It was almost one hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Great War, the war that did not end all wars, that William Butler Yeats sounded the warning in his famous poem, “The Second Coming:”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That poem was written in 1919 and it voiced for millions a loss of innocence and the evaporation of hope. We can now see that Yeats’s words grew only more prophetic over the last ninety-nine years. Things are falling apart. The center cannot hold.
We who now live in the late modern age are witnesses to a great falling apart, to a center that may not hold. As we meet today the most basic liberties enshrined in our Constitution are confused, contorted, and sometimes even condemned. The enumerated rights recognized in the First Amendment are now suspect in the eyes of many and injurious in the eyes of others. Religious freedom, freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press, along with the other rights recognized and respected within the Bill of Rights, are all threatened even as other rights are marginalized. Even more distressingly, a new regime of invented rights threatens to replace the rights that are clearly enumerated within the text of the Constitution.
How could this happen?
I speak as a Christian theologian. We can now see what so many have long denied—that the experiment in liberty and self-government known as the United States of America is premised upon an affirmation of human dignity and human rights that only makes sense within and can only be sustained by a worldview that is based on at least an inherited Christian conception and an affirmation of natural rights.
The Declaration of Independence famously stated this affirmation in the most direct of terms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Founders did not fully understand the affirmation they were making, as is clear from the horrible reality of slavery, but they were most certainly correct in their conception of unalienable rights endowed upon every human being by their Creator.
This same spirit gave birth to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution itself would never have been ratified. Religious liberty is the first freedom, the foundational liberty, upon which every other enumerated liberty depends.
But the center is not holding. Religious liberty becomes fragile in a secular age. Indeed, all liberties become fragile in a secular age. The very idea of human dignity will not long survive in a secular season, for once that dignity is grounded in anything other than the act of the divine Creator, human dignity withers to whatever dignity humanity can accord itself. The twentieth century should be warning enough of what happens when human dignity is grounded in a merely secular conception of humanity or dignity.
But religious liberty is also seen as problematic and out of date by those who see liberty in its most urgent form as liberation from the shackles of religious belief, divine revelation, and revealed morality. We live now on the leeward side of a revolution in sexuality and morality that threatens to sacrifice religious liberty as injurious to human freedom, sexual liberty, transgender liberation, and a host of new imperatives. In this view, religious liberty is just another way of allowing religious citizens to threaten the newly declared liberties of those long oppressed and invisible.
Consider the fact that religious liberty is now described as religious privilege. By definition, a privilege is not a right. It can be revoked or redefined as circumstances may dictate. It can be withdrawn or subverted by the courts in the name of liberation and justice. And, in our day, privilege is suspect in the first place—an embarrassment to be identified and corrected.
In 2016 the chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Martin R. Castro, stated in an official report of the Commission:
“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
The commission’s report included both religious liberty and religious freedom in scare quotes as if they are merely terms of art — linguistic constructions without any objective reality.
We are now witnessing a great and inevitable collision between religious liberty and newly declared and invented sexual liberties. The advocates of same-sex marriage saw this coming, as did the opponents of this legal and moral revolution. Judges and legal scholars also knew the collision was coming. Judge Michael McConnell, formerly a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and now director of Stanford University’s Constitutional Law Center, suggested many years ago that the coming conflict would “feature a seemingly irreconcilable clash between those who believe that homosexual conduct is immoral and those who believe that it is a natural and morally unobjectionable manifestation of human sexuality.” Accordingly, he called for a spirit of tolerance and respect, much like what society expects of religious believers and atheists — what he called “civil toleration.”
But the advocates of same-sex marriage are not friendly to the idea of toleration. One prominent gay rights lawyer predicted just this kind of controversy almost a decade ago when she admitted that violations of conscience would be inevitable as same-sex marriage is legalized. Chai Feldblum, then a professor at the Yale Law School, also admitted that her acknowledgement of a violated conscience might be “cold comfort” to those whose consciences are violated.
“I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win…. Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”
Chai Feldblum was then a law professor at Yale. She is now a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the United States, and she was just recently renominated.
Now, things are falling apart as Christian cake bakers, florists, and photographers face coercion or even expulsion from their livelihoods. In the oral arguments for the Obergefell case, Donald Verrilli, then Solicitor General of the United States, was asked if the legalization of same-sex marriage would mean that religious colleges and universities would have to offer same-sex marital housing. Verrilli infamously answered, “It will be an issue.”
Indeed. It will be an issue. It is an inevitable issue.
Last month, the California Assembly passed legislation under the guise of consumer protection that would outlaw any transaction that might be related to any claim that sexual orientation or gender identity might be changed. The legislation would explicitly ban the sale of books and other materials that would represent orthodox biblical Christianity—the consensus of the Christian church wherever and whenever it has been found for two millennia. Assembly Bill 2943, as it is known, is blatantly unconstitutional, but it passed overwhelmingly in the California Assembly, a sign of the times.
