Should Religious Liberty Be “The Most Important Public Issue?”

Dr. Alan Jacobs

Some say it should be, but Baylor University English professor Alan Jacobs is not so sure.  Here is a taste of his recent blog post:

Stretch your mind and imagine a POTUS who supports religious liberty but who also pursues reckless, thoughtless, and inconsistent policies both domestically and abroad. Imagine that he is cruel to the helpless, treacherous to longstanding allies, cozy with authoritarian regimes, incapable of sticking with a plan, prone to judge everyone he meets strictly by their willingness to praise and defer to him. Imagine that he is colossally ignorant of domestic and foreign realities alike and yet convinced of his matchless wisdom. 

You might, first, ask whether such a President is a reliable ally of religious freedom. Would he work to guarantee liberty of conscience for those who on religious grounds criticized his own policies? Don’t make me laugh.  

But let’s say he can be counted on. Even so, should religious believers care about their own well-being above that of their neighbors? If, per argumentum, our religious liberty comes at the cost of great suffering for others, is that a deal we should make? Should we place our good ahead of the common good? 

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

Beto O’Rourke: Churches and Religious Institutions Should Lose Tax-Exempt Status If They “Oppose Same Sex Marriage”

Here is Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on CNN last night:

Every Democratic candidate for President of the United States should be asked this question.

I have always appreciated Beto’s sense of conviction, but I hope he rethinks this one.  His answer to Don Lemon shows a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty.  In fact, this answer throws the First Amendment under the bus.

Beto has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. His campaign has been on life support for a long time and last night he probably killed it.  You better believe that his comment will rally the Trump base and legitimate the fears of millions of evangelical Christians.

Beto says he does not want to run for Senate in 2020.  But if he does decide to run for a Senate seat in Texas he may have just blew his chances.  I am guessing that very few people in Texas embrace Beto’s secularism.

Here are a few responses to Beto’s remarks that I have seen online today:

Here is historian John Haas on  Facebook: “Not that Beto has any chance of becoming the nominee, much less president, but it would be interesting to watch the president ordering the IRS to pull Dr. King’s church’s tax exempt status.  Democrats do know that African-American churches are a big part of their informal infrastructure, right?

 

When I saw Beto’s remarks, I tweeted at Washington University law professor John Inazu:

Inazu is the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.  Some of you know that I have extolled Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism” many times at this blog.  Here is a summary of the book:

In the three years since Donald Trump first announced his plans to run for president, the United States seems to become more dramatically polarized and divided with each passing month. There are seemingly irresolvable differences in the beliefs, values, and identities of citizens across the country that too often play out in our legal system in clashes on a range of topics such as the tensions between law enforcement and minority communities. How can we possibly argue for civic aspirations like tolerance, humility, and patience in our current moment?

In Confident Pluralism, John D. Inazu analyzes the current state of the country, orients the contemporary United States within its broader history, and explores the ways that Americans can—and must—strive to live together peaceably despite our deeply engrained differences. Pluralism is one of the founding creeds of the United States—yet America’s society and legal system continues to face deep, unsolved structural problems in dealing with differing cultural anxieties and differing viewpoints. Inazu not only argues that it is possible to cohabitate peacefully in this country, but also lays out realistic guidelines for our society and legal system to achieve the new American dream through civic practices that value toleration over protest, humility over defensiveness, and persuasion over coercion.

The paperback edition includes a new preface that addresses the election of Donald Trump, the decline in civic discourse after the election, the Nazi march in Charlottesville, and more, this new edition of Confident Pluralism is an essential clarion call during one of the most troubled times in US history. Inazu argues for institutions that can work to bring people together as well as political institutions that will defend the unprotected.  Confident Pluralism offers a refreshing argument for how the legal system can protect peoples’ personal beliefs and differences and provides a path forward to a healthier future of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Inazu responded to me with this tweet:

Here is a taste of Inazu’s linked piece “Want a vibrant public square? Support religious tax exemptions“:

When it comes to federal taxes, there is a fundamental reason we should protect religious organizations — even those we disagree with. Functionally, the federal tax exemption is akin to a public forum: a government-provided resource that welcomes and encourages a diversity of viewpoints. Tax exemptions for religious organizations and other nonprofits exist in part to allow different groups to make their voices heard. Past the preexisting baseline, groups and ideas wither or thrive not by government decree but by the choices of individual donors. In this setting, government has no business policing which groups are “in” and which ones are “out” based on their ideological beliefs. And there is no plausible risk that granting tax-exempt status to groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Catholic Church or even the American Cheese Education Foundation means that the government embraces or endorses those organizations’ views.

