Progressive Christians and Religious Freedom

Progressive Christians Redefine Religious Freedom

James Diddams on January 21, 2021

On January 12 the Freedom Forum, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “foster religious freedom for all” held a webinar entitled “African Americans & Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations & Communities.” The goal of the symposium, which included assorted African-American pastors, theologians and attorneys, was discussing how to redefine religious freedom to be more amenable to the experience of black Americans.

Panelists were plainly frustrated and distrustful at the meaning of ‘religious freedom’ in common parlance, opting to give it a different definition more rooted in non-white expressions of Christianity and other faiths. The symposium was largely held to promote a collection of essays by the speakers which summarized their views on religious freedom.

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. (which was recently vandalized by Proud Boys) summarized the feelings of the group:

“American notions of liberty, prosperity and the divine are ideas that can mean everything and nothing at the same time… These terms — liberty, prosperity, God — are blank screens upon which we project dreams and nightmares. For me, the concept of religious freedom is of the same dubious pedigree. It means nothing. It means everything… Those who have always had religious freedom are those who support the work and aim of the ‘American Empire,’ those who disrupt the ‘Empire,’ it is those whose religious freedom has been sacrificed,” adding that “White Evangelicalism is the official faith of the ‘Empire.’”

For those uninitiated into the fields of post-colonial and deconstructivist studies, Lamar is basically saying that the concept of religious freedom has never had any objective basis in reality. Instead, it’s purely a rhetorical tool for the powerful to oppress the powerless.

It would be historically irresponsible to assert this has never been the case; as Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty noted there certainly have been religious justifications for American atrocities like slavery or the forced removal of the Native Americans.

“I don’t want a biblical noose around my neck and I don’t want God shackles around my feet,” said Watson.

The new meaning of religious freedom the panel hoped to promote seemed more or less synonymous with social progressivism, including total support for abortion and LGBTQ rights. This wasn’t something they were trying to hide – their reasoning being that freedom from economic, social and political oppression are a prerequisite to the practice of any faith.

Lamar said that in contrast to the nebulous conception of religious liberty promoted by the “American Empire,” the notion he could assent to was that of a “welcome table” where “I can sit and feast, no matter my culture, my religion, my language, who I love or where I live.”

At first impression this goal seems laudable. Who wouldn’t want the United States to be a “welcome table,” open to all? The issue with this notion and much of the overall panel was that it struck me as platitudinous and detached from how religious freedom works in its usual sense. I think we can all agree that we want America to be a tolerant nation where people are in general free to practice their faiths; the issue is where we draw the line.

The now famous Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case is an example. Jack Philips is a white Evangelical (and therefore an adherent to the “Empire’s” official faith?) who was sued by Colorado for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage message on it. Even the non-conservative justices Breyer, Kagan and Kennedy thought it was a violation of Philips’ religious freedom, deciding in his favor 7-2.

Pursuant to this new definition of religious freedom, in order to ensure religious liberty the government should have forced Philips to express a viewpoint he did not believe in under penalty of losing his business. It’s hard to see how this furthers anyone’s religious liberty.

To take another example, consider the case of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United States. Although common in majority-Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia it is illegal in the U.S., although rarely enforced. However, on January 13 it was announced that the Justice Department will bring charges against Zahra Badri for transporting a minor outside of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM.

Following the reasoning of the panel I witnessed it seems like the United States should allow this to take place. After all, Muslims, unlike White Evangelicals, are “disruptors” of the American “Empire” and are therefore oppressed by definition. If the day comes when a Muslim makes a defense of FGM in court on grounds of religious liberty will they be worthy of defense on the grounds that they are a “disrupter” of the American “Empire”?

It isn’t only ‘foreign’ seeming religions like Islam practiced by non-Europeans that run up against our laws, though. One of the first religious liberty cases to be considered by the Supreme Court was Reynolds vs. United States (1878) where Reynolds was put on trial for practicing polygamy.

He argued that, as a Mormon, his religious freedom to practice polygamy was being violated and therefore he should be allowed to keep his wives. The court disagreed and Reynolds was sent to prison. Reynolds, despite being white, clearly ran afoul of the American “Empire,” so does that mean polygamist Mormons deserve a seat at the “welcome table” Lamar spoke about?

To give a final example, in December the city council of Murdock, Minnesota (population 275) voted to allow a group of white-supremacist neopagans to set up shop in an abandoned Lutheran church. Fearful of being sued for violating the religious freedom of the Asatru Folk Assembly, the town allowed them to buy the building. According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, “The AFA is among a growing number of groups that seek to practice a pre-Christian, European spirituality. The AFA is unabashedly pro-white, according to statements on its website.”