Europe, especially in the west and the north, has followed a faster trajectory of secularization as compared to the United States, but the velocity of secular change in our own nation is increasing. The distance between Europe and the United States as measured by secularization is shortening. Keep that ominous reality in mind when you consider that just last week an Advocate General for the European Court of Justice advised that religious employers in Europe would see their right to discriminate on grounds of religious belief curtailed. One again, a legal authority spoke openly of balancing religious liberty and modern individual liberty and he found that religious liberty must give way. The Economist, hardly a fringe publication, ran the headline: “A Court Ruling Makes it Harder for Faith-Based Employers to Discriminate.”
The magazine opened the report with these words:
“It is a problem that arises in every liberal democracy that upholds religious belief (and hence, the freedom of religious bodies to manage their own affairs) while also aiming to defend citizens, including job-seekers, from unfair discrimination. As part of their entitlement to run their own show, faith groups often claim some exemption from equality laws when they are recruiting people.”
“To take an extreme case, it would run counter to common sense if a church were judicially obliged to appoint a militant atheist as a priest, even if that candidate as well qualified on paper. But how generous should those exemptions be?”
Note the language of the report — an extreme case, counter to common sense, judicially obliged, militant atheist, well qualified on paper, how generous?
We are now down to the question of generosity. How generous will a secular society committed to worship at the altar of sexual liberty be, when deciding whether or to what extent religious liberty is to be respected and recognized?
Just ask the California Assembly, or the European Court of Justice, or the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, or Commissioner Chai Feldblum of the E.E.O.C..
When a sexual revolution like this happens, it is always followed, not by persuasion but by coercion. And we see that coercion arriving right now. I often cite Theo Hobson about the reality of the moral revolution. He argued that for a moral revolution to take place, three conditions have to be met. The first condition is that what is condemned must be celebrated. The second is that what was celebrated must be condemned. But that is not enough. In order for a moral revolution to be complete, those who will not celebrate must be condemned. And that’s what we see here. It is the coercion of those who will not, cannot, celebrate.
Our constitutional order roots every successive right in the priority of religious liberty. The religious liberty clauses of the Constitution are more basic than any other among the enumerated rights. But, we would expect, when the most basic of all rights is threatened, so eventually are all others.
Furthermore, we find a basic moral and realistic logic of liberty within the First Amendment. We also find an interdependence of liberties. Thus, we should not be surprised that the freedom of speech and freedom of the press are also at risk. Americans are often shocked, and even offended by the claims that free speech is often denied, but on many of our most elite college and university campuses, free speech is dismissed as a bourgeois value. The University of California at Berkeley, — the very campus where the Free Speech Movement was born in the 1960s — has now grown hostile to free speech, with many students and faculty arguing that freedom speech renders the campus “unsafe.”
And for far too many, freedom of the press means freedom for the press they like, an impulse that can appear on both the Right and the Left. But freedom of the press means the freedom to print, publish, broadcast, post, and communicate as a logical and necessary extension of freedom of speech. Without freedom of the press, the populace is force fed and misled, increasingly unable even to recognize the truth, and freedom of speech disappears.
Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times, said that religious people need to understand that freedom of worship means the freedom to hold whatever position you believe and to teach whatever you want to teach in your homes, in your hearts, and in your pews. President Obama would restrict this as did the State Department to freedom of worship. Freedom of worship and religious liberty are not the same thing.
The Declaration of Independence expressed the convictions of this nation in stating boldly that we hold these truths to be self-evident. We hold these truths. These truths, not mere opinions or beliefs. Held, not merely asserted or argued. To hold is to exercise a stewardship. We hold these truths, not merely for ourselves and for our time, but for our children, and our children’s children, and all those who will become a part of this grand experiment in self-government. But we also hold these truths for the world and before the world. Such a stewardship requires the defense of these truths, the careful definition of these truths; truths that should be, but often are not, recognized as self-evident.
The First Amendment will not save us. Without prior and enduring commitment, the text is only words on paper. As Christians, we give thanks to God alone, who made us in his image, gives us life, and endowed us with these rights. Only Jesus Christ can save, and he saves to the uttermost. That is the great Good News. The sacred freedoms we cherish secure our right to worship God in spirit and in truth, to tell the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to teach the whole counsel of God.
The First Amendment will not save us, but it now falls to us to save the First Amendment.
We hold these truths. May God gave us wisdom as we hold these precious truths in perilous times.
This is the full text of the keynote address delivered by R. Albert Mohler Jr. at the First Amendment Lunch, hosted by the National Religious Broadcasters and the National Day of Prayer on Thursday on May 3, 2018 at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. The video of this address is also available.