Ideals are Important. So is Life

Samaritan Purse

Some folks on the Left do not want Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical organization that only uses Christian health care workers and volunteers, to have a coronavirus field hospital in Central Park. They say that Samaritan’s Purse discriminates against the LGBTQ community. Since Central Park is a public park, open to all people, Franklin Graham’s ministry should not be allowed to be there. This, it seems to me, would be a legitimate argument if we were not in the midst of a pandemic. When several folks on Twitter called-out the problem of Samaritan Purse working on public property, I asked them to politely explain these concerns to a coronavirus patient who can’t breathe and needs immediate medical attention in order to survive. Ideals are important. So is life.

Some folks on the Right do not want the government telling them that they have to close their churches in the midst of this pandemic. They claim that they have a First Amendment right to worship and assemble. One church has even turned to the former Dean of the Liberty University Law School to defend their right to physically assemble during the pandemic. But at what point do we lay aside this First Amendment right when all the science tells us that coronavirus spreads in crowds? Ideals are important. So is life.

Instead of Booing Him, CPAC Should Have Embraced Mitt Romney.

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This is a piece I wrote on last weekend’s CPAC that was never able to place.  –JF

The name of Mitt Romney was booed relentlessly at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Fort Washington, Maryland.

This year’s CPAC was noteworthy for the relative absence of Christian Right speakers and the general downplaying of the religious wing of today’s conservative movement, but it still spoke volumes about the nature of the movement’s view of the role of religion in public life.

Donald Trump has used his bully pulpit to attack Romney for voting in favor of removing him from office during the Senate impeachment trial.  At last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, the president made a less-than-veiled attack on Romney’s Mormon faith when he said: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.”

On Saturday, as he spoke to the CPAC faithful, Trump called Romney “a low life.”

Trump’s followers on social media and conservative cable outlets have also excoriated Romney.  Pundit Ann Coulter dubbed him a “useful idiot” for Democrats.  Donald Trump Jr. demanded Romney’s remove from the Republican Party: “He’s now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled.”

In the immediate wake of Romney’s vote, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the special interest group that stages CPAC each year, tweeted that the 2012 Republican presidential nominee was “formally NOT invited” to this year’s conference.  In a Fox News interview, he added: “This year I’d actually be afraid for his physical safety, people are so mad at him.

Schlapp may have been right about Romney’s safety at this year’s CPAC. Charlie Kirk, a pro-Trump activist who works on college campuses, encouraged the audience to boo every time Romney’s name was mentioned during the conference.

In a relatively successful attempt to work the crowd into a frenzy, Kirk claimed that Romney lied to the people of Utah about his conservative credentials while campaigning for his Senate seat.

These attacks on Romney at CPAC and elsewhere seem counter-intuitive when one considers that the Senator’s deeply held religious convictions informed his vote to remove Trump from office.

“I am a profoundly religious person,” Romney said as he fought back tears during his address on the floor of the Senate on February 5, 2020, the day before the removal votes, “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”

Whatever one thinks about Romney’s speech and its references to his Mormon faith, it is hard to argue with the fact that it was exactly the kind of faith-informed, conscience-driven style of politics that Christian conservatives have long championed.

Romney’s speech seemed to bolster, not undermine, what Kirk calls his “conservative credentials.” It was an exercise of religious liberty, one of the major political issues that led many conservatives to support Trump in 2016 and will lead them to pull a lever for the president again in November.

Why then would Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, a Christian RIght school founded by his father in 1971 to fight for conservative evangelical values and the freedom to express those values in the public square, tell Romney, in a Fox News interview, to “keep his religion in his personal life?”

Falwell and Kirk recently founded the Falkirk Center, a Liberty University think tank designed to advance Judeo-Christian values and defend “religious liberty.”  Perhaps Falwell and Kirk should hire Romney as a spokesperson for their new center.

When Romney delivered his anti-Trump speech on the Senate floor, he was bringing religious belief and conviction to what John Roberts described during the impeachment trial as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”  Romney’s integration of faith and politics was a direct assault on secularism in government.

Romney exercised his religious-shaped conscience at a crucial moment in our nation’s political history.  When future school children study his speech, they will inevitably think about it in this light.