So what does the Freedom Forum make of white neo-pagans? Clearly they’re not Christians of any kind and therefore run afoul of the American “Empire.” It’s easy to foresee a Supreme Court case where a neopagan group like the Asatru Folk Assembly argue on the grounds of religious liberty that they have the right to exclude non-whites. How exactly are we supposed to take the new definition of religious liberty and judge this case? Do they also get a spot at the welcome table?

The commonly used definition of religious liberty has meant the degree to which people are free to practice their faith, or lack thereof, without persecution from the government or society at large. This isn’t the place to do a full-on takedown of the postmodern philosophies that undergird the new definition of freedom of religion postulated by the webinar. But, the way it was discussed answers no questions about who exactly should and shouldn’t get to practice their faith.

The basic argument is that the United States is evil and therefore any religious groups it is oppressing must deserve freedom and any groups it isn’t oppressing are party to its evil. As Watson referenced, it’s true that Americans have done awful things in the name of religion. But, it isn’t telling the whole story to say that religious liberty has only ever been a rhetorical tool of oppression. If they wish to hold this view then they have the religious freedom to do so, but I hope the courts never adopt their stance.

  1. Comment by Patrick98 on January 21, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    “their reasoning being that freedom from economic, social and political oppression are a prerequisite to the practice of any faith.” I guess they have not met anyone from the persecuted church, who often practice their faith DESPITE economic, social and political oppression. It is too bad that my friend Aaron, an African pastor from the Congo, wasn’t there to hear their whining.

  2. Comment by Dan W on January 21, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    Excellent article James!
    Patrick98, I agree completely.

    So the Freedom Forum has set up the straw man “21st Century American Empire” to boost fund raising. I know a lot of protestant clergy are terrified that their jobs, benefits and retirement will soon evaporate. Fear fills the pews, but will “white man bad” fill the offering plates in 2021 and beyond? (Doubt it)

    Preach the Gospel of Jesus. Share the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Pray incessantly.

  3. Comment by Rick Plasterer on January 21, 2021 at 8:58 pm

    The “welcome table” seems to be a standard for sorting out good and bad religion. In particular, for sorting good, inclusivist religion from bad, exclusivist religion. But the historic doctrine of religious freedom recognized in the Constitution does not do that. It recognizes allegiance to God as primary over allegiance to the state, as James Madison said in the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. True religious freedom must offer protection to claims of divine revelation, whether they are inclusivist or not. In particular, they must offer protection to religious sexual morality, which is fundamental to most world religions. To insist on only an inclusivist religion as having religious freedom is really to insist on a new state religion, with all other religions illegal.

    But whether the state recognizes real religious freedom in its laws or not, the duty of all followers of Christ is to obey God, regardless of state edicts.

  4. Comment by Diane on January 26, 2021 at 12:18 am

    So, while I find a religious faith that excludes people of color as reprehensible, they do have the freedom to congregate and espouse their beliefs. They may create their own private faith-based entities, devoid of taxpayer support. The line is crossed, however, when they force their beliefs in the civic arena, outside their faith-based set-apart entities, in public serving businesses and institutions.

    As a public school teacher in a small southern community, there were White churches that would not permit membership to people of color. They believed that the mixing of races was wrong – Senator Jesse Helms and others campaigned on this “Christian belief” and won the support of majority-White, mainline and evangelical voters of the time. I remember a young college-enrolled Black woman who chose to put her student membership in the closest church within walking distance of the campus. Happened to be a large, wealthy Disciples of Christ congregation, where like Baptists, the invitation to transfer one’s membership, confess Christ, or join the church through student membership, was offered weekly. All one had to do was walk forward to the awaiting clergyperson during the “invitation” hymn. Doris, the Black college student and an acquaintance of mine, decided to put her student membership there the first Sunday she attended. Within three days, the pastor called her and asked her if she would rescind her membership (seems some wealthy folks threatened to without their pledges). Doris, never intending to be confrontational, withdrew her membership. The year was 1970.

    The church had the right to practice its repulsive, racist belief. The same folks in that church who worked in the public schools or community businesses had no faith-based right to turn Doris away or not serve her. By that time, civil rights laws had been passed to protect Doris from discrimination on the basis of race. The laws do not apply to faith entities. If it weren’t for civil rights laws, the same folks in the Disciples of Christ congregation would’ve had the right to discriminate against Doris in their workplaces. And quite a few would’ve assuredly done so just because Doris’ skin tone didn’t match theirs.

  5. Comment by Patrick James Southam on January 26, 2021 at 9:41 am

    Diane, you prove my point. Thankyou.

  6. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 27, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    “‘I don’t want a biblical noose around my neck and I don’t want God shackles around my feet,’ said Watson.”
    Then this begs the question: Whose noose and shackles does he want around his neck and feet?
    “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.  I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.  For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
    “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” —Romans 6.16-23

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