Referees, Players, and Religious Liberty

Referees, Players, and Religious Liberty September 15, 2016

I recently had an argument with my Lutheran brother concerning the subject of my forthcoming book, The End of Protestantism. The book is a plea to Protestants to pursue a deeper and wider unity within the church. My brother wasn’t convinced, and his response was severalfold: Lutherans aren’t going to buy any program of unity that puts people with different views of the real presence at the Lord’s table; it’s utopian; and, I’ve got better ways to spend my time.

I’ll grant his first objection: Lutherans are a hopeless lot. I take up his second objection in the book. Here I want to address the last: Why should unity be on the front burner of the church’s agenda, today of all days?

My brother has a point. After all, we are surrounded by evils of all sorts: violence and poverty in the inner cities; racial tensions; tragicomic disarray in the political world; the ongoing slaughter of unborn children and related outrages to human dignity; mounting national debt; Islamic terrorism; aggressive secularism and relativism that undermines basic social institutions like the family and basic natural distinctions like that between male and female; and on and on.

In the midst of such chaos, buddying up to Methodists and Catholics seems a luxury at best. We have bigger fish to fry on a Friday night.

I believe, on the contrary, that our cultural pathologies are closely related to our unhappy divisions. To make that concrete, let me focus on one of today’s major public questions: Religious liberty.

Many will dismiss this concern as a manifestation of a Christian persecution complex, but the threats are real. Christians are going to be excluded from certain public offices unless they are willing to get right with the sexual revolution. If the American Bar Association’s rules are adopted, Christian lawyers will be under continuous scrutiny about their views on sex and gender issues. Christian businessmen and women will have to make tough choices between bending their consciences toward the regime or losing business. In some churches, advocates of Christian sexual ethics have been and will be shouted down, and the same has and will happen in academia.

The problem is not just this or that specific violation of religious liberty. At root, the problem has to do with assumptions embedded in our very form of public order. Liberal order is inimical to a full exercise of religious liberty. While openly protecting a free playing field, liberalism covertly inhibits certain forms of religious expression and encourages others.

That seems counterintuitive. After all, it is often claimed, the liberal state exists precisely to protect the free exercise of religion. At the heart of modern liberal political order is the problem of religious pluralism. The post-Reformation question was, How can Christians who violently disagree about transubstantiation live together in peace? Liberalism’s answer was that the state had to get out of the confession business. Instead of taking sides, the state simply maintains an open space where opinions can be debated freely, openly, and, above all, peaceably. The state is officially neutral with regard to specific theological claims. The state ceases to be a player and takes on the role of the stripe-shirted referee who ensures that everyone follows the rules.

This is a standard account of the origins and character of modern liberal political order, but it’s wrong on two levels. First, historically: Religious wars are often given as the reason for the state to step out of religion, but the wars of religion were not only, perhaps not mainly, about religion. The story is as much about how state-building monarchs took advantage of the chaos of war to build modern states. If the religious wars are part of the story of modern state-building, the issue of religious liberty begins to look very different.

Leave the historical issue to the side. The issue I want to focus on is the philosophical/theological claim that the modern state is philosophically and theologically neutral, a referee rather than a player.

As D.C. Schindler has pointed out, the state’s claim to self-limitation is not as innocent as it appears. The liberal state claims to be incompetent about theology and matters of absolute truth, and so it limits itself to its area of competency, matters of public and common concern. But it can draw a boundary between religion and political concerns only if it sees both sides of the boundary. You can’t build a wall between Mexico and Texas unless you can identify both Mexico and Texas. A state that limits itself to common, secular concerns has to be able to distinguish secular and sacred. And that means it has to have competence enough to recognize religion when it sees it.

And the liberal state has to make this determination from its own resources. It can’t rely on the Vatican, or some council of imams, or Bhuddist monks to tell it what religion is. That would introduce religion into the very foundations of liberal order, and a liberal order that is built on religious foundations ceases to be liberal. The liberal state has to figure out how to recognize and define religion without relying on religious principles to do it. In short, while acknowledging incompetence in religion, the liberal state exercises what amounts to a super-competence, an ability to recognize religion without any help from religions.

The liberal state claims to be a referee, but has to decide the limits of the playing field, and in practice has to determine what does and doesn’t count as an acceptable religious contribution to the public realm.

As a result, the liberal state institutionalizes and establishes its own theology. Even the decision to remain publicly neutral about an issue like transubstantiation reflects theological opinion, the theological (or anti-theological) opinion that the real presence is irrelevant to public life. Many Christians would beg to differ.