Those who care about religious liberty for all Americans should cheer, not boo, Romney’s invocation of faith on the floor of the Senate.  Unless, of course, Christian conservatives care only about faith-informed politics and religious freedom when it benefits Trump or their own political agenda.

The Problem With the “Reluctant” Trump Voter: A Response to Andrew Walker’s *National Review* Essay

trump-evangelicals

Yesterday several readers sent me Andrew T. Walker‘s National Review essay, “Understanding Why Religious Conservatives Would Vote for Trump.” Walker teaches Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

Walker writes in a very irenic tone as he challenges Christian anti-Trumpers to work harder at understanding why so many evangelicals will once again vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  If I understand him correctly, he seems to suggest that if evangelical anti-Trumpers like me or David French or Peter Wehner or Michael Gerson (he mentions none of us by name) would only empathize more deeply with the motivations of evangelical Trump voters they would be less critical of the their fellow Christians who support this corrupt president. Walker calls attention to the “reluctant” Trump voter.

One of the regrets I have about the hardback edition of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump was my failure to capture diversity within the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.  The postscript I wrote for the recently released paperback edition seeks to correct this lack of nuance. Walker does a nice job of explaining why so many evangelicals, many whom despise Trump, felt the need to vote for the reality television star in 2016 and feel the need to vote for him again in 2020.  This complicates the narrative we often hear from journalists and pundits who have little understanding of evangelical political culture.

As I have noted many times before, I spend a lot of time with evangelicals of the pro-Trump variety.  I attend an evangelical church and know many Trump supporters who attend that church.  My entire extended family voted for Trump.  Fox News forms, shapes, and disciples many members of my family and other pro-Trump evangelicals I know.  I live in central Pennsylvania–Trump country.  I can’t speak for Gerson, Wehner or French, but I do not accept the premise that all anti-Trump evangelicals are out of touch with average evangelical Trump voters.  In fact, I wrote Believe Me precisely BECAUSE I understand the mind of the evangelical Trump voter.  This is why I can say that Walker does a nice job of describing them in this National Review essay.  As a historian, my job is to empathize and understand. I made every effort to do that in Believe Me.  So when I write harsh things about evangelical Trump supporters, it is because I have done the necessary work to make sense of them. In Why Study History I made the case that understanding must always proceed moral critique. In Believe Me–a work of both history and moral critique–I took my own advice.

As I see it, my effort to grasp the logic of pro-Trump evangelical voters has allowed me to argue strongly that their decision to vote for Trump has proven harmful to the church and the country.  The “if you only understood Trump voters you would be less critical” argument does not jibe with me.

Walker writes: “Those who make this calculation [to vote for Trump] are not sell-outs, nor have they forfeited the credibility of their values carte blanche. For blind allegiance does not explain the voting relationship. That religious conservatives are not progressives does.”

I think Walker is correct when he says that most evangelical Christians are religious conservatives who do not agree with the progressive agenda.  (Here Walker seems to be making the common mistake of lumping all Democrats into the “progressive” camp. This rhetorical move is quite common among the Christian Right.  It is in the political interest of the Christian Right to portray all Democrats as socialists, progressives, or members of the so-called “Squad“–people for whom evangelicals should be deeply afraid). But why are evangelical Christians religious conservatives?  Why are they so bound to this particular political ideology?  This is the deeper question I tried to raise and address in Believe Me.

Christianity and conservatism are not the same thing. Christianity and progressivism are not the same thing.  I think Walker would agree with both of these assertions.  As pastor-theologian Tim Keller has reminded us, Christianity cuts across party lines.  In my view, if you take the teachings of Christianity seriously you are going to find some common ground with conservatives, Republicans, the Green Party, democratic socialists, progressives, Democrats, and a host of other political factions, ideologies, and movements.  You are also going to reject certain tenets of these factions, ideologies, and movements.  We need to work harder to get evangelical voters to understand this.

Walker’s essay is framed by an evangelical approach to politics that I do not accept. I don’t know if Walker would see himself as a member of the Christian Right, but his piece is based on the presupposition that the Christian Right playbook, forged in the late 1970s by the Moral Majority, is the best Christian approach to politics. More on this below.

