The Johnson Amendment is Good for the Church

Johnson Amendment

The Johnson Amendment is the news again.  As you may recall, the Christian Right has been trying to remove Lyndon Johnson’s 1954 addition to the tax code for a long time.  The amendment bars churches (and other non-profit entities) from endorsing political candidates.

Here is Jacob Lupfer‘s recent piece at Religion News Service:

But since we now have this debate every time Congress has to pass a tax bill, let’s at least be honest about what is really at stake here.

If, hypothetically, Congress ever does repeal the Johnson Amendment, a lot could go wrong, and probably would. Democrat-aligned groups would demand that bureaucrats censor sermons. Republican advocates would have to answer for why they cheered as churches devolved into Super PACs.

As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.”

The question is, in short: How much more damaging and obnoxious do we want politicized religion to become in this country?

We already live in a world in which Trump’s most eager evangelical lap dog, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, hosts the Fox News All-America Christmas Special from his church. This event gives us the obscene spectacle of Trump disciple and hack journalist Todd Starnes standing in the pulpit where Baptist legends like George W. Truett and W.A. Criswell once preached.

The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves. Well, most of us.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about The Johnson Amendment in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Believe Me 3dAnother religious-liberty issue that concerns many of the court evangelicals is the clause in the IRS tax code commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment.  The Johnson Amendment is a part of the code that forbids tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates.  Since 1954, when the Johnson Amendment was added to the code, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for violating it.  Trump first learned about the amendment during some of his early meetings with evangelicals in Trump Tower.  Since that time he has become fixated on it: he realized that the IRS would not allow evangelical pastors to endorse him or any other candidate without losing their tax-exempt status.  Trump promised his evangelical supporters that, if elected, he would bring an end to the Johnson Amendments.

For many evangelicals and their followers, Trump fulfilled that promise on May 4, 2017.  In an outdoor ceremony a the White House, with court evangelicals and other religious leaders by his side, Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty.  Section 2 of the order included the statement: “In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”  The statement was a reference to the Johnson Amendment without explicitly naming it.  After he signed the order, Trump told the faith leaders present: “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. . . no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

Court evangelicals cheered the new order, but in reality it did absolutely nothing to change the Johnson Amendment.  The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and keep their support.  What may have been a public relations victory for Trump and the court evangelicals did not amount to anything because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code–that job belongs to Congress.  And when Congress did overhaul the tax code in December 2017, the Johnson Amendment was not removed.

But the attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment exposed something deeper: a serious flaw in the way that many conservative evangelicals think about the relationship between church and state.  According to a 2012 poll, eighty-six percent of evangelical pastors believed that clergy should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit.  Those who do want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, and have turned the Johnson Amendment into a political issue, seem more concerned about freedom of speech than they are about the way this kind of political partisanship undermines their gospel witness. There is an old Baptist saying about religion and politics that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream, it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”  When the government starts telling evangelical pastors what they can and cannot preach in terms of theology, biblical interpretation, or ethics (even sexual ethics), we have a problem; but the Johnson Amendment is not this kind of problem.  Evangelicals should be thankful for the Johnson Amendment: it is a useful reminder from an unlikely source about the spiritual dangers that arise when sanctuaries are used as campaign offices.

More on “Fairness for All”

c1b7c-wheatoncollege

What is “Fairness for All”?  Get up to speed here.

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron covers a motion championed by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals that is bound to bring more division to the evangelical community.  I was happy to contribute to Shimron’s reporting.

Here is a taste:

Last week, World Magazine reported that two respected evangelical institutions, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, both quietly adopted a set of principles that call for comprehensive religious freedom protections combined with explicit support for LGBTQ protections in employment, education, housing and adoption, among others.

Neither group is backing down from the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the two groups want to work toward federally recognized protections for sexual orientation and gender identity alongside strong religious exemptions.

Specifically, they plan to soon unveil a draft of a bill they are working on with input from legal scholars, theologians and LGBTQ advocates that they say accomplishes those goals. The evangelical groups hope several members of Congress will sponsor the bill, tentatively called “Fairness for All,” in the session that begins Jan. 3.

“Fairness for All says we have to do this together because there are interests on both sides that ought to be protected,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and a consultant in discussions about a possible bill.

Read the entire piece here.

A Conservative on Why Matthew Whitaker is Unfit to be Attorney General

Whittaker

Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under Ronald Reagan.  In a recent piece at The American Conservative, he explains why Trump’s appointment as acting U.S. attorney general is unfit.  Here is a taste of his piece:

Article VI, section 1, clause 3 of the Constitution provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

In the Christian conservative Family Leader debate in 2014, as he was campaigning to capture the Senate nomination in Iowa, Mr. Whitaker elaborated that in assisting the confirmation of judges:

“I’d like to see things like their worldview, what informs them.  Are they people of faith?  Do they have a [New Testament] biblical view of justice?—which I think is very important.  And what I know is as long as they have that worldview, that they’ll be a good judge.  And if they have a secular worldview, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”

The First Amendment also protects the free exercise of religion. In Torcasco v. Watkins (1961), the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a requirement that persons declare a belief in the existence of God as a condition of holding public office.

Mr. Whitaker, however, has declared that judicial nominees should be vetted based on whether they have a New Testament biblical view of justice.

In sum, he is no more fit to serve as acting attorney general as would be an atheist to serve as the Pope.   

Read the entire piece here.

George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790

TouroSynagogue_02

In August 1790, President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and others traveled to Rhode Island.  On August 18, they stopped at the Touro Synagogue in Newport.  Later in the day, Washington wrote this letter to the congregation:

Gentlemen.

 

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport,2 from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

A President of the United States at a Jewish synagogue.

For more context on this letter and the trip click here.

When and Why Did Catholics Embrace Religious Freedom?

Vatican II.jpg

Here is a taste of Dartmouth historian Udi Greenberg‘s piece at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas:

It can therefore be surprising to remember how recent religious liberty’s popularity is. Few institutions reflect this better than the Catholic Church, which as recently as the early 1960s openly condemned religious freedom as heresy. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Catholic bishops and theologians claimed that the state was God’s “secular arm.” The governments of Catholic-majority countries therefore had the duty to privilege Catholic preaching, education, and rituals, even if they blatantly discriminated against minorities (where Catholic were minority, they could tolerate religious freedom as a temporary arrangement). As Pope Gregory XVI put it in his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, state law had to restrict preaching by non-Catholics, for “is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available?” It was only in 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Church formally abandoned this conviction. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, it formally proclaimed religious liberty as a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” This was one of the greatest intellectual transformations of modern religious thought.

Why did this change come about? Scholars have provided illuminating explanations over the last few years. Some have attributed it to the mid-century influence of the American constitutional tradition of state neutrality in religious affairs. Others claimed it was part of the Church’s confrontation with totalitarianism, especially Communism, which led Catholics to view the state as a menacing threat rather than ally and protector. My article in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas uncovers another crucial context that pushed Catholics in this new direction. Religious liberty, it shows, was also fueled by a dramatic change in Catholic thinking about Protestants, namely a shift from centuries of hostility to cooperation and even a warm embrace. Well into the modern era, many Catholic writers continued to condemn Luther and is heirs, blaming them for the erosion of tradition, nihilism, and anarchy. But during the mid-twentieth century, Catholics swiftly abandoned this animosity, and came to see Protestants as brothers in a mutual fight against “anti-Christian” forces, such as Communism, Islam, and liberalism. French Theologian Yves Congar argued in 1937 that the Church transcends its “visible borders” and includes all those who have been baptized, while German historian Joseph Lortz published in 1938 sympathetic historical tomes that depicted Martin Luther and the Reformation as well-meaning Christians. This process of forging inter-Christian peace—which became known as ecumenism—reached its pinnacle in the postwar era. In 1964, it received formal doctrinal approval when Vatican II promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism (1964), which declared Protestants as “brethren.”

One venue in which this new view of Protestants played out was in the translation of the Bible.  I write about this extensively in Chapter 22 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

Andrew Brunson and the Trump Evangelicals

Trump Brunson

I recently did an interview on Brunson and the Trump evangelicals for the Turkish news agency Ahval.  Here is a taste of Claire Sadar’s piece:

John Fea, professor at Messiah College and author of the book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”, which documents and analyses white evangelical support for Trump, answered “absolutely yes” when asked if Trump’s handling of the Brunson case has proved Trump’s Christian bona fides to his evangelical base. “Religious liberty was one of Trump’s most important campaign promises to American evangelicals. Every time he and Mike Pence weigh-in on the Brunson case they score points with this part of his political base,” Fea told Ahval.

Read the entire piece here.

What Does the Trump Administration Mean by “Religious Freedom?”

jeff-sessions

At the State Department’s recent “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that there is a “dangerous movement, undetected by many” that is “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”  This “dangerous movement,” Sessions added, “must be confronted and defeated.”

I am part of the camp that believes people with deeply-held religious beliefs on social issues should be free to uphold those beliefs in a pluralistic society.  In other words, there are times when liberty of conscience in matters of religion should be protected despite the fact that others might see these beliefs as discriminatory.  When it comes to living together with such deeply-held convictions, I hope for what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”

Having said that, I am not a fan of the way the Trump administration uses “religious liberty” to invoke fear.  I wrote about this kind of fear-mongering in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Sessions’s use of words like “dangerous” and “undetected by many” and “confronted and defeated” wreaks of political scare tactics and culture-war rhetoric.  I am surprised he did not roll out the phrase “deep state.”

Sessions claims that “ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.”  First, I don’t know of any contemporary cases, if any, in which government has threatened ministers from preaching from the Bible.  Fear is often based on false information.  Second, I suspect Sessions is conflating the preaching of “holy writ” from the pulpit with the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit.  This is how many pro-Trump evangelicals understand “religious liberty.” This is why Sessions and Trump get so bent out of shape by the “Johnson Amendment.”  (Frankly, I think Trump could care less about the Johnson Amendment, but if he can promise its repeal he can gain political points with the evangelicals in his base).

Sessions goes on.  He talks about the ways the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Presbyterians in the middle colonies (Sessions apparently does not realize that Pennsylvania is a middle colony and most Scots-Irish came to Penn’s colony), and Roger Williams in Rhode Island championed religious freedom.  He adds: “Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against.”  What Sessions fails to note is that the Pilgrims (and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) did not provide this precious religious freedom to people who did not have the same religious beliefs as they did.  He fails to note that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island because he was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay for failing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy (among other things).  He fails to note that Puritans executed Quakers in Boston Commons.

I could go on, but I don’t have the time or inclination right now to exegete Sessions’s entire speech.  It is worth noting, however, that all of Sessions’s examples of religious liberty are Christian examples.  There is no mention of religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, or other people of faith.  Parts of Sessions’s address read like a Trump stump speech.  He lauds Trump for making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again.  Really?  Is this what the Trump administration means when they say they are going to champion religious liberty?  This sounds more like the kind of Christian civilization those “liberty-loving” Puritans and Pilgrims wanted to create back in 17th New England.  (Ironically, these early American Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday).

OK, I am rambling.  But if you want some context on the way Trump and his minions think about religious liberty, I encourage you to check out Jason Lupfer’s recent piece at Religion & Politics.  It is worth your time.

Let’s Remember What Thomas Jefferson Thought About Religious Liberty for Muslims

Jefferson and Religious Liberty

Check out Elahe Izadi‘s piece at The Washington Post.  It quotes several scholars of early American history, Islam, Thomas Jefferson, and religious liberty including Denise Spellberg, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, and John Ragosta.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and asked that it be one of just three accomplishments listed on his tombstone. The Virginia law became the foundation of the religious freedom protections later delineated in the Constitution.

Virginia went from having a strong state-established church,  which Virginians had to pay taxes to support, to protecting freedom of conscience and separating church and state. Jefferson specifically mentioned Muslims when describing the broad scope of protections he intended by his legislation, which was passed in 1786.

