A century ago, Petty Officer William Downes might have been dangled by his neck from the yardarm. But last fall, he was merely discharged. Downes refused to perform his duties at the U.S. Naval Academy after discovering that navy hospitals perform abortions. "Our present regime is acting immorally," he said.

Is this the new pattern for Christian citizenship? Must we become conscientious objectors? Have democratic means of reform been foreclosed? These sobering questions were raised last November by myself and others in a First Things (FT) symposium titled "The End of Democracy?"

Our goal was to stimulate debate, and that we did, drawing fire from both Left and Right. Bunch of "theocrats" yearning for "a Christian nation," sneered Jacob Heilbrunn in the New Republic. Nothing but "a justification for violence," charged Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. On the right, several neoconservatives resigned from the FT editorial board, while Commentary hosted a countersymposium. Smokes out Christian hopes for a "theocracy," warned Irwin Stelzer. Sheer "anti-Americanism," snapped Norman Podhoretz.

I was stunned. Since Roe v. Wade, Christians have criticized the imperial judiciary. Indeed, since the early church, we have debated our dual citizenship in the City of God and the City of Man. So why the hysterical reaction?

What gave our discussion a sharp edge was a rash of Supreme Court decisions, whose full import critics don't yet grasp. Sure, the Court has ruled for abortion, they say, but democratic remedies are still available.

But are they? Recent decisions are not just immoral, as Downes put it; they have short-circuited the democratic process itself. The Court has enshrined its own opinions as constitutional liberties beyond appeal and adopted a philosophy that rules any moral challenge out of bounds.

The key ruling is Casey v. Planned Parenthood. There the Court shifted the constitutional basis for abortion from a vague privacy right to a defined Fourteenth Amendment liberty. If anyone hopes the Court will reverse itself, recall that only once in 200 years has the Court taken away an individual liberty specifically defined in the Constitution (and that was a contract case).

The justices then explicitly pronounced the case closed, urging all Americans to accept "a common mandate" imposed by the Court. Thus the justices removed a fundamental moral issue from democratic debate (where Christians had a say), and recast it as a constitutional right defined by the Court alone.

To justify this move, the majority defined liberty as an individual's right to determine the meaning of life and the universe. This radical individualism shackles any attempt to frame a moral consensus, a public morality. Individual choice trumps any morally based vision of the common good.

Having slammed the door, the Court threw away the key by ruling out of bounds any morally based law. In Romer v. Evans, it dismissed any moral challenge as motivated by "animosity." In Lee v. Weisman, Justice Kennedy equated religion with any "ethic and morality which transcends human intervention." Not just Christians but anyone who adheres to a transcendent moral standard is effectively disfranchised.

These radical ideas have real-world consequences. Two circuit courts used Casey's language to uphold assisted suicide (cases now on appeal to the Supreme Court). Any law is fair game.

So what? some respond. Christians have lived under oppressive regimes before. But of course, when Christians are barred from the public square, inevitably laws will be passed that contravene biblical morality—forcing on us questions of allegiance. This was the warning of the FT symposium.

That it triggered such outrage is a reminder of the transience of political alliances. After all, the neoconservatives who went ballistic had only lately defended Christian political involvement. In a 1995 Commentary symposium, a dozen scholars called for religious renewal to reverse cultural decay. So why did the neoconservative movement suddenly bare its teeth at Christians?

Most American conservatives are actually Lockean liberals. They value civil religion because it cements social bonds. But they're wary of any conception of religion as a transcendent truth that stands in judgment on the political order. As Ashley Woodiwiss writes in BOOKS & CULTURE, both liberals and conservatives judge "Christianity exclusively in terms of its impact on the success of American democratic institutions."

For secular neoconservatives, then, religious folk were a useful constituency—until in ft we showed too much independence of mind. The furious response should impress on Christians the uniqueness of our faith-based approach to politics. We can be grateful for political allies, but we must not allow the gospel to be taken hostage to any political ideology.

The charge of "anti-Americanism" recalls C. S. Lewis's observation that in any secular society, Christians will ultimately "be treated as an enemy." Why? Because we maintain a dual loyalty—which others will misinterpret as disloyalty.

But whatever the cost, we must proclaim God's judgment on a state that denies protection to the weak and vulnerable, and then denies the right of citizens to redress the injustice. William Downes may well have foreseen the shape of things to come.

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