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).

AP: “Warren joins Buttigieg in nixing threat to church tax status”

Warren 2

Here is our post on Buttigieg. We discussed Beto O’Rourke’s comments on tax exempt status for religious organizations that uphold same sex marriage here and here and here.

Now Elizabeth Warren has tried to distance herself from Beto’s remarks. Here is a taste Elana Schor’s piece at the Association Press:

Elizabeth Warren would not seek to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches or other religious entities that decline to perform same-sex marriages if she’s elected president, the Massachusetts Democrat’s campaign said.

Asked to respond to former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s assertion last week that religious institutions should face the loss of their tax exemption for opposing same-sex marriage, Warren campaign spokeswoman Saloni Sharma said that “Elizabeth will stand shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ+ community” to help stamp out “fear of discrimination and violence.” But she declined to take aim at the tax status of religious organizations that don’t support same-sex marriage.

“Religious institutions in America have long been free to determine their own beliefs and practices, and she does not think we should require them to conduct same-sex marriages in order to maintain their tax-exempt status,” Sharma said by email.

Warren is the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to create distance from O’Rourke’s suggestion as President Donald Trump joined a conservative outcry against it, accusing him of threatening religious freedom. Trump belittled O’Rourke as a “wacko” during Saturday remarks to the conservative Values Voter Summit, signaling a willingness to use the issue to drive a wedge between voters of faith and the Democratic Party.

I am glad to see this. But Warren also needs to realize that this issue goes a lot deeper than just forcing churches to perform same-sex marriages.  Warren’s remarks (through her spokesperson) say nothing about the tax exempt status of religious and church-related colleges and charities that do not hire same sex couples based upon deeply held religious beliefs.

Thoughts on a Discouraging Weekend

bench-560435_1280-900x598

I was on Fall Break this weekend and probably spent way too much time reading and watching the news, following the Values Voter Summit, and tweeting.  With the exception of the beautiful central Pennsylvania weather, I  leave the weekend pretty discouraged.

First, there was Beto O’Rourke’s remarks about removing the tax exempt status from churches, charities, and institutions that uphold traditional marriage.  Read my posts here and here and here.  I know that O’Rourke has no chance of winning, but his statement at the CNN Equality Forum has fired up pro-Trump conservatives.  I did not watch all of Tony Perkins’s Values Voter Summit this weekend, but in the time I did watch I noticed that Trump, Oliver North, and Todd Starnes all used the remarks to rally the base.

Will the removal of the tax-exempt status of religious organizations be bad for the church?  Not necessarily.  Jesus said that if Christians are persecuted they should consider themselves blessed.  When Christians are persecuted they share in Christ’s sufferings and join “the prophets who were before you.”  We enter into a community of saints whose members followed Jesus in circumstances that were much more difficult than what American Christians are facing today.  This, I might add, is one of the reasons why more Christians should study history.  We need to know more about this communion of saints as it has unfolded over time.

In other words, Christians who believe that God is committed to preserving His church should have nothing to fear.  This does not mean that the church should not make intelligent and civil arguments to defend religious liberty, but, as I wrote in one of the posts above, it should also prepare for suffering.

Will the removal of the tax-exempt status of religious organizations be bad for the United States?   Yes.  On this point I agree with  University of Washington law professor John Inazu.  Read his recent piece at The Atlantic: “Democrats Are Going to Regret Beto’s Stance on Conservative Churches.”  Here is a taste :

First, pollsters should ask voters about O’Rourke’s comments and the issue of tax-exempt status, both now and in the exit polls for the 2020 presidential election. We can be certain this issue will be used in Republican political ads, especially in congressional districts that Obama won in 2012, but that Trump won in 2016. And I suspect this issue and O’Rourke’s framing of it will lead to increased turnout of evangelicals in states that matter to Democrats, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. O’Rourke’s comment may quickly fall out of the national news cycle, but it won’t be forgotten among churches, religious organizations, and religious voters. And if the Democrats lose in 2020, this issue and their handling of it will likely be a contributing factor. That will be true regardless of who the eventual Republican or Democratic candidates are.

