John Haas on this week’s SCOTUS decisions: “I think it’s mistaken for Christians to assume that these decisions constitute big victories for the church”

Supreme Court

John Haas teaches history at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana. When I read his comments on this week’s SCOTUS decisions related to religious liberty, I asked him if I could share them here. They capture a lot of my own thoughts on the matter.–JF

A lot of Christians are rejoicing over the two Supreme Court decisions this week, one protecting religious employers’ use of the ministerial exception to protect themselves from lawsuits brought by severed employees, the other continuing the conscience exemption for religious organizations from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.  I think each of these decisions was arguably the right one, though that doesn’t mean either is entirely unproblematic.  But that’s not my burden here.  Rather I think it’s mistaken for Christians to assume that these decisions constitute big victories for the church.

Insofar as they are assuming that, I think it’s another sign–as if any more were needed–that the American churches are more “American” in their basic assumptions than is spiritually good for them.

Americans are famous for their obsession with their “rights.” Thus has it been since at least the Stamp Act, and that’s unlikely to change. That’s fine.

The church, however, is mistaken if it believes that the way to advance the Kingdom of God is through a grasping and assertion of its “rights” as an institution, even when it has those rights under our system.

Christians have–for many good reasons and with many good effects–often chosen a presence in the world that is functionally largely indistinguishable from business entities: employing people, investing in the stock market, watching the bottom line, using force and threats of force when it believes it necessary, suing individuals and entities. Again, these things are not entirely devoid of good effects.

In several places in the Book of Acts, Paul leverages his Roman citizenship to get better treatment from the authorities.  There is a place for an appeal to one’s rights.

But such appeals do not the Kingdom of God make, and may actually undermine and contradict efforts to really make it come, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

Being able to function in the world as a business but without needing to have regard for the restrictions other businesses must obey is, no doubt, a convenient thing for Christians. It’s probably even a good thing on most occasions.

But is it “good” for the church if it thinks the primary threat to its well-being comes from the government?  Such a belief certainly coheres with the reigning American ideology, but I doubt very much its true.

I suspect in fact that the real threat of spiritual harm to the Church comes from within, when it mistakes protecting its earthly interests for the Kingdom of God, or when it pursues even the good things of Christ but in a manner fashioned more by the world than Jesus Himself.