Rendering Unto God

Petty Officer William Downes recently did something that, 100 years ago, would have earned him a flogging, or perhaps execution: He committed mutiny. Last fall Downes was discharged from the navy for refusing to perform his duties at the Naval Academy. Downes said he could no longer serve after discovering that navy hospitals perform abortions. He told reporters: “Our present regime is acting immorally.” Is this the new pattern for Christian citizenship? Have democratic means of reform been foreclosed? These questions were raised by me and others in a symposium titled “The End of Democracy?” in the journal First Things. Our goal was to stimulate debate, and that we did, drawing fire from both Left and Right. A bunch of “theocrats” yearning for “a Christian nation,” sneered Jacob Heilbrunn in the New Republic. Sheer “anti-Americanism,” snapped neoconservative Norman Podhoretz. I was stunned. After all, the symposium’s themes were hardly new. Since Roe v. Wade, Christians have criticized the imperial judiciary. Indeed, since the early church, we have debated our dual citizenship in the City of God and the City of Man. So why the hysterical reaction? Most of our critics didn’t understand how far the law has gone in shutting the door on democratic remedies to moral disputes. In Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court shifted the constitutional basis for abortion from a vague privacy right to a defined Fourteenth Amendment liberty. The justices then pronounced the case closed, thus etching abortion in stone. Americans “rely” on abortion, they argued; it’s time everyone accepted “a common mandate” imposed by the Court. Thus the justices removed a fundamental moral issue from democratic debate and recast it as a constitutional right defined by the Court alone. To justify this move, the majority defined liberty as an individual’s right to determine the meaning of life and the universe. This is radical individualism, and it shackles any attempt to frame a common moral consensus. The Court then ruled any moral challenge out of bounds. In Romer v. Evans, the Court dismissed any morally based law as motivated by sheer “animosity” or hatred. Thus, anyone who adheres to a transcendent moral standard is effectively disenfranchised. These radical ideas are not without real-world consequences. Two circuit courts used Casey’s language to uphold assisted suicide—cases now on appeal to the Supreme Court. Any law could be fair game. So what? some respond. Christians have lived under oppressive regimes before. But when the democratic options are foreclosed, when we are barred from the public square, inevitably laws will be passed that contravene biblical morality—forcing on us questions of allegiance. This was the warning of the First Things symposium. That it triggered such outrage is a useful reminder of the transience of political alliances. The charges of “anti-Americanism” recall C. S. Lewis’s observation that, in any secular society, Christians will ultimately “be treated as an enemy.” Why? Because we maintain a dual loyalty—which others will misinterpret as disloyalty. Whatever the cost, we must proclaim God’s judgment on a state that denies protection to the vulnerable and then denies the citizens’ right to redress the injustice.


Chuck Colson


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