Eleven: Wake Up, Stand Up, Speak Up

cri-blog-hanegraaff-hank-wake-upI want to mention the number eleven. There is a reason for that. Eleven is the number of Christians killed every hour of every day or every year and that during just the time span of 2000-2010. If you just take that decade you already have one-hundred-thousand lives.

While a tragedy of unimaginable proportion, the problem with statistics is that they never tell the whole story. With clinical abstract precision, they mask the unspeakable suffering and horror of our brothers and sisters with just plain cold numbers. They fail to even remotely approach the reality of bombings of churches in Bagdad by Islamic militants, or the slaughter of Christians in India’s north eastern state of Orissa where as many as five-hundred Christians were killed, many hacked to death with machetes by Hindu radicals. Other than those who have personally survived such horrors who can really begin to imagine the suffering of the two-hundred-thousand to four-hundred-thousand Christians believed to be living in forced labor camps in North Korea.

The list of atrocities can sadly go on endlessly; however, those of us in the West should be alert to very dangerous realities that go largely unrecognized by most Americans. The first is this chilling global war on Christians, but the second is a war on religion, which is characterized by increasing secular hostility to religion generally and to Christians in particular. It’s time for all of us to wake up. Maybe not just wake up but wake up, stand up, and speak up. For those sufficiently attentive, the danger signals of soft persecution in the West should alert us to hard persecution now being suffered by millions of Christians around the globe and quite possibly or should I say most certainly head our way.

To those who adamantly deny that such persecution could ever happen in the West, I would kindly extend an invitation to consult the instructive realities of history. Just a blink in time ago. Would the American audience watching Leave it to Beaver firmly convinced that marijuana was the Devil’s weed had taken you seriously if you said that in a matter of years, it would be legalized for recreational use in a growing number of states? Would those watching Ozzie and Harriet have taken you seriously if you told them that the Supreme Court will one day legalize same-sex marriage? Reality is full of surprises, and history is not always merciful, which is why we must wake up, stand up, and speak up.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Poignantly and hauntingly, he also realized that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

—Hank Hanegraaff

Find out more about hard persecution of Christians in The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution by John L. Allen. To learn more about soft persecution of Christians in the West, check out It’s Dangerous to Believe by Mary Eberstadt.

Blog adapted from the October 19, 2016 Bible Answer Man.


Debunking Secular-Progressive Syllogisms while Upholding Christian Civility

Eberstadt, Mary-Debunking Secular-Progressive Syllogisms

HANK HANEGRAAFF: We are interviewing Mary Eberstadt, she joins me from the south of France, she’s written a book titled It’s Dangerous to Believe. Religious freedom is under assault like never before. A country founded upon freedom of speech and religious belief is being changed from within by activists’ hostile to both. Is this what we want the United States of America to be? Well, the rhetorical question is answered with a resounding “no,” but if that in fact is your sentiment, then you have to do something about it. The first thing you have to do is know what’s going on, and then have the discernment necessary to do something significant. I think this book leads us in that direction. That’s why I am passionate about putting it into your hands.

Mary you talk about syllogisms. Syllogism like: “If you are against abortion; therefore, you are anti-woman.” “If you believe in Christian teaching; therefore, you hate people who endorse same-sex marriage.” The syllogism seems to sell, but it’s obvious fallacious.

MARY EBERSTADT: Yes, it is Hank. That’s another thing that I think makes the difference between playing defense and playing offence in these matters. Those syllogisms—the idea that if you’re against the secularist progressive political program; therefore, you’re a bad person—are fallacious syllogisms. They’re illogical. A 6-year-old could pick apart the logic of that. Yet, those syllogisms make up so much of our public conversation out there.

Christians today are called “bigots” and “haters” without any evidence that they hate anyone at all or that they’re bigoted against anyone at all. I think the time has more than come to raise our hands and say, “This is unjust.” Other people are not pilloried [publicly scorned or ridiculed] in this way. Other people are not deprived of a place at the table of public life because of these fallacious syllogisms. This shouldn’t be happening to believers either.

I want to stress, Hank, that I we can make this case with civility and by appealing to people’s reason. There is nothing alarmist about by my argument, but I did write it in order to put it into the hands of religious believers so that people have a blueprint and they have a record in their hands of what’s going on, what kind of penalties are being given out to believing Christians that are not being given out to other people in higher education, the better higher social circles, and the workplace. I hope that empirical record is useful to people not because it should frighten them but because it should empower them to say to their secular progressive friends and neighbors, “Look, what you’re doing is unjust.”