Second, journalists should ask O’Rourke and every other Democratic candidate how this policy position would affect conservative black churches, mosques and other Islamic organizations, and orthodox Jewish communities, among others. It is difficult to understand how Democratic candidates can be “for” these communities—advocating tolerance along the way—if they are actively lobbying to put them out of business.

Third, policy analysts should assess the damage O’Rourke’s proposal would cause to the charitable sector. O’Rourke’s stance—if played out to its end—would decimate the charitable sector. It is certainly the case that massive amounts of government funding flow through religious charitable organizations in the form of grants and tax exemptions. But anyone who thinks this is simply a pass-through that can be redirected to government providers or newly established charitable networks that better conform to Democratic orthodoxies is naive to the realities of the charitable sector.

Read the entire piece here.

Second, there is Elizabeth Warren.  Here is what I wrote at the end of this piece:

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.

If you watch the video, and interpret Warren’s body language, it is hard to see her come across as anything but smug.  But my primary criticism here is political.  Warren has a legitimate chance to win the Democratic nomination in 2020.  If she gets the nomination, and hopes to win the general election, she needs to convince middle America that she wants to be the president of all America.  Her response to this question about gay marriage reminds me of something I wrote in Believe Me about the Hillary Clinton campaign against Donald Trump in 2016:

Though Clinton would never come close to winning the evangelical vote, her tone-deafness on matters of deep importance to evangelicals may have been the final nail in the coffin of her campaign.  In 2015, when a conservative pro-life group published videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the purchase of the body parts and the fetal tissue of aborted fetuses, Clinton said, “I have seen the pictures [from the videos] and obviously find them disturbing.”  Such a response could have helped her reach evangelicals on the campaign trail, but by 2016 she showed little ambivalence about abortion, or any understanding that it might pose legitimate concerns or raise larger ethical questions.  During the third presidential debate, she defended a traditional pro-choice position and seemed to dodge Fox News host Chris Wallace’s question about her support for late-term abortions.  There seemed to be no room in her campaign for those evangelicals who didn’t want to support Trump but needed to see that she could at least compromise on abortion.

Clinton was also quiet on matters pertaining to religious liberty.  While she paid lip service to the idea whenever Trump made comments about barring Muslims from coming into the country, she never addressed the religious liberty issues facing many evangelicals.   This was especially the case with marriage.  Granted, evangelicals should not have expected Clinton to defend traditional marriage or promise to help overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, but she did not seem willing to support something akin to what law professor and author John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”  The question of how to make room for people with religiously motivated beliefs that run contrary to the ruling in Obergefell is still being worked out, and the question is not an easy one to parse.  But when Hillary claimed that her candidacy was a candidacy for “all Americans,” it seemed like an attempt to reach her base, not to reach across the aisle.  Conservative evangelicals were not buying it.

Here is my point:  If my conversations with evangelicals are any indication, there seem to be some of them who voted for Trump in 2016 and are now looking for a reason–any reason– to vote for another candidate in 2020.  This is obviously not a significant number of evangelical voters, but after the close election in 2016 we should have learned that every vote counts.  If O’Rourke, Warren, and other Democratic candidates keep up their assaults on religious liberty, these voters will vote again for Trump.  The Christian Right will use these assaults to rally the base and perhaps get some pro-Trumpers who did not vote in 2016 to pull a lever in 2020.

Third, as noted above, I watched some of the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” this weekend.  I tweeted a lot about it.  Check out my feed here.  Last night Donald Trump gave a speech at the summit.  You can watch it here.

Trump spent most of his talk lying about the impeachment process.  He demonized his political opponents.  At one point he mocked the physical appearance of Adam Schiff.  He used profanity.  And the evangelicals in the room cheered:

 

A few folks on Twitter this weekend chastised me for attacking the president and his evangelical supporters.  They told me that I was not being “Christ-like” and suggested that I am being just as “uncivil” as Trump.  I will admit that I am still angry about the way my fellow evangelicals have rallied around this president.  Anger is wrong, and I am still wrestling with how to balance “righteous anger” with just pure, sinful, and unhealthy “anger.”

