Is our Religious Freedom Connected to whether we are Christian or Not?

I have caught a certain amount of grief arguing that some individuals do not want to provide religious freedom to Christians unless they are in their own churches and homes. I have pointed out that such restrictions are not applied to non-Christian groups. However, when I illustrate this differential treatment with examples of punishment of Christians and non-punishment of non-Christians, many detractors work to find differences from the incidents involving Christians and those involving non-Christians. Ultimately these detractors are arguing that nearly every time Christians express their basic freedom of religion or conscience (in the case of the nonreligious) rights then they are wrong, but every time non-Christians do so then they are right. This is a position you realistically cannot ask Christians to accept.

The latest example concerns Muslim truck drivers who recently won a case for $240,000. These Muslim drivers did not want to transport alcohol as they felt that it went against their religious beliefs. The Obama administration supported the drivers and it was ruled that Star Transport, their former employer, should have made accommodations for them. This is the latest of cases in which freedom of religion matters as long as the group seeking to exercise that freedom is not Christian. Therefore, I have a hard time believing that such protection would have been offered to Christian truck drivers. Indeed, the only recent case that I can remember where Christians had their freedom of conscience rights affirmed was the Hobby Lobby case and we all remember the hysteria following that ruling. I can think of no recent case in which a non-Christian did not have such rights affirmed, but I am open to being wrong if someone can show me a recent ruling when that occurred.

My point is this. It really does not matter if one can find procedural reasons for Christians losing their case and non-Christians winning theirs. If Christians almost always lose their case and non-Christians always win their case then we have a systematic institutional problem where one religious group is not being treated as well as others. Either the rules are shaped to work to the disadvantage of that group or they are being selectively enforced. This is why rules of disparate impact are so important. We can always find a reason to justify punishing out-groups and supporting in-groups. It is human nature to have confirmation bias whereby our team never commits a penalty whereas the other team is always fouling (Yes, I used to play pickup basketball). When only one group is being punished then introspective thinkers have to seriously consider why this is the case beyond finding reasons to justify the punishment.

Perhaps a different example will illustrate the folly of the approach my detractors have taken. We have recently seen the activism of black lives matter (BLM) movement. The basis of this movement is the blacks are more likely victimized by the police. They are not arguing that only blacks are so victimized, as I can argue that only Christians are being victimized in freedom of religion or conscience cases. But they point out that blacks are more likely to be victimized by our criminal justice system than whites, relative to their numbers in society. Does this mean that police officers are KKK racists? Not really. It is more likely that our criminal justice system is constructed in such a way so that blacks are more likely to be harmed. The activism of BLM will enjoy success when they are able to make systematic changes that reduces racial disparity. While I disagree with the tone of BLM, I do not doubt the validity of their general critique. Likewise, when only Christian are denied freedom of religion or conscience rights then there is a systematic problem behind this issue. If BLM has a justifiable case with law enforcement then Christians certainly have a justifiable case with religious freedom.

I support a generous level of freedom of religion. But, as I look at the case of the Muslim truck drivers even I find myself relatively unconvinced by their cause. The drivers were hired to do a job. If they could no longer do the job then perhaps they should find another one. It is similar to the Kim Davis situation (For the record, I think Davis is wrong in what she was doing. I would prefer that she merely allow others to do what she is unwilling to do herself or resign). Or perhaps another illustration is that a pro-life Christian nurse should not work at an abortion clinic and then not expect to help perform abortions. But it was ruled that accommodations should have be made for these drivers. If that is the proper ruling, given relative weakness of this case, then it makes sense that accommodations should also be made so that Christian bakers and florists can have their freedom of conscience rights. But, I seriously doubt that the Obama administration believes that accommodations should be made for Christians. If in the past the administration had shown itself to be sensitive to the freedom of religion for Christians, then this particular ruling would not be problematic. But it is hard for me to believe that they have the same concern for accommodations for Christians that they do for Muslim drivers.

Some may say that they disagree with the ruling. They may argue that both the Christian baker and the Muslim truck driver should just get on with their job. Fair enough. That is a consistent application of a limited freedom of religion standard. But in the real world we do not have that consistent application. In the real world Muslim truck drivers have their freedom of conscience respected and Christian bakers do not.

