Defending Freedom in a Darkening Age: Alliance Defending Freedom Summit 2021

Alliance Defending Freedom Summit 2021: On Religious Liberty


Thank you so much! God bless you! It is an honor to be here with you tonight. Mary and I are particularly honored this many people would gather for our 38th wedding anniversary

Every good thing in my life has come either from the Lord or from my wife, Mary. And so sweetheart, thank you for sharing this night, allowing me to say “yes” to this invitation. And I’ll say with your blessing as well, we’re honored being here with you. Mary and I are honored to be here, not only this event, but with this people, all of you, and for what you represent. Particularly for the Alliance Defending Freedom, Michael Farris, the entire team. For all the clients who are here. For all the fellows, the staff, and the attorneys, and litigants. Litigators for the Alliance Defending Freedom. In a sense, I have been a champion of this organization from its very inception, and I believe that it has never been more important to the great cause than now. And so if I gave only remarks in a few seconds, I would simply say, do more better, fast. It matters. Give more to donors, support more, pray more. This is the moment to which we have been called.

I spend a lot of my life speaking to events like this. And the food tonight was marvelous, but we’re not here primarily for the food. But the food does become an issue at times. I was reading

a work actually by an author, a memoir about his life growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. And he wrote about the awkwardness of those who’ve come from Western cultures to the African culture and how the miscommunication can often happen. And it just so happened that it was Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh who was the occasion for this particular communication challenge. He was representing the Queen at a state visit to Rhodesia.

And at a banquet very much like this, he was the guest of honor, and he was to give remarks. As he was seated, the waiter came up to him and he simply said, your Royal Highness would you like the beef or the duck? Prince Phillip got the scowl on his face he often does, and with a little bit of a Royal condescension simply said, “tell me about the duck.” The waiter paused and looked at him and then said, “your Royal Highness, it’s like a chicken but it swims.” I can tell you, it’s the best definition of a duck. And sometimes, it’s good to be told the right answer to the question, “tell me about the duck.” Tell me about religious liberty. Tell me about defending freedom.

We’re here to talk about these things, and you’ve been spending the better part of the last several days talking about these truths because they matter, these rights because they are fundamental, and because they are endangered. The title of my address is “Defending Freedom in a Darkening Age.”

I think there’s the temptation in any age to believe that darkness is right around the corner. If you hold to a Christian and Augustinian worldview, that’s never wrong. Except for the fact that the final turn will be the victory of Christ. But we are living in an age in which so many of the most precious moments of reality are so devastatingly threatened. We are reminded of the fragility of civilization itself.

I am drawn in my own thinking to so many crucial points in Western history. One of them is the dawn of the First World War, called by those who participated in it, “the Great War.” I am reminded of the words of the British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey, who said on August 3rd, 1914, on the night before the full outbreak of hostilities, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In a sense he was right, and in a sense he was wrong. The most important sense in which he was right was understanding that the very principles and most fundamental convictions of Western civilization were at stake, were endangered, were on the line, and were worth fighting for.

Now we know the course of history only in retrospect, and then only partially, but we must know the historical character of our own times. In our generation, we are called to defend truths and virtue. Even in our generation, to defend the very existence of truth and virtue. We’re called to defend freedom, for freedom and human dignity are always in need of defense in a fallen world. Of all the liberties, religious liberty is among them most precarious precisely because it is the most fundamental and primary. Religious freedom, where it is achieved in terms of the political order, is precarious in any age. It’s a remarkable civilizational achievement. It requires pre-political conditions. It requires an understanding of human dignity and human rights before you get to the specific articulation of religious liberty. It is the inheritance of a Western civilization that is now being subverted before our eyes. A civilization that was produced by classical roots in Greece and in Rome, but in particular by a millennium of crucial formation of the European, of the Western mind, and of structures of thought and the understanding of what it means to be human that came concretely and inseperably from the development of Christianity in the shaping of western culture.

But these very classical roots as well as the Christian foundations are now openly subverted when a professor at Yale would make the argument just in recent days, a professor of philosophy, that the natural law is a demonstration of white racial superiority or supremacy. It’s a repudiation of the entire superstructure of what Charles Taylor in his book, “A Secular Age”, calls the social imaginary, the entire imagined structure of society is being transformed before our eyes by those who would subvert, intentionally and in a premeditated fashion, they would subvert the very civilization that has made our liberties politically possible and historically actualized.

What Peter Berger referred to as plausibility structures: the very pillars that hold up the

superstructure that makes our politics possible, that makes the American constitutional order and our experiment in ordered liberty possible. Those pillars are being subverted intentionally by those who actually, honestly want a very different civilization to be put in its place.