Tax-exempt status is available to a vast range of ideologically diverse groups. The meanings of “charitable” and “educational” under the Internal Revenue Code are deliberately broad, and “religious” organizations are not even defined. Among the organizations that qualify as tax-exempt, each of us could find not only groups we support, but also those we find harmful to society. And our lists of reprehensible groups would differ. The pro-choice group and the pro-life group, religious groups of all stripes (or no stripe), hunting organizations and animal rights groups — the tax exemption benefits them all.

Read the rest here.

Kelsey Dallas has a nice piece on the way other Democratic candidates responded to similar questions in last night’s CNN forum.

Here, for example, is Elizabeth Warren:

Warren seems to suggest that a man who believes in traditional marriage will not be able to find a woman to marry because women who uphold traditional views on marriage are few and far between.  Really? This answer reveals her total ignorance of evangelical culture in the United States. (It may also reveal her ignorance of middle-American generally).  If she gets the Democratic nomination she will be painted as a Harvard elitist who is completely out of touch with the American people.

Will the Court Evangelicals Break With Trump Over the Plight of Syrian Christians?

Syrian Christians

It is interesting to see how the court evangelicals have responded to the United States withdrawal and recent Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region. Many of Trump’s evangelical supporters are horrified that the president has now abandoned the Christian minority in the Kurdish region.

Christianity Today is covering it this way:

One Syrian Christian leader issued a plea to President Trump.

“Please, seek God, ask God before you make your decision, so that Christianity is not eradicated from Syria, and from historical Mesopotamia,” Bassam Ishak, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council Representation in the USA, told CBN News, following Trump’s February threat to withdraw US forces. “We don’t want a country where citizenship and rights are based on ethnic identities or religious identity. We want all Syrians to be equal.”

Ishak and his colleagues across faiths have received the support of the Family Research Council in the US. Tony Perkins, though an evangelical advisor to the White House, tweeted his opposition to Trump’s decision, warning it would “endanger the prospects of true religious freedom in the Middle East.”

His colleague Travis Weber, vice president for policy and government affairs, told the Christian Post that the region can serve as a safe haven, preventing the flight of the persecuted to Europe and the United States.“Not only will our withdrawal destabilize the region,” he said, “but it … signals to the world that we don’t care about the religious freedom they have built.”

Other American evangelical critics include Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson, who warned Trump risks losing “the mandate of heaven.” Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham joined Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in condemning Trump’s move.

And the bipartisan US Commission for International Religious Freedom tweeted its “deep concern.” Trump responded to criticism by citing his “great and unmatched wisdom,” warning that if Turkey does anything off limits, he will once again destroy its economy.

US economic sanctions were part of his high-profile efforts to secure the release of pastor Andrew Brunson, held two years in Turkey on terrorism-related charges.

In Defense of Christians, a nonpartisan organization committed to the preservation and protection of Christians in the Middle East, expressed great concern about the future of Christians and Yazidis, but was encouraged by Trump’s threat.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is court evangelical Franklin Graham:

 

And then there is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Trump cabinet member who has invested a lot of his energies in the promotion of religious freedom.  Pompeo is defending Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria.  I wonder how Pompeo squares this with the following:

  • His October 3, 2019 meeting with Pope Francis to discuss the protection of Christian communities in the Middle East.
  • His October 2, 2019 participation in a Vatican symposium on religious freedom.
  • His creation of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
  • His July 2019 speech on religious liberty to a meeting of the Christians United for Israel.
  • And we could go on.

George Washington and American Jews

Touro-Synagogue

On August 18, 2019, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island had its 72nd annual reading of George Washington’s letter to this Jewish congregation.  The speaker that day was Jed Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

The New York Review of Books is running an excerpt of Rakoff’s speech.  Here is a taste of Washington’s Legacy for American Jews: ‘To Bigotry No Sanction.’“:

George Washington’s letter of August 1790 (sixteen months after he became president) responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is rightly celebrated as one of the definitive statements of religious freedom under the new US Constitution. Washington’s assertion that “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” made clear that our nation’s first president would not permit the power of the new government to become an instrument of religious intolerance….

But is it still true? There may be cause to worry. Two years ago, in August 2017, neo-Nazi marchers, some of them carrying Nazi flags, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Some of these neo-Nazi demonstrators, carrying semi-automatic rifles, surrounded a local synagogue and posted messages online threatening to burn the temple down. Finally, James Alex Fields Jr.—a confessed Hitler admirer—intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring twenty-eight others.

