. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the most understated of horror stories, but its ending is the most horrible moral meltdown.

Written by literary legend Oscar Wilde, the story tells of a handsome and popular young man who attacks life with a gusto that seems to escape consequences. It is not till the end of the narrative that we discover his dark side: a hidden portrait that changes into the misshapen immoral monster he has become, even as he seems immune to the ravages of time and debauchery.

Writing and speaking on the state of religious liberty, particularly in the West, particularly in the United States, I am often struck with the dichotomy between where we are in everyday assumptions and where we have traveled behind the obvious. Call it the Dorian Gray effect. Or, to borrow another literary analogy, and to quote from Charles Dickens and his Tale of Two Cities, we are simultaneously in the “best of times” and “the worst of times.”

One would be hard-pressed to suggest that there is open religious persecution in the United States. Televangelists still roam the fruited plains of TV-land unopposed and well funded. Megachurches are being built faster than shopping centers. No secret police snatch religious faithful or dissenters from their homes at midnight. We have no show trials—of Christians or other faiths—yet. There is very nearly the same freedom given religion as the practices of irreligion! Oh, well, in general the same freedom!

But things are not quite as they seem.

For at least a decade or more we have seen in the United States an unseemly hunger for direct political power for certain religious factions. So far their efforts have mostly been directed toward plunder of the public treasury—that is, state funding for religious activity—the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives being the most constitutionally egregious of this type. But the nature of such things means that eventually financial support for church institutions will tend to give way to a clamor for decrees on religious behavior.

For some time the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution has been under attack, even as the free exercise clause has been administered in ever generous ways. I have often pointed this out to lecture audiences as an explanation of why there is not more obvious restriction of liberties. After all, when certain religious factions are anxious to become synonymous with the state and gain preferential funding they are hardly likely to try to restrict other religious activity—not till the establishment issue is settled, at least.

I am now rethinking part of that model.

It appears that we will not have to wait till funded and favored religious entities seek to restrict the free exercise of religion for others. It is now obvious that the other party of the “culture war” is quite ready to do that now!

We can look to Canada as a cautionary model of how easily the new social model of gay entitlement can actually criminalize Christian statements on morality—even direct quotes from the Bible. Of course, Christians and those of other faiths such as Muslims must recognize that they have no right to compel to any view, moral or doctrinal. But a healthy civil rights model must grant them the right to project their religious opinion. I see signs that this right is being challenged.

Zoning models have long been used to restrict religious meetings. In fact, the Chinese government continues to battle the home-church movement there on an argument that these are improper gatherings apart from the publically authorized Three-Self religious model. Unless you factor in the animus to religious expression it can easily pass for a public order question. Now we seem to be seeing a resurgence of challenges to home-held religious gatherings in the United States. As longtime Liberty readers know, we have often featured this throughout the years. Many local ordinances restrict the ability of, say, a Tuesday night Bible study group to meet in a private residence—but they are seldom enforced in such a case because the original intent was not to restrict religious worship. But feed in community or country prejudice and you will get the recent case of a San Diego pastor and his 15-member Bible study group faced with escalating fines and a threat of things getting ugly if they did not desist. Eventually the situation defused; but it is a vanishingly short line between this and overt religious persecution.

In a time of economic meltdown, auto company bankruptcies, and labor layoffs, one might easily overlook the bold moves to strengthen the ability of unions to co-opt workers who might have religious compunctions against joining. Card check sign-ups might be passed off as a convenient new model—but with public antipathy to marginal religious beliefs and a sense of a need to cooperate economically for the public good, it is likely it will lead to religious harassment. It has long been a position of my own Seventh-day Adventist Church that past difficulties with religious accommodation and union agitation will be repeated.

In fact, the political shifts of late, the morphing of religious power centers into more populist religious action groups, the economic collapse, the ongoing war on terror, the unfinished experiment with what used to be called torture, the economic realignment of power, the unmuzzled calls for a religious solution to the world’s ills: all augur a true paradigm shift. The fair face of freedom may be something else beyond the shadows.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."