photo credit: Ian Sane

The state’s steady interventions into the lives of those who it seeks to control are rarely checked and constantly occurring. Whether the issue is food production, drug use, automobile manufacturing, education quality, firearms, health care, business licensure, or any number of other areas of life, the flaxen cords of the state loosely encircle themselves around each person, slowly tightening. Only a relative few recognize and object to this trend.

On the matter of religion, however, the opposition is sometimes more vocal and visible. When the state steps on the toes of the churches, some ecclesiastical leaders will inevitably and rightfully squeal. Consider the federal government’s recent imposition of a health care mandate through bureaucratic fiat, requiring religious institutions to offer birth control products to their employees as part of their health care plans. The government paid lip service to religious liberty in supposedly trying to “strike the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventative services,” yet pressed forward in its ruthless attack on religious belief by requiring that churches fund something with which they may doctrinally object.

Every Catholic bishop in the United States of America objected. Baptists considered it “a frontal attack on our religious liberty.” Lutherans called it “an infringement upon the beliefs and practices of various religious communities.” (My church was silent from this strong chorus of church-based opposition.) As is evident from these and many more statements like them, religious reaction to the state’s overreach can be firm and (allegedly) unwavering.

The interference of church by the state is better seen in other countries where state-sanctioned religious institutions are directly funded by tax dollars. The latest intervention comes from one such country, Denmark, where that country’s parliament voted last week to require that homosexuals be entitled to marriage within the "official" Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Social media exploded in the days following this announcement amongst conservative Christians, fearing that this development will accelerate an ongoing trend whereby governments around the world, including America, impose mandates upon churches that run afoul of their faith’s tenets. This fear is well placed. Unfortunately, most people incorrectly diagnose the underlying problem, believing that the government should uphold their definition of morality (or their interpretation of God’s definition). In the example of Denmark, such persons believe that the government should do something about marriage, but that that “something” should be the opposite of what they disagree with. Few entertain the notion that the correct solution is getting the government out of the marriage business altogether.

Of course, Denmark’s example is not directly comparable to events in America, since no “official” church exists, and therefore the temptation for the state to intervene occurs on a more subtle level. But examples like the birth control mandate show that even where such a separation between church and state exists, the state views itself as a God over gods, to regulate religion as best it sees fit (even if offering verbal deference to “balance”). Further, it shows the danger of allowing the state to have such influence over religion, for as its influence increases, so does its perceived authority and justification to enact even more controls.

And so, the faithful are defensively digging in their heels. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decried the recent “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions…” Multi-congregational rallies are being planned and carried out to oppose the state’s attack on “religious freedom.” Conferences are held to discuss the threat of the state against churches.

But is the blame for the attacks on religious freedom to be placed entirely upon the shoulders of the state? Or have the faithful unnecessarily exposed themselves to the interventions they so despise?

Consider the heated battle over the very definition of marriage. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent, hundreds of thousands of man hours exhausted, and no shortage of hot air expended in the public square, all in order to debate and defend God’s definition of marriage. But this unfailingly controversial fight would not be necessary had churches rejected the licensure and regulation of marriage to begin with. Only in the past century has the government’s permission slip been required in order to participate in a private, personal, and religious ceremony—marriage.

Imagine the hellfire and brimstone that churches around the country would call down upon state capitols were the government to require licensure and regulation of baptism. And yet, they have over the years permitted and propped up a system that turns a religious sacrament (marriage) into a government-regulated process, thus implicitly justifying the government’s apostasy from its proper role, which is only to protect the life, liberty, and property of those who have affiliated with it.

Similarly, the very ability of preachers around the country to pound their pulpits and issue commentary on matters they deem important has also been restricted through IRS rules, smothered with bureaucratic intimidation and harassment. In exchange for tax exemption, churches have for the past several decades surrendered their freedom of speech. Fortunately, some are pushing back.

But churches can’t have it both ways. They reap what they have sowed, either through acts of commission or omission. They must sleep in the bed they’ve made with the state, and complaints against government control in religious matters are disingenuous when those persons ignored or consented to government control over things with which they agreed. By rendering too much to Caesar, they increasingly find themselves less able to render to God.

When people surrender control over something to the government and champion its exercise of that power in a way they prefer, they have little right to object when the current of public opinion (inevitably) shifts in a different direction, leading that power to fall into the hands of those who use it in a way that they do not prefer. Never give a power to your friend that you wouldn’t want your enemy to have.

A clear and compelling view on the matter of church and state comes from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ official declaration of belief regarding government, which states that “we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.”

Getting the government out of religious matters requires consistency across the board, and not selective objections which tolerate or welcome one form of control (marriage) while objecting to another (birth control). The strength of churches around the country stems not from having laws enacted which support their doctrine, but from their independence of the state altogether. In short, protecting religious freedom will be best achieved by extricating the state completely from all religious practices and processes.


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