“What he wanted to do was get the state of Virginia out of the business of deciding which was the best religion, and who had to pay taxes to support it,” said Spellberg, a professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

During the bill’s debate, some legislators wanted to insert the term “Jesus Christ,” which was rejected. Writing in 1821, Jefferson reflected that “singular proposition proved that [the bill’s] protection of opinion was meant to be universal.”

He continued:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and Infidel of every denomination.”

Read the entire piece here.

Black Evangelicals and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

Cake baker

We have done a few posts already on Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

According to a recent piece by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today, a 2016 Pew survey found that 35% of white evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while 44% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Only 22% of white evangelicals favor requiring businesses to serve same-sex weddings.  46% of black Protestants favor this.

Notice that the survey compares white EVANGELICALS with black PROTESTANTSso the comparison does not tell us as much as we think it does.  (Although it is also fair to say that a large number of black Protestants are evangelical in theology).  Nevertheless, it is clear that African-Americans are more than open to same sex marriage than are white evangelicals.

Shellnut asked four African-American Christian leaders to reflect on the Masterpiece case.  They are:

Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Lisa Robinson, editor of Kaleoscope blog

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas

Justin Giboney, founder of the AND Campaign

Here is Robinson:

As an African American woman, it might seem reasonable for me to have qualms about the recent ruling the Supreme Court delivered in support of a Christian baker. Jack Phillips’s refusal to serve these individuals smacks of the same kind of infringement that African Americans in this country experienced. However, three factors give me pause in this line of thinking and lead me to applaud the Supreme Court’s decision.

First, the case is not about discrimination, but religious conscience. The civil rights movement was started because a whole class of people were pervasively denied acceptance based on who they were biologically. Discrimination ensued because they weren’t deemed to be fit to share the same services, space, or civic obligations in a white society.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t about the people, but the ceremony. I think likening the two cases—discrimination against blacks and denial of cake-baking for a ceremony—undermines the cause of the civil rights movement, which was about affirming the dignity of personhood irrespective of lifestyle choices.

I can appreciate arguments that say whites believed upholding the purity of races was rooted in their Christian convictions; however, the racist line of thinking that prevailed for so long has no basis in Scripture (consider the marriages of Solomon and Moses), whereas endorsing same-sex marriage is explicitly prohibited.

Second, reliance on state-sanctioned intervention can have negative implications for how we value fellow image bearers apart from their choices. I confess that I have a love-hate perspective toward the governmental intervention needed to address discrimination against African Americans. Unfortunately, we ultimately had to rely the state to define discrimination rather than God himself and his requirements for what kind of activity his people should or should not support.

Lastly, equating refusal to participate in same-sex ceremonies with active discrimination against a class of people puts us in a precarious position of lending support to same-sex marriage because we don’t want to reject people. We ought to be free to distinguish between the value of persons and the values they espouse. At the end of the day, commitment to Christian convictions matters most.

Read the entire piece here.

Should InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Be Kicked Off Campus at Wayne State University?

Wayne State

Wayne State University

In a recent post at The Anxious Bench, historian and George Mason University religion professor John Turner defends InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  Turner, some of you may recall, wrote an excellent scholarly treatment of another evangelical campus ministry:  Campus Crusade for Christ.  (Now known as CRU).  Here is a taste:

In a masterpiece of a ruling, the Supreme Court this week declared that government employees may not openly loathe Christianity. This is what court watchers call a limited ruling. The Court did not settle the question of whether or not beleaguered evangelical bakers must bake cakes for gay weddings. Nor did it provide much guidance on whether or not government employees may subtly and secretly loathe Christianity.

Some of those more subtle government employees work for Wayne State University, which this week renewed a two-year-old bid to decertify a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Admittedly, it is asking a lot for university officials to tolerate the presence of an organization that promotes social justice, racial reconciliation, and inductive Bible Study. IVCF’s problem, in the eyes of university administrators, is that it insists that student leaders sign the organization’s statement of faith.

My blood pressure rises when I read about yet another university’s attempt to do away with IVCF. My own alma mater, Middlebury College, crusaded against IVCF a number of years ago. Okay, Middlebury doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for free inquiry these days. But back in 1990s, I spent four years as a member and leader of IVCF (I probably had to sign something to do so), and I met my wife through IVCF, so I’m emotionally invested on this issue.

