05 March 2014

Food Sacrificed to Idols and the Affordable Care Act: Hobby Lobby and the End of a Culture

Go here to read an excellent piece by Regent School of Divinity colleague Dale Coulter on the practice of Lenten abstention as one of cultural formation. By the second century, abstention, baptism, and the Eucharist marked entry into the alternative society of the Church. The addition of Lenten abstention, a practice not specifically found in the New Testament, was not, on that account, without warrant. Coulter finds Lent's early significance in another, related practice, not eating food sacrificed to idols. But why should the second-century Church make a big deal of what Paul had left to individual consciences?

Rome held many attractions and many Christians among it citizens, like Paul, could claim its virtues in defense of person and Gospel when appropriate. Nonetheless, by the end of the first century Rome's opposition to its religious and culturally Christian subjects had taken a violent, if only sporadically so, turn. Thus, the addition of a strict standard of non-participation in Roman civic life with its ritual sacrifices of food stood out as a rejection not of food but in addition,
It also spoke powerfully to the transformation of Roman civic life, for Christians decided that they were unwilling to pay the cultural price of admission into the global economy at the time. They were happy to transact business and live moral lives as citizens, but not at the expense of their new identity.
Indeed, Coulter observes, as time progressed and Christendom replaced romanitas as the foundation of society, 
The historical development of Lent corresponded to the construction of a Christian culture and thus the redemption of cultural life. It formed part of the message that upon entering the faith, the individual entered into an alternative way of existing in the world in which time was understood differently. The patterns of one’s existence now corresponded to a new narrative about the history of the world as one of creation and redemption in and through Jesus Christ.
The rejection of the practice of Lent by the Reformers can therefore be understood only in light of a thoroughly Christianized culture, one in which such a practice of abstention had long been unnecessary as a marker of Christian versus Roman identity.

But what of today when a distinction between living as a Christian in a more and more secularized society is becoming uncomfortable? Most conservative Evangelicals are very angry at the loss of their place at the center of American culture and ethos. What they fail to realize is that the American experiment--to the extent it was based on the Enlightenment concept of the subjectivity of religion--was fraught with peril from the start. Classical liberalism was pretty good (or so I argued in my article that can be downloaded here) but the seed of a turn from secularity to secularism had been planted by Locke and thus incorporated into the warp and woof of American civil society.

Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act mandate that employer-provided health insurance cover abortifacients and the objection by corporations like Hobby Lobby that such a requirement violates the consciences of it shareholders. Opposition to this mandate is firmly grounded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but the inability of secularists over the long haul to see that their point of view is not neutral means that exemptions for matters of conscience will become ever narrower until they won't much matter.

Will Christian under such circumstances be willing to submit to injustice and re-form a society like the Christians of the second century even it imposes substantial costs? Perhaps a heartfelt participation now in the practices of Lent will prepare our bodies and hearts for what then may come.

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