But I keep coming back to the limits of “civility.” Here is what I said to a group of evangelical academics last weekend at Lee University. I said something similar to a group of Christian college provosts, chief academic officers, and student life-leaders in January:

Donald Trump has exacerbated a longstanding American propensity for conflict and incivility.

I think many in the room today would agree when I say that Christian Colleges must continue doing what we’ve always done, that is stepping into the breach as agents of healing in the places, communities, neighborhoods and regions where we have influence. Sadly, the fact that so many white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump means that we may have to go back to square one. We need to keep reminding our constituencies and our students about the work of reconciliation across racial lines, gender lines, political lines, class lines, denominational lines. We must model empathy and civility. This means resisting the historic American propensity for conflict—the usable past that Trump exploits. We much chart another—more countercultural—path.

Our schools must be places of prayerful conversation, not cable news-shouting matches. Conversation is essential on our campuses. We need to be intentional about creating spaces for civil dialogue. We must learn to listen. We must be hospitable. But it is also important to remember that dialogue does not always mean that there must be a moral equivalence between the two parties engaged in the exchange. We come to any conversation from a location, and that is the historic teachings of biblical faith. We can debate whether Trump’s policies are good for America or the church, but when the president of the United States engages in endless lies, petty acts of jealousy and hatred, racist name-calling, and certain policies that undermine the teachings of Jesus Christ—we must reject such behavior and model an alternative way. At Christian colleges we cannot allow those defending such behavior and policies to operate on an equal moral footing. When Trump’s antics are celebrated by MAGA-hat wearing white evangelicals at rallies screaming “Lock Her Up” and then those same Christians inform pollsters that they are “evangelical or born-again” as they leave the voting booth, something is wrong. Something that should concern us deeply.

Maybe I’ll feel better by the end of the week.  I am seeing my daughters next weekend, I get to teach U.S. history to some great students this week, I will hear some Messiah College history alums tell their stories on Thursday at my department’s annual “Career Night,” and I will be speaking to Kansas history teachers on Monday afternoon.  There is much for which to be hopeful!

Ed Stetzer is Right About CNN’s Equality Town Hall

Beto

Here is a taste of the Wheaton College professor’s recent post at Christianity Today:

I’m concerned with the clear and complete disregard around religious liberty. This term was used a few times, often with the phrase “so called” tacked on. Candidates would say they affirm religious liberty, but then describe exactly how they did not.

Elizabeth Warren was asked a revealing question: How would she respond if an “old fashioned” voter told her that they believed that marriage is between one man and one woman? She retorted with, “I’m going to assume it is a guy who said that,” before answering, “Well then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.”

There was much applause. However, she then shrugged, adding, “assuming you could find one.” The audience roared with laughter, further insinuating that any person who held such values is so out of step, bigoted, homophobic, and small minded that he could not find someone who would be willing to marry him. (See the CNN clip.)

But let’s be honest: that’s really not the issue. The issue is: Can people dissent from what is now the majority view of marriage? As we saw, Warren not only mocked those who disagreed but advocated for policies that seek to marginalize and penalize those who do hold a biblical view of marriage.

Contrary to Warren’s playing to the choir, these views are not representative of frustrated men but rather reflect a broad array of people of faith— people many Democrats have recently ignored.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Slate published an analysis of “Why Hillary Clinton Bombed with Evangelical Voters.” In the article, I said it appeared that Hillary Clinton was working hard to alienate evangelicals—and she succeeded.

Later, the news would be how evangelicals had aligned with President Trump, while neglecting the clear and obvious reality that even Slate Magazine noticed: when it comes to evangelicals, Hillary was disengaged and even alienating.

Last night’s CNN debate was a perfect example of that same alienation.

While Warren’s quip lit up social media, another candidate delivered the biggest surprise in giving voice to what many perceived to be the trajectory of religious liberty debates, long left unsaid by other Democrats. Facing a question over the tax exempt status of churches, Beto O’Rourke asserted that not only churches but any organization that opposed same-sex marriage, should lose their tax exemption.

tweeted a link to the Beto video and this comment:

2009: How is my gay marriage going to hurt you? We just want marriage equality.

