Christians must continue to engage in reasoned argument with an increasingly hostile post-Christian culture that is attacking the freedoms they have historically enjoyed in order to continue to have legal protection for religious freedom. This was a general conclusion of a panel sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Manhattan Declaration on Thursday evening, Oct. 10, in Washington, D.C. Considering “Faith, Culture and Religious Freedom in America,” was Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies at ELRC, who queried Dr. Russell Moore, President of ELRC, Kirsten Powers of Fox News, USA Today, and the Daily Beast, Timothy Shah, Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center Religious Freedom Project, Jennifer Marshall, Director of Domestic Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation, and Ross Douthat, formerly of The Atlantic and currently a columnist for the New York Times.
Eric Teetsel of the Manhattan Declaration briefly reviewed the content and purpose of the declaration, noting a letter to President Thomas Jefferson from Catholic sisters in the newly acquired Louisiana territory who were concerned about the security of their property under the American government. Jefferson responded that under the principles of the American constitution, a religious organization is “permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference by the civil authority,” and this right would meet with “all the protection my office can give it.” It is precisely the right to live by religious precepts which is under threat in the contemporary West. The Manhattan Declaration was designed to address this issue, but it was addressed to the church. It consists in three principles: 1) each person exists “in the very image of God,” and life is thus sacred, a principle which covers all of life from beginning to end, 2) marriage is “God ordained from the creation … the most basic institution in society … marriage is a form of common grace,” critically important for human welfare, and 3) religious liberty, “God alone is lord of the conscience;” if the state can bar individuals from living their lives according to their most basic convictions “what can’t it do?” While “government is ordained by God,” Teetsel said we must ask “when does religious freedom apply?” It was that question the panel addressed.
Walker began by asking Shah what the real difference is between religious freedom and freedom of worship. Shah observed that there is a “dumbing down in the way we talk about religious freedom of late … there is a tendency to talk about freedom of worship as really the sum total of religious freedom.” True religious freedom involves the right to live out the precepts of one’s faith, because many religious people consider “it to be a duty” to conduct their entire lives according to religious beliefs. The “free exercise” guaranteed in the First Amendment thus covers much more than the right to perform religious ceremonies. Walker concluded that religious freedom is really the “ability to live out the transcendent.”
Asked why there is a “lack of enthusiasm at the grassroots” about religious freedom, Douthat responded that the “United States has a remarkably robust” commitment to religious freedom. Moore added that the “hyperbolic rhetoric” of religious conservatives at attacks on their faith in society has caused religious freedom to be seen as “so much rhetoric.”
Walker then asked why religious liberty is currently seen as a partisan issue. Powers responded that denials of liberty of conscience that we now see in daily life are viewed as “petty” complaints, in addition to the fact that “people aren’t generally that sympathetic in the first place.” But Moore also noted that religious freedom is rejected by many people because it conflicts with the idea of sexual license as a newly discovered good. He referred to the disinvitation of the Rev. Louie Giglio to Obama’s second inaugural because of his opposition to homosexuality. What has always been the “mainstream Christian view” about sexual ethics, and that of many other religions, is now regarded as evil. Moore noted that by the standard that Giglio was excluded, even “the Dalai Lama would not have been welcome to pray.” Although not a question of Giglio’s religious freedom, Moore said he was concerned about “the cultural move that sees this as being something so toxic that it can’t be welcomed on the platform … it just signals a tendency in American society to endorse the civil religion, a bland, generic, nothing blob … over genuine religious pluralism and diversity in the public square.” He said that a similar sign of the same cultural move is that military chaplains are now being pressured to become “carriers of the American civil religion … but not to actually be Roman Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Latter Day Saints, or Muslims …I don’t believe in religious pluralism in terms of truth claims, but I believe in religious pluralism in the public square where everyone comes as he or she is for more dialogue and not less.”
Walker then asked Marshall to discuss the HHS mandate. She said that “it runs against the grain” of increasing American pluralism to have centralized control. “Healthcare involves very intimate, personal, often religiously directed decision making for an individual and a family” and is now subject “to a pretty massive federal law that is dictating what Americans must buy, what insurers must offer, what employers must cover; it allows no way out of that box … [including] abortion inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization, regardless of religious viewpoint.” Similarly, noting another impending conflict, Marshall pointed out that in existing American pluralism “educational choice is a way to avoid the zero sum game effort to ideologically direct the content of public schools.” Marginalization of religious freedom is occurring, she said, in that most religious organizations, other than houses of worship, such as “Tyndale Bible Publishers, Wheaton College … Little Sisters of the Poor, that are helping elderly to be cared for,” are deemed “not religious enough” to qualify for the HHS mandate’s religious exemption. But religious liberty is also violated, she said, if the private businesses of religious proprietors cannot run their businesses “according to the dictates of their conscience.”
More than a legal claim is practically needed to defend religious freedom where the depredations of the sexual revolution are concerned, panelists generally agreed. Douthat said that religious freedom is a bastion that religious believers have retreated to, but the American left has the assumption that public attitudes about homosexuality will “follow a trajectory similar to issues related to race and racism.” The First Amendment “will not suffice” to protect religious freedom if Christian beliefs with respect to homosexuality come to be understood as “beyond the pale.” In addition to formal legal protection, Christians must continue “arguing for the legitimacy of the underlying views” they are trying to protect.