HANK: Talk about Hillary Clinton. You write about this in the book. At the 2015 Women of the World Summit she declared deep seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structured bias have to be changed. What’s inculcated in those words?

MARY: Well, that was about as clear a statement that politics trumps religious liberty as any we have seen. I mean ordering longstanding religions to change their longstanding teachings is a pretty clear statement of the idea that politics is above everything.

There are also a number of statements that President Barack Obama has made over two terms that have inflamed this atmosphere according to which Christians are seen as bigots and haters. He said at a prayer breakfast, for example, a few years ago, that there are less-than-loving Christians. Think about that phrase Hank? Less-than-loving Christians. No President, in fact virtually no citizen would dare say, “Less than loving __________,” fill in the blank with some other religious group there. Yet, here as in so many cases there is a double standard where it is permissible to say derogatory things about Christians and especially tradition minded Christians in a way that it is not permissible to make derogatory statements about other people.

I think the solution to this is not to be free to make all the derogatory statements we want. The solution is to abolish the double standard and to have a level of civility towards Christians that we have toward everybody else.

HANK: This may be a little off point, but you’ve kind of got this going on in my mind, with your comment. I think about Obama and some of the things that he says vis-à-vis Christianity. On the one hand, you have him speaking with soaring rhetoric about the Andalusian paradise, for example, on the other hand, you hear him criticizing Christianity over and over again. What disturbs me about all of this is he professes to be a Christian, I’m not doubting of what he is saying, but why speak with soaring rhetoric about Islam and then demean the Christian faith?

MARY: Well, in particular, what the President has demeaned, and this is a matter of public record, is tradition minded Christianity. That is to say, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the Christians who have already gotten rid of the unpopular moral teachings of Christianity. It’s the other ones he goes after and other people go after. If you remember from some years back, the statement about rural believers who cling to their guns and their religion, remember that, he said they get bitter and they cling to their guns and their religion? Well, that was about as condescending a thing that you can say of ordinary rank and file Christians in this country.

The point is: This condescension isn’t just a matter of attitude, it really does trickle down. You opened by talking about what’s happening to Christians in the Middle East, it’s one of the most important stories of the world. There’s genocide in the Middle East against Christians; yet, it took our government, Hank, years longer to use that “G” word that it did many other people and other governments. Even the United Nations beat the United States of America in acknowledging that this is genocide. This was despite the pleadings of many scholars, some of them are noted in the book, who begged the United States to recognize that this is what is going on.

Now, I don’t bring this up to suggest anything nefarious about the President and the Administration, I’m not saying they did this on purpose. What I’m saying is this: If you come to politics with a bias against Christianity in the first place, if you think the expression of Christianity in America is a problem, and something that needs reigning in, then of course what’s going on with Christians elsewhere is not going to be at the top of your “to do” list. I think that’s what happened here. It’s one of many ways in which the plight of Christians in the Middle East and the purposeful diminishing of Christians in the prosperous West are related things. No, they are not the same things. People here in America are not being crucified or driven from their homes. But, they are suffering in other ways that make it hard for them to help their worst off brethren. So, these things are related at the root, and we need to understand that.

For further study, we recommend addition It’s Dangerous to Believe to your apologetics arsenal. To order, click here.

Mary Eberstadt is an essayist and author of several influential books, including How the West Really Lost God, Adam and Eve After the Pill and Home-Alone America. She is also the editor of Why I Turned Right. Her novel The Loser Letters has recently been adapted for the stage. Eberstadt is a frequent contributor to Time, the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and First Things. She lives in the Washington, DC, area.

Blog adapted from the August 1, 2016 Bible Answer Man broadcast.


