Some secularists seem to like one-way streets. Their distaste for Christianity leads them to seek to drive it not only from the public square but even from any provision of education, health care, and welfare services. Ironically, intolerance of Christianity and Christian culture is proclaimed most often in the name of tolerance: Christianity must not be tolerated because of the need for greater tolerance.
At present, the most preferred means for addressing perceived intolerance seems to be antidiscrimination legislation. Across the Anglosphere and in many Western nations, the idea of antidiscrimination has shown enormous power to shape public opinion. It is being used to redefine marriage and to make a range of relationships acceptable as the foundation for new forms of the family. Antidiscrimination legislation, in tandem with new reproductive technologies, has made it possible for children to have three, four, or five parents, relegating the idea of a child being brought up by his natural mother and father to nothing more than a majority adult preference. The rights of children to be created in love and to be known and reared by their biological parents receives scant consideration when the legislative agenda is directed to satisfying adult needs and ambitions.
Until relatively recently, antidiscrimination laws usually included exemptions for churches and other religious groups so that they could practice and manifest their beliefs in freedom. That word exemptions is actually a misnomer, suggesting as it does some sort of concession from the state to eccentric minorities. These provisions are better described as protections of religious freedom—and such protections are increasingly being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new antidiscrimination measures, with existing protections eroded or construed away by the courts.
In Australia last year, the act of Parliament decriminalizing abortion in the State of Victoria included provisions that made a mockery of conscientious objection, requiring doctors who object to refer patients to medical practitioners who will provide abortion. Where an abortion is deemed necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman, doctors and nurses are legally obliged to provide it, regardless of any conscientious objections they may have.
The debate surrounding the abortion law in Victoria was significant for a number of other reasons. Pro-abortion commentators attacked “conscientious objection” as nothing more than a way for doctors and nurses to impose their morality on their patients. Victoria’s statutory charter of rights, which purports to protect freedom of religion, conscience, and belief, was shown to be a dead letter when it comes to abortion, thanks to a clause that expressly excludes any law concerning abortion from its coverage. The human-rights industry overlooked the issues of conscience that the legislation raised, including Amnesty International, which was founded on respect for conscience but recently embraced abortion as a human right.
The legalization of same-sex marriage has even more momentous potential to curtail religious freedom. Churches and ministers of religion who decline to bless such marriages have generally been protected. But in such places as Canada, this protection is not extended to civil-marriage celebrants, even when the plain meaning of the statutory provision says they are protected. Antidiscrimination laws are also raising serious freedom-of-religion issues for churches in counseling, education in secondary schools, the hiring of facilities, and arrangements in housing, conference, and aged-care centers. The new Equality Act in the United Kingdom will make it illegal for any church to prefer faithful Christians in employment, unless they are leading worship or teaching doctrine full-time.
How should Christians respond to this growing intolerance? Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to search for answers to questions of meaning and value and to live publicly and privately in accordance with our answers is an essential part of human fulfillment and happiness. It also gives rise to other important freedoms, such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought, and conscience. Believers should not be treated by the government and the courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always yield to the secular agenda, especially when religious people are overwhelmingly in the majority. The opportunity to contribute to community and the public good is a right of all individuals and groups, including religious ones. The application of laws within democracies should facilitate the broadening of these opportunities, not their increasing constraint.
Modern liberalism has strong totalitarian tendencies. Institutions and associations, it implies, exist only with the permission of the state, and, to exist lawfully, they must abide the dictates or norms of the state. Modern liberalism is remote indeed from traditional liberalism, which sees the individual and the family and the association as prior to the state, with the state existing only to fulfill functions that are beyond the means of individuals and families to provide.
Traditional liberalism understood the state to exist to assist (provide subsidium to) the association; the association does not exist to further the function of the state. All this is clearly articulated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example, which provides that parents have “a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” And in the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which provides that the state is to respect the liberty of parents “to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
The great question that exercises modern culture is the meaning of human autonomy and especially sexual freedom. But this struggle is fundamentally a struggle over a religious question—a question that revolves around the reality of a transcendent order. One way of putting it is: “Did God create us, or did we create God?” The limited scope that secularism is prepared to concede to religious beliefs is based on the assumption that we created God. As long as the supremacy remains with man, as long as faith is understood as a private, therapeutic pursuit, it is permissible. But when people insist that faith is more than this and that the supremacy is not ours, religion must be resisted—increasingly through the law.
The use of antidiscrimination law to advance the autonomy project is not new, but the withholding or retrenchment of protections for church agencies and conscience provisions for individuals is a dangerous trend. A number of factors are at play here, but the broad effect is to enforce conformity. It seems that, just as the faith and convictions of individual believers have to be privatized and excluded from public life, the services that church agencies provide to society have to be secularized. The service the Church gives has always been a source of its growth and strength, and church agencies working in the areas of welfare, family, education, and health bear witness to the values that Christian leaders put forward in public debate. Part of the logic in attacking the freedom of the Church to serve others is to undermine the witness these services give to powerful Christian convictions. The goal is to neutralize this witness to the reality of Christian revelation.
The question of autonomy, freedom, and supremacy plays itself out, among other places, in the contest between religious and sexual freedom. Absolute sexual freedom lies at the heart of the modern autonomy project. Well beyond preferences about sexual practices or forms of relationship, it extends now to preferences about the method and manner of procreation, family formation, and the uses of human reproduction in medical research. The message from the earliest days of the sexual revolution, always barely concealed behind the talk of “live and let live” and creating space for “different forms of loving,” was that limits on human sexual autonomy will not be tolerated. This is generating the pressures against religion in public life.
But there will always be limits. There are already abundant indications of human autonomy being diminished as sexual freedom becomes a driver of consumption and an organizing principle of economic life, with the reemergence of slavery in Europe and Asia, the booming exploitation of pornography and prostitution, and the commercialization of surrogacy, egg donation, and the production and destruction of human embryos and human stem-cell lines.
At the level of the individual, the possibilities of happiness are greatly restricted by the lovelessness, fear, and despair that the assertion of the autonomous self against others usually leaves in its wake. Limits are an inescapable part of the human condition. The only questions are whether they will be the limits of servitude or the limits of freedom and whether self-love or love of others will predominate.
Resolving these questions requires us to expand the boundaries of what is thought possible, especially by bringing into focus the experiences and ideas that are not acknowledged or legitimized by the secularist worldview. Put simply, Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and to build a good society—ways that respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have to recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is, even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate influence in the media. This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.
George Cardinal Pell is archbishop of Sydney.