The fundamental, founding structure of our American nation is relatively simple. While the federal government should seek the common good, its first responsibility is to secure the liberty of its citizens. Conversely, while citizens should seek to influence their nation through government, their first responsibility is to exercise their liberty toward virtuous ends. This is the essence of the ordered liberty envisioned by the Founders. Government protects our “unalienable rights,” yet at the same time our Constitution is made for a “moral and religious people” and is “wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Failure on either end — failure of the government to protect liberty or failure of the people to be virtuous — breaks the compact and places unacceptable strains on our nation and culture. As Christian communities face increasing governmental hostility and struggle with declining church attendance, it’s time for both sides of our nation’s religious culture war to confront their role in disrupting these core principles of the American founding. Here are two painful truths: Secular government is breaking its promise of liberty, and the American church is breaking its promise of virtue.
First, the mainly progressive effort to restrict the free exercise of religion is plainly illiberal and contrary to the constitutional order. If there is one single legal strand that ties together the myriad threats to religious liberty and free speech in the United States — efforts to coerce Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies into violating their convictions, to toss Christian student groups off campuses, to force Christian institutions to facilitate access to abortifacients, to compel the speech of Christian creative professionals, or to place in doubt the accreditation and tax exemptions of Christian educational institutions — it’s that they depend for their success on inverting the proper constitutional order.
Progressive government passes sweeping and intrusive statutes and regulations and then treats the free-exercise and free-speech claims of religious individuals and institutions as a form of special pleading. Yet this gets the legal hierarchy upside down. The Constitution — including the First Amendment, of course — is the supreme law of the land, and statutes and regulations are making claims against it. Thus, the default proposition is that free speech, free exercise, and voluntary association enjoy protection, with that protection to fall away only in the face of compelling governmental interests, enacted through the least restrictive means.