The Hobby Lobby case has brought religious freedom to the fore. Freedom of religion, or freedom of conscience, is the “First Freedom.” The First Amendment names it first. It is also the freedom on which all others are based. Religion properly understood and practiced civilizes believers; it curbs selfish impulses; it makes better people. Thus, they improve themselves, serve others and sacrifice for their country and community. Most importantly, religious believers seek to align their conduct with their high principles.
Certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, and the rapid legalization of same-sex marriage by courts and legislatures have pushed religious freedom proponents to the center of the public square — and not as advocates only but sometimes as defendants. It feels to many that religions, and the religious, are under attack. Principled support for California’s Proposition 8 brought retaliation against donors and activists. Political correctness says that opposing same-sex sexual relationships and marriage on religious grounds is intolerant, bigoted and homophobic. Pressure from many quarters attempts to censor and silence the religiously motivated participant in public discourse. Many liberals dismiss religious arguments or even arguments of the religious on political subjects with sneering disrespect.
No matter how the world receives defenders of religious freedom and their message or how unfairly some may treat them, they must speak and act consistent with the moral tenets they believe in. Nor is it an excuse if their attackers provoke them by chanting profanity, distortion or politically correct speech codes. When advocating from the “higher moral ground,” one must do so with a high moral tone. One cannot effectively advocate for religious rights with irreligious words and deeds.
For example, the Christian God forbids his adherents from hating anyone, including their enemies. Thus, politically conservative Christians are commanded not to hate President Obama or even Nancy Pelosi. The same goes for politically liberal Christians. Think George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
If letting go of hatred in the service of religious liberty overstretches one’s principles and prejudices, one has but a tepid and convenient religion and is like those rationalizing Christians, of which Trollope’s Vicar of Bullhampton asks despairingly, “Of what use are all the sermons?’”
The Civil War almost shattered the nation. Nearly 1 million Americans died in combat. Orphans and widows and injured and lamed veterans abounded. Hatred and revenge, grown fat on death and destruction, threatened to make the peace as bitter as the war. Yet in his second inaugural address, Lincoln astonishingly said the country would re-form the Union, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He asked a country torn by long enmity to “bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan .” He sought no revenge and would prosecute no crime against those responsible for untold suffering and loss. His was a living religion. He put aside hatred, shunned revenge and sought to heal the people and the country with brotherhood and forgiveness.
If Lincoln, with those mighty provocations, could act so magnanimously, can religious people today not do so? To do less weakens their cause and weakens themselves. In debating political and social issues, they must be kind, rational, of goodwill and not self-righteous. Like Lincoln, they must be magnanimous. Just because one speaks of political matters, he is not excused from living his religion, and that includes conservative talk show hosts and listeners, and liberal commentators and their fans.
The hate-filled tirades which fill our media today are inappropriate for men and women of decency and especially for those of faith. Lincoln once asked the nation to be guided by “the better angels of our nature.” These better angels can guide our public discourse to higher moral ground as well.
Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.
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