Sturm: Applying Lincoln to our culture’s civil wars
Last week, as radical Islamists slaughtered 148 Christian students at a Kenyan university, America’s faithful celebrated Easter and Passover in tranquility, demonstrating why religious liberty is not the eccentric uncle in the human-rights family — it’s the matriarch.
Yet with demonic evil spanning the globe, and religion a life-and-death matter, punishment for defending one’s faith is now acceptable in America. Our “live and let live” ethic is increasingly imperiled. Witness the firestorm after Indiana became the 20th state to enact its version of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In our morally upside-down world, we accommodate the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s “Death to America”-shouting ayatollahs but not our citizens eager to preserve our bedrock values. They’re told to Think Again about their inherent right to religious liberty, the principle that created America.
Founded by righteous people fleeing religious persecution, and inspired by patriots proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death,” America became an unrivaled beacon of hope, tolerance and prosperity. This was “not a result of accident,” Abraham Lincoln reasoned, but the product of our founders’ “wise and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures.”
Embedded in the Declaration of Independence, one of history’s most consequential documents, is “the principle of liberty to all,” which Lincoln believed “clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.”
So indispensable is religious liberty and the virtuous citizenry it encourages, America’s founders implanted it in our spiritual DNA and the Constitution’s First Amendment, making it government’s duty to protect. Where governments have crushed religious liberty, as in Nazi Germany, it’s those practicing the “Golden Rule” who’ve refused to follow tyrannical mobs.
Lincoln believed our liberty-preserving system would inspire future generations to counter the “tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants,” a confidence increasingly imperiled by a new credo: “Give me your religious liberty, or lose your livelihood.”
Consider the boycott threats based on alleged anti-gay bigotry raining on Indiana after it adopted the kind of religious-freedom law that protects long-standing traditions of all faiths, from Native Americans to Zoroastrians.
Like the Ted Kennedy-sponsored federal law — passed nearly unanimously and signed by President Clinton — and the 1998 Obama-backed Illinois law, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the government from substantially burdening someone’s religious beliefs without a compelling state interest and only in the least intrusive manner.
Anyone claiming a religious-rights violation can seek redress in court, though in the few cases involving marriage rituals, religious-liberty defenses haven’t prevailed. A New Mexico photographer, a Washington-state florist and a Colorado baker, all Christians with gay clientele — but resisting government-coerced participation in same-sex weddings — have lost in court.
Nevertheless, outraged Indiana-boycotters included Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act predates the federal law and is stronger than Indiana’s. Will Malloy advocate boycotting his own state? Decrying discrimination, Apple CEO Tim Cook jumped on the boycott bandwagon, but will he stop operating in countries — such as Iran — that brutalize women and hang gays?
Last week, a small-town Indiana pizzeria was hounded into closure after its Christian owners — who’d served all comers — told a reporter they wouldn’t cater a hypothetical same-sex wedding.
Would tolerance-enforcers harass a lesbian photographer for declining the business of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, a Jewish baker for refusing to make a “Happy Birthday, Hitler” cake or a Muslim printer who wouldn’t create an anti-Muhammad poster? Must a Catholic OB-GYN perform abortions? Each of these conscientious objectors has moral justification, but no religious doctrine sanctions a refusal to serve African-Americans, which is bigotry.
In truth, the list of unconscionable hypotheticals is endless, but actual disputes are rare. That’s a tribute to America’s unusually tolerant society, where prejudices dissolve through exposure to moral suasion and where everyone’s dignity and beliefs — even the objectionable — can be respected.
To preserve harmony and avert unnecessary civil wars, can’t we agree that good-faith people shouldn’t be coerced into performing services they deem morally objectionable?
One hundred fifty years ago — mere weeks before the Confederacy’s April 9 surrender and Lincoln’s April 14 assassination — a humbled president delivered his second inaugural address to a crowd anxious for an account of the war. Instead, they heard Lincoln’s most profound reflections, only 701 words, on the war’s meaning: the preservation of the divinely inspired liberties on which America was founded.
Speaking humbly to an audience that included slavery supporters, Lincoln counseled “malice toward none, with charity for all” in pursuit of a “just and a lasting peace,” prompting former slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass to brand the speech “a sacred effort.”
Think Again — to preserve America as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, shouldn’t we strive to emulate Lincoln’s unifying absence of malice and show respect for those with sincere religious conviction?
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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