The State of the Union

Every now and then I feel bad about writing these editorials. For a very simple reason: I’m often the bearer of bad tidings. Of course, the undertow of almost every discussion is that in the United States and a good majority of developed countries the right to religious freedom is not questioned. Most of the legal challenges in those countries can seem like quibbles and sporadic social questioning is not usually an in-your-face challenge. So why not bubble on about how good things are?

I often laugh at the archetypal politician’s answer to a difficult question:don’t answer the question asked; answer the question you wish had been asked. The result can be rather unnerving in denial of reality. Maybe an editorial needs to be a little more formal: sort of like a periodic state-of-the-union message from the magazine. If I adopted the political style for such a thing, I might take credit for anything positive—blame others for my mistakes; and make assertions that float free of logic. You’ll be happy to know I think that improper for any discussion of religious liberty.

But let’s start off the way an ideal state-of-the-union message might. In the United States and most Western democracies religious freedom is still cherished as a necessary part of a free society. Wave flag here. Cheers and whoops of joy. Our laws uphold it as a basic freedom. Stand up for the people’s opprobrium judges. Unlike those countries that hold 70+ per cent of the world’s population, we are committed to facilitating the free practice of religion for people of all faiths, or none. Good time to quote a quaint Popeye musical that had the people of Sweethaven singing “God must love us”—oblivious to the decay of their surroundings. More to hand, George W. Bush once enthusiastically proclaimed that “God has blessed America; and He couldn’t have blessed more deserving people.” Standing ovation here. Camera turns to a gaggle of television prosperity preachers and their shining children. Enough said. Let’s go back to another year or so of the real world—happy that our religious freedom is safe, or at least seen to be safe.

Last year we remembered 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, the period when the concept we now see as self-evident first emerged as a dynamic reality. Before that it was “believe as the church says,” or “believe what the tribe says,” or sometimes “attack the other tribe and their weak God, to show that our cult is stronger.” But I noticed that in remembering the Reformation we forgot to mention what it was about. In all the lectures and celebrations of Luther I never heard so much as a listing of his 95 theses or discussion points. So I am forced to deduce that the lessons of that era have moved into legend and the principle itself has been fogged by time. Similarly, with the U.S. Constitution: who reads it anymore? Is it enough to speak glowingly of how great it is and not know and be able to explain its details? Oh, I misspoke: the Second Amendment is pretty well known. The First makes me wonder: freedom of the press is enshrined there, and we are all in a dither of uncertainty about “fake news.” Goebbels would be amused. And the religion clauses? I do not think too many muse on what they actually say.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prevent the free exercise thereof” seems clear enough. James Madison in particular wrote extensively on how this banned the government from paying for religious instruction and other subsidized religious activity. What would he and his peers make of the food fights we now witness in the church scramble for public money? Scratch most of the current religious liberty cases/challenges a bit, and you will find they are really about money. It might appear that some aspect of religious practice or sensibility is threatened—but in actuality it is just that there is the threat of losing state subsidy for religious activity.

Put another way, what we are witnessing in the U.S. today is a flowering of “religious entitlement” in the name of religious liberty. The real story of today’s religious news is that there is an unprecedented political alliance between the government and a very politically active subgroup of the religious community that has a very specific agenda. Exactly the sort of thing the First Amendment was designed to prevent. It might be just a salutary structural mistake but for the fact of the current state of society and its democratic institutions.

One does not have to be a partisan hack to note that dysfunction rules the day. While the waters before the last election were bloody and roiled at evidence of heavy-handed police actions, there was not generally a public breakdown of law and order—that may yet come with encouragement of certain grievances. The fourth estate, as the press/media is known, has never been more vilified and ineffectual—a startling development for a free society. The judiciary, long the object of ire by such as anti-abortion activists, have been further diminished as so-called judges—do we really want our judiciary to become auxiliaries after the order of Russia, Pakistan, and Iran? The party system, itself feared by many of the Founders, has been emasculated by a series of events surrounding the most recent election. The intelligence services, a hitherto-trusted element of government, though arguably themselves a byproduct of modern paranoia, have perhaps been irreparably diminished by recent events. Our executive, emboldened by the extra powers assumed by recent administrations, acts in ways that to many outsiders evokes totalitarian overreach. And, follow the money again, we have the elephant-in-the-room certainty of currency debasement, which will unleash barely imaginable threats to public order and freedoms. All of which make the rapidly increasing idealization of our military power a significant development. Freedom cannot long survive in a society in love with war. And, most particularly, such an emphasis is antithetical to religious freedom—but not to religious violence.

Allow me to lower my voice a little from its Cassandra-like tone to a more measured state-of-the-union call to action. Figuratively our freedoms may be under Pearl Harbor-like attack. To borrow a little World War II British analogy, we may even be mid-Channel in our Dunkirk pullback. We may even be in the twilight of empire—and empires expire both with a puff of wind or a blaze of militarism. Only time will play out these existential portents. But the most important things—individual civil and religious freedom, for example—lie in our power to protect now. They are the issues of ultimate homeland security. Protecting them is to protect true greatness.

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."