Robert Wilken reminds us that religious freedom, as we know it, is first of all God’s gift, but it historically has come by the influence of the Christian church. Figures such as even the early church father Tertullian who recognized what is absolutely essential to our understanding of any right political order, and that is that there are limits to the coercion that any government can actually fulfill. Any coercion that maybe is aimed, there are still limitations. As Elizabeth I, the Queen of England said in the famous Elizabethan Settlement, that she would not put windows into men’s souls. She said that as a statement of royal policy, but the reality is it’s just an ontological fact. You cannot put windows into men’s souls. Human beings made in the image of God, bearers of dignity precisely because of the Imago Dei. Made in God’s image in such a way that we know him and cannot not know him.

No one can actually put a window into our souls. You can coerce externally. You cannot coerce internally, but you can influence. And that’s the great battle of our time is against those who are seeking to persuade the entire civilization around us, beginning in the political order and those who are primarily in control of higher education, where that battle has largely already been lost. It needs to be reengaged. But the fact is the engines of cultural production have genuinely been turned into engines of subversion of our society.

We talk about a secular age and, as a theologian, I want to define that term. I will contend with fact that the only secular definition that matters is the loss of the binding authority of theism.

We’re not living in a secular age when you have people following every nutty, religious idea imaginable; it’s not secular in that sense. It is secular in the sense that it is, in terms of so many of its thought leaders, intentionally now set against any notion of revealed religion, any notion of objective reality, any notion of theism, because theism is our central understanding of the existence of God. And in God, the unity of the transcendentals, the good, the beautiful, and the true. And the Trinitarian: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It is that theism which is particularly foundational to Western societies. Also, that theism that is a particular obstacle to those who would reshape the culture in a modern post-Christian image.

One of the realities we now see is the collision of rights and liberties. They saw it coming and we saw it coming. I was involved in seemingly endless meetings on the other side of, say, Obergefell in 2015 when in think tanks and in conservative intellectual circles and in academic debates and in policy considerations, there was the understanding that what was coming was a collision of claims of rights. And it was an inevitable collision. It was an unavoidable collision. And it was a collision that already was being declared over by those who are the subverters of the entire moral order, those who are seeking to redefine human existence and now even human identity at the level of what it means to be male and female.

Remember Chai Feldblum making the statement that she would like to think of one example of a case in which the religious liberty rights ought to be considered perhaps more important than the sexual liberty rights. But she said, in honest condescension, she actually couldn’t imagine a case in which that would be possible. They saw it coming. We saw it coming.

Mary Ann Glendon saw it coming in her book “Rights Talk”, back in 1991, when she warned what would happen in a society in which the entire conversation, the debate, the political dynamic, comes down to arguments over contested rights. What’s lost in all of that is any kind of metaphysic. What’s lost in that is any kind of transcendent vision. What’s lost in all of that is any kind of objective truth. All that remains is politics and Nietzsche-grams.

Jonathan Rauch has written a very, very important book of late, by the way, but I won’t speak of that. Interesting character, and I think quite intellectually honest, or at least he seems to be. I can remember something like 15 years ago when he wrote a book very much arguing for the legalization of same-sex marriage, very much arguing for the victory of the LGBTQ. That was anachronistic. It wasn’t known as that then, but the gay rights movement as it was known then. Very much an advocate for that moral revolution, personally and professionally. He said at one point, recognizing that conservative Christians will find themselves in an awkward predicament, he made the statement, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he would like to think that his co-belligerence would be understanding of that conservative Christian verdict, but not accommodating, necessarily, but understanding. But he went on to say he didn’t think it would be such either.

We are in a moment of such confusion that to use the word rights means that people think you are merely making a bald, political claim, a naked political claim, like that’s all that it could mean. The idea of the origin of rights is now lost. The understanding integral to a Christian culture, integral to a biblical worldview, integral to Western civilization, that rights are given by God and ought to be respected by government, that’s been eclipsed by this new understanding of rights.

We saw this by the way, just in the last several months. And I watched with fascination as the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created this Commission on Unalienable Rights. And by the way, some marvelous people served on that, including Robert George, and actually it was chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, quite appropriately. And the report it brought was pretty much what we expected, for those who’ve been a part of this conversation for some time. They came back and said, “Look, when you consider the founding era in the United States, and when you look at the Declaration of Independence and you look at the Constitution of the United States, when you look at the unalienable rights that are given by nature and nature’s God, endowed by the Creator with these unalienable rights, there are specific rights: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights that became enumerated, also, within the Bill of Rights and within the logic of the United States Constitution. But they were specific rights. They were rights grounded in reality.