Liberalism institutionalizes a particular anthropology, one that views human beings as autonomous choosers. Freedom has indeed gone to seed in recent decades. Our nation’s founders didn’t share our idea of freedom. But the impulse toward absolute freedom is, as Rusty Reno describes so beautifully in his recent Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, intrinsically American. Liberalism has an anthropology, and we can ask a simple question: Is this a Christian anthropology?

The referee state somehow knows that faith is a private affair. But Schindler argues that this runs directly contrary to (at least) Catholic understandings of faith: “The conventional view identifies freedom with the as yet undetermined power to choose; from a Catholic perspective, by contrast, freedom is a reality into which one enters through choice. . . . being uncoerced is necessarily part of what makes a choice free. But the more fundamental part . . . is that the individual be moved by the good that precedes him, a real good that elevate him to itself. . . . With respect to the good of religious freedom, a free choice is not one in which a person selects a religion as an option of an object that he thus takes into his possession, but rather one in which the person is willingly taken up into a community that comes before him and invites him in” (Communio, 2013, 589-90). This means that from a Catholic perspective “it is false to think that the act of faith is an essentially private affair. To the contrary, it is essentially social, or indeed, communal, not only in the general sense of being an act that an individual exercises in and with others, but in the specific sense of being an entry into the particular community of the church.” Faith does occur “within the interior depths of the mind and heart of the individual,” but “what the act is is nevertheless the supra-individual reality of communio” (591). The referee and the players don’t even agree on the sort of act that faith is, nor on the zone in which it should fall (public or private).

Liberalism has an implicit ecclesiology. It assumes that the church is not the catholic, universal community, an alternative public, but a private religious group. Liberal ecclesiology is a free church ecclesiology that runs contrary to the ecclesiological assumptions of Catholic, Orthodox, and classic Protestantism. We can again put it directly: Is it true that the church is the body of the incarnate Son of God, the new human race in via? And then: Supposing this is true, does American liberal order acknowledge that this is true? This would seem to be one of the biggest truths there could be, and yet the referee state reduces it to a private opinion.

In other words, the referee is biased toward voluntarist churches that accept some sort of dualism of temporal and spiritual order. What Schindler describes as “sacramental” churches don’t accept this dualism, but instead claim that the natural is already pre-disposed toward the supernatural, the temporal toward the eternal, the earthly toward the heavenly. The liberal state tilts the playing field in favor of certain kinds of churches; “sacramental” churches have to betray themselves when they enter the public arena and act as if they are no more than voluntary societies. Self-denial is the ticket price for playing on the field of public opinion.

This might seem like sour grapes: The ref is biased against us, and he should be biased in our favor. It might even be taken as good news to voluntarist churches, who might conclude, The ref is on our side. As has become evident in recent years, though, orthodox believers of all sorts are being and will continue to be pressured to conform to the dictates of liberal order. All churches, not only the sacramental ones, are being squeezed into shape. That is not an aberration. Liberalism has a totalizing impulse that erodes religious liberty.

The easiest way to demonstrate that point is this: By definition, liberal order cannot be accountable to any metaphysical or theological framework beyond itself. To do so, it would cease to be a liberal state. That means that the liberal order itself is the all-embracing framework for political and social life. All other conceptions of common good, all other metaphysical or theological positions, are “private,” and only liberalism is allowed to function as public theology. All other metaphysical or theological opinions will be judged by whether or not they conform to and promote, or inhibit, the aims of liberal order. Churches that adjust to the public theology of liberalism are tolerable. Churches that do not are penalized in various ways.

All theological opinions will be judged by whether they advance liberalism’s particular vision of freedom and fairness. We can see the dynamics at work in the seismic legal and cultural changes concerning race over the past half-century. Churches that insist on racial segregation come under legal sanctions and cultural pressures. The same will happen over the coming decades with respect to gay marriage, transgender rights, and related issues.

The threats to religious liberty, ironically enough, arise from our very commitment to liberty. At the very same time that liberalism secures liberty, it erodes it. And that means that resistance to the threats to religious liberty has to challenge some of the basic assumptions of American public life.

And here is where my critique of denominationalism and brief for Protestant ecumenism become relevant. When compared to the established churches of Christendom, the American churches are disestablished. But it’s superficial to stop there. America has an established church order, if not an established church: It is the church order of denominationalism. No single denomination or religion receives state funding or support, and so all are thrown into competition in the realm of civil society. Denominationalism is one of the supporting pillars of liberal order, one of the pillars that ensures that liberalism’s theology, anthropology, and ecclesiology remain the established faith. So long as we accept and operate within the denominational system, we are giving aid and support to totalizing liberalism. To resist the pathologies of liberal order, we need to resist and strive to overcome denominationalism.

Pursuing unity should be high on our agenda, if for no other reason than for the sake of providing sound—which is to say, non-liberal—foundations for religious liberty.


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