Clash with the Rival Faith of the Secular Progressive Alliance

Eberstadt, Mary-Rival Faith of Secular Progressive Alliance

HANK HANEGRAAFF: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago ominously predicted that he would die in bed, his successor in prison, and his successor’s successor a martyr in the public square. What Cardinal George predicted is already happening, and I would say with alarming frequency in the cradle of Christianity. The genocide of Christians in Syria and Iraq is simply breath taking. Although all too often it falls squarely in the blind spot of most Western Christians. Even that, however, is rapidly changing. Father Jacques Hamel was murdered by the Islamic State at the Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France, while he was conducting morning Mass. His throat slit by Jihadists who forced him to his knees. One of the terrorists was on the French government’s terror watch list and yet at large with a knife. France, of course, is still reeling from the Bastille Day attack in Nice after the killing of more than 80 people. What has happened in France is now becoming a regular occurrence all over the West. As we face a clash of civilizations, which can hardly be plastered over with politically correct rhetoric, Mary Eberstadt has appropriately written a book titled It’s Dangerous to Believe and she joins me now from the south of France. Hi Mary!

MARY EBERSTADT: Hello Hank. Thank you for having me.

HANK: Well, I really appreciate your book and I suppose you are right in the epicenter of what I was just talking about?

MARY: I am, and of course, when we talk about what’s happening to Western religious believers, believers in the United States and elsewhere in the advanced world, we are not making any comparison to persecution of brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere. But you see a priest in France martyred for the faith is to be reminded that Christianity has enemies in this world, and it has all kinds of enemies in unexpected places. Without making any moral equivalence between the genocide in the Middle East and the soft persecution, what Pope Francis has called the polite persecution of Western Christians, we can still see that we are at a pivotal moment as a civilization and we have to decide whether we will defend religious liberties or not, and it is under threat in the advanced countries as never before, particularly in the United States, a government founded on religious freedom itself.

HANK: Is there any cohesion between militant secularism in the West and militant Islamic Jihadism?

MARY: No, I don’t think we can make that kind of moral equivalence, but we can ask: Why is today’s secularism so belligerently opposed to Christianity? After all, Hank, you know, and I know and your listener’s know that traditional believers in the Western world have been on the receiving end of one loss after another in the culture wars or what are called the culture wars. To say this is not to say that their positions have been wrong, it’s just to observe a fact. My point is that given that they have lost on issues like school prayer, obscenity, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc., why is it that the secularism that targets them is still as aggressive as it is? This is something that I try to get at in the book. You can’t rationally explain the animus against Christianity that’s held today by secularist progressive alliance. The only way to make sense of it is to understand that this alliance has a rival faith of its own, a secularist faith.

HANK: You talk about two cracks in the landscape of religious freedom, elaborate on that.

MARY: Yes, of course. The threats to religious liberty in the United States alone are manifold. On one level there are the kinds of stories that we’ve become used to hearing, stories where human faith is put on these kinds of religious liberty struggles; for example, the fire chief in Atlanta who lost his job because he published book professing his Christian faith (Kevin Cochran). This is something that would have seemed impressive even ten years ago, but now we see more and more of these cases where people are penalized in the workplace or otherwise ostracized for the faith. There was an example of a football coach in Washington (Joe Kennedy), who was suspended for saying a prayer on the field after a football game. This again is the kind of thing we’ve never expected to see in the U.S. until recently, but there is a pylon of these kinds of anecdotes, and I enumerate lots of them in the book.

They’re also, Hank, attacks of a more institutional nature. On religious education, for example, there are attacks by secularists on homeschooling. Homeschooling is thought to be something that parents ought not be free do, especially Christian parents. Some secularists have been very overt writing about their desire to abolish homeschooling. For example, the leading atheist, Richard Dawkins, has actually called homeschooling the equivalent of child abuse. So that’s one kind of institutional attack. We’ve also see attacks on flagship institutions like Gordon College in Massachusetts, and the King’s College in New York. Both of these Protestant evangelical schools have had to defend themselves against attacks on their accreditation in the past ten years and I’m sure, Hank, that this is only the beginning of institutional questioning of religious schools. In these various dimensions we’ve see various kinds of attacks on the transmission of Christian belief, particularly Christian traditional belief

For further information, we recommend adding It’s Dangerous to Believe to your apologetics arsenal. To get this resource, click here.

Mary Eberstadt is an essayist and author of several influential books, including How the West Really Lost God, Adam and Eve After the Pill and Home-Alone America. She is also the editor of Why I Turned Right. Her novel The Loser Letters has recently been adapted for the stage. Eberstadt is a frequent contributor to Time, the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and First Things. She lives in the Washington, DC, area.

