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The Constitution and the Christian conscience

An 80-year-old Supreme Court case speaks to the church besieged

The United States Supreme Court building during World War II Associated Press/Photo by Max Desfor

The Constitution and the Christian conscience
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In Acts 26, when the Apostle Paul presented the gospel to King Agrippa, Festus replied, “Paul, you are out of your mind.” In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul called preaching Christ “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The gospel has always faced a tough audience in the human soul. Apart from the grace of God, no one would believe. The gospel has been particularly offensive to the political powers that be.

Still, outright secular opposition has not been the Church’s American experience for much of our history. Many Christians are used to our message receiving substantial, even if not always sincere, deference. Though the gospel always has been folly to some, America’s cultural Christianity always kept a respectful societal place for believers.

However, we obviously see a new reality rushing in, one increasingly of outright political hostility and societal rejection towards the Church. Some have referred to this changed condition as “the Negative World.” It is much more than a secularization of Christmas or Easter. It is the new religion that has turned the rainbow from God’s covenant sign to a celebration of sin. It comes with a new set of doctrines that callously destroys babies bearing God’s image in the womb.

Eighty years ago today, on April 24, 1944, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. Ballard. It concerned the “I Am” movement of the 1930s, one built around Guy Ballard. Ballard claimed to be a divine messenger who had shaken Jesus’ hand and who could heal incurable diseases. Followers sent in millions of dollars to the group. After Ballard’s death, his widow and son were convicted on 18 counts of mail fraud for peddling these claims despite, the government said, knowing them to be false. The court majority replied that a person could not be prosecuted based on the truth or falsity of his religious beliefs.

This case about an old cult might not seem relevant to the shifting attitudes toward Christianity in 2024. Yet the court’s reasoning recognized a problem the Church increasingly faces today. For we live in a time when fewer and fewer of our neighbors believe the gospel. Instead, more and more think our beliefs strange at best and bigoted at worst. The Court noted that, “The miracles of the New Testament, the Divinity of Christ, life after death, the power of prayer are deep in the religious convictions of many.” However, the “many” was not everyone. The justices also observed that, “Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others.” Those then could include, and certainly include now, Christians’ belief in Christ’s deity, perfect life, substitutionary death, and miraculous resurrection. It certainly includes our understanding of what God requires of human beings regarding justice and morality, especially in the realm of sexual ethics.

Editor's note: This column has been corrected to reflect that Festus claimed Paul was out of his mind.

We should continue to stake our claim to the freedom of conscience and specifically to religious liberty as we face antagonism from law and from neighbor.

As we face increased hostility politically and culturally, we will lean harder on the legal protections our Constitution affords. The court in Ballard affirmed that, under the religion clauses of the First Amendment, “Men may believe what they cannot prove.” We should hope so in our day and age. Otherwise, we would be subject to the standards either of a vague spiritualism or a dehumanizing materialism that dominate so much of our society and reject outright the Biblical God.

One could interpret the court’s ruling as an affirmation of relativism, rejecting the possibility of knowing truth. Yet we should understand their decision, whatever the justices’ intent, as pointing toward the fact that God’s ways might not seem logical or compelling to our fellow human beings. That does not mean Christianity rejects reason and logic. It does mean that God’s reason and logic stand infinitely above our own and cannot be subject to our fallible and finite limitations. Thus, the gospel is, as Paul wrote, a stumbling block and folly to those not regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

The Ballard decision also calls upon the central Christian doctrine of the freedom of the conscience. “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” the Westminster Confession of Faith says. And so classic Protestant political theology has declared that the conscience is free in relation to the state.

On this 80th anniversary of United States v. Ballard, we should recognize the realities of our time and place in 21st century America. We should continue to stake our claim, Biblical and constitutional, to the freedom of conscience and specifically to religious liberty as we face antagonism from law and from neighbor. And we should make use of that liberty to keep preaching the foolishness of the cross to everyone—to political leaders and to the culturally powerful. For, no matter how many times we are called crazy, foolish, or evil, we know what the gospel truly is: “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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