Of course, it has occurred to me that IVCF may have changed since the 1990s. Perhaps its hierarchy has become bent on making evangelicalism great again and now sends members to build the wall over spring break. Or perhaps the organization harasses Muslim or LGBT students. Nope. You can read IVCF’s statement of faith here. It’s not exactly hateful. Lots of divine love, mercy, and grace.

Read the entire post here.

 

Just Over Half of White Evangelicals Support Business’ Refusal to Provide Products and Services to LGBT Individuals

Cake baker

Evangelical baker Jack Phillips

Caroline Tanner of USA Today calls our attention to a recent poll that shows 51% of white evangelicals believe that cake-bakers and others can refuse services and products to LGBT individuals.  Frankly, I am surprised the number is so low.

Here is a taste:

For white evangelicals, religious freedom is not a one-size-fits-all issue, though, and varies based on the type of religion a business owner subscribes to, and they are most supportive (60%) of fellow Christian small business owners.

When asked if they supported allowing small business owners in their state to refuse to provide products or services to LGBT individuals if doing so violates their religious beliefs:

  • Christian small business owners: 60% of white evangelicals vs. 43% of Christians overall
  • Jewish small business owners: 55% of white evangelicals vs. 41% of Christians
  • Muslim small business owners:  46% of white evangelicals vs. 36% of Christians
  • Mormon small business owners: 50% of white evangelicals vs. 38% of Christians

Their opposition:

  • Christian small business owners: 43% of Christians overall vs. 27% of white evangelicals 
  • Jewish small business owners: 43% of Christians vs. 26% of white evangelicals 
  • Muslim small business owners: 44 % of Christians vs. 32% of white evangelicals 
  • Mormon small business owners: 44% of Christians vs. 30% of white evangelicals 

Of all the Christians surveyed, white evangelicals were more likely to say that Christians face discrimination in the United States today (42%), more so than LGBT individuals (32%). More Christians (36%), Catholics (34%) and Protestants (35%) said that LGBT community faces more discrimination than themselves.

Read the entire article here and the full report here.

Some Quick Thoughts on *Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission*

Cake baker

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will generate a lot of commentary in the next hours and days.  We will try to post some of it here.  As the pundits and legal scholars write their pieces, let’s get started with Robert Barnes’s summary of the case at The Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled for a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple.

In an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that leaves many questions unanswered, the court held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had not adequately taken into account the religious beliefs of baker Jack Phillips.

In fact, Kennedy said, the commission had been hostile to the baker’s faith, denying him the neutral consideration he deserved. While the justices split in their reasoning, only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Kennedy wrote that the question of when religious beliefs must give way to anti-discrimination laws might be different in future cases. But in this case, he said, Phillips did not get the proper consideration.

“The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws,” he wrote. “Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here.”

Read the rest here.

Read the decision here.

The Supreme Court kicked the ball down the road and made a strong statement about respecting sincerely held religious beliefs.

If I read the decision correctly, it seems that the Court ruled in favor of the baker because the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not respect his First Amendment religious rights.  The Commissioner called baker Jack Phillip’s faith “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use.”  He compared Phillip’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” to slavery and the Holocaust.  As a result, Justice Kennedy argued in his majority opinion: “the Court cannot avoid the conclusion that these statements cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.”

In other words, the Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner crossed a line.  The Court is a sending a message that these sloppy attacks on sincerely held religious beliefs will not be tolerated.  If you think Phillips should be legally required to bake the cake for the gay couple, take your frustrations out on the Colorado Commission, not on the Supreme Court.

The decision also implies that another cake-baking case might be decided differently.  Kennedy writes:

Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.  In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above.  However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the rulings of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.

 

On Religious Exemptions

0a2ff-ccc-wheaton-interior

Wheaton College is featured in this article

I found this article helpful.  The author is Patrick Hornbeck, chair and associate professor of theology at Fordham University.

