On June 28, 1776, the first draft of our nation’s Declaration of Independence was introduced to the general session of the Second Continental Congress. The 28th was a Friday, and so the Founding Fathers tabled the draft until the following Monday, July 1, when they took it up again for debate. A resolution for independence was approved on July 2, and, on July 4, the text of the Declaration of Independence was approved.
Sunday, June 30, 1776, was an important day in our nation’s history. On that day, the Founding Fathers would have been in Philadelphia’s churches, praying for the will of God in the founding of our nation. They might have prayed for us, the beneficiaries of their courage. They might have prayed for the prosperity, the morality and the liberty of our nation. They might have remembered the Continental Day of Prayer, which Congress had declared on March 16, 1776, on which they prayed that “this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty.”
On June 30, 2014 — that day of prayer and contemplation that might have spurred the inception of our liberty — the U.S. Supreme Court restored some portion of the liberty, particularly religious liberty, on which our nation was founded. The Hobby Lobby decision is an affirmation that believers have a place in the public square — that all of us should be free to conduct our business without compromising our basic moral beliefs. In addition, Wheaton College, a small evangelical college, received last-minute relief from the Supreme Court, protecting the college’s right to carry out its religious mission free from crippling IRS fines.
The victory is not unqualified, and the fight for our religious liberty is not complete. Churches, hospitals and universities are still threatened by the federal HHS contraceptive mandate. And the outcome of that fight is not yet clear. But we have reason to be optimistic. And we should rejoice that the Supreme Court affirmed, as professor Robert George of Princeton University wrote last week, that “our religious lives cannot be restricted to what we do in our homes before meals or on our knees at bedtime or to our prayers and liturgies in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Religious faith motivates, or can motivate, our convictions and actions in the exercise of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, in our philanthropic and charitable activities and in the conduct of our businesses and professions.”
The backlash against the Hobby Lobby decision has been extraordinary. Planned Parenthood and its allies have falsely painted the decision as an offense to women and the right to self-determination, actualized in access to free contraception. The decision has been painted, laughably, as a move towards imposing a kind of American theocracy or as a precedent to the total annihilation of the rule of law. The Huffington Post went so far as to suggest that the decision “may now be resurrecting concerns about the compatibility between being a Catholic and being a good citizen, or at least between being a good Catholic and an impartial judge.”
In its aftermath, the Hobby Lobby decision has exposed the bald aggression of secularists, whose loyalties lie more closely with unfettered sexual libertinism than with respect for fundamental rights of conscience, of religion or of personal dignity. In short, the Hobby Lobby decision has exposed the secular tendency towards a theocracy — the systematic hostility and marginalization of religious believers who engage in American public life, a kind of practical atheism established as a norm.
Hobby Lobby is a victory for human dignity. But it is also a mandate. What’s clear, in the aftermath of the decision, is how toxic our culture has become to faith in public life.
The hostility we face won’t be overcome by the assertion of our rights in courts of law. That fight is important. But litigation can only fight the symptoms of our broader problems. Religious liberty will be threatened in our nation as long as secularism is the prevailing cultural leitmotif.
The Hobby Lobby decision is a mandate for evangelization.
In Evangelii Gaudium (The Procalamation of the Gospel in Today’s World), Pope Francis observed that “the immense importance of a culture marked by faith cannot be overlooked; before the onslaught of contemporary secularism, an evangelized culture, for all its limits, has many more resources than the mere sum total of believers. An evangelized popular culture contains values of faith and solidarity capable of encouraging the development of a more just and believing society and possesses a particular wisdom which ought to be gratefully acknowledged” (68).
An evangelized culture, the Holy Father says, will be a just culture. Justice is the fruit of faith.
Around the world, religious believers face, today, particular kinds of injustice. The European Court of Human Rights declared this week that nations have broad authority to restrict religious tradition and expression in favor of social cohesion. In Egypt, a Christian was sentenced to prison this week for proclaiming Christ on the Internet. Today, right now, Christians in Iraq and Syria are being exiled, beaten and killed. We sorely need evangelized and just cultures.
Our religious liberty is not an end in itself. Instead, religious liberty is the freedom for something real — the freedom to “make disciples of all nations” — to spread the Gospel, and its fruits, joyfully.
If we want to protect our religious liberty, the very best thing we can do is to use it — to transform culture by transforming hearts for Jesus Christ.
Bishop James D. Conley is the shepherd
of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.
This column appears on the website
of the Southern Nebraska Register.