This past Wednesday, the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services mandate requiring all employers to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs went into effect. Christian business owners, many non-profits, schools, and hospitals can now face legal consequences for refusing to offer services, even if doing so violates their consciences.
As we have been saying for months, this isn’t a Catholic-only issue. It goes to the very heart of our American experiment, and threatens a doctrine the West has cherished for generations. But the word is spreading, and a recent move by one of America’s foremost Evangelical colleges has made it clear that many Christians are willing to stand together in defense of religious liberty.
And as Dr. Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, chairman of the Colson Center, and co-author of the Manhattan Declaration, pointed out at our recent Wilberforce Weekend, it was a Protestant standing up for Catholics who gave us the idea of religious freedom as we now know it when he broke the spiral of silence four centuries ago.
In 1612, the English-speaking world first heard the radical idea of Thomas Helwys, a British missionary who co-founded the Baptist denomination. Helwys sought to challenge King James I’s tyranny over religion. This was no easy or safe task. For years, those who sought to practice Christianity according to their own consciences faced severe persecution. The year before, Baptist Edward Wightman was been burned at the stake for his beliefs. And while Helwys was working in The Netherlands, his own wife was thrown into prison back home.
Desperate to stop the persecution, Helwys spoke up. But rather than beg the king for mercy, he made an audacious move that ultimately cost him his life.
With his book, “A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity,” hot off the press, Helwys attached a polite cover letter and mailed this historic defense of religious liberty to King James. Needless to say, the king was less than pleased, and four years later, Helwys died in Newgate Prison, a victim of the persecution he sought to end.
But the radical idea of his book (and the church he helped start) lived on, and was adopted not only in England, but throughout the Western World — most famously in the First Amendment of our own Constitution.
His words renouncing the persecution against Roman Catholics are worth repeating here:
“For we do freely profess that our lord the king [of England] has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes…For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves.”
Earlier this month, the Evangelical Wheaton College joined its voice with the growing ranks of Catholic institutions suing the Obama Administration over the HHS mandate. Wheaton filed the suit jointly with The Catholic University of America, making this “the first ever partnership between Evangelicals and Catholics opposing the same regulation in the same court.”
This historic decision “shows the broad consensus” that the HHS mandate threatens everyone’s religious liberty, says Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for the Becket Fund, which is representing both schools.
Thomas Helwys would be proud. As another overreaching government tries to forbid us from living out our faith in all areas of life, we need to join with Wheaton and Catholic University and stand together, across our faith tradition, for the freedom Helwys helped give us, and remind this government that our consciences answer to a higher King than James.
Further Reading and Information
The Faith Philip Ryken and John Garvey | Wall Street Journal | July 18, 2012