Here is a taste of “The Tragedy of Religious Freedom”:

It’s clear that for at least the foreseeable future, religious exemptions will remain the subject of hotly contested battles in courts and legislatures. There is no easy solution, since as legal scholar Kent Greenawalt has noted, the two Religion Clauses of the First Amendment often stand in tension with each other and, as a result, “a good bit of the prevailing law is genuinely confusing.” The question I have been raising here—who, if anyone, should be the arbiter of whether a behavior is sufficiently grounded in religious conviction to qualify for an exemption that might be available—is just a starting point.

Read the entire piece at Religion Dispatches.

The Johnson Amendment Survives New Spending Bill

johnson-gathering

This event, which Trump claims repealed the Johnson Amendment, did absolutely nothing. 

One of the reasons that the court evangelicals love Donald Trump is because they believe he will get rid of the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the clause in the tax code that prevents churches from endorsing political candidates.  There are even some court evangelicals who believe that Trump has already eliminated it.

In reality, the Johnson Amendment is still on the books.  In December 2017, conservative politicians failed to remove it from the tax code.  Let the record show that the Johnson Amendment is still alive and well.  The spending bill that the House passed yesterday did not repeal it.

Tom Gjelten has it covered at National Public Radio.  Here is a taste:

Among those who pushed hard to get rid of the Johnson Amendment were Vice President Pence and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., along with other conservative members of Congress.

Scalise’s press secretary, Lauren Fine, said the amendment’s repeal “remains a priority” for the Louisiana congressman but that the provision fell victim this week to the bipartisan negotiation over the spending bill. “It’s unfortunate that this was not one of the things that made it in,” Fine said.

The drive to repeal the amendment was led by conservative activists such as Ralph Reed and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and had strong backing from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal aid organization. Since 2008, the ADF has promoted “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” as occasions when pastors should challenge the prohibition against political activity by preaching openly about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office.

The campaign has never gained much momentum, however, perhaps because relatively few pastors appear to feel constrained by the amendment, and because surveys show Americans don’t want to hear more politics from the pulpit.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Nationalists Making the Usual Mistakes About American History

Perkins

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was not very happy with Paul Rosenberg and Frederick Clarkson’s recent Salon article on Religious Freedom Day.  He writes:

When Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day tomorrow, not everyone will be happy about it. Liberals are already blasting the tradition that honors the 1786 signing of one of the most influential documents in American history: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Now, more than 230 years into the tradition that sparked a revolution, the Left is ready to recast history.

In Salon, hardly the bastion of conservative thought, Paul Rosenberg tries to persuade readers that freedom is the oppression, insisting that when Christians talk about religious liberty, it’s really just code for “theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government.” Taking aim at FRC in particular, Rosenberg points to Frederick Clarkson, who insists that our Church Ministries team has been “empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies” (while producing absolutely zero evidence to the effect). Instead, he talks suspiciously about our Culture Impact Teams (CITs), our network of on-the-ground activists in churches across America. Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.

Then he starts to play fast and loose with the Constitution.  He quotes Rosenberg: “I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21stcentury, Christian nationalism would crumble.”  And then Perkins adds: “Our own Constitution closes with the words, ‘In the year of our Lord, 1787.’ That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.”

OK.  I have written about this before.  First, the Constitution says “year of our Lord.”  It does not say anything about Jesus.  Second, this phrase hardly serves as an “anchor” of the Constitution.  Third, “In the year of our Lord” was a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.  We need to be careful about giving it too much theological meeting.  Fourth, it is worth noting that an appeal to God does tell us something about the eighteenth-century world that the founders inhabited.  We don’t sign documents like this today.  Fifth, because the phrase “In the year of our Lord” is boilerplate, it was probably not added until after the delegates had left Philadelphia.  Sixth, the minutes of the Constitutional Convention reveal that there was no discussion about the phrase “In the year of our Lord.”  In other words, NO ONE said anything like: “Let’s end the document with the phrase ‘In the year of our Lord’ because it will send a message to everyone that we are creating a Christian nation.”

Perkins is correct when he says that Jefferson included the writing of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on his tombstone.  Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom.  He believed that everyone had the right to worship God freely without government interference.  Jefferson did not comment on whether or not it was appropriate to have a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse or a prayer before a football game.  It is very difficult to appeal to his writings (or the writings of James Madison) to argue for or against such things.

