Matt Lewis

Obama would have the church retreat inward; But faith without works is dead

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

From Thomas Becket standing up to Henry II — to the Catholic Church’s refusal to provide health coverage that covers sterilization, contraceptives, and the “morning-after pill” today — there is nothing unusual or new about the faithful refusing bow to the coercive powers of government.

On the other hand, governments can — and have — pushed the faithful underground. And because the current “religious employer” exemption narrowly applies to churches — but not Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals and charitable organizations — the likely outcome (assuming the White House and HHS does not back down) would be to effectively ghettoize the Catholic Church.

In other words, the church can still exist without violating its conscience only by turning inward. If they hire and serve people of your their faith, then they’re okay. This, of course, would predictably result in the church retreating from its mission to care for the sick and poor, and instead focus solely on serving the internal spiritual needs of its own flock. As Kirsten Powers points out, “We saw that recently when Catholic adoption and foster-care services closed in Massachusetts and Illinois rather than comply with state mandates that they place children with gay parents. Who lost? Parentless children.”

Actually, we all lose out when that happens. Everyone, that is, except government, loses.

With religious institutions out of the way, the only people providing such care would be governmental agencies. Churches would become even less relevant in the lives of ordinary people than they already are. Government will be their savior. Eventually, I suspect, many churches would whither away.

Navel-gazing, of course, is not the true calling of the church.

Erick Metaxas has written eloquently about the life of William Wilberforce, a heroic British Parliamentarian who worked tirelessly to end the British slave trade. As Metaxas notes, the notion that the church should focus solely on spiritual matters is a relatively modern, and inherently flawed, phenomenon.

As Metaxas writes:

Wilberforce and his friends lived at a time when there was no false division between faith and works, or between evangelism and social outreach. These were simply two sides of the coin that was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The great 17th century evangelist George Whitfield spent as much time establishing orphanages as preaching – and he preached 18,000 sermons. Caring for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, and helping the poor were all explicitly and exclusively Christian ideas, so atheists, agnostics, and nominal Christians were neither involved in them, nor in abolition.

Metaxas goes on to note where things went wrong. Essentially, Christians were ironically victims of their own success. The church was replaced by secular institutions,

because doing good to one’s fellow man had become so popular, it eventually became unmoored from its explicitly Christian roots. Something called the “Social Gospel” came into being, where some jettisoned the theology of Jesus’ divinity and miracles, and decided that “doing good” was all the Christianity they needed. In reaction to this – tragically – many Christians decided, around 1920, to focus almost exclusively on evangelism and on theological fundamentals, calling themselves “Fundamentalists”. Since then, many Christians have inherited this strange, ironic situation, where those behind social outreach in the first place stepped back and let non-Christians take the lead. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Note: Unlike some of my friends and colleagues, I don’t derive enjoyment from attacking Barack Obama. Sure, I could probably land a great book deal were I to propose writing a book such as, “Why Barack Obama Hates America: And How He Destroyed The Economy and Your Future.” But partisan screeds bore me. I generally view Obama as a decent guy who who has a misguided political philosophy. And I have tried to give him credit when he deserved it (including his decision to go after Osama bin Laden — which I applauded).

Having said that, affronts on religious liberty cannot be excused or brushed aside. Freedom of religion is so fundamental to our nation that it is mentioned in the First Amendment ahead of freedom of speech. Jefferson wrote: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” And the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote: “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”

Religious freedom is an innate civil right, which, by definition, involves “immunity from coercion in civil society.”

This is why we fight.