It’s not about the relationship between the divine persons in the Trinity. It’s about the contemporary effort to subordinate the church to the state in our nation.
The subordinationist signs of the times continue to multiply. Through the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate to cooperate in the provision of contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients, the government is pressing religious employers to violate core beliefs concerning human life. It is a strange spectacle to watch federal agents threaten the Little Sisters of the Poor with ruinous fines, as if the nuns had suddenly become a criminal organization.
Outraged state legislators are moving to block religious schools from imposing morals clauses in contracts with their employees. (Morals clauses in Hollywood film contracts remain intact.) Catholic hospitals face intensified pressure to violate certain moral principles if they are to receive state funds or even to survive. In 2009 the Judiciary Committee of the State of Connecticut endorsed a law that would force all religious denominations to adopt a congregationalist model of church organization. Although the initiative failed, new state efforts to interfere with the basic ecclesiology of religious groups will resurface. Once dismissed as the fevered rants of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, calls to abolish civil religious exemptions and religious tax exemptions have suddenly become the received wisdom for fashionable legal theorists.
This expanded intervention of the state in the internal life of religious institutions not only weakens personal freedom and the freedom of the church; it is wounding the national American character. Much nonsense has been written about American exceptionalism, but there is one exceptional trait of which Americans have rightly boasted: our promotion of a robust “free exercise of religion,” with its allied reverence for the conscience of the religious believer. We fail to appreciate how rare in world history is the conscientious objection to military service we have honored during times of military conscription.
When state action diminished religious freedom, federal courts often reversed the damage. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Pierce (1925) and Yoder (1972) affirmed the right of parents to educate children according to their religious convictions against the state efforts to enforce educational uniformity.
When the Supreme Court downgraded the import of the “free exercise” clause in the Smith (1990) decision, which declared that the State of Oregon had to demonstrate only a “rational interest” in banning the peyote used by a group of Native Americans in their religious rituals, Congress promptly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) by a virtually unanimous vote. The act restored the older legal test of “strict scrutiny” for religious freedom cases. Any state action placing a substantial burden on the citizen’s exercise of religious freedom must serve a “compelling” interest and must do so in a manner that is the least restrictive of religious freedom. Only a generation ago, a virtually unanimous consensus accorded religious freedom a near-absolute value in the national hierarchy of goods. But the hysteria over Indiana’s state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this past spring indicates how rapidly that esteem has disappeared. Religious liberty is suddenly dismissed as nothing but a mask for bias and hate.
Gallicanism and Josephism were once quaint heresies reserved for a paragraph in seminary textbooks. They represented ancient efforts to subordinate church to state in vanished monarchies. But the specter of Cardinal Richelieu is once again abroad.
The American bishops have nobly led the good fight against the new assaults on religious freedom. During his recent speech at the White House, Pope Francis praised “the United States bishops, [who] have called us to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that [religious] freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” To illustrate his point, he paid an impromptu visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the current group on the firing line of state encroachment on religious freedom. As our once-robust free exercise of religion dwindles to a wan “freedom of worship,” our first duty is to be lucid.