Blog adapted from the August 1, 2016 Bible Answer Man broadcast.


Cultural Change Acceleration Bringing About the Great Evangelical Recession

Dickerson, John-Cultural Change Acceleration

On April 21, 2016, Hank Hanegraaff invited John S. Dickerson onto the Bible Answer Man broadcast to discuss The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013). The following is a snapshot of their conversation:

Hank Hanegraaff:  In this book, The Great Evangelical Recession, John Dickerson underscores 6 factors about to crash the American church. It is a crash that Dickerson predicts is a s certain as the great recession that pressed millions of homeowners into foreclosure and pummeled some of the world’s largest financial institutions into bankruptcy. Here on the broadcast to talk about The Great Evangelical Recession John Dickerson. Welcome.

John Dickerson: Thank you so much for having me Hank.

Hank: This is an incredible book. You start out talking about the dramatic shrinkage of American evangelicals, and I suppose that has a great deal to say about the weight of evangelicals in the present election?

John:  It really does. We’re often surprised to see—those of us who are sincere Bible believing Christians, which we often used the word “evangelical” to describe that, we believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and that the Bible’s God’s Word—very often lately, not only in this election cycle but in the last couple, many evangelicals have been surprised how little political influence we have. That is one of the, that is the result. The reason we’re having less political influence is the result of one of the trends in this book: that we’re actually a smaller movement than many of us have been led to believe. By the way, all these conclusions, what they are, they are an aggregation of the best research that’s out there from all sociologist, all universities, groups like the Pew Research Center, what I did as a journalist, my skill set is to take complex information and simplify it, get my arms around it. So there’re some good books out there about the status of the church, but I felt like there wasn’t anything that kind of got its arms around all the research. Sure enough that was the first thing that came out of the trend, multiple studies, is wow this movement—not Americans who just say “I’m a Christian,” that’s till about 70%, but Americans who actually believe the Bible, believe Jesus is God, He died on the cross for the sins of the world, salvation by grace through faith in Him alone—we’re actually much smaller, closer to about 10% of the population.

Hank: What I remember you saying in the book, if I’m correct, is you put it in international terms, when you say they’re slightly more evangelical in the U.S. then there are Muslims in the greater metro area of Cairo, Egypt.

John: Yeah. That is shocking. So when you—so there’s four separate researchers. Now there’s disagreement among sociologist about how many evangelicals are in in the U.S. and this is because we’re a difficult group to count. If you want to count the number of Catholics, or if you want to go with a cult like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they have very centralized offices. Evangelical Christianity is a much more grassroots organic…spiritual movement led by the Spirit of God and the work of God, so as a result, we got under the evangelical umbrella, we’ve got fundamentalist Baptists churches, there are charismatic churches, there are a whole lot of non-denominational independent Bible believing churches, as a result it’s a tough group to count. So sociologist disagree to the extent that there are some as low as 7%, saying were 7% of the U.S. population, there are still some as high as the low 20%, it’s like maybe 23% of the population. What I did is I wanted to look at all those and say, “Is there among these multiple sociologist, is there a common answer?” What I found was four separate researchers who used four separate methodologies and they all concluded independently of each other that we between 7% and 8.9% of the population. Yeah, out of about three-hundred-twenty-million people that puts us at twenty-some-million., and yes the greater Cairo area there are about nineteen-million Muslims. Now who’s to know how many of those are devout Muslims and how many are conveniently Muslims because they kind of have to be, but that does put it into context. Another way of saying it is this: If all of us who are sincere Bible believing Christians, if we all moved to the state of New York, and if we displaced the New Yorkers, there would not be a serious Bible believing Christian in the other forty-nine states. We’re about the population of New York State.

Hank: I want to focus in on another point that you make in the book, another factor that will crash the American church. This is the growing cultural hatred for anything Christian. I’m the father of twelve children, I have four children in universities at this point in time, and those kids, my kids, are telling me about the growing cultural hatred for anything Christian in terms that I have never heard before. I mean tell me, when I say, “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about,” they say, “No, you really don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to be there to believe it.”

John: It’s true. One of the, you know if you want to call it a tectonic plate, an underlying cause of these six trends of decline in American Christianity, one of those tectonic plates is the rate of cultural change is accelerating. That idea is not unique to me. A whole number of secular sociologists are saying the actual speed at which culture changes is accelerating, perhaps due to some technology innovations, like us all having smartphones and other things, but whatever the cause is, the actual rate of cultural change is accelerating. Sadly, for those of us who love Jesus and the church, it is not accelerating in the direction of loving God and His people.