Then, last October, an expressly anti-Semitic mass murderer entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven members of the congregation and wounding several others. This, the single most violent anti-Semitic incident in US history, was followed, just a few months ago, by a synagogue shooting near San Diego, California, that left one Jew dead and several others injured.

Needless to say, Jews have not been the only victims of the acts of domestic terrorism that have become all too common in our country. Black and Hispanic people, and others, have suffered much worse, as recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, so horribly attest. But that a violent hatred of Jews is once again rearing its ugly head in certain quarters is difficult to deny. Although in America, in contrast to anti-Semitism in many other parts of the world, this hatred and accompanying violence is mostly the work of small fringe groups of political extremists, it is apparent that such attacks are increasing in both number and ferocity. American Jews, so fortunate in so many ways, need to be more alert to these threats, both to others and to ourselves.

I do not wish to seem an alarmist, and all of this must be put in perspective. Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US, we Jews owe the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans a huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our “natural rights,” and for increasingly welcoming us into the life of the American Republic without obliging us to abandon our traditions and beliefs. As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become “a great and a happy people,” Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge, and confront, the growing dangers we face.

Unlike the Moses Seixas of May 1790, who feared to give offense, we must be like the Moses Seixas of August 1790, who asserted our rights, as Americans and Jews, to lead our daily lives free of fear.

Read the entire piece here.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And don’t forget to sue.

Bean

Last April, four Wheaton College students were distributing evangelistic literature in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  They were doing so in an area of the park that does not allow “the making of speeches and passing out of written communications.”  When a security guard told them to stop passing-out the literature, one of them began “open-air” preaching.  The students are now suing the city of Chicago because they believe that the city violated their freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.  Among other things, they want to be awarded “damages for violation” of their “constitutional and statutory rights and for the injuries and unlawful burdens it has incurred.”

Mauck & Baker, a Chicago law firm specializing in religious freedom, is defending the students.  Partner Richard Baker is a 1977 Wheaton College graduate.

Here is a Chicago Tribune story on the case.

I don’t know who is legally correct in this case. I actually appreciate designated parts of public parks that are free of political speeches, literature distribution, and proselytizing of all kinds.  On the other hand, as an evangelical Christian I am glad to see these young men sharing their faith.  I hope they continue to do so and continue to trust God to open up opportunities for them.

This case has started me thinking about the relationship between Christian persecution and American “rights.”  How should Christians balance their rights as citizens with Bible verses that encourage them to rejoice in suffering and persecution?  It seems that the Bible speaks about persecution and suffering as a spiritual virtue, rather than something that should be opposed in a court of law.  Doesn’t suffering lead us toward hope and a deeper understanding of our faith and reliance upon God?  When we are persecuted for Christ should we expect the government to provide us with damages for our emotional distress?

Matthew 5:10 says that we are “blessed” when we are persecuted for doing what is right. The kingdom of heaven awaits those of us who are persecuted.

Or 1 Peter 4:12-14: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

What is the theological relationship between sharing in Christ’s sufferings and bringing a legal suit on the city of Chicago?”

How about 1 Peter 3:14-17: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,  having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

Persecuted Christians should not be “troubled.”

Of course no one wants to suffer or face persecution.  When we see such persecution around the world we must speak against it.  To do so is an act of justice.  But when I heard that these Wheaton students were suing the city, something did not seem right.

I am sure that theologians, biblical commentators, and political philosophers have wrestled with the relationship between the Bible’s teaching on persecution and the defense American rights.  Can anyone recommend some good reading on this topic?  (I know the comments are closed, so feel free to hit me up on Facebook or Twitter).

Duke University Rejects Young Life

Young_Life_Logo

Universities like Duke claim to be bastions of free speech, inclusion, and pluralism, but they tend to define these commitments very narrowly.   For example, the student government at Duke recently rejected Young Life‘s official status on campus because the Christian ministry supports traditional views on marriage and sexuality.

Here is an article from the Duke student newspaper:

The Duke Student Government Senate unanimously declined to recognize Young Life as an official Duke student group at its Wednesday meeting. 

Young Life is a national Christian organization that has branches serving middle and high school students in Durham and Chapel Hill. The group had requested official recognition to recruit and support a greater number of students, as it already has a following on campus. But Young Life was rebuffed over concerns about the national organization’s policies concerning LGBTQ+ leaders. 