I know some will try to defend these cases by pointing out differences from the Christian baker from the LGBT baker or the Muslim truck driver. Such arguments extremely unconvincing and the very illustration of confirmation bias. The overall results argue against the notion that these rulings are done in an environment of religious neutrality. If police review boards found every police shooting of a black justified but every police shooting of a white illegal, would you think that race played no role in the shooting? Me neither. If that was the case, then you would have an extremely difficult time convincing me, an African-American, that there is not some sort of racial injustice occurring in our society. Either criminal justice officials have racialized stereotypes or expectations contributing to this problem or there are institutional problems in our criminal justice system which unfairly target blacks. Do not try to go case by case to convince me that each shooting of a black was justified and then try to go case by case to convince me that shooting of a white is unjustified. Do you really believe that I can be convinced that it is all just “coincidences.”

Likewise, if almost every case of religious freedom involving Christians is found to be unjustified, but every case of religious freedom involving a non-Christian is found to be justified then why would we not think that religious identity played a role in such outcomes. We would have to be naïve to believe otherwise. The nitpicking done to justify fines in the six figures for Christian bakers is not very convincing. Given what I know about human nature, to ask me that Christians, and only Christians, abuse their freedom of religion or conscience rights strains all credibility. Or put it another way. If there is a supposedly neutral rule that only atheists or feminists are found guilty of violating then would not atheists and feminists be right to believe that either the rule, or the way the rule is implemented, is unfair? So do not be surprised that Christians do not believe that freedom of religion rules are fairly implemented given the reality of who they are used against.

There is a very good explanation for the source of this differential treatment. Christianophobia is the best explanation for what has occurred. When I studied Christianophobia I found that those with animosity towards conservative Christians tend to be highly educated and wealthy. Those with animosity towards Muslims tend to have lower levels of education and are not wealthier than average. So when a highly educated, and relatively wealthy judge makes a decision on religious freedom there is a much greater chance that this judge has Christianophobia than Islamophobia. The same can be said of officials in the Obama administration making decisions whether to support freedom of religion petitions of Christians or Muslims.

I suspect that some will contend that I do not recognized the problems of anti-religion bias unless those problems are directed at Christians. Those detractors would be mistaken. I recognize that there are more people with anti-atheist disaffinities than anti-Christian biases, which is one of the reasons why it is relatively difficult for atheists to win political office. My work also suggests that about the same percentage of individuals in the United States have Islamophobia as Christianophobia. So Muslims are just as likely to have to deal with an anti-religious bigot as Christians. However, those with Christianophobia are more likely to be in a position to punish their religious out-group through official channels. Noting this proclivity provides a powerful explanation for why freedom of religion is less important to legal and governmental officials when those wanting these rights are Christian.

Does this mean that Christians are intentionally target? The qualitative work I analyzed indicated that those with Christianophobia prefer to think of themselves as religiously neutral. I suspect that their higher level of education make it harder for them to admit to their religious bigotry. As such, I do not think that they go into a situation overtly thinking about how they can punish Christians. However, I suspect that over time they are able to find justification for treating Christian differently than other religious groups. Once a person has come to a conclusion about his/her beliefs or actions, then that person will be highly motivated to find justification for that belief or action. Those with Christianophobia are not looking to go control Christians in their churches and homes. They cannot rationalized such intrusions. However, they can rationalized keeping Christians out of the public square, even if they do so by treating them differently than other religious groups.

If we reject the notion that only Christians violate freedom of religion or conscience rights, and I do not see that notion as intellectually viable, then the unique problem of Christianophobia is the best explanation of this disparate impact. This case of the Muslim drivers is not the “final straw” to illustrate this point. There have been other cases in the past and I suspect that there will be more in the future. The Muslim drivers’ situation is simply one more case in which a non-Christian group has its freedom of religion rights respected in a way that is generally denied to Christians. For those who have decided to stick their head in the sand this case will not matter. Nothing can convince them that Christianophobia is a problem because they do not want to see it as a problem. Indeed, I suspect that a thousand cases of the affirmation of the religion/conscience rights of non-Christians while 1,000 cases of that right being taken away from Christians will not be sufficient evidence for some individuals. But in time I hope we take a realistic understanding of this problem and find ways to deal with the unique challenges offered by Christianophobia.