Perkins writes: “Before President Trump, Jefferson would barely recognize his country.”  Really?  Jefferson lived in a different era, but he would certainly be able to spot Christian nationalists like Perkins.  He did battle against them in his own day (Christian Federalists) and would probably do battle with them today.  Jefferson regularly slammed pious New Englanders and their Christian political establishments.  He worried that they were trying to create a Christian nation, not a nation informed by religious liberty.

I have mixed feelings about this whole religious liberty debate:

  1. When Christian Right evangelicals talk about religious liberty they use this idea in a negative way–to protect themselves and their views.  In other words, they are rarely interested in articulating a positive view of religious liberty that defends the right of all people to worship freely.
  2. There are real religious liberty issues at stake in our country right now.  Will Christian institutions who uphold traditional views of marriage, for example, remain in a position to receive government funds or maintain a tax-exempt status?  I wrote about this yesterday.

On the one hand, people like Rosenberg and Clarkson need to offer a vision of religious liberty that protects the rights of churches, Christian schools, and other Christian institutions to practice their faith in the way they see fit, even in areas of sexual politics.  Frankly, I think Hillary Clinton’s failure to defend religious liberty in this way may have, among other things, cost her the election in 2016.

On the other hand, Christian Right activists like Perkins need to stop manipulating history.  When it comes to Jefferson, Perkins could probably learn a great deal from what David Barton went through when he published The Jefferson Lies.  In the end, if Perkins believes in liberty then he cannot, at the same time, defend the idea that the government should privilege one form of religious belief over another.

 

Religious Freedom in Historical Context

RagostaOver at Religion Dispatches, Frederick Clarkson interviews John Ragosta, the author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013).  January 16th is Religious Freedom Day.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Clarkston: What’s most striking to me about the Virginia Statute is the part that reads: “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Jefferson emphasized that the bill was meant to protect everyone, including as he later wrote, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law–seems to be as relevant today as it was then.

Ragosta: Absolutely. The Statute was intended to create a free market of ideas, including religious ideas. Religion would thrive based not on government decisions but on what people believed and chose to support–the “voluntary principle.” The result was an explosion in religious ideas and denominationsand religious leaders were held responsible to their congregants rather than the government. Some conservative ministers who had initially opposed separating church and state admitted that it was the best thing that ever happened to the church.

People sometimes assume that if you want to keep religion out of government and government out of religion you are against religion; Jefferson suffered the same attack. But he and his evangelical supporters wanted a strict wall of separation between church and state–and yet [they] believed that there would be a vibrant religion on the “other” (non-government) side of the wall.

At the same time, while belief is completely free from government regulation and government cannot directly regulate the free exercise of religion, government can pass “neutral” laws (not targeted at religion) which may happen to be inconsistent with a person’s beliefs.

Jefferson used the obvious example of child sacrifice or a law which prohibited the slaughter of lambs when the military was in short supply of wool uniforms. The best modern example is laws against racial discrimination: While many people insisted that interracial dating or marriage violated their religion, the Supreme Court, in the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States, rightly refused to grant an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on religion.

This is exactly what is at issue in the claims for exemptions from laws dealing with LGBTQ rights. Government cannot tell a church that it must marry gay people (that would be a direct regulation of religion), but government can say that if you want to run a business (using public streets, public utilities, police and fire protection, etc.), you cannot discriminate against customers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Of course, if people don’t like particular laws, they can be changed, but Jefferson was very clear that you can’t use religion or religious freedom to claim an exemption from an otherwise valid law.

Read the entire interview here.

A Christian Nation or a Nation of Liberty? (You Can’t Have it Both Ways)

More from Glenn Tinder:

When Christians accept liberty they accept the possibility–a possibility that is almost certain to become a reality–of a world unformed and ungoverned by faith.  The natural inclination of faith is to build a sacred order–to reconstruct the world in its own image.  In granting liberty, it abandons that spontaneous project  It acquiesces in secularism–life unrelated to God and unstructured by faith.  Acknowledging the right of human beings to be free, it allows for a repudiation of faith…Granting liberty is making way for sin.

