The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Leland Ryken, a scholar of Christian literature and the Puritans, describes this as one of the most important cultural developments in the history of the English-speaking world. In his new book The Legacy of the King James Bible, Ryken records its sweeping influence on our language, education, religion, and culture.
The King James Bible has been “the greatest vehicle of literacy in the English-speaking world,” by one account. Statesman Daniel Webster credited his famous oratory to its shaping: “If there be anything in my style or thoughts to be commended, the credit is due to my kind parents in instilling into my mind an early love of the Scriptures.”
For almost four hundred years, the King James Bible provided for England and America what Ryken, quoting a sociologist, calls “the mythology of a culture”: “the framework of beliefs, values, expressive symbols, and artistic motifs in terms of which individuals define their world, express their feelings, and make their judgments.”
That framework is no longer pervasive in America, much less England. Instead, recent decades have been marked by challenges to religious liberty in both nations, efforts that misconstrue the role of religion in the public square, and an increasing pluralism that makes it harder to achieve moral consensus on public policy.
But an even more serious challenge to religious liberty is emerging in America, according to Heritage visiting fellow Thomas Messner. As Messner writes in his recent paper, “From Culture Wars to Conscience Wars: Emerging Threats to Conscience“:
Today, religious liberty issues are more complicated than simply freedom from government interference in religious worship or teaching. In many cases this is because, at the same time our society is becoming more pluralistic on questions of basic morality, the government continues to intrude more than ever in both public and private areas of social life. Another factor is an increasing number of incidents in which private citizens and society at large demonstrate intolerance of and hostility to orthodox religious and moral viewpoints.
One example is the challenge to the conscience rights of health care providers. David Addington, Heritage vice president for domestic and economic policy, describes one such case in a paper that asks, “Why Does the Illinois Government Oppose the Religious Liberty of Pharmacists?” For six years Illinois bureaucrats have sought to force two pharmacists, contrary to their religious convictions, to dispense the “Plan B” or “morning-after” drug or close their businesses.
In 2005, then-Governor Rod Blagojevich threatened, “If a pharmacy wants to be in the business of dispensing contraceptives, then it must fill prescriptions without making moral judgments.” Earlier this month, however, the Seventh Circuit Court of Illinois ruled in favor of the pharmacists, vindicating (for now) their religious liberty.
Despite the victory, conflicts continue.
“Regrettably, there are many in America who express contempt and disdain toward those who bring their faith to bear on their politics,” write Heritage scholars Ryan Messmore and Tom Messner.
That has been most visible recently in the debate over the definition of marriage. Many individuals and churches have faced backlash for defending the institution of marriage on moral or religious grounds, catalogued in Messner’s paper on the California marriage ballot initiative, The Price of Prop 8:
Arguments for same-sex marriage, although often couched in terms of tolerance and inclusion, are based fundamentally on the idea that preserving marriage as unions of husband and wife is a form of bigotry, irrational prejudice, and even hatred… As increasing numbers of individuals and institutions, including public officials and governmental bodies, embrace this ideology, belief in marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman likely will come to be viewed as an unacceptable form of discrimination that should be purged from public life through legal, cultural, and economic pressure.
Clashes such as these may be “signs of the times” (to quote a King James Bible coinage) in an increasingly pluralistic society. But contrary to secularist conventional wisdom, tolerance and respect won’t be achieved by imprisoning religion within the sanctuary walls. Instead, our civic life would be well served by once again drawing on the religious, and specifically Christian, heritage of the American republic.
“At the center of the Christian truth claim is a man on a cross, dying for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Anyone who thinks out the implications of that will be led to love and respect even their opponents,” writes Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
Good Friday marks the event that, in Keller’s words, “best fulfills the yearning of our pluralistic culture for peace and respect among people of different faiths.”
The cultural implications of a kingdom not of this world understandably trouble tyrants. That’s why 20th-century totalitarian states could not abide the presence of the church and why the rise of Christianity in China makes its communist leaders nervous.
But in America, a land for people yearning and still learning to breathe free, the Christian gospel memorialized in the week culminating in Easter ought always to remain good news.
In the spirit of the religious liberty we enjoy in America, we at The Heritage Foundation extend our wishes for a Happy Easter and Happy Passover.
- The U.S. military has deployed armed Predator drone aircraft to Libya in support of rebel forces. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is visiting Benghazi.
- Some states gave tax credits and grants to businesses in the hope of spurring job growth, but now they are asking for their money back after failing to see results.
- An American drone attack against militants in Pakistan killed 23 people on Friday, according to Pakistani military officials.
- Seventy percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong path, and 80 percent say the economy is doing fairly or very bad, according to a new poll.
- As if it’s not enough that the Department of Energy is regulating air conditioners, dishwashers, light bulbs and toilets, now it’s cracking down on shower heads.