One thing I’ve learned in Washington over the course of my 18 years as a missionary to government officials is this: “Confrontation” doesn’t need to be acrimonious. In fact, you can actually be very respectful, congenial, and even deferential in a confrontation. To confront simply means a face-to-face meeting, or a clash of ideas. This happens to all of us, all the time, and in every type of situation, but such “confrontations” don’t need to be hostile.
For Christians, confrontation should be marked by the overriding law of love: “God so loved the world,” and every person and kind of person in it; we are commanded by Christ to, “love one another” (John 15:12) and to, “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). When asked what is the greatest of all God’s commandments, Jesus declared they are two, “You shall love the Lord your God,” and, “You shall love your neighbor”. (Matthew 22:35-37)
All of this is to explain why, when drafting an emergency letter to President Obama regarding his recent edict on insurance coverage for employees of religious organizations, I prayed that my missive would be marked by Godly love for our chief executive. A draft of the letter is posted below. It will be hand-delivered to the White House this Wednesday–Ash Wednesday.
I’m sure some will think I was too “soft” and I’ve gone too easy on him, but so be it. This letter says it like it is, without the “ugly factor.” I’m convinced we can do this kind of prophetic work without being disrespectful, mean-spirited, or insulting. In other words, we can do both our jobs as Christians: Witness to God’s love–and truth–at the same time:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Ephesians 4:11 – 16.
Draft of my letter to President Obama:
Dear President Obama,
Your recent announcements regarding the policies of your administration on compliance with certain mandates related to health insurance, and the implications of these policies for certain religious institutions, and the churches, clergy, and individuals related to them, have induced this communique.
I write to you today in my capacities as an ordained minister of 30 years, a missionary to elected and appointed officials here in Washington, DC, as chair of the Committee on Church and Society for the Evangelical Church Alliance, and president of the National Clergy Council. Each of the constituencies I serve through these various roles have, by overwhelming majorities, expressed alarm over the nature of your decisions and the possible consequences of your actions. In this instance, our concerns relate particularly to the way in which your actions have broadly intruded on the sacred and constitutionally protected rights of Americans to religious freedom, and not necessarily to any particulars to the agency of that intrusion.
Mr. President, your recent dicta requiring religious employers to provide certain insurance products to their employees which violate the religious, moral, and ethical teachings and most deeply held convictions of the respective employers, their churches and institutions, is a flagrant abrogation of the First and preeminent right among those adopted by the Constitutional Convention as amendments to the Constitution, “in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers,” and, with a view toward the purpose of, “extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, [that] will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
Mr. President, it is with this sense of alarm that the constituents I serve, and that are represented among the Executive Committee of the National Clergy Council, reflecting church leaders of Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions, declare to the churches a State of Emergency and a Status Confessionis, a Time for Speaking, during which we must take extraordinary action to respectfully resist your decrees, state our deeply held and felt reasons for doing so, and call our coreligionists, and all people of conscience to stand with us in doing so. With one voice we object to your interference in the affairs of religious institutions; and, we state to you our unwavering position on the sanctity of our constitutionally protected right to espouse certain principles of conscience; and, we maintain and insist on our God-given, legal rights to act upon these principles of conscience within our respective institutions and in keeping with their attendant prerogatives; Furthermore, while we hope for a resolution to this crisis that includes the rescinding of your directives, we must hold to our convictions and positions, and to act according to our prerogatives no matter the legal, social, pecuniary, or political consequences.
Mr. President, I remind you of your attendance and words at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 2012, where you expressed your thanks to the keynote speaker, Eric Metaxas, for his address to the attendees related, in part, to the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr, who is an exemplar of what it means to hold to and to exercise one’s religious, moral, and ethical convictions, even to the surrender of every other right, including the right to one’s life. Mr. Metaxas gave you a copy of his biography of Pastor Bonhoeffer, which you held up to the audience and to the cameras. I urge you to read the book with this missive in mind.
Mr. President, please be assured of our highest respect for the office you hold and exercise. Know also, that it is out of this respect that I humbly inform you of these matters, and convey to you their meaning and purpose, as an aid to you in understanding the words and actions of late by so many American citizens, institutions, and church leaders. Be assured, as well, of our constant prayers for you, in compliance with our pastoral concern for your soul and for your well-being, and out of our biblical obligation to do so.
My constituents look forward to your personal reply.
Very truly yours,
Rev. Rob Schenck
The order by the Obama Administration to Catholic organizations requiring them to violate church teaching constitutes a state of emergency for all Christians.
No doubt some who are reading this know that such seemingly hyperbolic language is uncharacteristic for me. It is. I have assiduously avoided what I think is Chicken Little language. In most cases, hyperbole only diminishes the point being made.
Not this time.
I’m not Catholic, (it’s my twin brother who’s the priest), but I do know when the government has overstepped its boundaries–and that threatens all religious believers. The American Founders were crystal clear on this point when they drafted the careful wording of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” there is nothing ambiguous about this. Under our Constitution, Congress makes laws; the President enforces them. There is no way any law passed by Congress could be construed as imposing a violation of conscience on a religious body because Congress is prohibited from doing so.
As soon as the President’s advisors came to him and said he could order religious bodies to change what they believe or act against what they believe, he should have said to them, “That’s impossible. The Constitution won’t allow it.” The fact that he didn’t is reason to be greatly alarmed.
In my current work on the life and thought of the great German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the phrases I’ve been struck with is, “status confessions,” a Latin phrase meaning “a state of speaking.” In other words, a time to be heard and not to be silent.
This is such a moment. It is not about a debate over contraception or birth control, it’s about church and state; the realm of God and conscience and the realm of the secular authority.
America was founded in part because the consciences of believers were being encroached upon by the secular powers in Britain and in Europe. The very first amendment to the Constitution was made because of tectonic pressures applied by the heirs of that painful struggle to secure the first of all freedoms.
Perhaps President Obama and the members of his administration are ignorant of that period in American history. If so, they need to go back to the books.
My hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood up and spoke out in his time, eventually paying for it with his life. Thankfully, for Americans, the consequences of speaking out now are not so dire. If we remain silent too long, though, it will grow more difficult and more dangerous.
This is a “status confessions,” a time for speaking. The voice of the church must be heard.
Speak now, or be forced to forever hold your peace.