The Political Meaning of Christianity, p. 102.

ADDENDUM:  Several readers who are not familiar with my work here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home seem to think that Tinder is arguing on behalf of a Christian nation.  Actually, Tinder is arguing for liberty rooted in the human dignity of all human beings and, as a result, a kind of pluralism.

Here is more context:

…when Christians commit themselves to liberty there follows an enormous complication of Christian morality; they deliberately refrain, in some measure, from resisting evil.  They allow the tares to grow with the wheat.

Princeton University’s President on the Democrats’ Religious Tests for Public Office

I saw this today at Alan Jacobs’s blog Snakes and Ladders:

I write, as a university president and a constitutional scholar with expertise on religious freedom and judicial appointments, to express concern about questions addressed to Professor Amy Barrett during her confirmation hearings and to urge that the Committee on the Judiciary refrain from interrogating nominees about the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views. Article VI of the United States Constitution provides explicitly that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This bold endorsement of religious freedom was among the original Constitution’s most pathbreaking provisions. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments render this principle applicable to state offices and that it protects non-believers along with believers of all kinds, is among the greatest landmarks in America’s jurisprudence of religious freedom. Article VI’s prohibition of religious tests is a critical guarantee of equality and liberty, and it is part of what should make all of us proud to be Americans.

By prohibiting religious tests, the Constitution makes it impermissible to deny any person a national, state, or local office on the basis of their religious convictions or lack thereof. Because religious belief is constitutionally irrelevant to the qualifications for a federal judgeship, the Senate should not interrogate any nominee about those beliefs. I believe, more specifically, that the questions directed to Professor Barrett about her faith were not consistent with the principle set forth in the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause.

Source

 

Here is Al Franken:

I should add that the Blackstone Legal Fellowship has an advisory board that includes law professors from  University of Texas, University of Nebraska, Harvard (Mary Ann Glendon), Princeton (Robert George), and Notre Dame.

Here is Diane Feinstein:

Here is Dick Durbin:

And let’s not forget Bernie Sanders from earlier this year:

Here is Emma Green’s reporting on this at The Atlantic.

Trump Lawyers: The President’s Religious Liberty Executive Order Does Nothing

Johnson Amendment

This signing accomplished nothing

I and others have been saying this since Donald Trump signed the order in May.  Now Trump’s lawyers are finally admitting it.  Here is a taste of Derek Hawkins’s piece at The Washington Post:

President Trump promised a new world for the religious when he signed an executive order in May purporting to make it easier for churches to engage in politics without losing their tax-exempt status.

“You’re now in a position to say what you want to say,” he told religious leaders at a Rose Garden signing ceremony. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

But many religious activists and experts on the relevant law said the order didn’t do much of anything, that it amounted to a symbolic gesture with little chance of shaking the status quo.

Now, the Trump administration’s own lawyers have essentially taken the same position.

On Tuesday, Department of Justice attorneys defending the order argued in court that it doesn’t change any existing laws or alter any policies to benefit churches or clergy. Rather, they said, it merely tells the government not to take any punitive action against religious groups that it wouldn’t take against other tax-exempt organizations.

“None of the remarks made by the President suggest that the Executive Order grants an exemption to religious organizations while denying the same benefit to secular organizations,” DOJ lawyers wrote in a brief filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, Wis.

The order targets a provision in the tax code known as the Johnson Amendment that bars churches and other tax-exempt groups from speaking on behalf of political candidates. Trump vowed on the campaign trail to destroy the Johnson Amendment, and his executive order was billed as a fulfillment of that pledge.

But the prohibition is seldom enforced by the IRS and is widely disregarded by clergy. As a result, critics have called Trump’s order meaningless.

“It’s irrelevant, it’s offensive, it’s ignored by churches anyway,” conservative Christian scholar Robert P. George of Princeton University told The Washington Post after the signing ceremony in May. “He got enthusiasm in return for getting nothing.”

Looks like the court evangelicals have more work to do.