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It is vitally important for American Christians to understand why threats to religious liberty are growing in our nation. Of course, those called to political activism must understand this trend in order to plan more effective strategies for championing religious liberty. However, it’s just as important for the rest of us to understand if we want to avoid the twin dangers of being naïve about our neighbors’ sins or resenting them. There is a key social dynamic at work.

The open persecution of explicitly anti-Christian tyrants, while harder to endure, is easier to understand than the more complex attacks on the church in America today. From Nero to Kim Jong-un, tyrants have always been more or less the same. Lying behind all their actions, you will find some combination of traditional cultural superstitions, cynical political manipulations, and that special breed of insanity that absolute power always seems to nurture in those who possess it. Small consolation this may be to those who suffer under tyranny, but there are few puzzles about how and why tyrants do what they do.

What we face is different. True, many of those who control the institutions at the top of American civilization seem to be working diligently to make those institutions suppress Christianity. If things were to continue to progress as they have lately (which I do not expect to happen), even the most basic elements of life in our culture—such as holding down a job so we can put food on our families’ tables—will require Christians to compromise their consciences.

Yet these people in power are no Neros. Get to know them, or just listen carefully to what they say, and you will find that they are, humanly speaking, decent people. They don’t know God, but they know the basic rules of common morality—fair play, respecting others, treating people decently. Paul could almost have been writing about these people when he said that unbelievers’ behavior shows the law of God is written on their hearts (Rom. 2:14-15). Yet they invoke these same rules of morality as their justification for rolling back religious freedom; they even invoke tolerance to justify their intolerance. What gives?

Not the Whole Story

One explanation would be simple ignorance. They sincerely believe that what they’re doing is right, just as Typhoid Mary sincerely believed she was helping people when in fact she was killing them. This explanation would find support in the fact that when these people talk about Christianity (or religion in general) they obviously have no idea what it really is.

Such ignorance almost certainly does play some role, but that cannot be the whole story. Given his defective understanding of what religion is—and, for that matter, what a business is—the secularist genuinely doesn’t understand why the owners of a company would feel their consciences were at stake in the company’s actions. Yet if ignorance were the only problem, once the issue became a conflict the secularist would inevitably discover and correct some of his ignorance. He might remain a secularist, but we would expect to see him making some effort to understand his opponents’ point of view and learn at least a little more about religion and business. Yet we see no such learning.

This leads us to another possible explanation. Perhaps the appearance of morality is just an appearance. To many Christians, it seems plausible that the people doing these things really are Neros, intentionally conspiring to destroy the church out of hatred. This explanation would find support in the fact that some supporters of these new policies do openly hope they will suppress Christianity.

We must not discount the fact that the church has deadly enemies, but this is also not the whole story. The people who openly profess these views are almost never the ones in power. They tend to be authors and conference speakers, or at most, obscure college professors. The people who occupy positions of real authority not only don’t talk that way, they pretty convincingly talk the other way. Some people will never be willing to believe that you might find less sin rather than more as you go up the ladder of power, but in this case it’s quite plausible. If nothing else, persecution and conflict is bad for business. The shrewdest cynics understand that fighting about religion detracts from profits.

‘Noetic Effect of Sin’

We will get much further if we bring in what theologians call the “noetic effect of sin.” The sinful mind is morally aware enough to be responsible, yet sunk deeply in ignorance at the same time—especially when it comes to understanding its own motives and culpability. The natural man wants to avoid the awareness of his guilt and fear, and to an astonishingly large extent, he actually does avoid awareness of it. The ignorance is genuine, yet it is a guilty ignorance for which the sinner is answerable. This darkening of the mind can be understood as part of the nature of sin, as God’s punishment, as a gracious restraint on human evil (for the shamelessly self-aware sinner would be even more wicked, and more destructive, than the darkened one) or some combination of these.

Just think about the original act of persecution against one who proclaimed the gospel—the cross itself. When the Romans nailed him to the cross, Jesus asked his father to forgive them, for “they know not what they do.” When the religious authorities came to mock him, he said the same.

Was the cross an innocent mistake? Setting all else aside, if that were the case, there would be no sin on their part and thus nothing to forgive. Jesus wouldn’t have asked his father to forgive them. Those who murdered Christ were culpable. Yet even as he says they need forgiveness, he also says they don’t understand what they’re doing.

Social Basis of Morality

Two recent articles have offered a fascinating theory about the threat to religious liberty that suggests the importance of this noetic effect. They draw on the social psychology of morality recently proposed in the groundbreaking work of Jonathan Haidt, who emphasizes the role of relationships and social groups in the way people think about morality. Few people improve their behavior much strictly on their own initiative, through self-awareness and self-discipline. Our moral development comes much more from our response to other people’s prompting, encouraging and restraining us. While the basic principle here is ancient wisdom, Haidt backs it up with an impressive collection of empirical data, and shows that to some degree this social basis of morality is hard-wired in human physiology. (Unfortunately, he also explains it in terms of evolutionary psychology, but we can separate his empirical data from his explanations of them.)

This is why the Bible keeps admonishing us to strengthen bonds of fellowship in the church, hold one another accountable, and build one another up. It is also why the Bible warns us to be on our guard about conforming to the world within which we live.

However, this is also why the Bible tells us to go out into the world. We are not only to be salt, preserving our part of the world against decay; we are to be light, going forth into the dark places to shine the gospel. Wherever Christians are not present within a cultural group, the group will only become more and more hardened in its own ways. Just as good social prompting begets good character, their absence is the key condition for bad character.

The basic idea of these articles is that, as Christians and secularists increasingly live in separate social groups that don’t know or understand one another, militant secularism has turned in upon itself and become frighteningly self-reinforcing. As the Bible and Haidt’s data warn us to expect, people’s moral thinking tends to be limited to what the members of their social group will prompt and reinforce. In a social group where the response to, say, porn or gossip or theft is negative, members of the group will be much more likely to develop internal scruples against those things. Moral prompts coming from outside the group—such as Christian arguments against militant secularism—tend not to be heard. They only trigger the group’s defense mechanisms, being perceived as a threat to the group from outsiders. The more outsiders demand religious freedom, the more tightly the secularists cling to arguments against it.

The more outsiders demand religious freedom, the more tightly the secularists cling to arguments against it.

Three Lessons

From all this, I would draw three lessons for the general edification of the church. (Political activists will, of course, find much more to chew on.)

  1. We must not allow the secularists’ obvious ignorance about Christianity to tempt us to naiveté. Our secular neighbors’ increasingly negative view of believers is no mere innocent misunderstanding that could be cleared up quickly if only we could communicate better.
  2. We must not allow the explicit, self-conscious enemies of the church to lead us to think that all efforts to roll back religious freedom are part of an intentional secularist conspiracy. It is unlikely we’ll find many Neros about us, and as difficult as it may be for some to believe, the higher you go up the ladder of power the fewer you’ll probably find.
  3. We can do ourselves and our world a huge service through the Christian virtue of hospitality, building bridges of understanding across cultural divides. The sooner we find ways of helping our neighbors think of us as “we” rather than “they,” the better off everyone is going to be.