Conscience and Religion-Deaf Government

by
April 23, 2014

The conscience is a curious thing. It is part of each of us, and yet seems to operate independently of us. It’s like a little piece of the image of God that isn’t quite in step with our wills. An internal judge, it constantly declares us innocent or guilty as it subjects our every word, deed, and thought to its own moral standard. The Apostle Paul wrote that the conscience pronounces a person guilty or innocent of violating the law of God written on the heart (Romans 2:15). He also defended his personal integrity by claiming his conscience was clear regarding his conduct in the world and toward the church (2 Corinthians 1:12).

Conscience demands conformity to its moral code. When it doesn’t get it, it demands an explanation or accommodation it can live with. The hardest thing for any person to do is to escape its pronouncement of guilt. It can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), but, except for the most calloused of people, it cannot be silenced.

Strip a person of everything he has, and all he will have left is his own sense of moral rectitude. Force him to violate that, and you will have finally succeeded in truly destroying him. Currently, thousands of people in this country are facing the prospects of that destructive blow as they wrestle with the competing demands of conscience and their government.

Many find themselves threatened by a mandate from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs and devices in health insurance policies offered to their employees. These individuals cannot with clear conscience obey this dictate. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to take up a challenge to this mandate. In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties they will decide whether or not the government has the power to dictate to people of faith whether their faith-informed consciences will be protected against government dictate. Clearly, much is at stake in this decision.

Others find themselves at odds with local non-discrimination laws and policies that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in providing commercial services. So, for example, the owners of Elane Photography in New Mexico were asked by a lesbian couple to photograph their wedding ceremony. Devout Christians, Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin believe the Bible teaches that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman. For them, photography is a creative act. As photographers, they enter into the subject and interpret its meaning and significance through the camera lens. They didn’t see how they could possibly find significance in an event they believed was not even valid. Consequently, they could not bring themselves to participate in this lesbian couple’s wedding without violating their deeply held religious beliefs. They knew they could not escape the guilty verdict of their biblically-informed conscience or the displeasure of God if they accepted this job.

In an effort to be honest, something the biblically-informed conscience requires (Leviticus 19:11; Proverb 13:5), the photographers told this lesbian couple that they could not participate in their wedding because they believed that marriage was exclusively the union of one man and one woman. For this, they were hauled before the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, convicted of violating the state’s non-discrimination law, and fined. Understandably, the Huguenins sued in response. The case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, as well. Regrettably, the Court chose not to hear their case. As a result, New Mexico’s religion-deaf non-discrimination law stands for the foreseeable future, as do similar laws and policies across the country.

In my conversations with people about this situation, some have stated that these photographers should just have lied about their reason for not photographing this lesbian couple’s wedding. They could simply have said that they were already committed for that date, for example. That’s a simple enough solution on the surface, and it probably would have worked. The only problem, of course, is that it would put these Christians in the position of having to violate their consciences by lying in order to avoid the repercussions of telling the truth. They chose to side with their consciences. I commend them.

What about the thousands of other faithful people who will be caught in the same situation, especially now that they know they as well may not even get the highest court in the land to hear their appeal?

Many will likely simply say their calendars are full rather than endure what this couple went through.

And what about those who decide that it’s easier to simply photograph the wedding, bake the cake, provide the contraceptives, abortion drugs and devices, or succumb to government dictates in some other way their consciences tell them they should not?

They will avoid the public haranguing, censure, and cost, but will their consciences be satisfied? Likely, for many, the loss of personal integrity will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Further, having compromised their convictions once in order to avoid a difficult situation, will they be less able to make a hard decision when the next compromise is required? As for all of us, the first lie or compromise is the hardest. Will they find it easier to lie or succumb in other areas of their lives now that they have already breached that area of personal integrity?

I am also concerned about the effect of guilt many of these men and women will live with as they are constantly reminded that they chose the path of personal protection rather than personal integrity. They will live with that uncleanness, and will not be able to wash that stain off their hands, or their consciences. The Accuser, himself, no doubt, will be whispering in their spiritual ears that they are unworthy of the Lord.

I fear for these faithful men and women who will live with the realization every day that they cannot teach their children it is always right to tell the truth or to do the right thing without being reminded by their own consciences that they themselves do not measure up to the very standard they espouse to their children. They will stand accused and convicted by their own consciences that they are hypocrites.

Some, no doubt, will believe by lying they are serving a higher standard, like the Hebrew midwives in the Bible who lied about why they could not kill the firstborn males of the Hebrew slaves. Those who compromise their convictions and participate in a conscience-defiling activity may say they decided to treat it as an opportunity to sacrifice themselves in service to their fellow man. Yet, in the very act of justifying their action, they demonstrate the cry of their consciences to be appeased.

Tragically, many others will simply decide to vacate the space and do something else with their lives. Yet, their consciences will be no more satisfied. They will have avoided one run-in with their conscience only to subject themselves to another as it reminds them daily that they are not fulfilling God’s plan for their lives. Both society and the faithful individual will be left impoverished by that choice.

The conscience is a stubborn thing. It can be suppressed, lied to, drowned in alcohol and drugs or the drone of myriad activities, but it cannot be ignored. It will require an answer, an excuse, or repentance whenever it is violated. Many thousands of Christians are about to be forced by their own governments, even their neighbors and friends, to choose between them and their consciences. This is a no-win situation for them, one which should never have been forced on them. Our governing authorities can do better. Their deafness to the demands of faith on the individual is the very thing our Founders attempted to prevent when they ratified the First Amendment to our Constitution. We must insist that government do better—for the sake of conscience.


Barrett Duke
Barrett Duke has served in the ERLC’s Washington office as Vice President for Public Policy and Research since 2003. He came to the ERLC’s Nashville office in 1997 after serving as founding pastor of a church in Colorado. Barrett holds a BA from Criswell College, an MA from Denver Seminary, and a PhD from the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.