A very different vision now drives the State Department of the United States. The current United States Secretary of State, Anthony Lincoln, gave a pressor not too long ago, a press conference in which he had very elaborate comments, and one of the points of his presentation was the rejection of the Pompeo Commission, that commission on unalienable rights and the rejection of the very idea, by the way, of rights that might be unalienable as distinguished from other claims of contemporary construction. But he went on to say that the State Department now, in contrast to what you would presume was the State Department then, that the State Department now is going to hold that it is the position of the United States government that all rights are equal.

By the way, that is not the argument they make in the Supreme court when they speak of fundamental rights, but I’ll let you who are the lawyers argue that. But he made the point, he said there are no hierarchies of rights, he said, explicitly. And so he put the rights of what you call reproductive freedom and of course the rights of the LGBTQ revolution right up there. We’re going to make all rights… And of course, there’s no end to that, the catalog of rights or these newly-constructed artificial rights. There is no end to them.

So many on the left right now are living in the absolute fear that what they said five years ago will mean the end of their lives. That’s how fast this revolution, this ideological revolution that’s going on. I think the people right now who are the most scared are probably not conservative Christians. After all, they trust in the Lord. The people that are probably most afraid right now are liberals just a few years from retirement on your local college campus because they’re about to be consumed by their own young, who will produce others that will consume them as well.

But the idea that rights are just a matter of political debate, a matter of political interposition, a matter of contested argument; let’s just say that the American experiment in ordered liberty cannot survive that. Nor, I would argue, can human dignity survive that. What is the foundation for the claim of religious freedom or any freedom, any liberty? What is the foundation? If it is not transcendent and it is not ontological, it’s not grounded in reality, and ultimately that reality has to be the reality of God. Without that, then eventually there is nothing left but rights talk and rewriting of history, subversion of any understanding of order, including constitutional order.

We’re now at the moment when we see two vastly different projects concerning human rights, but underlying that are two vastly different projects concerning reality. Two divergent conceptions of human dignity. Two different moralities. Two different assumptions of metaphysical reality, authority, order, liberty, history, law, government, and human happiness.

The American project of ordered liberty is now transformed into a game of political and moral coercion that devolves into identity politics, which is the most futile and poisonous of all politics, and venomous theorizing, unleashing intellectual solvents that cannot be contained. That’s the biggest problem with critical theory. And by the way, you can put any word between critical and theory, including racial, but you can put just about anything else in there. Legal. And the fact is that it’s all a common project. It’s all derivative of a common intellectual source.

I can remember years ago that one of the four horsemen of the new atheism, Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, he described kind of the imaginary world of a 13-year-old boy, which he had once been, and I once was. And even though I disagree with Daniel Dennett about just about everything, I agree with him that to the 13-year-old boy, the idea of a universal solvent is fascinating. He said at some point, about the time he was in the eighth grade, he thought about acids and came up with the understanding that it could be at least intellectually possible to invent an acid that would destroy everything.

Now, you do not want to get too far into the mind of a 13-year-old boy, but if you did you would understand why there would be such an intellectual interest in a solvent that would eventually dissolve everything and consume all. It would dissolve the test tube and eventually the entire laboratory and then the school, then the neighborhood and the city and then everything and then planet earth and then the galaxy and the cosmos. It’s at least intellectually possible that such a solvent could be devised. But intellectually there is such a solvent and it’s called critical theory. That is the solvent that cannot be contained. If you make your claim based upon critical theory, someone will get there behind you to trump your play.

George Packer, by the way, in a book that’s very interesting, just written, entitled “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.” You won’t agree with the book, but you will find it fascinating. He does say this rightly about critical theory. He says this, “Critical theory upends the universal values of the enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality, and the freedom of the individual.” He says, “I’m a liberal. These liberal values are an ideology by which dominant groups subjugate other groups. All relations are power relations. Everything is political and claims of reason and truth are social constructs that maintain those in power.” He goes on, “Unlike orthodox Marxism, critical theory is concerned with language and identity more than with material conditions. In place of objective reality, critical theorists place subjectivity at the center of analysis to show how supposedly universal terms exclude oppressed groups and help the powerful rule over them. Critical theorists argue that the enlightenment, including the American Founding, carried the seeds of modern racism and imperialism.” And of course, much more.

Now, you know that already, but I think that’s a remarkably perceptive and even courageously written paragraph for the year 2021. Just think of this shift in American politics, where are the defenders of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? Even amongst those who quickly signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation a generation ago. What about the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? What about Chuck Schumer? Senator Charles Schumer, I should say. But what about those who wanted to be known as the defenders of religious liberty until they figured out what it meant? It’s the interesting predicament of our times.

Now religious liberty is used in the mainstream media in scare quotes. Recently I saw a major news report in which the phrase was this, “So-called religious liberty.” So-called religious liberty. Can you imagine walking into a meeting of the Founders and saying, “What is this so-called religious liberty?” We’re living in an age in which the scare quotes are just a graphic indication of the subversion of the reality.

E.J. Dionne. Could easily not have mentioned him, but he irritates me. He wrote, not too long ago, that he was worried about the future vitality of the religious liberty brand because it’s being tarnished by conventional Christians and ordinary American citizens who don’t understand that we are harming the brand by indicating that we believe what the Founders believed about religious liberty. Just consider how close we are to the Equality Act passing. Absolutely astounding. How many Americans understand what that would mean, just in terms of the legislation, just in terms of the government coercion that would come behind it, just in terms of the fact that written into the legislation is a prohibition against turning to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an appeal.

This being tamped in by some who were ardent supporters of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it didn’t cost them anything. But now their own constituents, the political energies of their own party, demand that the new moral revolution must take precedence over everything else.

Sometimes it feels like we’re losing even where we thought we were winning, at least in some sense, or at least we were holding back the flood. But then comes the Bostock decision at the United States Supreme Court. There’s a sense in which you look at this and go, “What were we working for all of these years? What were we striving for decades, if it can all come down to

this.” Yet another statement in a majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court, that of course there will eventually have to be a settlement of what this will mean for a Christian college or a university that has the audacity to be Christian in hiring and admissions and housing and student life.

Yes, as then Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said in the oral arguments with the Obergefell case, it will be an issue. It will. I say, as president of such an institution, it is. We’re about to find out where the Christian institutions really are. We’re about to find out how many Christian colleges, Christian universities, Christian theological seminaries we actually have. We’re going to find out just how much and just how many are willing to pay the price for bearing the full onslaught of the warfare that is coming. And make no mistake, the full course of coercion is coming fast.

The aim of those who would bring this coercion is that you shall be made to call a man a woman. You will be made to call a boy a girl. You’ll be made to ask everyone for pronouns. You’ll be forced to deny reality, to deny physical matter, biology. Of course, we as Christians understand behind all of that is the demand to deny God.

Now we know this will not end well, even for the revolutionaries. We actually know it will not end well especially for the revolutionaries. So that brings us to the question of the evening. What is the great cause unique to this generation of Christians? It is to bear testimony to the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to advance the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to speak the truth when all the world goes insane. To hold together the good, the beautiful, and the true. To stand without apology upon the transcendentals of the good, the true, and the beautiful, because we know they are grounded in the reality of God himself, revealed consummately, not in creation where they are indeed revealed, but constantly in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the good, the beautiful, and the truth, incarnate in human flesh.

The great challenge of our generation is to defend human dignity against the great machine and to defend human rights as inalienable gifts, to be understood as given by the Creator and respected by government courts, politicians, neighbors, all. The great challenge of our generation at this moment is contempt for the rule of law and for the integrity of laws, to understand that religious liberty is indeed the first and most fundamental liberty, without which no other liberty will survive, can survive.

The responsibility of so many people in this room… I want you to hear my admiration and support and encouragement tonight. The responsibility of so many in this room and of the Alliance Defending Freedom is to go into the court rooms and to make those arguments to defend liberty, to defend the very superstructure of understanding on behalf of what is good and beautiful and true, on behalf of the One who is alone good and beautiful and true.

This means you and the supporters of this organization and those who are here, gathered in this common cause, are ready to stand for what is right; not because we are right but because God is right. To defend liberty in an age of insanity, to go into the courtrooms to defend cake bakers. Sounds like a medieval play, doesn’t it? Sounds like Chaucer, going into the courtrooms to defend the cake bakers and florists and Christian colleges and universities. To go into the public square to defend children and parents and families and churches, ultimately to bear witness to the unity of the good, the beautiful, and the true grounded in the real, our true and infinitely glorious God. Our answer to a darkening age must be a deepening theology and a more determined fight for the right.

So we are not the company of the depressed and the discouraged. We are the army of the determined. And by the way, we are an eschatological people. We understand that we are called in any moment of human history to be found faithful until God in Christ shows his infinite favor. Our answer to this darkening age must be a theology that’s ever deeper, a fight that’s ever more determined.

I close by citing someone who understood that fight: JRR Tolkien. You may recall this passage from The Fellowship of the Ring; Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my lifetime.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. That’s all.”

What do we do with the time that is given us? Hopefully this week has been a good exercise in becoming ever more faithful in our thinking, ever more determined in our action. And so we don’t get to choose the times, only whether we are faithful in our times. And so, brothers and sisters, as we get ready to leave to the fight for the Lord, for the Glory of God, thank you very much.