If anything…we know there’s a supernatural component to it, but humanly there’s a great reaction, that the Christians were so powerful politically, and were such a force, and now there’s a generation being taught down through textbooks, really at every level now, being taught that essentially that Christians were bad, and now to fight for justice and equality we have to put the Christians back in their place. And so, you know if you’re listening, this book we’re talking about, The Great Evangelical Recession, if for no other reason, get a copy to read this chapter called “Hated.” And again, I’m an award winning journalist, when I was a journalist, I wrote for secular publications. I was a journalist who was a Christian, but not writing for Christian publications. I’m writing about a lot of my peers, and essentially what I deduced from a lot of research as well as really some anecdotes that are just undisputable, is that every key leading edge of cultural society in the United States right now—so we’re talking about mainstream media, higher education, the large costal metropolis cities, the capital of the nation, and of course our universities and higher education—every leading edge of cultural society right now is a place where Christians are no longer kind of smirked at, we talk about…there used to be an apathy toward us, like “Oh yeah, those weirdo Christians,” that apathy has given way to an outright antagonism. There is a hostility that when you actually encounter it, it will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck because it is a prejudging. It is a prejudice. It is a closed minded hatred towards those of us who name the Name of Jesus and take His word at all seriously, and so boy, you know what I really wrestle in this book.

The book is set up, the first half is all me writing as a journalist, and I’m not trying to weigh in with my opinion, it’s just here’s the facts of where we stand as the church, the bride of Christ, in the United States.

The second half of the book, I take off my journalist hat and I put on my pastor hat—I’ve been a pastor for about seven years now, started attending seminary working on my master’s degree, while I was still a journalist—and I look at the New Testament specifically through the lens of each of these trends. So in other words, this book in one chapter is going to understand the cultural change going on around us. Why is it that a Christian been in jail within the last year for not signing a marriage certificate? Why are these things? Well, when you understand the cultural trends there not as surprising. It doesn’t make it easier, but it helps to understand ok this is why it’s changing in the trajectory. Then in the other chapter, we look Scripture to say, how does God tell us to live when we are hated, persecuted, and misunderstood? How do we represent Christ in a culture that is pagan, and hypersexual, and anti-Jesus? Well, thankfully, a lot of the New Testament believers were in a culture like that and the Word of God kind of comes to life. My prayer in this book is to equip you in your mind, and give you skill and wisdom as you live, but then also at a heart level to say now do we really live for Jesus in these times, because we’re not here by accident, He ordained that we would be living at this moment in history.

Hank: John, you are not simply cursing the darkness in this book but you’re really teaching Christians how to build a lighthouse in the midst of the gathering storm.

John: That’s exactly right. You know there’re two—it’s a natural response when we experience that hatred first hand. There’s a, I mean I remember a time—this happened a couple of years ago—there was a Muslim gentleman who wrote a biography about Jesus. The book, essentially he was going around on mainstream media and multiple journalists, or at least television hosts and radio hosts, were calling him a religion scholar whose and expert in Jesus. Well, the reality is that he’s a creative writing professor and his PhD is in the sociology of Jihad, and this book is saying Jesus never claimed to be God, and a whole bunch of other heresies. So I wrote a piece for a mainstream news outlet saying it’s not fair, this guy’s misrepresenting his credentials, and as a journalist I’m saying to fellow news media persons be fair in expressing this guy’s credentials, because if the scenario was reverse, in other words, if a Christian whose PhD was in the history of Christianity, wrote a book about Muhammad that was blasphemous to Muslims, well NPR wouldn’t have him on for three days in a row. No and so I was just saying it’s not just what we’re doing and as a Christian I would beg to my fellow journalists can we be fair about this? I wrote the argument really thoughtfully and carefully, knowing I would get push back. But, I have to tell you, having written the book about how fast the culture is changing and how hated that we are, I was totally unprepared for the amount of just vitriolic hate mail, and actual professional journalist likening me to a Nazi. Just really horrific stuff, including this so-called religion scholar going on Twitter and just, I mean, every curse word that you can imagine in a completely unprofessional way musing about me, and I remember the hair on the back of my neck standing up because I knew that there’s oppression for our view, but I had no idea just how frightening and outnumbered it can feel when we really stand up to the darkness. So all that to say as the culture around us is changing, we will all find ourselves in situations like that. It might be at a Thanksgiving table where you have a relative who comes out with a moral position that just shocks you, or it might be in your work place. It’s not a question of if we will face hostility, it’s a question of when. So that’s where I try as a pastor to really equip us.

