Philosophers have argued for centuries over whether it is ever justifiable to break the law in the service of a higher cause. The question acquired a new complexity with the advent of societies such as the United States, in which laws were enacted by elected representatives and not decreed by a monarch or dictator.
Few today would criticize civil rights activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for participating in or condoning the violation of laws that perpetuated white supremacy -- with the understanding that they would face punishment for their actions. But such civil disobedience is rightly regarded as the exception that proves that the proper redress for unjust laws lies in legislation or in court rulings based on the Constitution.
That cautious approach has been thrown to the wind by Christian religious leaders who, even as they insist on their right to shape the nation's laws, are reserving the right to violate them in situations far removed from King's witness.
Last week, a group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders released a “declaration” reminding fellow believers that "Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required." Then, after a specious invocation of King, the 152 signers hurl this anathema at those who would enact laws protecting abortion or extending the rights of civil (not religious) marriage to same-sex couples:
"Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality. . . . We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."
Strong words, but also irresponsible and dangerous ones. The strange land described in this statement is one in which a sinister secularist government is determined to force Christians to betray their principles about abortion or the belief that "holy matrimony" is "an institution ordained by God." The idea that same-sex civil marriage will undermine religious marriage is a canard Californians will remember from the campaign for Proposition 8, as is the declaration's complaint that Christian leaders are being prevented from expressing their "religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife."
This sweeping claim is supported by anecdotes of the sort radio talk-show hosts purvey. For example, the declaration says that "a Methodist institution was stripped of its tax-exempt status when it declined, as a matter of religious conscience, to permit a facility it owned and operated to be used for ceremonies blessing homosexual unions." (In 2007, New Jersey did strip a Methodist camp of its tax privileges under a state recreation program because it no longer was open to all.) For other examples, it must search beyond the United States: "In Canada and some European nations, Christian clergy have been prosecuted for preaching biblical norms against the practice of homosexuality."
The impression left is that the legal environment in which churches must operate is reminiscent of the Roman Empire that threw Christians to the lions. Never mind that advocates of same-sex civil marriage and legal abortion have made significant concessions to believers or that religious groups have recourse to courts, which have aggressively protected the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, exempting believers in some cases from having to comply with applicable laws.
This apocalyptic argument for lawbreaking is disingenuous, but it is also dangerous. Did the Roman Catholic bishops who signed the manifesto consider how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don't like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform? They need to be reminded that this is a nation of laws, not of men -- even holy men.