In Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, set in the first century, the protagonist is a Jewish prince by the name of Judah Ben-Hur. Romans occupy Palestine, and a group called the Zealots plots their overthrow on the grounds of religious objection and national pride. Judah for his part wants to find a peaceful solution, and his conscience prevents him from joining with his countrymen planning an armed insurrection.
But when Judah is approached by his boyhood friend, the ambitious Roman officer Messala, and asked for help identifying the conspirators, here too his conscience prevents him from participating. And for this, Judah finds himself in short-order framed for the crime of trying to assassinate the Roman governor of Judea, and he and his mother and sister are together accused, convicted, and sentenced in short order to be made examples of to any actual would-be troublemakers.
Yes, yes. Ben-Hur is a revenge story after a fashion. But more centrally to the purposes of this discussion, it’s also a story about resisting false choices on the basis of personal conviction; in my view, it’s also a story of religious liberty. Judah exercises his right to not participate in activities which his conscience prevents him from being able to endorse fully, whether that means throwing in his lot with the Zealots or his old friend Messala. And for his trouble, he finds himself persecuted, wrongfully condemned for a crime he didn’t commit.
Yuval Levin wrote an article for First Things from 2016, titled ‘The Perils of Religious Liberty,’ which I think is helpful here.
“Religious liberty, in this view, is therefore not quite a liberal liberty. It is not a freedom to do what you want, but a freedom to do what you must. It describes a duty of society to retreat and give its members space to act on what they deem essential; an acknowledgment not of a human liberty or right, but of a human obligation that precedes the social obligation and so shapes it.”
Let’s apply this mode of thinking to the abortion debate, then. It is not enough for someone to say that their religion and conscience is silent on the question of when life begins, or what life is worthy of living, or whether murder is always wrong. We cannot say the case is closed and there is nothing more to consider at this.
Rather, freedom of religion rightly conceived would ask whether any of the rest of us have an obligation before God to relate to the unborn by either aborting them or defending their right to life against all who might abuse them. And for Christians in particular, the question is whether we will one day give an account for both our active and passive parts played in such matters, whether we passively acquiesced and gave our assent or else acted and argued in defense of the innocent.
And with abortion, the Christian insistence on making illegal this particular kind of murder is predicated on the conviction that we will give an account to our Maker for how we treat men, women, and children of all ages made in His image and therefore ultimately belonging to Him. Indeed, it is entirely relevant to mention here that the summation of all the Law and the prophets as loving the Lord our God with all our being and loving one another as we love ourselves means just this: that we will give an account to the all-seeing Creator of mankind for how we relate to our fellow humans, however old or young they are, since all alike are equal with regards to the Imago Dei, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights including especially the right to life.
To give a counter-example, though, consider the question of Prohibition and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Ratified on January 16, 1919 and taking effect on January 17, 1920, that law of the land said that both the production and sale of liquor was illegal, with no ifs, ands, or buts. And its proponents too held the view that the ends of less public drunkenness and more engaged husbands, fathers, employees, and parishioners justified whatever means necessary to ensure the public good. Yet the moral and legal case for this action was not so clear and certain, and it violated the rights of all who partook in moderation without harm to themselves or others. That is to say, the inalienable right to liberty of those who partook of alcoholic beverages in moderation were violated thereby, and this was itself a social evil which spawned still others, fully justifying the 21st Amendment which repealed the 18th.
Yet still today among some of my relatives and friends the conviction is staunch and unwavering that where drunkenness and alcoholism are both physically and morally unacceptable, unhealthy, ungodly, and foolish, the only correct course for a person of upright and Christian character is to abstain entirely. Where God’s Word tells us to not be drunk, we must not even have a drop. Therefore, anyone who does partake even in moderation is even sinning and should therefore be shunned.
Here too, however, the principle of religious liberty must come to bear. And the question ought to be whether we have an obligation before God to act in such a way as we will be able to give an honorable account to the Judge of all mankind concerning. All questions of religious liberty, therefore, concern whether it can be reasonably argued that we have a duty before God to partake or abstain, to permit or prohibit.
In other words, there is an appropriate time and place for counterarguments to prohibition to the effect that “If you don’t like X, don’t get one;” or “If you think X is wrong, don’t do it.” Those counterarguments must stop cold if nowhere else, however, when X equals taking the life of an innocent other.
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