When Should Christians Engage in Civil Disobedience?

Recently, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) heaped contempt upon five ministers called to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The men were there to raise religious liberty concerns over the Health and Human Services Department’s policy of forcing institutions to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to their employees, even when the institutions found these options morally objectionable. Though Romans Catholics were particularly stung by this policy, four other members of the clergy—two Baptists, a Lutheran, and a Jew—came as co-belligerents for the cause of freedom of conscience.

Connolly’s fulminations included the charge that they were being used for “shameful” acts of political demagoguery. He mocked their speaking “as if people are going to jail over this. Shame! Everybody knows that’s not true.”

Actually, a lot of people know that it may well be true, and American Christians are preparing for the day when the state will no longer tolerate their “obstructionism,” their “phobias,” and their “offensive utterances.” Thus a half million believers have already signed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which says, in part,

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

If this means jail time over refusal to pay fines, so be it. Of course, the specter of thousands of esteemed ministers in holding cells, getting rap sheets, may cause the commissars to go wobbly and back off for fear of the political repercussions.

Fuss Over Nothing?

Could Connolly be right about this being an overheated tempest in a teapot? After all, America is no Iran or Saudi Arabia, where Christian conversion and gospel preaching land you in prison, and even the grave. We’re a liberal democracy, a pillar of Western civilization, with its constitutive freedom of conscience.

But that status is tenuous. Classic liberalism (following Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, not Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) is dying in the mainline Western nations as paternalists, cultural relativists, sensitivity police, and decadence-normalizers move in with their speech and tax codes to cow the faithful.

Åke Green and Daniel Scot are two cases in point. Green, a Swedish Pentecostal pastor on the little island of Oland, was sentenced to a month in jail for “hate speech” and “agitation against an ethnic group” for preaching a sermon against homosexuality. Fortunately, the Swedish Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling.

Scot, a math professor and Assembly of God minister, had fled Pakistan for the safety of Australia, only to be convicted of “vilifying” Islam when he spoke in churches, explaining the roots of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was ordered to purchase tens of thousands of dollars in ads in Melbourne papers, apologizing to Muslims. He refused, at great legal expense, and the case went to the Victorian Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. And Americans of biblical conviction are also beginning to feel the heat. For instance, a Methodist retreat center in New Jersey lost its tax-exempt status for excluding same-sex marriage ceremonies from its grounds.

When Should We Take a Stand?

Of course, this raises the question of when it is appropriate to take a stand, and when it is better to simply retire from the field, as did Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, when it stopped its adoption ministry because the law said it could not discriminate against same-sex households. After all, obedience to the law is the default position for Christians. That’s the teaching of Romans 13:1-7, which Paul wrote when the government was in many ways unsavory. But this is not an absolute duty, for we rightly celebrate the stand of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3 and Peter and John’s defiance in Acts 4:1-21, where they ignored an order to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name.

Still, we have to avoid the temptation to become hypersensitive to every affront to our scruples. I may be incensed over where some of my tax money is going, but I shouldn’t turn my back on the IRS in protest. And I may dislike the order to move my abortion protest across the street from a “clinic,” but I don’t need to provoke a trip in the paddy wagon by ignoring the mandated buffer zone.

So where do we draw the line? We can certainly follow Peter and Andrew in insisting that our gospel preaching is inviolate. And there are moral outrages that no men of conscience could countenance, such as an order by Nazis to turn in Jews for transport to the death camps. But sometimes, the outrage is more particularly anti-Christian, as when 17th-century Japanese were required to show their disrespect for the faith by stepping on a tile bearing the image of Jesus (fumi-e) or face torture and death. In contrast, in the modern West, speech codes and their supporting humiliations and fines are the bludgeons of choice. But in either case, believers must not flinch from speaking the truth in love, whatever the cost.