Shah said he was a “not cautious pessimist” with respect to the prospects of religious freedom in this regard in the future. There are enormous threats to religious liberty resulting from changing sexual ethics. The state may increasingly favor sexual license, and the data show that when the state “puts its thumb on the scale” in this way, there is much more likely to be violence against the disfavored religious believers. Such persecution may be “not very far down the road.”
Marshall commented as well that “as a Christian … I anticipate having greater and greater challenges,” to speak and live out the Christian faith, “but as a Christian citizen, I have duty steward those blessing that we have.” Christians must emphasize the public good of religious liberty. “For our neighbor’s good … we should steward the enormous religious liberty that we have and be very vigilant at each erosion of it.” Religious dialogue must be “publicly accessible,” advancing “reasonable arguments.” Moore noted in this regard that in the past Baptists objected to state licenses to preach because it represented state power over religious freedom. He said that we should heed their belief that emerging threats to religious liberty be dealt with in the early stages before there are “much more complicated and much more harassing sorts of elements of state power.”
Walker then asked about the “naked public square” that Richard John Neuhaus warned against. The question then was how we advocate for religious values in a secular society.
Shah noted the consensus of scholars at the recent Berkely Center conference on religious freedom (Oct. 9 and 10) that “societies destroy themselves” if they don’t respect religious freedom. Religious organizations do “all kinds of positive functions” in society. These are harmed if the government is hostile. Complete elimination of religion from society is unlikely; Douthat observed that America is now “awash in religious ideas.” “The challenge in this landscape is less about saying religion is valuable,” and more about religion as a corporate as well as an individual freedom. We also need to show the specific value of western monotheism. “People are still interested in God,” Douthat said.
A question and answer session with the audience followed. Among the questions, Walker asked panelists if we understand that religious freedom covers the “other.” Moore said that historically, with Evangelicals, majoritarianism has been a problem. Christians need to be the first people to protect others’ religious freedom. Shah noted an appalling lack of engagement on the part of the general public for religious freedom, in particular a lack of concern for intense and violent persecution in other countries. In this regard, Douthat claimed that there is a slight tension between a completely “ecumenical religious freedom” at home and the fault line between Christianity and Islam oversees, where persecution by Muslims is occurring. Powers pointed in particular to the Christian minority which is being driven out of the Middle East. She said Jewish rabbis are wondering why Christians are not more concerned. Marshall claimed that the State Department needs to represent American religious freedom and its heritage abroad, integrating religious freedom into the general presentation of American ideals.
Another question from the audience asked by Walker was what Christian county clerks should do about involvement with same sex marriage where that has become legal. When does civil disobedience become an option? Powers said that individuals cannot necessarily claim freedom from the law because of conscientious objection, but Marshall said space is needed for conscientious objection in many cases. Moore suggested that artistic activities (such as baking a wedding cake) can involve people in activities that they consider immoral (and therefore, as their own expression, is a kind of forced speech). Shah proposed that paperwork for same sex marriages could be directed around conscientious objectors, and worried about the new monistic thinking in sexual ethics. Essentially, a new set of norms have appeared in sexual ethics flowing from the sexual revolution, and they are now being imposed on all society.
It was noted that more than a decade ago Michael McConnell and Barbara Nussbaum proposed the separation of marriage and the state, with C.S. Lewis having proposed much the same thing decades before that. Shah noted that India has a system in which different religious communities each have their own legally enforced marriage systems. It was suggested that this might serve as an idea for our society, since current social disagreement “goes down to the deepest foundation.” Powers responded that we already have diversity in the difference between civil and religious marriage. Marshall added that we need a “common public understanding of what marriage is.” Included in this is the fact that children do best with two biological parents who are married. There is thus more than “a purely religious argument” for traditional marriage. Shah agreed that the public conjugal definition of marriage is best, but said we are moving in the opposite direction. On marriage, social conservatives can expect to be a “dwindling minority.” However, Powers claimed that Christians are ironically winning part of the debate on marriage, namely the part of the debate concerning its importance. The older leftist position, that marriage is oppressive, has given way, at least in some quarters, to the importance of marriage, a position resulting from the need to insist on homosexual marriage. However, Douthat noted that the “conservative case” for homosexual marriage, namely that introducing legal marriage among homosexuals will strengthen the institution, is not working out. Instead, there is a continuing decline of the marriage culture.
Insisting on the importance of continuing to advance the idea of conjugal, traditional marriage in the public square, Marshall said that “it is our profound duty at this moment … [to be] making the case for marriage;” we should “stewarding this moment for marriage, for the good of our society.” Beyond that, also important is the freedom “to speak and live” in line with conjugal marriage and the objective reality of maleness and femaleness. It is important for religious liberty and for liberty of conscience that we do not allow the general public to come to view (at least unchallenged) traditional sexual roles and definitions as “irrational prejudice.” Moore said both religious and public good arguments for marriage need to continue to be made. Specifically, to the general public, that conjugal marriage is “important for human flourishing,” and to the church, that God ordained marriage “represents the union of Christ and the church.”