You know it’s interesting. There’s this verse in 1 Peter. I think its chapter 2 verse 12. Where Peter says live such good lives among the pagans that even though they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your good deeds and glorify your father in heaven. I came across that verse as I was really praying: Ok God, I see these six trends these six problems in the church, what are your solutions. You know because I don’t want to give my solutions, I want to give God’s. So every one of these solutions is based on Scriptures like that one.


Listen to the full interview here: The Great Evangelical Recession with John Dickerson – Part 1

Get the Great Evangelical Recession. To order, click here.


Are There Limits to Religious Free Exercise?

Beckwith, Francis-Religious Free Exercise

This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 5 (2005). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:  http://www.equip.org. The full text of this article in PDF format can be obtained by clicking here.

Religious freedom is one of the fundamental liberties in American constitutional jurisprudence. It was placed first in the text of the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights (1790): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This indicates that the religion clauses were solely intended to limit the law‐making power of Congress and not any other branch of the state or federal governments. Beginning in the early‐twentieth century, however, the Supreme Court began applying the First Amendment in a piecemeal fashion to all governments in the United States through the Fourteenth Amendment (1868). They did so by means of an interpretative technique called incorporation: because the Fourteenth Amendment refers to “liberty” that a state government should not abridge without due process of law, and because a state citizen is also a U.S. citizen, the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the liberties found in the Bill of Rights, including religious liberty.

Current Jurisprudence and the Limits of Religious Liberty. Are there limits to this liberty? Should fundamentalist Mormons receive the state’s official approval for their polygamous unions? Ought the government allow Muslim citizens to operate under Sharia law, or Christian theonomists under “biblical law”? Should these groups be allowed to operate contrary to, or independent of, the law of the land?

It is important to recognize that some laws in fact include exemptions. For example, soon after the Supreme Court denied the right of Native American religionists in Oregon to be exempted from the state’s narcotics laws that prohibited the smoking of peyote (Employment Division v. Smith [1990]), the state legislature changed its drug laws to include a religious exemption. In addition, the Supreme Court has allowed religious exemptions to generally applicable laws. For example, in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court, employing the free exercise clause, carved out an exemption to the state’s mandatory school attendance law and allowed Amish students to opt out after eighth grade. The Court reasoned that since the Amish community has a stellar record of rearing its children, the state had to prove that it had a compelling interest in abridging the free exercise rights of Amish parents. The Court concluded that Wisconsin failed to meet this burden.

In Yoder, the burden was on the state to provide really good reasons for not allowing the Amish to educate their children consistent with their own religious tradition. In Smith, the Court shifted the burden from the state to the person who was suing the state. So, all the state had to show in Smith was that its law is generally applicable (i.e., it applies to all citizens similarly situated) and neutral (i.e., it does not single out or target a specific religious practice). The fact that the law impeded a group’s religious liberty was an incidental result of the law, and thus the law could not be declared unconstitutional simply for that reason.

So, under the Court’s current understanding of religious free exercise, as long as a law is generally applicable and neutral, all the state needs is a rational basis (i.e., any remotely plausible reason) for a law that forbids or limits the practices of religious polygamists, theonomists, Muslims committed to Sharia, and others.

Free Exercise as a Dead Letter. The problem with this understanding is that it seems to make the free exercise clause a dead letter. That is, with the exception of a blatant case of the government targeting a religion, a jurist can never effectively employ the free exercise clause to overturn generally applicable laws that are neutral but nevertheless limit or totally inhibit a citizen’s religious free exercise. Many citizens think that the government ought not permit polygamists, theonomists, or Muslims to have their own legal system that is parallel to, and not under the authority of, U.S. or state law; but they also think that the government should have a greater burden in justifying its laws if those laws encumber one’s religious free exercise.