And what about the “reluctant Trump voter?”  Again, I understand why someone would choose Trump over Hillary in 2016.  I also understand why someone would choose Trump over any of the current Democratic candidates in 2020. The Christian Right playbook teaches evangelicals to vote for the president who will appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.  If you care about abortion or religious liberty, you must hold your nose and vote for Trump. But if you choose this route, and follow this playbook, please do not pretend that you are not responsible in some way for all the additional baggage that comes with such a vote–the coarsening of our moral culture, the demonizing of political opponents, the use of evangelical Christianity as a political weapon, the damage to the witness of the Gospel in the world, the racism, the nativism, the separation of children from parents, etc. etc.   That’s on you.  You have empowered Trump to do these things.

Walker writes that “reluctant” Trump voters approach politics with far more complexity and internal tension than journalists claim. He invokes Augustine: “Some religious conservatives may see the world in moral terms–right and wrong; black and white.  But there’s a long moral tradition, as far back as Augustine, that sees our world in shades of gray.”

There is definitely some truth to Walker’s appeal to Augustine here.  As I noted above, the 81% are not all the same.

But I also think Walker is giving these reluctant Trump voters too much credit for their commitment to “complexity.”

As I see it, evangelicals who vote for Trump do so because they have embraced the Christian Right playbook I mentioned above. I wrote about this playbook extensively in Believe Me.  It has great power over evangelical voters.  Thoughtful evangelicals like Gerson, James Davison Hunter, James K.A. Smith, Ronald Sider, John Inazu and others have offered Christian approaches to politics that do not rely on a playbook focused on the pursuit of power for the purpose of advancing one or two moral issues.  These alternative evangelical approaches to politics are rooted in sound biblical and theological thinking. They are worthy of consideration. But they often get little traction because the Christian Right has been so successful in shaping the evangelical political mind.

I would argue that the “reluctant Trump voter” is essentially operating under the same political playbook as the enthusiastic Trump voter.  If you drill down, there is not much difference between Robert Jeffress or Franklin Graham and the reluctant Trump voter.  Neither show a lot of complexity or “shades of gray” when they think about political and public engagement.  There is one playbook, they learned it from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and they continue to execute it.  And where has this playbook led evangelicals?  Straight into the hands of Donald Trump.

Walker also plays the “Beto O’Rourke card”:

But an event on October 10, 2019 explains the odd-couple relationship of religious conservatives and Donald Trump. That evening, during a CNN townhall on LGBTQ issues, the now-former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke proclaimed that churches failing to toe the line on gay and transgender rights would lose their tax-exempt status in his administration. O’Rourke’s comments represented a high-water mark of a culture that has jettisoned anything resembling a Christian moral ecology. Never mind that O’Rourke’s candidacy is over. It was an Overton Window–shifting moment.

When O’Rourke made these comments I roundly criticized him  O’Rourke’s comments were stupid.  Many of his fellow Democratic candidates also rejected them.

Walker is correct when he claims that O’Rourke’s remarks scared many evangelicals. But he fails to address the deeper issues at work here. Trump and the Christian Right are masters at using extreme examples to frighten evangelicals. They have convinced more rank and file evangelicals that O’Rourke’s comments, and others like them, are representative of those evil “progressives” who are trying to undermine their supposedly Christian nation.  We can’t ignore this kind of fear-mongering.  As I argued in Believe Me, it permeates every dimension of Christian Right politics today.  It is also based on half-truths.  Yes, there are some Democratic politicians who are going after churches, but most of them are not.

Trump’s policies and political rhetoric build upon such extreme, and much celebrated, cases.

Here are two examples of this:.

First, from Believe Me:

Donald Trump himself, during his 2016 campaign, [claimed] that crime was rising when it was actually falling.  He attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chances that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year.  One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch on fire.  Yet Trump managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.”

Second, let’s take Trump’s recent “guidance” on school prayer.  On January 16, 2020, Trump made a public defense of prayer in public schools.  As I wrote at the time, this proclamation changed nothing.  Students have always had the right to pray in school.  The real reason for Trump’s proclamation on prayer was political–he wants evangelical votes in 2020.

