These days “religious freedom” is used by individuals and institutions as an excuse for intolerance, hatred, refusal of justice, and discrimination. “Christianity” is often equivalent to narrow-minded exclusivism and meanness, thus driving away from the Church those who may in fact admire Jesus.

I ran across some observations from one of the theological forebears of my Reformed and Presbyterian tradition the other day that ought to be taken to heart by anyone of any branch of the faith as a corrective to such a twisted version of our religion. John Calvin, you may know, was not exactly a warm, inviting man, but I believe he sought to follow Christ. In his Institutes (II, viii, 55) he wrote*:

Now, since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term ‘neighbor’ includes even the most remote person…we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him. It is the common habit of mankind that the more closely men are bound together by the ties of kinship, of acquaintanceship, or of neighborhood, the more responsibilities for one another they share. This does not offend God; for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves…. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God. who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

Or if Calvin doesn’t have sufficient authority for you, how about this from the Gospel of Mark (12:28-31):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

*Original gender-specific language retained. Footnotes omitted.

© 2015 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

When the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision came out earlier this week, I said to my wife that it sounded a great deal like the 16th century principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the realm, his the religion”), an agreement reached in 1555 in which the religion of a ruler within a territory of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) determined that of the ruled. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism were legal. Calvinism and any Anabaptist spin on Christian faith were outlawed. Those who practiced anything but the two legal religions were considered heretics and subject to execution. Should someone wish to follow one’s conscience rather than the dictates of the state, he or she could leave the territory with his or her possessions.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby and other “closely-held” companies, in which the owner’s religion trumps a woman’s right to insurance that covers certain contraceptives. Even if the woman does not share the owner’s viewpoint, her conscience and what she may do with her life are effectively held hostage to the CEO’s faith. If she wants her company’s insurance carrier to pay for an IUD, which may be prohibitively expensive at minimum wage, then she can either somehow pay for it herself or leave and find new employment where the religion of the one doesn’t trump the right of conscience of the many. This situation is exactly the same as cuius regio. Just change “territory of the HRE” to “corporation.” What’s next? Having all employees of closely-held for-profits sign statements of faith?

I am really, really tired of seeing “religious freedom” used as an excuse for selfish, oppressive, unjust practices which would make Jesus weep. Here is One who in fact sought to free people–especially the vulnerable, common folk–from the demands of a religion and its leaders that sought to control every detail of their lives. He said, in the lectionary reading for this Sunday: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The demands of those now using “religious freedom” to push all kinds of hateful, oppressive agendas, indeed to lay the groundwork for a theocracy, are diametrically opposed to the gentle, lowly care of Jesus. If this is what a “Christian” is, then those who of us who indeed seek to follow the humble, loving Lord need to find a new name for our faith. 

Religion has become a cruel idol, before which some demand we bow or else. Paul Tillich, in a late 1940s sermon entitled “The Yoke of Religion,” warned of the danger of what has in fact come to pass in 2014, but also of the possibility if we truly follow Christ: “We are all permanently in danger of abusing Jesus by stating that He is the founder of a new religion, and the bringer of another, more refined, and more enslaving law. And so we see in all Christian Churches the toiling and laboring of people who are called Christians, serious Christians, under innumerable laws which they cannot fulfill, from which they flee, to which they return, or which they replace by other laws. This is the yoke from which Jesus wants to liberate us. He is more than a priest or a prophet or a religious genius. These all subject us to religion. He frees us from religion. They all make new religious laws; He overcomes the religious law.”

God help us and make us truly free!

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.