2019: We want the tax exempt status of the churches, charities, and colleges revoked for your failure to change your views on gay marriage.

In 2009, the mantra was “We just want our marriage equity. We just want to be able to let love be love.” Ten years later, the goal posts have moved for many: affirm the new orthodoxy on same sex marriage—or lose tax exempt status. This is quite a striking position, considering all the institutions he mentioned (churches, charities, and colleges). That’s your religious hospital, the orphanage, the homeless shelter, and more.

Now, this was Beto O’Rourke, not every candidate. But, it is important to consider the Equality Act if we want to talk about the broader field of Democratic candidates.

Equality Act is widely supported by the Democratic political candidates for president. That act has significant implications for the very institutions that Beto did mention—charities and colleges.

At Wheaton College where I serve, we have a community covenant that aligns our life and beliefs. We affirm the biblical teaching that marriage is designed and created for one man, one woman, and one lifetime.

The Equality Act would in essence say that our beliefs are unacceptable and that we must change. 

Read the entire piece here.  We covered this story here and here.

Do Beto and Warren represent all the Democratic candidates for president?  I imagine that we find out soon.  As I mentioned here yesterday, Don Lemon’s question to Beto Rourke should be asked of all the Democratic candidates.

How might evangelicals respond if all that Stetzer proposes comes true?  I stand by what I argued in Believe Me.  The answer is not fear, the pursuit of greater political power (to the point that we put our trust in a strongman to save us), or an appeal to nostalgia.  The answer is hope, humility, and thoughtful efforts to bring about a more confident pluralism.  We might also be called to suffer. These are the things evangelicals should be thinking and praying about right now.   The answer does not lie in what is happening in Washington D.C. this weekend.

What Does Beto O’Rourke Think About His High School Alma Mater?

Beto

Beto O’Rourke went to high school at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. He graduated from the boarding school in 1991.  Woodberry Forest is an all-boys school.  Like most schools, colleges, and universities, it is a non-profit organization with tax-exempt status.

I have lectured on Woodberry’s beautiful campus, ate dinner in its dining hall, and spent a memorable post-lecture evening with the president and faculty talking about the humanities and history education.  Woodberry Forrest is probably a bit too elite for my tastes, but it is certainly a place that takes the education of boys very seriously.

Woodberry Forest

Earlier today, I did a post on last night’s CNN’s Democratic presidential candidate’s forum on LGBTQ issues.  During the forum, Beto said that if he were president he would remove the tax-exempt status of churches and religious institutions and schools that “oppose same sex marriage.”  Institutions that uphold traditional views of marriage, according to Beto, “infringe on the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

So I have two related questions for Beto:

  1. Does Woodberry Forest discriminate against the human rights of women by forbidding them to attend the school?  Should Woodberry Forest lose its tax exempt status as a result?
  2. What happens if a boy at Woodberry Forest transitions to a woman while matriculating at the school?  Does she have the right to stay at the all boys school?  If Woodberry Forest asks her to leave, would that be a form of discrimination?  Should the school lose its tax-exempt status as a result?

By using Woodberry Forest as an example here, I am drawing heavily from the work of John Inazu in his book Confident Pluralism.  He uses the example of Wellesley, an all women’s college in Massachusetts, that has wrestled with the same questions in recent years as some students at the college transition to men.

Here is a taste of 2017 post I did on Inazu’s argument in Confident Pluralism :

I have been reading Washington University law professor John D. Inazu‘s challenging and refreshing book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  

Here is a passage from the Introduction that really hit me between the eyes:

“Wellesley College, an all-women’s school, now confronts internal challenges around its growing transgender student population.  Even though Wellesley admits only women, a number of its current students have transitioned to men after matriculation.  As a recent New York Times story asks: “What’s a women’s college to do? Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back.  But yielding to their request to dilute the focus on women would undercut the identity of a women’s college.”  One student reasoned: “I realized that if we excluded trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team.  We’d be on the wrong side of history.”  A recent graduate reached the opposite conclusion: “Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley.”  The New York Times noted that this woman “asked not to be identified for fear she’d be denounced for her position.”