What shall we say, then, of that gray area where we’re not murdered or muzzled but merely mugged? I suggest we consider our witness, whether we might be bringing glory or embarrassment to God. For comparison, we might consider our take on other faiths’ possible complaints of ill treatment. For instance, I think we would rally to the side of Muslims forced to serve pork in their rescue mission. Government pressure at this point would be gratuitously offensive, whatever the rationale—whether a recent study placing pork at the base of the food-guide pyramid or the need to sustain the nation’s pork farmers by broad purchase and distribution of their product. But when an American Muslim woman (or her husband) insists that she wear a niqab for her driver’s license photo (not an issue in Saudi Arabia), then popular sentiment rightly shifts to the government’s side, which counts an ID showing only the eyes an absurdity. By extension, we should reflect on how reasonable or absurd our own complaint might be.

Should Even Unreasonable Religious Beliefs Be Protected?

Of course, the public may not “get it” the first time through. We may need to strive mightily to make our point that a certain religious conviction or principle is crucial to us and that when the state slights our conscience, it behaves badly. Such was the burden on the Miami-area Santeria, the cult sacrificing chickens in their worship. Defenders did well to note that their killings were humane and that there was already a lot of bird “sacrifice” in the land, whether by KFC or the members of Ducks Unlimited.

Some beliefs, though, are not only curious, but dangerous: a Jehovah’s Witness refusing a C-section meant to save her unborn child because she objects to the accompanying blood transfusion; a Christian Science couple declining treatment for their son’s bowel obstruction that could rupture and cause death from peritonitis; a Christian school proudly declaring itself exempt from the general fire code. But the government can be just as unreasonable in pressing its will upon the faithful.

As we make our case for liberty, we need to show our logic, expose the illogicality of our foes, link arms with co-belligerents, exhibit dignity in the face of indignities, and make it very clear that there are limits to our flexibility. The five ministers who testified before the House committee—Meir Soloveichik, Matthew Harrison, Craig Mitchell, William Lori, and Ben Mitchell—served us well in this regard. But the public debate continues, and it may well happen that Representative Connolly and his ilk will not grasp the gravity of the situation until the jail doors slam on dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of clergy.

  • Steve Cornell

    Thank you for this wisely articulated piece! As I concluded it, I thought of how much we need wisdom — humble, mature wisdom. I particularly appreciated your summary: “As we make our case for liberty, we need to show our logic, expose the illogicality of our foes, link arms with co-belligerents, exhibit dignity in the face of indignities, and make it very clear that there are limits to our flexibility.”

    A failure of Christians to engage at this level at least partly explains why we are where we are today. I am so grateful for efforts to train young men and women toward such engagement!

    Christian living and witness is more complex in a democratic society than many realize. But this complexity intensifies where the ethic of absolute personal liberty is widely embraced. David B. Hart has written about this:

    “…. a society that believes this (ethic) must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any higher value than choice, or of any transcendent Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make from a universe of morally indifferent but variable desirable ends unencumbered by any prior grammar of obligation or value (in America, we call this the wall of separation).” (In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, pp. 1-2).

  • K Radil

    It’s not only church organizations that are concerned, but small businesses like mine, who hold to the teaching of the word and do not want any of the money that we would put to employee’s insurance to be blood money for abortifacient drugs.

    There are some that would rationalize that taxes already go to these services. I would ask why? Allowing laws to desensitize as they make their way….if you look at history, you will find that this is precisely how what we now term in a ironically positive light, ‘progressives’, progress.
    The subtle deception started long ago in the garden of Eden. Redefine to rationalize and validate why you do ‘in disobedience to the Lord’…hence we no longer sin. The war is on both fronts, withing the church…False teachers need to be exposed. A little bit of yeast works through the whole dough. There are many in the fold that need to be called out for turning a blind eye to abortion. A fallible man made law makes it legal does not make it right in the eyes of God and we’re paying the consequences. If believers stand silent on this mandate in the health care bill, which is a direct violation to the 1st amendment and is another pivotal strategy with secularists to silence those in the religious square, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

    The heart of the matter is the heart of the matter and the fight with those who are not believers has to be on our knees and proclaiming truth in love. Yes, we can have righteous anger but in our anger do not sin. We can call out the deceptions without maligning a person or persons. Many will say that a blind person cannot see, so what’s the point? Jesus was exposing all kinds of things about the rulers of the day. We need to adhere to Ephesians 6:10-18, individually to be able to fight the battle collectively.
    Yes we have a sovereign God, but I also believe that we have to put feet to our faith for such a time as this. Spirit & Truth go hand in hand. Like Nehemiah, we can rebuild. With God ALL things are possible.