Indeed, some evangelical leaders believe that the forces of secularization are trying to remove prayer and other Christian organizations from public schools.  But is this really happening at a significant rate?  While there have been some cases in which a school district has failed to uphold the Supreme Court’s protections over prayer in schools, these cases have gained national headlines because the Christian Right and Fox News have made a big deal about them.  I wonder if these cases are representative of what is actually happening in most public schools today.

Yesterday I was talking to a student who works with a well-known evangelical youth organization that has a strong presence at public high schools.  This student told me that the local school district actually supports the work of this organization.  Similarly, my children were involved in prayer-groups and Christian organizations in their public schools that received no resistance from district administrators.

Again, I ask, are school districts really trying to stop students from praying?  And even if the answer to this question is an unqualified “yes,” is an embrace of Donald Trump really worth it in the long run?  To answer such a question, it seems one would need to think in a complex and nuanced way about the matter. Any attempt to diagnose this problem would need to recognize shades of gray.  An evangelical concerned about religious liberty might benefit from knowing more about serious legislation like “Fairness for All” or proposals such as “Confident Pluralism,” both thoughtful Christian responses to the place of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. But the Christian Right playbook offers no such nuance or complexity.  There is only one way of doing politics and any consideration of a Christian approach to politics that is not driven by fear, power, and nostalgia is off the table.  Why should evangelicals consider complexity and nuance when there are culture war battles to be won? Evangelicals may find Trump’s character and policies to be disgusting, but if he is going to help them win these battles, then he deserves their support.

And now let’s turn to abortion.  Walker writes about his friend Steve:

Steve is a white evangelical in his forties, a middle-school teacher, the father of two daughters, and a deacon at his Southern Baptist church. These are identities that media narratives depict as culprits for Trump’s ascension: White, male, Christian, middle-class, husband, father. He’s the token “white evangelical” that the media depicts as red-state reprobates.

But there is more to Steve. Steve serves the homeless, sees diversity as a pillar of God’s creation, and helped an Iraqi refugee family resettle in his own hometown. I daresay he cares more about justice in real life than those who preen about it on Twitter.

Steve voted for Trump, and will again. Why? For one, he thinks abortion is America’s Holocaust, and will not support any party that supports abortion on demand. Whatever Trump’s eccentricities are, Steve won’t vote for a progressive, even if the media tells him that to do so would save America and its institutions. For Steve, saving abstractions like “America” and its “institutions” can make America a lot less worthy of survival if abortion on demand continues apace. To the average religious conservative, in fact, saving America means saving it from the scourge of abortion.

Like Steve, I am pro-life.  I think abortion is a serious moral problem.  In Believe Me I call it a “horrific practice.” We need to be working hard to reduce the number of abortions that take place in the United States–even working to eliminate the practice entirely.  But when it comes to politics, Steve embraces a Christian Right political playbook that has taught him the only way of dealing with abortion is to overturn Roe v. Wade. Steve cares about social justice and the poor, and probably believes that the church or other non-profit organizations should have some role in helping pregnant mothers carry their babies to term, but when it comes to politics he believes that the election of a candidate who promises to appoint pro-life justices is the best way of ending abortion.

Steve knows that there are other ways of reducing abortions.  He may even know that overturning Roe v. Wade will not end abortion in America. But rather than acting with some degree of realism on this issue, or trying to think of ways of reducing abortions that do not rely heavily on electoral politics, Steve shows very little nuance or complexity in his thinking about the best way to tackle this moral issue.  Instead he follows the Christian Right playbook and it leads him, again, straight into the hands of Donald Trump.

I wish more evangelical Trump voters would see the world in shades of gray, especially in the way they do politics. I wish they were not bound by such a reductionist, “black and white,” political vision.

Can Any of the Democratic Candidates Appeal to Evangelicals?

DemDebate

Here is a taste of my recently published piece at Religion News Service:

Do the current Democratic candidates for president have any chance of winning evangelicals in November 2020?

Probably not.