The last example exposes a particularly acute challenge: Wellesely cannot remain a women’s college whose identity in some ways rests on gender exclusivity and at the same time welcome transgender students who identify as men.  It will have to choose between two competing views.  But perhaps even more important than what decision Wellesley reaches is how it reaches that decision.  Will Wellesley be able to choose its own institutional identity, or will the government impose a norm on the private school through law and regulation?  Will other citizens tolerate Wellesley’s choice, or will they challenge its accreditation, boycott its events, and otherwise malign its existence?  Will the process through which Wellesley reaches its decision be one of open engagement across deep difference, or will students, faculty, and administrators speak only under the cover of anonymity?”

Will Beto’s views allow Woodberry Forest to continue its identity as an all-boys school that “discriminates” against women?  I am sure there are many parents who send their kids to Woodberry precisely because it is an all-boys school.  Will Beto’s view allow churches, religious charities, and faith-based colleges to continue their Christian identities without government interference?  This might be stating the obvious, but there are many Americans who attend churches and send their kids to Christian colleges precisely because they hold certain beliefs that are rooted in deeply held religious convictions.

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.

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.

Michael Gerson on Evangelical Anxiety

Trump court evangelicals

Many evangelicals believe that their religious liberty under attack.  Perhaps “attack” is a bit extreme, but there are some legitimate threats to religious liberty.  Michael Gerson of The Washington Post agrees with this assessment.  But he also reminds us that evangelicals face a much greater threat.  Here is a taste of his recent column:

Much white evangelical support for President Trump is based on a bargain or transaction: political loyalty (and political cover for the president’s moral flaws) in return for protection from a hostile culture. Many evangelicals are fearful that courts and government regulators will increasingly treat their moral and religious convictions as varieties of bigotry. And that this will undermine the ability of religious institutions to maintain their identities and do their work. Such alarm is embedded within a larger anxiety about lost social standing that makes Trump’s promise of a return to greatness appealing.

Evangelical concerns may be exaggerated, but they are not imaginary. There is a certain type of political progressive who would grant institutional religious liberty only to churches, synagogues and mosques, not to religious schools, religious hospitals and religious charities. Such a cramped view of pluralism amounts to the establishment of secularism, which would undermine the long-standing cooperation of government and religious institutions in tasks such as treating addiction, placing children in adoptive homes, caring for the sick and educating the young.

But this is not, by any reasonable measure, the largest problem evangelicals face. It is, instead, the massive sell-off of evangelicalism among the young. About 26 percent of Americans 65 and older identify as white evangelical Protestants. Among those ages 18 to 29, the figure is 8 percent. Why this demographic abyss does not cause greater panic — panic concerning the existence of evangelicalism as a major force in the United States — is a mystery and a scandal. With their focus on repeal of the Johnson Amendment and the right to say “Merry Christmas,” some evangelical leaders are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around them.

Read the rest here.

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 If Your Faith Makes You “Unpatriotic?”

Dyer

I am in Boston this week filming a series of lectures for an on-line course on colonial America produced by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  We have been shooting short introductions at places like the Long Wharf, Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, Harvard University, and the Boston Public Library.  (We shot some footage at Mount Vernon, Virginia earlier in the week).

Yesterday we filmed an introduction at the statue of Mary Dyer located at the corner of Beacon Street and Bowdoin Street adjacent to the Massachusetts State House.  I talked about Dyer’s relationship with Anne Hutchinson, her so-called “monstrous birth,” her conversion to Quakerism, and her eventual execution in Boston Commons in 1660.

I thought about Hutchinson and Dyer today as I read this tweet from Family Research Council President and court evangelical Tony Perkins.

I agree with Perkins and Pompeo.  We must defend religious liberty.  But I wonder if our current president thinks the same way.  Trump will preach religious liberty to evangelicals until he is blue in the face.  Evangelicals will eat it all up and pull the lever for Trump in 2020.  They will continue to call him the most faith-friendly president of all time.