At last week’s DSG meeting, senators noted that the national organization’s rule barring LGBTQ+ individuals from leadership positions violates the Student Organization Finance Committee’s guideline that every Duke student group include a nondiscrimination statement in its constitution. 

The Senate then tabled the vote to give Young Life members the chance to speak to senators at this week’s meeting. 

Young Life’s sexual misconduct policy states that “we do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life.” 

Senator Tommy Hessel, a junior, suggested that the Duke Young Life chapter amend its rules to comply with Duke’s nondiscrimination policy. However, Jeff Bennett, a master’s candidate at the Duke Divinity School and current Young Life member, argued that the Duke chapter could not break with national standards. 

“We cannot go outside the bounds of national policies,” Bennett said. 

Senior Rachel Baber, another Young Life member, also spoke in front of the Senate in a push for recognition, pointing out that Duke community members involved in the organization currently have to drive to Chapel Hill for official meetings. 

Read the rest here.

At least once a week someone–usually a reporter–asks me why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.  Stories like this are part of the answer.

For a different understanding of free speech, inclusion, and pluralism I would encourage you to read John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving  Through Deep Difference.

Does Religious Liberty Have Christian Roots?

WilkenRobert Wilken‘s new book Liberty in Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom makes the case that religious liberty has Christian roots that date back to the second century.  Tal Howard reviews Wilken’s new book at The Anxious Bench blog.

Here is a taste:

Wilken seeks to reorient our understanding of the history of religious freedom. Today, many educated people believe that once upon a time history teemed with inquisitions, witch trials, and religious wars until, lo, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment arrived, paving the way for the American and French Revolutions and with them the constitutional protection of religious liberty. In this narrative, religious freedom is a relatively recent and secular achievement.

But the actual origins of religious freedom are far more complex and specifically indebted to Christian theology, according to Wilken. His argument proceeds in four stages.

First, the spread of Christianity in the classical world redefined religious belief. In the Roman Empire, religious devotion was tethered to the state and manifested itself in outward acts of piety. It was not an inward matter of conviction and conscience. Christians were thus sometimes charged with “atheism” and persecuted for failing to perform the customary rituals. Roman harassment inspired Tertullian and other early Christians writers, notably Lactantius and Origen of Alexandria, to insist that true religion resided in “conscience” apart from Caesar’s domain. Tertullian in fact first coined the term “religious freedom” (libertas religionis) and saw it as a “human right” (humanum ius). “Religion cannot be imposed by force,” echoed Lactantius against his Roman critics.

Read the entire review here.

What is Happening to Religious Pluralism in Quebec?

Quebec churc h

I just read Michael W. Higgins’s piece at Commonweal: “Quebec’s Moral Quagmire.”  Higgins explores Quebec’s “Bill 21,” a law that, in Higgins’s words, “bans police, civil servants, teachers, government officials, jail guards, and other state employees from wearing any form of religious garment–the Sikh turban, the Jewish kippa, the Muslim hijab, niqab, and burka, and the Christian cross–while on the job.”

Here is a taste:

Sheema Khan, a Harvard-educated scientist and inventor, writes regularly on the status of Muslim women in Canada; Khan wears a hijab, and struggles to find common ground between secular Canada and her own religious tradition. Shortly after the passing of Bill 21, while visiting Montreal, Khan writes that she witnessed a terrible auto accident. Having provided a statement to the police, she muses: “What if I am called to testify and denied the opportunity to do so because of my hijab? Will the court be deemed a space laique, where no religious symbols are allowed?” Noting that on two occasions, Quebec judges have unsuccessfully tried to bar women with hijabs, she asks: “Will judges be emboldened to try again? In the future, a turbaned Sikh police officer cannot take a witness statement; an observant Jewish lawyer won’t be allowed to prosecute a case on behalf of the province.” Decrying a Quebec that is “march[ing] to its own tune of folly,” Khan envisions “religious dress” police, and urges her fellow Canadians to “not remain silent while their fellow citizens are denied basic human rights.”

Indeed, many organizations are not remaining silent, including the major universities of the province; the Montreal English-speaking school board and teacher unions both French and English; law firms; journalists and editors of the premier media organs in Quebec; and religious bodies of every stripe, including the Assembly of Quebec Bishops. The Archbishop of Montreal, Christian Lepine, called Bill 21 an erosion of individual freedoms and a diminishment of human dignity. The Fédération des femmes du Québec warned of the damage that will be done to Muslim women through the bill’s discriminatory bias.

