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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Ignore the Right of Conscience at Your Peril

At the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, we are treated to an ominous scene. Dozens of subjects are marched to the gallows and hanged as an official reads an edict from the local magistrate declaring:
In order to affect a timely halt to deteriorating conditions and to ensure the common good, a state of emergency is declared for these territories by decree of Lord Cutler Beckett, duly appointed representative of His Majesty, the king.

By decree, according to martial law, the following statutes are temporarily amended:
  • Right to assembly, suspended.
  • Right to habeas corpus, suspended.
  • Right to legal counsel, suspended.
  • Right to verdict by a jury of peers, suspended.
By decree, all persons found guilty of piracy, or aiding a person convicted of piracy, or associating with a person convicted of piracy shall be sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.
The message the filmmaker wants to communicate is unmistakable. Unilaterally jettisoning the rights of the people allows despotism to flourish. As we watch even a young boy approach the hangman's noose, we are to recoil at the injustice of it all. We are to understand Lord Beckett as evil.

What About the Greater Good?

The film's portrayal of such measures is ham-fisted, which is to be expected when the heroes are the pirates. In reality, pirates have been and still are real menaces to society. They threatened life, peace, and property. So, would declaring a suspension of rights for the general safety of the colony and the colonists be the right thing to do? I guess it depends on the rights in question and the circumstances necessitating it, but such actions prove to be dangerous.
At the beginning of the Civil War in the U.S., President Lincoln suspended the right to trial for Southern sympathizers in the North who were sabotaging telegraph cables and attacking troops. A U.S. News and World Report article reports how Lincoln believed such drastic action would be limited and for a very short period, with no long-term effects.1 However, the powers in the state of Missouri took martial law to new levels and greedily clung to the efficient effectivelness of forcing the citizenry to its own point of view:
In March 1865, a newspaper correspondent in St. Louis reported that many Republicans in Missouri—not just the state's leaders—had come to admire the efficiency of martial law: "So far from being unpopular, it is believed that a large portion of our loyal people are willing to see a provision incorporated in the charter of the city, requiring six months of martial law to be imposed . . . every five years to clean up all the little cases of outraged justice, loose indictments, public corruption and private peculation, which the ordinary courts cannot reach.2
The article quotes historian Eric Foner that Lincoln found "It is much easier to put these restrictions in place than it is to stop them."3

The Danger of Losing Our Right to Conscience Today

Today, there is a mindset gaining ground in our courts and among our politicians that certain rights are less important than what they perceive as the good of the public. The rights of individuals to exercise his or her sincerely held religious convictions by refusing to participate in same sex union ceremonies has come under attack. Small business owners, like Jack Phillips, Barronelle Stutzman, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, Aaron and Melissa Klein, and a bevy of others have felt the power and pressure of the state to violate their beliefs and their consciences in order to two what those in power perceive as an appropriate line.

What makes the states' actions all the more insidious is the fact that there is no imminent threat of "rebellion or invasion" which Lincoln pointed to when issuing his suspension of the law. There aren't even any pirates that threaten one's life, peace, and property. There are only those who assert they must quash such acts of defiance in order to fight "discrimination," as Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner Diann Rice declared in ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop:
Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be — I mean, we — we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to — to use their religion to hurt others.4
To see the irony of Rice's statement, you should probably read the article "How a Cakebaker Became an Enemy of the State" over at The Federalist. It is Rice and those who think like her who are actually the ones justifying discriminative policies that jeopardize the rights of the citizenry. She sounds very much like the Lord Beckett character, declaring the curtailment of rights simply to "affect a timely halt to deteriorating conditions and to ensure the common good." But what happens when that power is targeted towards other ideas, perhaps ideas that Rice herself holds? She may find that it is much easier to put these powers into place than it is to get rid of them.


1. Ewers, Justin. "Revoking Civil Liberties: Lincoln's Constitutional Dilemma." U.S.News & World Report. U.S.News & World Report. LP, 10 Feb. 2009. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.
2. Ewers, Justin. 2009.
3. Ewers, Justin. 2009.
4. Harsanyi, David. "How A Cakemaker Became An Enemy Of The State." The Federalist. The Federalist, 06 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

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