Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr.'s Perspective:
During the 12 days of Christmas, Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus, the silent witness of the slaughtered innocent children of Bethlehem and at the conclusion of the 12 days, Epiphany marks the adoration by the three Kings, with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, and the manifestation of God in a baby lying in a manger.
The celebrations straddle the threshold between the old and the new year. This is a time for looking back at the old and for looking forward, with renewed hope and resolution. As Christians remember the events of Christmas, they are struck by strong contrasts. A young virgin gives birth to a baby boy who is called Prince of Peace. A tyrant king commands the bloody massacre of hundreds of children.
But the history is even richer, more complex, and loaded with political implications. While following Jewish scripture as recorded in the Book of Exodus, Christians also remember the tyrant king of Egypt who commanded that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth. Jewish and Christian revelation speak of rescue from savage dictatorship and abuse of power that destroys defenseless human beings and violates the conscience of those forced to do the dirty deed of destroying innocent lives.
On this past Christmas Eve, the British author Melanie Phillips, who is also Jewish, published in The Daily Mail a defense of Christmas cheer and of the rationality of Christianity as opposed to the dreary denial of God in Richard Dawkins's atheistic proselytism.
Phillips notes that Christianity underpins western civilization's most fundamental moral values, held dear by both believers and nonbelievers, “such as the difference between right and wrong, respect for other people, and doing good things rather than bad.” And she declares: “Yet I passionately believe that if Britain and the West are to continue to be civilized places, it is imperative that the decline in Christianity be reversed.”
Phillips proposes the need for an ethical foundation that instills respect for moral truth, rather than the “dominance of lies” and for the conviction that government is distinct from religious rule so as to safeguard participatory democracy.
Just such a foundation was carefully designed by Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Washington, and the others at the American founding, when they drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
They appealed to natural law, inalienable rights, and to the creator as sources of moral truth and rule of law, in order to defend personal freedom in pursuit of happiness within an ordered polity of participatory democracy.
Nonetheless, in America, during the Christmas season of 2012, the federal government mandated that a family-run, successful, retail corporation comply with the imposed and intrusive obligation to cooperate with the destruction of innocent human life, even in violation of their own moral conscience and the mission statement of their business enterprise.
Hobby Lobby is suing the federal government to gain exemption from the HHS mandate, under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, that now forces all businesses to supply their employees with free access to abortion-inducing drugs that intercept and dislodge newly conceived embryos, thereby destroying very young human beings within their mothers.
Right after Christmas, Supreme Court Justice and Obama appointee, Sonia Sotomayor denied Hobby Lobby's request for emergency relief from the recent decision of the Tenth Circuit Court's decision to deny injunction against the HHS mandate for Hobby Lobby.
Consequently, on Jan. 1, Hobby Lobby was given the choice to violate its conscience and its religious beliefs by complying with the government's requirement to facilitate free abortifacients or risk paying fines of up to $1.3 million per day and exposure to private suits while waiting for an appeal to the Supreme Court to run its course.
When America's founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, they courageously committed an act of rebellious treason so that the English colonies in North America might be freed from intrusive government intervention in conflict with their conscience and their religious beliefs.
Not long after, once the war was won and the United States of America had been founded, the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed protection from any governmental attempts to impose religious practices in violation of an individual's conscience.
The First Amendment, with its prohibition of an established religion, was drafted to protect and foster the free exercise of religion. Nonetheless, the Obama White House has been persistently reducing the range of religious freedom by claiming that only institutions that are composed of mostly believers and minister to mostly believers and offer specifically religious services can qualify as religious institutions and therefore enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, with its guarantee of freedom.
Cardinal DiNardo of Houston, Texas tersely declared that, under the White House's strict regulations and narrow determination of religious freedom, not even Jesus would qualify, since he cured the sick and aided the poor whether they were Jews, gentiles, pagans, or any nonbelievers. Of course, he also did carpentry and other crafts for his clients, none of whom seem to have considered themselves “Christian.”
If, for the White House, Jesus wouldn't qualify for religious freedom, then who can? Well, perhaps a church or temple, but only, it would seem, in their activities of worship among their members. Any activity, even of a “religious institution,” outside of worship would be construed by Obama's new rules as no longer enjoying First Amendment protection of religious freedom.
In response to the HHS mandate and the erosion of religious freedom, Christian leaders of all denominations, are joined by the leaders of Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and committed believers of many faiths, in public protest, even defiance, of this violation of conscience.
If the government can force Christians to pay for the morning after pill for their employees, can they force the Jewish owner of a Kosher deli to offer free ham and cheeseburgers to his employees? If so, what will be next?
What are the limits to the reach of government power?
James Madison, one of the principal founders and author of the First Amendment, recognized the fundamental importance of conscience and religious freedom. “Conscience is the most sacred of all property,” wrote Madison. In fact, nothing is more intimate within us, nothing is more essential for human freedom than to be able to act according to personal conviction.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that he entered the revolution zealously “to obtain religious, as well as civil liberty.” And he expressed his prayerful hope for the nation: “God grant that this religious liberty may be preserved in the States to the end of time.”
The founders understood that without the protection of conscience and religious freedom all of our rights would be at risk. The founders understood that religious freedom includes the right to worship according to one's own convictions and the right to organize a vast array of activities inspired by faith. Recognizing that all freedom depends upon the freedom of conscience and religion, the founders understood this freedom as the “First Liberty.”
The founders' principal concerns were to defend Americans' rights from dictatorial intrusion and to defend all from the political imposition of a particular religious denomination. But today, the risk faced by believers in the West comes mostly from a secularist ideology and its rationalist denial of religion.
Sadly, in its response to litigation against the HHS mandate, the Obama administration has been promoting the worst form of this secularist ideology. Catholic and evangelical universities are being told that they are not religious institutions and therefore do not enjoy the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. And business owners like the Green family of Hobby Lobby are being told that their conscientious convictions and religious belief have no weight in the secular arena of retail business. So they must all comply with the mandate even if that entails violating their conscience and their faith.
During the revolution, American rebels rejected the British monarch and promised allegiance to God.
Their brave conviction has been expressed with the poetic, yet stark declaration: “We have no king but King Jesus.” On Jan. 6 — the 12th day of Christmas — many Americans remembered how, at the Epiphany, three Kings brought gifts to baby Jesus to offer their homage as his subjects.
All political power is subject to his sweet rule, which begins in the human heart and establishes good and evil and demands respect for the human dignity of all, especially the weakest among us.
Let us hope, along with Charles Carroll, James Madison, and the other founders, that the Obama administration will return to respect for the full range of religious freedom and respect for personal conscience, and that those freedoms won by the founders may also be protected by the Supreme Court, so that we can be good American citizens, while being free, if we so desire, to join the Magi in giving homage to King Jesus.
Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy.
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