Most important, the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a native Quebecker, stand vigorously opposed to the bill, and are resolved to appeal it to the Supreme Court as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Their challenge will be amplified by the Legault administration’s intention to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding clause,” also known as the “override clause,” which allows federal or provincial governments temporarily to override, or bypass, certain Charter rights. The clause, a controversial amendment since its inception as part of the Canada Act of 1982, which completed the country’s constitutional independence from the U.K., was deemed necessary at the time to ensure the cooperation of all the provinces, and Quebec specifically. Invoking the clause has been rare; but when a provincial government does so, it usually gets its way.  

Legault knows that the province’s prerogative can be tested in the courts, but he also knows the bar for revocation is high, and that in a national election year the governing party in Ottawa will be reluctant to alienate the population of a province it depends on for elected Members of Parliament. The Prime Minister, however, given his very public opposition to Bill 21, will have little choice but to intervene at some point. While this is more likely to happen after the election, Trudeau might conceivably choose to make it an election battleground: Ottawa defending religious freedoms over the populist-secularists keen on scrubbing the public landscape clean of religious markers. Given the wide antipathy to Bill 21 outside Quebec, that might work, but he will need to weigh in the balance the collateral damage of pitting English Canada against la belle province.

Support for the bill within Quebec has come from various constituencies: rural residents hostile to the urban monoliths of Montreal and Quebec City; native Quebeckers uncomfortable with significant immigration in recent years from former French colonies, principally in Africa and the Caribbean; rising anxiety over the perceived threats to the linguistic and cultural identity of Quebec by the expanding Muslim population; the relentless denigration of the old values in an ever-changing Quebec; and the emergence of populist politicians further to the right of Premier Legault, like Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party, who feed the fears of a citizenry under siege. But support has also come from leftist circles, including sovereigntists keen on democratic socialism in the European mode, and some feminist organizations that see the veil as a cultural prop of an oppressive patriarchy.

Read the entire piece here.   It is interesting to see nativists, secularists, and feminists coming together in this way.  This bill illustrates how opponents of religious freedom and religious pluralism can be found on both sides of the political aisle.

Donald Trump is Threatening James Madison’s Vision of Religious Freedom

WaldmanI haven’t had a chance yet to read Steven Waldman‘s new book Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, but I have heard good things about it.  I was hoping to catch him next month at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, but, unfortunately, I will be out of town.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at Washington Monthly: Breaking the Faith“:

At the heart of James Madison’s vision was a system of fair competition among religions: the power of the state should not be used to favor one over another. Trump’s ascent to the presidency has challenged that principle directly: he proudly advertises his desire to favor one group, white evangelicals, over others, especially Muslims. 

“The Christians are being treated horribly because we have nobody to represent the Christians,” Trump said during the 2016 campaign. He promised not only to protect Christians from persecution but also to restore their dominance: “We have to band together. . . . Our country has to do that around Christianity.” Although Trump has advocated a few legitimate expansions of rights for religious people generally, he mostly has defined religious liberty downward, using the concept, for instance, to justify allowing tax-exempt churches to endorse political candidates. 

Meanwhile, Trump stocked his government with men allied to the most extreme anti-Muslim activists. Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, dismissed Muslims’ claims that they should be protected by the First Amendment as a treacherous tactic. John Bolton, the current national security adviser, appointed as his chief of staff Fred Fleitz, the senior vice president of Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, one of the leading groups peddling conspiracy theories about the looming threat of sharia. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then a member of Congress, claimed that the “silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening” and that therefore “these Islamic leaders across America [are] potentially complicit in these acts.”

Trump and the anti-Muslim extremists he has empowered have already degraded the basic rules that had long propelled America’s unique model of religious freedom. But things could still get much worse. After ten years of propaganda from Fox News, right-wing trolls, talk radio hosts, and now the president of the United States, a substantial minority of Americans don’t believe that Muslims are worthy of First Amendment protections. The foundation of religious freedom has been soaked with gasoline. 

Now imagine there’s a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil committed by a Muslim radical. Does anyone expect Trump to caution his followers against blaming Islam as a whole? He would more likely add fuel to the fire. How many hours would pass before we heard him say, “See, I was right about the Muslims!” And since the whole thrust of the anti-Muslim movement of the last decade has been to blur the line between Muslim terrorists and ordinary Muslims, Trump’s reaction could embolden more of his supporters to take matters into their own hands. And history is full of reminders that once animus is normalized against one religious minority, others are at risk of being next in line.

Read the entire piece here.

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”

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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

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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

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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?

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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

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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?”

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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.