Take, for example, Catholic Charities v. State of California Department of Managed Health Care (2004). Under California’s Women’s Contraception Equity Act, all employers in the state who offer their employees coverage for prescription drugs must also provide coverage for contraceptives. Catholic Charities (CC) did not want to provide contraceptive coverage as part of its prescription drug coverage because Catholic moral theology forbids the use of artificial contraception. Even though the law allowed for “religious exemptions,” the exemptions were defined in such a way that they did not protect organizations like CC. These groups are religious in their origin, affiliation, and mission, but fall outside the scope of these exemptions because they employ and provide care for many outside their faith and do not engage in evangelism or preaching. When before the California Supreme Court, CC argued, among other things, that these exemptions were written in such a way that CC’s free exercise rights were violated because it defined for CC and similar groups what counted as state‐defined religious practice. Appealing to Smith, the Court rejected CC’s case and ruled that the organization had to provide its employees with “benefits” that are used for purposes that CC’s moral theology teaches are sinful.

The sole dissenter was Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who offered this blistering analysis:

Here we are dealing with an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization’s expression of its religious tenets and sense of mission. The government is not accidentally or incidentally interfering with religious practice; it is doing so willfully by making a judgment about what is or is not religious. This is precisely the sort of behavior that has been condemned in every other context. The conduct is hardly less offensive because it is codified….This is such a crabbed and constricted view of religion that it would define the ministry of Jesus Christ as a secular activity.

Here’s the problem: how do we protect the religious liberty of groups like Catholic Charities while allowing the government to pass apparently good laws that do restrict the religious practices of others? I believe that the answer lies in the American Founders’ understanding of religious free exercise.

The Founders, Free Exercise, and Its Limits. America’s founders were wise enough to understand that religious freedom could not be limitless. They also understood that this precious liberty should not be restricted unless the state could provide good reasons why these restrictions are justified. This is why the wording of free exercise provisions in state constitutions at the time of the founding of America typically allowed for the limitation of religious liberty if the prohibited actions would interfere with some aspect of the community’s good. New York State’s Constitution (1777) is typical in this regard: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, with this State, to all mankind: Provided, That the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.”

The reasoning is similar to what the Supreme Court employed in 1878 when it rejected the argument of Mormons that the free exercise clause protected their religious practice of plural marriage. In 1862, the U.S. Congress had passed the first of several antipolygamy statutes for the purpose of stopping the growing population of practicing Mormon polygamists in Utah. Because Utah was a U.S. territory at the time, the federal government had jurisdiction over Utah, and thus the First Amendment of the federal constitution could be applied to the antipolygamy statutes. (Today, because of incorporation, it would not matter whether it was a state or federal statute.)

In Reynolds v. United States (1878) the Court rejected the Mormons’ free exercise argument on the grounds that even though “Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion,…[it] was left free to reach actions [such as polygamy] which were in violation of social duties or subversive to the public good.” What the Court meant by this is that certain institutions and ways of life, such as marriage and the family, are essential to the preservation of civil society. The government may craft its laws in such a way that certain practices receive a privileged position in our social fabric, and actions contrary to them should be prohibited or at least discouraged, even if they have religious sanction. Such practices as polygamy, same‐sex marriage, adult incest, and child sacrifice, therefore, may be forbidden even if they arise from a religious understanding of the world; for they are actions that are deleterious to the public good.

On the other hand, the public good is undermined when citizens are forced to choose between the law and their religious practices when those practices do not undermine, and may very well advance, the public good. For example, when the Supreme Court in Yoder gave a free exercise exemption to the Amish, the public good was advanced. When Catholic Charities was forced by the California Supreme Court to pay for its employees’ contraceptive use, however, CC was literally required to underwrite sexual practices that are overtly hostile to its own theological understanding, an understanding that is integral to a well‐established tradition in moral philosophy. This ruling runs counter to the public good.

The Courts should return to the reasoning of the founders. It is a reasoning that allows for the widest possible religious free exercise consistent with preserving and protecting the public good. This, of course, will not eliminate debates on controversial questions over which reasonable citizens disagree. What it will do is provide us with a conceptual framework that puts teeth back into the free exercise clause while reintroducing us to the language of natural law, one that places a premium on the government’s obligation to protect the intrinsic dignity of the person and advance the public good.

— Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is associate professor of Church-State Studies, and associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University.