Religious Liberty in a World of Pluralism

The issue of religious liberty has been on the minds of Christians in this country for quite some time. The issue has moved to front and center recently with the announcement of President Obama’s health care initiative. As best as I can understand the plan, all hospitals (that receive government funding) will have to provide contraceptives to patients and all employers, excluding churches, will have to provide health benefits that include contraceptives. In both cases, abortifacients are included in the mandate.

The issue may seem far removed from us, particularly since most Protestants do adhere to the same understanding of birth control as do Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, it is concerning that the government would mandate that a religious organization make a decision that is directly contradictory to its conscience: the alternative being either a significant fine or ceasing to exist. It seems unwise, even devastating, to think that the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities among hundreds of other organizations and institutions would no longer be a presence in some of the most needy and neglected places of our nation.

The response to this issue has been predictable: some defending the government’s inclusive policy; others condemning the government’s abuse of power. Most religious organizations have reacted with concern primarily along the lines of constitutional religious liberty.

I am convinced that the president’s initiative comes from his desire to help people. I applaud him for this effort. I worry, however, that eroding our religious liberty—either to freely pursue our religious beliefs or to ignore religion altogether—will have profound effects on our nation and our world. I am not looking for the creation of a theocracy: this would be a profound mistake. I am looking for a government that recognizes the good that religious institutions perform for people in need and to do as little as possible to prevent them for carrying out tasks that would go undone without them. So, to demand that a religious organization choose between going against conscience and ceasing to exist doesn’t seem like a wise decision from the perspective of the government much less the institution.

The White House has offered an alternative to the original plan, but it doesn’t seem to address the core issue of practicing what one believes. We will see how things come out in the days ahead. In the meantime, we need to pray for a resolution that will allow for ministries to continue with a clear conscience. We also need to pray that God will give us grace to address this and other similar issues in Christ’s spirit of grace and truth—standing tall and strong for what we believe is right and doing so in the most loving and humble way possible.

If you would like to read more on this particular issue, check out Asbury Seminary President Timothy Tennant’s blog: