Is Religious Freedom in Peril?

ancient-faith-todayLast night syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly and myself (Fr. Hans Jacobse) discussed where religious freedom in America was under assault. The discussion was, I believe, informative. I was very impressed with Mattingly’s comprehensive knowledge and analysis of the legal challenges concerning religious liberty. The discussion focused on the moral issues, particularly gay rights, as the locus of the conflict.

I pointed out that gay rights is an anthropological question at its core that challenges the increasingly fractured moral consensus necessary to hold a society together because it fundamentally redefines what we understand male and female to be.

I see “gay marriage” as a threat to liberty because it grants government the authority to deem relationships not found in nature or the moral tradition of Western Civilization as morally licit, thereby establishing the State as both the source and final judge of the morality that shapes the moral consensus. Religion is the ground of culture I argued earlier in the program and the government arrogation of moral authority within the culture (all “rights” come from the State) portends great danger down the road.

Both of us concurred on the inviolability of the First Amendment. I am as protective of the right to free speech as Mattingly or very close to it (Mattingly says he is about as close to a “First Amendment absolutist” as one can be). I want the freedom to speak out on issues even when (especially when, I corrected myself) I am in the minority, a place I increasingly find myself. I pointed out that the language of the Constitution regarding freedom of religion is virtually identical to the language outlining freedom of the press.

I also mentioned that “gay rights” could create the legal ground for the persecution of Christianity in America.

Both of us concurred that the Orthodox Churches in America need more visible and vibrant leadership from our Bishops. I pointed out the first calling of a Bishop is to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” and we need them to divide that Word more clearly for us.

There is, I contended, “great moral confusion in the Church” about these issues, a point that will not be welcomed by Orthodox Progressives but I stand by it. Mattingly suggested that every week at least one Bishop in America publish a sermon or essay that defines the teachings of Scripture and the moral tradition so that some of the confusion can be cleared.

It was a good talk I think although it is always difficult to judge your own work. I am looking forward to hearing thoughtful criticism.

The podcast is available through Ancient Faith Radio.

Listen here:


  1. James Bradshaw says

    I’m not sure I’m following.

    The State does not impose an alien morality on its citizens or fabricate laws out of thin air. Laws are almost always a reflection of the views of the majority of any given populace, for better or worse.

    Further, the government has the authority to define all sorts of legal relationships that don’t exist in nature, and it refrains from making any moral judgments about the nature of those relationships. You can will your entire estate to a stranger or a hooker you met on the internet. You can grant power-of-attorney to someone not related to you. It’s always been this way. How does this lead to persecution? I just don’t see it.

    • Engaged observer says

      “How does this lead to persecution? I just don’t see it.”

      Same sex marriage and freedom of religion cannot coexist in the same society (at least not for long — right now we’re in the early stages, but once things get going, religious persecution will increase).

      The issue is that “gay marriage” does not exist in nature — and much of state law historically has been merely recognizing and codifying what is known to exist in nature. Heterosexual marriage has indeed existed for millenia, irrespective of whatever political entity one lives in or doesn’t live in (that is, heterosexual marriage existed in Classical Rome as it does in tribal Papua New Guinea — it transcends state/political entities and boundaries). I still have never heard or read of any natural culture/tribe/whatever where gay marriage has been found. That isn’t to say homosexual activity hasn’t existed before — of course it has. But “gay marriage” as we know it today is a novel creation of modern late 20th/early 21st century Western society. Since “gay marriage” isn’t found in nature, in supporting its existence (and in defending its existence), the state establishes itself as the authority deciding that a “gay marriage” must be supported and defended.

      The problem arises when you have a conflicting viewpoint that doesn’t agree with the state. The state has already decided that gay marriage must be supported and defended. Well, then, what to do with traditional Christian churches that operate within the state’s boundaries which have never acknowledged gay marriage to exist? An Orthodox parish in California looks on the tradition of the entire 2000–year church history, which has never acknowledged or blessed an entity called “gay marriage.” What happens when a same-sex couple (maybe one of whom is nominally Orthodox) sues in civil court an Orthodox parish for refusing to perform a gay wedding for them? The state has already decided that it will support and defend gay marriage. In return, the state *must* persecute the Orthodox parish for refusing to acknowledge this “gay marriage entity” which the state has already decided is important to support.

      And this is certainly not just a theoretical argument that the state will persecute those people and organizations who do not agree with its decision that gay marriage must be supported and defended. There have been instances already where people who run bed & breakfasts, wedding reception venues, bakeries, etc., have been sued *successfully* for following their faith convictions and not wanting to host or participate in a gay wedding or wedding reception. Very recently, a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for two men who wanted cake for their wedding has been found guilty of discrimination and ordered to serve future same-sex couples or face stiff fines.

      Here’s the link to this story:

      The government is acknowledging in these types of rulings that it believes that defending and supporting “gay marriage” is far more important than religious liberty.

      The fact remains that same-sex marriage and religious liberty cannot coexist in the same society. We’re seeing religous liberty go down the tubes in subtle ways now — and these will become not-so-subtle later on, I would think.

  2. James Bradshaw says

    Engaged writes: “The problem arises when you have a conflicting viewpoint that doesn’t agree with the state.”

    Again (and I’ve stated this repeatedly), this problem already exists. A heterosexual man can obtain a civil marriage license and marry a go-go dancer he met five hours before. A Jew can marry a Christian. A woman can divorce and remarry five times throughout the course of her life. None of these marriages would be blessed in an Orthodox church, so why are you only now concerned about this?

    Has anyone in any of these scenarios ever attempted to force an Orthodox Church to bless their marriage? If they tried, would they succeed? I can’t fathom how they could … anymore than someone could legally compel a church to perform an exorcism or baptism.

    Now, when it comes to for-profit, public entities, you’re talking a whole other kettle of fish. You might find the following article interesting in that regard:

    • Very good points. Fr. Hans has a history of imagining terrible threats to the faith lying at the bottom of slippery slopes. Rational argument hasn’t convinced him to tone down his fearmongering rhetoric in the past, I doubt it’ll do so now.

      • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

        It’s not a matter of the State forcing the Orthodox Church to “bless” their marriage. It’s a matter of marriage being destroyed and culture undermined. Slippery slopes are real. Did you catch this puff piece in the New York Times?

        Polygamy as Lifestyle Choice, and a Reality TV Brand

        • James Bradshaw says

          I did catch that piece, actually. I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that this is a “slippery slope” issue, though. Polygamy as an established institution long preceded gay marriage, and ironically, the only cultures it still exists and thrives in today are those most hostile to gays in general (such as Saudi Arabia).

          I don’t see polygamy taking hold here. It’s perfectly legal to shack up with multiple partners, yet I’m unaware of anyone in my vast array of friends and contacts who is even remotely interested in such an arrangement.

          Folks like you who care about the notions of fidelity and commitment (as do I) can appeal to the culture by challenging them to live according to these values whether they’re religious or not. Doing so has shown to be beneficial both at an individual as well as collective level. I don’t see a need to find threats where none exist.

          • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

            The breakdown of monogamous marriage (including it’s redefinition as a lifestyle choice that you employ and reason from here) strikes at the heart of Christian morality and thus the ground of culture. This ordered nirvana you keep trying to convince us exists is largely a figment of your own imagination as the data about multiple partners of male homosexuals, including the ostensibly ‘committed’ ones, make clear.

            The truth is there is no real fidelity and commitment in either homosexual couplings or polygamy apart from the woman sharing one man. Homosexuals have multiple partners outside the coupling, and the polygamist cannot commit to one woman.

  3. Mr. Bradshaw,

    You are correct that no one can compel… No more than one can be compelled to offer incense to the Emperor. No more than the wicked tyrants could compel the righteous Eleazar to eat swine. The question is not whether we can be compelled. The question is what price will we pay for our faithfulness? And are we prepared for the sacrifice that will be required of us? The question is a civil matter. Do we ignore the slow erosion of our freedom as citizens while we still have it?

  4. cynthia curran says

    Father Jacobe, I agree with you the approach has been too political rather than philosophical. Its kind of like the emperor Justinian that thought you get rid of prostitution by penalizing pimps. Notice prostitution is sill around. This is something the religious right in the US has not learned yet and why their enemies you the state in the other direction.

  5. cynthia curran says

    I mean use the state in the other direction.

  6. cynthia curran says

    Again (and I’ve stated this repeatedly), this problem already exists. A heterosexual man can obtain a civil marriage license and marry a go-go dancer he met five hours before. A Jew can marry a Christian. A woman can divorce and remarry five times throughout the course of her life. None of these marriages would be blessed in an Orthodox church, so why are you only now concerned about this?

    Well, actually in the Roman Empire and in Byzantium you could not marry a Jew or a go go dancer. The Empress Theodora was like a go-go dancer on stage and Senators since the time of Augustus could not marry actress. In fact the law was changed for senators to marry repented actresses. Personality, I don’t see why the state today would ban marrying Jews or non-Christians anyways or women that had bad reputations. The gay marriage is a cultural thing and of course in the US states that are more non-religious are going to legalized it more.

  7. Michael Bauman says

    I suppose we should ask the fundamental question: what does “religious freedom” mean. Does it mean that any person can do anything in the name of religion and not be prosecuted for it or prevented from doing it? Do we mean that anyone of any religion can do or say anything and no one can administer any consequences: that is a popular notion of freedom not limited to religious freedom.

    Well, there are some examples that tend this way: Some Native Americans use peyote as part of a religious ritual even though it is illegal to everyone else (I believe communion wine was legal during Prohibition, but I don’t know for sure).

    Santaria cults can practice ritual animal sacrifice although others cannot do the same things without violating animal cruelty laws.

    Does it mean that the government supports all religions or none: They are pretty well damned either way, frankly. And there is such fundamental confusion at all levels of government and within the culture that each case has to be worked out in the courts. That is not freedom to me.

    The way of Christianity is the way of the Cross is it not?

    We are already free to practice our religion, it just has consequences as my priest pointed out last Sunday as we commemorated the Slaughter of the Innocents. When we practice our faith, darkness is enraged and reacts with violence. The darker the times, the more violence.

    Frankly, I just don’t care any more whether I have legal “freedom of religion” because all too often that means that lies are given the same legal and cultural weight as the truth. I don’t care whether the government supports the faith or not—well, I think we are actually better of when it does not, but that is not my call, but God’s.

    If I am alive when the government comes to close down my parish, I hope I have the strength to stand and witness to the demonic impulse they are giving in to.

    The questions my priest raised: “Will be loose our tax deduction if we don’t “marry” homosexuals and/or ordain women?” “Did any of us fear for our lives as we came to the Divine Liturgy that day as our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and many other places do?

    I am grateful that I do not have to fear for my life, livelihood, the health of my family or any other such consequence of my faith and have not had to for my entire life, however, I think that is pretty much a certainty if things continue as they are it may come to that. Does that impinge on my religious freedom? Not one whit. It just makes it clear who I worship, God or mammon.

    If the question is really a constitutional one, it stopped functionally meaning anything on or about the time of Civil War. It has take a long time for the residue of that meaning to be purged from the cultural mind, but its pretty well gone now and it is not likely to be restored. Secularism has won and its evil twin nihilism is grinning in the wings.

    That will not be changed without courageous, fearless witness to the truth and, quite possibly, martyr’s blood.

    That is not in my hands either. I fall back on William Shakespeare:

    “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all”

    Watch and pray.

Speak Your Mind