Of the candidates left in the Democratic primary race, Pete Buttigieg has made the most of his Christian faith. Buttigieg regularly quotes the Bible on the campaign trail and is always ready to remind us that the Christian right does not have a monopoly on the language of faith.

But for many evangelicals, Buttigieg’s Bible-infused sermonettes seem indistinguishable from the usual Democratic talking points. One wonders if there is anything about his understanding of Christianity that would put him at odds with party orthodoxy.

Over the last couple of years, I have talked with a lot of Trump-voting evangelicals. Some go to my church. Some are in my family. We have exchanged emails and social media messages. I met many of them during the tour for my book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”

Based on this anecdotal evidence, I know that a lot of evangelicals will vote for Trump again. I’ve even met a few evangelicals who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 but plan to vote for Trump in 2020 because he appoints conservative Supreme Court justices, fights for religious liberty (as defined by conservative evangelicals) and defends the interests of Israel.

But I have also met people who voted for Trump in 2016 and are looking for a justification — any justification — to vote for a Democrat in 2020.

Read the rest here.

How the Democratic Presidential Candidates Can Win Evangelical Votes

Buttigied

Pete Buttigieg at Jimmy Carter’s church in Plains, Georgia

Here is a taste of Elana Schor’s Associated Press piece “Democrats’ challenge: Courting evangelicals in the Trump era“:

 

President Donald Trump’s strong white evangelical support poses a challenge to Democrats: how to connect with a group of Christian voters whose longtime GOP lean makes them compelling antagonists in a polarized era.

Former President Barack Obama reached out to evangelicals in notable fashion during his White House bids, tapping well-known pastor Rick Warren to appear at his first inauguration and vowing to safeguard religious liberty as he launched a coalition of faith voters in 2012. While Obama’s efforts paid some dividends, Trump has complicated that task this year for Democrats who are balancing an appeal to religious voters with opposition to the sitting president’s agenda on issues important to evangelicals.

The value of making political space for more conservative-leaning evangelicals may be less urgent for Democrats now, amid a grueling primary where the party’s liberal base holds significant sway. But once Democrats choose a nominee, cutting into Trump’s popularity with white evangelicals — not to mention securing votes in minority evangelical communities — could make a pivotal difference come November’s general election.

To that end, multiple Democratic presidential hopefuls have talked about their faith on the campaign trail, weaving it into their approach to issues from health care to economics. Among the most vocal Democrats on that front is former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who asserted his party’s connection to religion last week during its final primary debate before next month’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus.

Read the rest here.

Of the candidates left in the Democratic primary race, only Pete Buttigieg occasionally uses Christian language.  This commendable, but it is often hard to separate Buttigieg’s religious language from Democratic Party talking points. He will not win over many white evangelicals this way.

Over the last couple of years I have talked with a lot of Trump-voting evangelicals.  Some go to my church.  Some are in my family.  Many attended one of my events on the Believe Me book tour. Others I have encountered through social media or e-mail.

Based on this anecdotal evidence, I think there are a lot of evangelicals who will vote for Trump again. I’ve even met a few evangelicals who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016, but plan to vote for Trump in 2020 because he delivered on Supreme Court justices, religious liberty (as defined by conservative evangelicals), and Israel.

But I have also met people who voted for Trump in 2016 and are looking for a justification–any justification–to vote for a Democrat in 2020.  These evangelicals might vote for:

  1.  A Democratic candidate who speaks in genuine and sincere ways about reducing the number of abortions in America.  Preferably this would be a candidate who supports the Hyde Amendment.
  2. A Democratic candidate who recognizes the legitimate threats to religious liberty experienced by some Christian institutions.  Such a candidate might endorse something like Fairness for All or embrace something akin to John Inazu‘s “confident pluralism.”

That’s it.

If a candidate will speak proactively on both of these points he or she will steal a small number of evangelical votes away from Trump.  These votes may be all that is needed to defeat him.  But I don’t see it happening. No such candidate exists in the Democratic field.

If a candidate is not willing to part from the Democratic Party platform on these points then I see no political reason for her or him to talk about religion on the campaign trail.  Such a candidate should just take the route Hillary Clinton took in 2016– ignore evangelicals and try to win without them.  Let’s remember that such a strategy almost worked–Clinton won the popular vote by three million.