  • JT


    1) The Manhattan is not for “the common good,” unless by “common good” one means a heterosexual-Judeo-Christian common good.

    The declaration says: “the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife… are foundational principles of justice and the common good.”

    In essence, the Manhattan Declaration accuses anyone who accepts marriage as other than just the union between one man and one woman as being obstructives of justice.

    2) Health Insurance companies, as members and participants of a FREE MARKET ECONOMY, should have the right to offers products and services to the people they serve.

    While the re is a lot of talk about the right of religious institutions to deny birth control coverage to their employees, what about the right of business to provide, free of charge and out of their own pocket, products and services to the people they serve that would save the insurance companies millions of dollars.

    It is a well known fact that is is much much cheaper for insurance companies to provide people with free birth control than to care for pregnancies. Should they have the right, in this CAPITALIST society, to take measures that make good financial sense?

    No religious institution is going to have to pay for anyone’s birth control. Insurance companies should have the right to reach out to the people they serve. Let the free markets work.

    • John Carpenter

      1) Marriage is only a union between a man and a woman. God created it; not the state. The state cannot arbitrarily change it. Homosexual practices are inherently immoral and cannot constitute a moral union that the state should protect.

      2) The problem is the law does not allow the market to decide what the insurance companies have to cover but stipulates that they must cover birth controls that some find religiously objectionable, thus forcing some people to choose between violating what they believe is God’s law or violating the law of man.

    • Melody

      JT birth control has been around a long time and insurance companies have NEVER provided it for free. If it benefited them to do so, then they would have done so. It is a ridiculous argument that you keep making.

      The rest is about religious freedom. If you don’t like the Manhattan Declaration, then don’t sign it. It is a free country, maybe, for some people anyway.

    • Jen

      Wow, thank you for this. I completely agree! Melody, Insurance Companies HAVE offered it for free or for a discounted price.

      We live in a real world where people don’t have sex just to procreate. If you are seriously pro-life, then you have to ACCEPT that contraception PREVENTS abortions.

  • John Carpenter

    “they came for the . . .” Catholics . . . If we don’t stand with them when they are being targeted, don’t be surprised if no one stands with us when it’s our turn.

    Martin Neimoller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.:
    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  • Earl

    Are we starting to see why Muslims don’t want to be westernized now? It no longer means freedom of religion, freedom of expression, association, etc. Now even the Christians are starting to see the decadence of the West, our worship of Mammon and Molech and our imperial culthailing for the return of Caesar. Now ever the Christians are starting to see the fruits of feminism and the abandonment of Natural Law.

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  • Ancius

    “What shall we say, then, of that gray area where we’re not murdered or muzzled but merely mugged?”

    Citizens, religious or otherwise, need to try to be reasonable. For starters, this means toning down the hyperbole (“merely mugged”). It also means trying to sympathetically understand what things look like from the other side, and trying to understand the best justifications of opposing points of views. It’s not absurd for Connolly to draw the conclusion he has drawn. One can be informed, respectful and sympathetic towards Catholicism and yet still be baffled at what the conflict here with religious freedom is supposed to be. A principled explanation of the conservative outrage is surprisingly hard to come by.

    • Earl

      Ancius, what do you call it when you are forced to give up your money to someone who thinks they “have a right to it”- a person who has a gun and a baton on their belt and will use it if you don’t give up your money? That is called mugging.

      Here is “reasonable” for you. NO. YOU CANNOT HAVE MY MONEY. Not for any reason. You are cut off. Grounded. Punished. I chose to be charitable to greatful, humble, actual poor people- not you.

      If you want my money, or a more reasonable answer, bring your tazer, and we’ll talk more.

  • Gordon Hazell
  • sam b

    Daniel Scot’s appeal was heard by the Victorian Supreme Court. There has never been an Australian Supreme Court.

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