Shame on you Bowdoin College

Next year I anticipate having a book out that will look more deeply into the anti-Christian hostility in our society. When it comes out, I will do a blog or three on the findings in that book. But this blog entry will not deal with those findings. Instead, one of the questions I considered as I conducted this research is how the anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself in our society. Then we get Bowdoin College with a near perfect example of how anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself. Since those with hostility towards Christians tend to be highly educated, wealthy and white, they tend to be in positions of institutional power – such as the administration of a college. (That is a finding in my new research but can also be seen in my previous work) They would be likely to extrinsically embrace a value of tolerance and yet would likely use measures with a disparate impact against Christians if such measures would enable them to express their hostility. It is in this context that I understand the recent controversy at Bowdoin College.
To those of you who have not heard of this controversy here is a quick recap. As seen in a New York Times article, the college recently decided to enforce a rule stating that student organizations must make all leadership roles open to any student regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or race. The Intervarsity organization insists that it is a Christian organization and only wants Christians in leadership positions. As such, they have refused to sign a statement indicating that their leadership positions are open to non-Christians. One could argue that they should have signed the document and then do what they wanted with their leadership, but evidently they had too much integrity to engage in such dishonesty. Nevertheless, I am not sure such a strategy would work long-term as a non-Christian may challenge for leadership and then claim discrimination if he or she does not gain a leader’s role. As a result of Intervarsity’s refusal to make their leadership open to those who do not share the beliefs of the group, they are no longer a recognized student organization.
Other religious groups have been willing to sign the document and retain campus recognition. I can only assume that they have an ecumenical tradition of including individuals of different religious beliefs in their leadership structure or have no intention of abiding by the demands in the document. Either way, this is a policy that disproportionately punishes conservative Christian groups that want to maintain an ideological and/or theological purity to their organizations. Such desires are not unrealistic given the work of Dean Kelley who years ago argued that the strictness a religious organization maintains with its rules and ideas help that religious organization to grow. This policy is a way to minimize the potential impact of conservative Christian groups with the illusion that one is fair. In the age of an IRS where at least some progressive activists have subjected conservative groups to more scrutiny than progressive groups, one should be suspicious that even a rule that on the surface seems to be neutral will be applied in a non-neutral manner. Yet even if applied in a fair manner, this seemingly nonpartisan rule seems geared to support certain beliefs and puts the university on the side of certain religious ideas over others – something that violates notions of religious neutrality.
In the next paragraph, I will begin to explain why this sort of rule favors certain religious ideas and expressions over others, but I should note that I am not the first person to write about this controversy. Some have also expressed distain for Bowdoin’s decision while others have attempted to support it. As it is clear from the title of this entry, I am part of the former group. But I have taken advantage of not writing about this topic as soon as the New York Times article to more clearly think about the issue and to read the comments supporting and criticizing this policy. After laying out the problems I see with the policy, I will also address some arguments put forth in support of it.
The supporters of the policy argue that leadership of all groups should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. This does not mean that anyone will become a leader but that they can run for the office of leader in the group. Right from the start we have an attitude supporting a certain perspective which makes this policy non-neutral: the idea that democracy, or a vote in the group, is the acceptable way to choose a leader. Many religious groups believe that leadership should be selected by an elite group rather than from the masses. Others may simply look for a sign from God as to who their leader should be. I may agree or disagree with non-democratic methods but if I impose an idea of democracy into how a religious group chooses its leader, then I am no longer using a non-neutral policy.
But this incongruity is only the start of an obvious imposition of the college in the affairs of IVP’s religious ideas. The college suggests that the group can fulfill its goals even without a leader who is committed to Christianity. There is a religious tradition that transcends the one’s actual religious faith. This tradition is that the same God in Christianity is the same one in Judaism, Islam, Eastern religion etc. In this sort of religious tradition, it really would not matter if a Christian runs a Christian organization. In fact, an agnostic humanist could technically run the organization as long as they promote beneficial values. I am not going to comment on the theological soundness of this perspective. I respect the right of individuals to hold to this perspective. However, many Christian groups do not share such a perspective. They believe that the different religious traditions are incompatible and that they have chosen the proper path. For them, it is unthinkable to seek religious enlightenment from a non-Christian, even one with solid values. College administrators, in their role of administrators, should not choose sides in this theological debate. But when they imply that a Christian group should accept a non-Christian leader, then they have entered that debate. That Christian group has decided that leadership must be with their same religious tradition and does not accept the premise that all religions led to the same God. The college has no business dictating otherwise.
Certain arguments have been used to support the Bowdoin’s policy. One is that it is not a policy that requires leaders who are not Christian but merely states that they should be allowed to apply for leadership. However, as I noted above, the college should not dictate to organizations how their leadership is picked. But some will say there is no way that a non-Christian will be voted into power of a Christian organization. If that organization does not want a non-Christian then they only have to make sure that one is not voted into office. If we are talking about a large well-established organization, then this is true. But some Christian groups are rather small and a mischievous atheist may get a kick out of bringing some of his/her friends and getting voted as president of the local Christian student group. That atheist might think it would be cool for that Christian group to sponsor an “Emperor has no pants” program. “Nonsense” some will say. No one will take the time to infiltrate a religious group they do not believe in. (According to what I have heard the Intervarsity group has about 25 people. If only about half show up during a meeting then a dozen non-Christians is all that is needed to elect a non-Christian leader – not necessarily a very difficult task.) I have seen non-Christians flood a Christian website. I have seen speakers on college campuses shouted down. Is it really hard to believe that some students will believe that it is their right and duty to take over a Christian group and shut down that religious voice? Why would we provide such individuals with such an opportunity with the foolish Bowdoin policy?
Ironically, the Bowdoin policy is more likely to have an opposite effect than promoting a diversity of ideological and religious opinions that many of the supporters of this policy will profess to support. Small groups who have beliefs that contrast with popular views are the ones that can be taken over by a larger group of dissenters. If that becomes a common pattern, because believe it or not fads do happen on college campuses, then a vibrant group of diverse groups can become a homogenous set of groups based on the same progressive humanist values. Do I know that this will occur in time? No, but neither can those supporting the policy offer any real assurances that such a process will not occur. It is even possible that some may hope that such a process occurs so that those “intolerant” Christians will be unable to spread their “bigoted” beliefs. Policies likely to discriminate against minor groups should require powerful justification to be accepted and such justification is lacking for the Bowdoin policy.
The last sentence leads to another defense offered for this policy. That defense is that a college or university should not support a group that promotes discrimination. Individuals who offer this defense tend to speak of Christians as bigots and thus are not sorry to see them lose their recognition. Of course bigotry is in the eyes of the beholder. If bigotry is, as George Haggerty suggests, the opposite of respect and tolerance, then the support of policies out of a lack of respect and tolerance towards conservative Christian groups can be an anti-Christian bigotry. Indeed, Haggerty argues that bigotry is a problem on college campuses since it prevents the free exchange of ideas. It is ironic that some use claims of bigotry to support a policy that likely will inhibit a diversity of ideas on college campuses. The bottom line is that some individuals exhibit little concern about pushing policies that negatively impact groups they do not like, which is the opposite of the tolerance they profess to admire.
Finally, some argue that losing recognition is not a big deal. The de-recognized groups are free to meet off campus to their heart’s desire. But the college should not have to support the ideals of their group. However, the college should not support the ideals of any student group. Remember that college administrators are not supposed to take sides. They are supposed to allow students to associate, and form groups with whom they choose. Treating groups differently because they insist on leaders who actually believe in the mission of the group is choosing sides. It really does not matter what issues of recognition are at stake. If some groups get to use the college’s name, have access to student funding, use campus rooms or whatever while others do not get the same treatment based on their belief about group leadership, then the college is taking sides. They are giving some groups advantages over other groups. These are not the actions of those who support religious neutrality.
This is a policy with a disparate impact on conservative Christian groups. I have little doubt that if it has such an impact on other groups, that the administrators would be more sensitive to the concerns of the group. If this policy threatened a women’s rights organization since it made it possible for a bunch of men to take the organization over, I am certain that Bowdoin would think more than twice about the policy. It is also the case that these individuals understand the principle of disparate impact. I would guess that the administrators of Bowdoin would be quick to oppose voter ID laws and would use arguments similar to disparate impact to express their opposition. If they understand how policies can have a disparate impact against certain groups but are unconcerned about the disparate impact against conservative Christians that indicates that dislike of those Christians is a possible motivation of this policy. It is impossible to prove that anti-Christian perspectives drive this policy, but it is naïve to dismiss the possible power of such a bias to buttress the support for such a policy.
I want to make it clear that although I find this policy disturbing, I am not calling for government or legal action. I liken this policy to the same policy Bob Jones University used to have on interracial dating. Technically, the policy was color-blind, but there was strong evidence that antipathy towards African-Americans drove support for this policy. However, despite my distain for the policy, I did not believe that the government should have interfered with Bob Jones University. They were a private university, and racism is technically not against the law. However, they were deservedly stigmatized by the larger population. Likewise, Bowdoin is a private university, and they have the right to be anti-Christian in their outlook if they so choose. (There are indications that the California University System wants the same policy. For me, that would be a different situation and there should be legal remedies.) However, there should be a stigma against a non-sectarian administration that refuses to practice religious neutrality. Social stigma rather than legal interference is the way I would prefer to combat this policy. For this reason, do not be surprised if you hear me talk about Bowdoin College in the future.

Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right

A public event on March 1, 2012, hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkely Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs launched the monograph Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, authored by Timothy Shah under the auspices of the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom. At this event, Princeton political science Professor Robert George quoted extensively from Martin Luther King’s Letters from the Birmingham Jail to illustrate why religious freedom deserves legal protection. In the Birmingham letters, Reverend King argued persuasively that human laws can be judged unjust when they degrade basic human goods. Racial segregation, King argued, debases human dignity because it designates one group (Whites) as superior to another group (African-Americans); thus such laws are unjust.

Too often, we think that asserting “I want something” equals “I have a right to something.” But just as African-Americans had the right to civil equality because it upholds their human dignity, George explained that human rights exists only when if those rights leads to a human good.  To illustrate, there is no human right to take an innocent human life because being dead is bad. The human good is to be alive, so our laws protect human life.  To talk of human rights thus requires explaining the good those rights protects. [Read more…]

Religious Freedom: An Endangered Liberty in the U.S.?

In December, Georgetown scholars Tom Farr and Tim Shah organized an online debate through the New York Times that asked if religious freedom is under threat in the U.S.  was particular struck by the viewpoints of representatives of minority religions in the U.S.– such as Sikhs and Muslims–who feel misunderstood, mis-represented, and often find it difficult to carry out their basic religious duties.

Noah Feldblum’s contribution to the debate, however, puts their narratives into historical context. Feldblum, a legal scholar, makes the excellent point that, in the past, America experienced waves of ill feelings towards Mormons, Catholics and Jews. Just as these prejudices faced, he looks forward to the day where we can say the same for other religious minorities in the U.S. who feel discriminated against today.

I encourage you to read all of the testimonies in this debate, and to follow the work of Tim Shah and Tom Farr, the co-director and director, respectively, of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Religious freedom–the freedom to worship, the freedom to express one’s religious views in public, the freedom from religious discrimination–is an important part of the U.S. legal and cultural heritage. In this time of religious misunderstandings and conflicts, the U.S. may not be perfect, but our model can be an example for other nations to follow. Protecting religious freedom, especially for minorities, may not come without a struggle, but if history is our guide, that should neither surprise us nor discourage us. As Jerry Park wrote in another post on this blog, some groups have protested shows that depict Muslims as All-American as their Protestant, Catholic or Jewish neighbors. But with time, these media images may contributed to a greater understanding of the Muslim faith.

But, as Mitch McConnell’s piece highlights, threats to religious freedom in the U.S. [Read more…]


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