Chief Justice John Roberts Needs to Attend Oral Arguments Tomorrow on a Religious Liberty Case

ROberts

Is Roberts getting sleepy?

Mitch McConnell is going to let this first day of the impeachment trial go late into the night.  I wonder if he knows that John Roberts needs to get up early tomorrow morning for oral arguments on the Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana.  I would think that the GOP might want the Chief Justice to be well rested and fresh for these particular oral arguments.

Here is the excerpt from the SCOTUS calendar:

And on January 22, the justices will hear oral argument in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a dispute over a Montana law that created tax credits to provide scholarships for families who send their children to private schools, including religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court struck the law down, ruling that it violated the state’s constitution because it helped religious institutions. Three low-income mothers who used the scholarships to send their children to a Christian school in Kalispell, Montana, went to the Supreme Court, arguing that excluding religious schools from the scholarship program violates the federal Constitution.

Read more about this case here.

Shirley Hoogstra of the CCCU Explains Fairness for All

Fairness for All

Last week we introduced readers to the Fairness for All Act.

Over at The Anxious Bench blog, historian Chris Gehrz has published his interview with Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).  The CCCU is one of the bill’s sponsors.

Here is a taste:

For those who haven’t been following this story until now… What is being proposed in Fairness for All?

For the past three years, the CCCU has been engaged in conversations with a broad coalition of faith and LGBT leaders, two “sides” that have often viewed their protections as being violated by the existence of protections for the other.

The result of this dialogue is a bill called Fairness for All, a balanced legislative approach that preserves religious freedom and addresses LGBT civil rights under federal law.

Fairness for All is centered on two core principles:

  1. Religious persons should not be forced to live, work, or serve their community in ways that violate their sincerely held beliefs.
  2. No American should face violence, harassment, or unjust discrimination, or lose their home or livelihood, simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Fairness for All provides long-term protections for Christian higher education and other faith-based organizations. The proposed legislation ensures that Christian colleges and universities can hire for mission, maintain their accreditation, maintain access to federal student aid, maintain their tax-exempt status, and continue to offer professional licensure — all while remaining true to their religious convictions.

Tell us a bit of the history of FFA: when did the CCCU begin to consider advocating for it? Why did it come back into the spotlight this year?

Over the last decade, Christian colleges and universities — along with adoption agencies, rescue missions, and others — have been at the tip of the spear for religious freedom challenges, many of which have stemmed from the expansion of LGBT civil rights. These challenges make it possible to imagine a future where Christian colleges that maintain a biblical perspective on marriage and sexual ethics lose accreditation, community support, partnerships, and grants, and where their students lose access to student aid, practicums, and professional licensure because of their religious beliefs and practices.

While executive orders and attorney general memos on religious freedom are helpful, they have a possible built-in expiration date— they can simply be undone by a subsequent president. Likewise, while litigation will always remain necessary to overturn clear constitutional violations, the court strategy is limited to the question presented and offers a piecemeal approach to addressing the numerous tension points that have or will arise between government, Christian higher education, and other religious organizations. Further, research by law professors shows that when religious freedom protections are created by legislation, the Supreme Court upholds them almost 100 percent of the time. But when the First Amendment is the only basis, religious freedom wins only 50 percent of the time.

In short, in addition to short-term executive orders and the Constitution itself, legislation adds a long-term, comprehensive, certain, and specific way to secure religious freedom protections for hiring, funding, accreditation, and more for Christian higher education and many other religious organizations and interests.

This spring the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that codifies sweeping LGBT civil rights at the expense of religious freedom. As written, the Equality Act would be devastating for Christian higher education, as it would threaten every Christian college and university’s ability to deliver on its missional promise. The Equality Act would also impact churches, hospitals, relief agencies, and businesses large and small.

