When I think about what the Christian church can be at its very best, I think back to Cappadocia in late Roman times. The central figure in that world was Basil of Caesarea, later St. Basil the Great. And he was great: no Christian that I know of has ever been greater. He preached the Trinitarian Gospel fearlessly and in the face of Imperial opposition, defended the use of pagan literary texts in Christian education, and laid the foundations for Eastern monasticism.
All that would have been enough to cement his place in history, but he also was a tireless advocate for the hungry, the sick, and the destitute. In a time of famine he preached eviscerating sermons to the wealthy of Cappadocia demanding that they “empty their barns” to feed the poor. (“I would like you to take a short vacation from works of iniquity, and give your calculations a rest, so that you might seriously consider the kind of end towards which these preoccupations are heading…. People, what’s the matter with you?”) To those who were willing to give to their fellow Christians but not to Jews, Basil demanded that food be made available freely to all who were hungry. He established what may have been the first hospital, and supported his magnificent sister Macrina in caring for women and children abandoned by their men. By the way, Macrina is also a saint, as are six other members of their extraordinary family.
A church is a community constituted by certain foundational beliefs, but among those beliefs a key one is that the word of the Lord must be obeyed. That is, there are practices that are intrinsic to Christian belief properly understood, and among those are the obligations to feed the hungry, heal the sick, tend to the widows and orphans in their distress, train up children in the way they should go, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Thus religion, in the Biblical sense, involves not just holding certain beliefs but acting on them, and the institutions the church creates to help us carry out those commandments are just as “religious” as worshipping congregations. From that it follows that “freedom of religion,” if it is to mean anything, must be extended just as fully to those institutions as to parish churches. Otherwise the church is crippled in its obedience. Which is bad for the church, but also, and more important, bad for the world — unless you happen to think that the State, and the State only, is the proper vehicle for charity and social service. My own view, in political and not specifically Christian terms, is that to yield such service wholly to the State — or to the State’s power to define and circumscribe such service — is a profound impoverishment of human community. And as you can see I have my Christian reasons for thinking this way also.
Consider all this an expansion of my recent post explaining why I support my employer’s lawsuit against the recent HHS contraception mandate: not because I am opposed to contraception, but because I am opposed to a federal agency acting on its own to amputate the full and proper definition of “religious freedom.” And if you want to read more about the amazing Cappadocian Christians, read the book by my friend Susan Holman, The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia.