Over the course of recent weeks three high profile events have taken place with serious ramifications for freedoms of speech and religion. They provide Evangelicals and other Christian groups with opportunities for reflection on citizenship and discipleship in a multi-faith world. We will summarize each of the events and then proceed to reflect on what Evangelicals can take away from them.
Municipal Prayers in New York
The first event was the Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) ruling on a case in Greece, New York. The case brought by two women, an atheist and a Jew, argued that opening prayers in that town had a distinctly Christian orientation; in the history of the municipality’s meetings, minority religions had very little opportunity to participate in the invocations. In the majority opinion, SCOTUS determined that such “ceremonial prayers” were not unconstitutional and did not show evidence of Christian bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that, “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”
Black Mass Planned at Harvard
The second event centers on the campus of a noted university. Recently, the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club announced that The Satanic Temple would be re-enacting a Black Mass as part of an educational effort. This raised concerns among Catholics and others who feared that the Mass would mock religious beliefs and desecrate Catholic symbols. This resulted in protests from the Archdiocese of Boston, the Harvard Catholic Student Association, and a large group of Harvard’s faculty, students, and alumni. Due to this conflict the Club announced that the event was being moved off campus, and eventually The Satanic Temple conducted the Black Mass ritual at a nearby restaurant with a small number of observers.
Chief Justice of Alabama’s Claim
The third event was the public reaction this past month to a video release of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s views on religious freedom. In a video taken in January, where Moore spoke to the Pastors-for-Life in Mississippi, he stated that in his legal opinion the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom apply only to Christians. In his view, the God of the Christian Bible was in mind when the Founders defined “religion;” therefore, since other religious adherents do not acknowledge this creator God, religions like Islam and Buddhism cannot enjoy the protections of the establishment clause.
The items summarized above are separate events, but they are related to questions concerning freedoms of speech and religion. In light of Evangelical concerns about our religious freedoms, what are we to make of all of this? Each of these events is interesting for discussion in their own right, but we believe that if we step back and consider the bigger picture three areas are especially important for Evangelical reflection and discussion. We will conclude with some reflections on the common good in light of the Golden Rule.
The Big Picture
Awareness of Christian privilege
We are not lawyers so we cannot comment on the legality of the SCOTUS ruling in New York. However, we recognize the imprint of Christian privilege in America, which the ruling seems to reflect. America has a long history of Christianity as a dominant religious presence, and even in our post-Christendom environment where the church has lost credibility and influence this presence still shapes much of the country’s assumptions. The problem with assumptions is that we often do not recognize that they are there. It often takes the presence of others to help us become aware of our blind spots. While many Evangelicals and other Christians hailed the SCOTUS ruling as an example of the protections of religious freedoms, those in minority religions as well as atheists strongly disagreed. For them this was yet another instance of Christian privilege and a denial of equal access to others. It is not difficult to see how this case could be viewed in that way. In the municipal meetings in Greece, New York, only four prayers were allowed by non-Christians over the course of more than 120 monthly meetings from 1999 to 2010. Evangelicals and other Christians need to become more keenly aware of Christian privilege in America as it relates to other religious and non-religious voices in a multi-faith public square.
Equal freedoms for those who make us uncomfortable
These events give us pause for reflection on freedoms of speech and religion. While many Evangelicals hail the SCOTUS ruling, we must be careful not to use this event to argue that those in other religions do not have the same protections as Christians, or seek to curtail the same freedoms for others. Justice Moore is not alone in believing that America was founded as a Christian nation. Many likely share his view that as a result of what he claims to be our country’s Christian origins, other faith groups do not merit the protection of freedom of religious expression. Some would go even further and seek to deny others free expression of their religious convictions. For example, Al Bedrosian of Virginia’s Roanoke County board of supervisors has said that he would use the SCOTUS case as a way of approving only Christian prayers in his supervisors’ meetings. He also said that a line has to be drawn somewhere on who will be permitted to be heard in such instances, and that he would likely exclude the expressions of Jews and Muslims as well as atheists. We believe these views and actions are mistaken. It is our conviction that the legal freedoms America extends to expressions of speech and religion apply not only to Christians, but also to those in other religions and those with no religious convictions. We believe the Founding Fathers were responsible for putting in place safeguards to ensure such freedoms. While Christianity certainly had a vital role in shaping this country’s origins, it was not alone. Deists and Enlightened rationalists like Thomas Jefferson were also key players in establishing this country, including its religious freedoms. With this point in mind, Founding Fathers of various persuasions made sure that there would be no church state, as in Europe. America was not founded as a theocracy. Religion was freely exercised, not established. Thus, such freedoms extend to those traditions within Christianity and other religions and philosophies that make us uncomfortable, and even those we may dislike. Catholics, Protestant Evangelicals and others had every right to raise their concerns about a Black Mass at Harvard. But as Americans, as difficult and counter-intuitive as it may seem, we all have a responsibility to support the religious freedoms of all groups, including The Temple of Satan. The real test for whether we support the freedoms of speech and religion comes when we support the rights of others, especially those who engage in practices or who hold beliefs that we find offensive.
The events discussed above also provide us with opportunities for important conversations. These need to take place within and between differing communities. There is a need for intra-faith conversations, where religious communities, including Evangelicals, have discussions about these matters within their own groups; moreover, there is a need for inter-faith conversations, where discussions happen between diverse religions. Both types of conversation present their own dynamics, and they can be especially difficult on controversial subjects like those discussed in this essay; nonetheless, these conversations need to happen. Within Evangelicalism we need to do the difficult work of thinking through the important issues of our day and how they relate to our being good disciples of Christ as well as citizens of our country. As Evangelicals engage in conversations with those in other religious or non-religious communities, we can come to understand their perspectives and concerns that in turn can help shape our own responses. In both types of conversations, our experiences can help us develop a neighborhood theology and praxis of cultural and multi-faith engagement.
In our view these recent events illustrate one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: how we live with our deepest differences. Os Guinness addressed this in his book The Global Public Square:
How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological, and very especially when those differences concern matters of our common public life? In short, how do we create a global public square, and make the world safer for diversity?
First, Christians should become known for preserving religious freedoms for every group in America, not just their own. Here we need to take to heart and extend the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12; ESV). While the Law and the Prophets were written during Israel’s theocratic rule, Jesus uttered these words when God’s people were under Roman rule and its multi-faith empire. We believe this text has a bearing on our multi-faith society today: if we want those of others religions to protect our freedom of religious expression, we Christians need to do the same for them. With this point in mind, how can we Christians expect or demand that this increasingly multi-faith country continue to protect our religious freedoms if we do not extend the same protection to others, especially if we discount our tradition’s affirmation of the Golden Rule? The Golden Rule is critically important to the cultivation and preservation of the common good. Of course, not every form of religious speech or action necessarily contributes to the common good. That is why there is need for the painstaking work of religious diplomacy to discern and promote constructive multi-faith discourse. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we promote interactions between adherents of different religions who seek to cultivate trust with their multi-faith counterparts by working hard to understand and relate to each other with respect and civility. The aim is for the various parties to hold their irreconcilable differences in peaceful tension. At FRD, we believe it is important to exercise the Golden Rule in supporting the freedoms of all groups to perform various activities that promote human flourishing. It is hoped that through diplomatic relationships and conversations, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Satanists, and others will work hard to understand the respective traditions’ particular truth claims and consider how they might benefit the common good. Alongside this point, it is important to guard against speech and actions that are perceived as ridiculing the various religions’ sacred elements. Careful consideration of religious difference involving charity of thought is critically important in our day. Disinterest and ridicule do not contribute to the well-being of all, and is counter-productive to any interest in persuading others of the merits of one’s own tradition. If the Golden Rule is a principle that undergirds all appropriate religious practices, treating others’ religions (or non-religions) as you would have them treat yours is essential to effective witness.
Second, Christians of various stripes should distinguish between what makes them feel uncomfortable and what proves detrimental to our democratic society’s affirmation of the common good. Of course, there is a place for dialogue and debate in our democratic society concerning what is detrimental. However, such conclusions cannot be determined in advance of rigorous debate, where religious traditions are ruled out of participating in those conversations simply because they are not Christian. How odd it is when Christians rule out others from conversation given that Jesus whom we cherish as Lord made space for others to the point of permitting them to push him outside the city gates onto the cross. By making space through his death by crucifixion and resurrection from the dead and the disciples’ willingness to suffer discomfort and persecution for loving, gracious and truth-filled witness, Jesus and his followers gained a hearing to spread the good news in a multi-faith society. As long as Christians are permitted to worship Jesus as Lord freely, there is no cause for fear that we are compromising the faith. In fact, as many Christians claim, the faith that we cherish helped to instill this country’s freedoms, including religious expression. What we can hope and call for as Christians is respect and adherence to the Golden Rule by all religious and secular parties in this country for the common good.
May we all fight for religious freedom. May we not be guilty of the very persecution that caused Christians and non-Christians alike to flee other countries for these shores to establish and cultivate the religious freedom we all hold dear.