We are working with a broad coalition of religious organizations and LGBT organizations who believe it is essential that any protections for LGBT persons be paired with the essential religious freedoms that maximize freedom for all. The way forward is proposed legislation called Fairness for All, which allows the religious and LGBT communities to resolve conflicts in a comprehensive, balanced, and enduring way. This approach represents two groups who have been historically at odds coming together to acknowledge deep differences but also a common desire to lead proactively to solve real problems for the most Americans. And, most importantly, Fairness for All protects our convictions as Christians and recognizes the needs of our LGBT neighbors.

Those committed to civic pluralism in the United States should seriously consider getting behind Fairness for All.

What is the Fairness for All Act?

Fairness for All

Yesterday Utah congressman Chris Stewart introduced the Fairness for All Act.  The bill would protect LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.  Fairness for All has the support of the Church of Latter Saints, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Unlike the Equality Act, Fairness for All provides exemptions for religious organizations.

Here is a taste of Dan Silliman’s piece at Christianity Today:

Smith (sic) proposes the Fairness for All Act in Congress Friday. Advocates of the idea of finding common ground for religious liberty and LGBT rights, led by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), have spent three years planning, discussing, and strategizing for this moment.

The law would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, including retail stores, banks, and health care service providers. Currently, under federal law and in the majority of states, LGBT people can be evicted from rental property, denied loans, denied medical care, fired from their jobs, and turned away from businesses because of their sexual orientation.

The Fairness for All law would offer LGBT people substantially the same protections as the proposed Equality Act, a bill LGBT advocates have long promoted and Democrats in the House passed earlier this year, only to see it stall in the Senate. The Equality Act, however, includes no exemptions for religious organizations.

“The Equality Act was written in such a way that a religious person like myself couldn’t vote for it,” said Stewart, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “[Democratic legislators] wrote it so that they could say to LGBT people, ‘No Republican voted for it; they don’t care about people like you,’ which just isn’t true.”

The Fairness for All Act exempts religious groups—both churches and nonprofits—from the anti-discrimination rules. Churches wouldn’t be required to host same-sex weddings. Christian schools wouldn’t have to hire LGBT people. Adoption agencies could receive federal funding even if they turned away same-sex couples looking to raise children. The law would also protect the tax-exempt status of religious groups that condemn homosexuality.

The anti-discrimination rules would not apply to for-profit businesses with 14 or fewer employes, excluding them from the definition of “public accomodation.” This would mean small-business owners such as the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony in 2012 would have the right to refuse service on religious grounds.

Read the entire piece here.

Members of the LGBTQ community don’t like the bill because it provides religious exemptions that appear to discriminate.  Conservative evangelicals don’t like the bill because it gives rights to members of the LGBTQ community.

Here is Silliman again:

Leaders from more than 90 evangelical groups signed a statement rejecting any legislation protecting sexual orientation or gender identity after the CCCU started to advocate for a Fairness for All law in 2016. The list of signers included The Gospel Coalition president D. A. Carson, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, First Things editor R. R. Reno, and Southern Baptist leaders Russell Moore and Al Mohler.

“Christians cannot support [Fairness for All] for this overarching reason: It is grounded in an unbiblical conception of the human person,” Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Seminary, wrote in September. “The Scripture will not allow us to see any ungodly ‘orientation’ or ‘identity’ as essential to our humanity, as directed toward our flourishing, and thus enshrined in law as a protected category.”

Others evangelical leaders, however, including pastor Tim Keller, legal scholar John Inazu, and CT editor in chief Mark Galli, have argued that a both/and approach is possible. The Fairness for All idea has also received support from some legal scholars, and it has been endorsed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A similar law has been enacted in Utah, with the support of the LDS church.

The “similar law” Silliman mentions is the so-called “Utah Compromise.”

A piece at Deseret News by Kesley Dallas and Matthew Brown is also worth a read.

I believe in religious liberty for institutions that uphold traditional views of marriage. I believe that all human beings in a democratic society should have basic civil rights regardless of sexual orientation.  (If I read Owen Strachan correctly, he seems to believe that a person somehow loses his or her dignity as a human being if they are gay.  And based on this belief, Strachan does not believe that LGBTQ men and women deserve civil rights in a democratic society).

Fairness for All represents the kind of political compromise necessary to sustain a robust pluralist society.  I support it.

 

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.

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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.