But what would Trump say about religious liberty if a person’s religious convictions led her or him to criticize the United States for its past and present sins?  What would Trump say about religious liberty if someone’s faith-informed view of the world resulted in the criticism of him?

I don’t know if religious faith informs the moral vision of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, or Ayanna Pressley (we did a post on Ocasio-Cortez back in June 2017).  But if it does, how might Trump reconcile religious liberty with his recent tweet telling these women to leave the country?  If someone’s faith leads one to oppose racism, nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, dishonesty and general cruelty, should we deem that person to be unpatriotic and encourage them to go back to their own country?

The analogy is not perfect (no historical analogy is), but it seems like the faith of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer led them to criticize the beliefs of the Puritan government in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay.  They exercised liberty of conscience in a way that Trump might describe “unpatriotic.”  Hutchinson was not “sent home.” She was sent to Rhode Island.  I don’t think the Puritans were chanting “send her back, send her back” when they banned her, but I am sure they were thinking something similar.

Dyer, on the other hand, was “sent home.”

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.

Why Jews and Muslims Might Claim a Religious Liberty Exemption to the Alabama Abortion Bill

Abortion Alabama

Steven Waldman, author of a new book titled Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedommakes a fascinating argument in a recent op-ed at Newsweek.  What happens when a pro-life position on abortion clashes with religious liberty?  Jews believe life begins at birth, not conception.  Muslims believe that life begins around the fourth month of gestation.  Are these deeply-held religious beliefs?

On the Christian Right, where anti-abortion legislation and religious liberty drive the political agenda of its members, heads are exploding.  What happens when religious liberty clashes with anti-abortion laws?

Here is a taste of Waldman’s piece “Alabama Abortion Law: Should Jewish and Muslim Doctors and Women Get Exemptions For Religious Freedom?:

There may be a strange, implied loophole in the Alabama anti-abortion law—that abortions can be performed … if the doctor is Jewish or Muslim.

Here’s the logic.  We are in a moment of history when the courts are leaning in the direction of providing religious exemptions to secular laws. This was the thrust of the Sisters of the Poor case, when a group of nuns said they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for contraception coverage. They argued that the rule violated their religious beliefs so they shouldn’t have to participate. The “Bakers of Conscience” have made a similar argument—that they should be allowed to avoid making a cake for a same-sex wedding without being prosecuted under anti-discrimination laws—because their beliefs are grounded in religion.

The drafters of the law were at least partly motivated by their faith. “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life,”  said Clyde Chambliss, a sponsor of the bill.

So the question becomes: does the law infringe on the religious beliefs of the woman or the doctor?

Though there are many interpretations in the Jewish tradition, the most common is that life begins at birth, not conception. Reform Rabbis have decreed that abortion is permitted if there is a  “strong preponderance of medical opinion that the child will be born imperfect physically, and even mentally.” If you’re a Jewish woman, you could argue that this law forces you to abide by a different definition of life (with roots in Roman Catholicism). 

If you’re a Jewish doctor who has sworn the Hippocratic oath—to perform medically appropriate procedures without discrimination—then it may be your religious belief that you have a duty to provide a Biblically-sanctioned abortion. By blocking you from offering that service, the law is forcing you to violate your Hippocratic oath and the guidance from your religion.

Read the rest here.

Gerson: Trump is the Real Threat to Religious Liberty

Omar

Here is Gerson–an evangelical, former Bush speechwriter, and Washington Post columnist–on Trump’s response to recent statements by Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar:

By all the evidence, Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot. At one campaign event in 2015, a member of the audience stated, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims.” And he went on to ask, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump responded: “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” Imagine a normal politician on the left or right being asked about the possibility of getting rid of all the Christians, or getting rid of all the Jews. They would likely use such a moment to clarify that they aren’t, in fact, insanely prejudiced monsters. Trump used such a moment to affirm the instinct of mass deportation and to promise a range of other anti-Muslim actions.

Could this have been a slip of the tongue? No, it wasn’t. Trump has a long history of animus — raw animus — against one of the Abrahamic faiths. He has said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims.” And: “There is a Muslim problem in the world.” And: “The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem.” And: “Islam hates us.”

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.