Do Christians Really Support Religious Liberty (part two)?

Do Christians Really Support Religious Liberty (part two)? June 23, 2016

The first of this two-part series raised questions about an understanding of religion that so stresses morality as to undermine personal liberty. If Christians want the freedom to express their religious convictions in public life, and if those religious convictions include moral norms that prevent the liberties of other citizens, then someone can well ask whether Christians support religious liberty but only for the people with the correct morality.

A second difficulty for Christian advocacy of religious liberty relates again the dominant way that believers construe faith. In many of the cases surrounding religious liberty, the legal question comes down to freedom of conscience. Does a Christian business owner have to provide health insurance that covers procedures or treatments that violate specific moral norms (e.g. Hobby Lobby)? Or what about a baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding? If forced to provide services, have legal authorities violated the baker’s religious liberty?

If religion is simply what a person believes about the meaning of life or ultimate things, perhaps these examples constitute violations of religious liberty? But what if faith, especially Christianity, is not so personal? What if it is corporate or communal? Take the case of observant Jews who follow certain dietary laws. If a case arose where government required a Jewish baker to use bacon fat in the creation of a certain recipe for scones, officials would have an easier time spotting where religious convictions and personal interpretations of faith divided. The reason is that sacred texts, a long history, and community norms inform orthodox Jewish activities.

But this is not so for many American Christians where for each believer the application of religious norms can be a very personal and idiosyncratic affair.

The problem with very personal readings of Christianity is that government has a difficult time making provisions for so many different interpretations. If one Christian baker will make a wedding cake for a gay couple and another baker won’t, how is government supposed to decide? Christians who take faith so personally and without regard to what a church teaches or to what their fellow believers confess and observe give government almost no remedy for accommodating them. How can government tailor policy for every single evangelical’s understanding of the demands of the moral law? Far easier is it for courts to reckon with a religious body that has teachings, institutions, and structures that allow judges to see what a religion requires and to determine who belongs to that religion or not.

This is how I tried to work out this point elsewhere:

This notion of faith as deeply personal, rather than corporate or institutional, raises a great problem for liberal society. If faith informs everything I do, then paying taxes or baking a cake or sending my children to a public school may violate my conscience. And if a majority of the citizens have such sensitive consciences, conducting the affairs of government may become impossible. To be sure, the mainstream Progressive narrative of U.S. history includes instances where heroic stands for conscience based on faith—the Civil Rights movement—emerged as valuable contributions to a free society. By the same token, while many times religion coincided with the advancement of certain liberal goals, it has also motivated believers to protest existing norms and so has divided society along religious lines.

To illustrate the difference between religion personally conceived and corporately conceived, consider the membership vows required by my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. After being examined by a local congregation’s officers, a person needs to answer in the affirmative the following five questions:

Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?

Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?

Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

For this particular denomination, these are the chief parts of being a Christian. None of these questions pertains directly to business transactions, curricular matters, or medical procedures. Of course, the person who takes these vows might have firm convictions about how she should run her business, what school her children should attend, or what procedures hospitals should provide. Given that these other matters are incidental to requirements for institutional membership, our Orthodox Presbyterian should perhaps be less likely to invoke freedom of conscience if she ends up disagreeing with the decisions of local, state, or federal authorities about them. She might simply regard the friction that comes with a free and diverse society as the cost of doing business.

Part of the problem here may involve the old Burkean point about the value of mediating institutions. Those agencies of civil society that buffer persons from government can potentially pose challenges to the smooth operation of a state, but they also perform any number of services that add up to a society comprised of persons who place few, or at least fewer, demands on governmental agencies. Over the course of the 20th century, as the federal government’s power expanded, many institutions of civil society lost power even as the liberty of individuals increased. That process is no less evident in American religion, though the state’s hand in the loss of religious institutions’ power has not been as noticeable as it has in family life or educational or private associations.

Even so, the value of churches and synagogues in identifying and defining religion—as opposed to leaving it to individual conscience—may clear a path through the current debates that surround religious freedom and governmental protection of faith. If the state protected corporate expressions of religion more than personal ones, negotiating the interests of government and religion would likely be less litigious than it is now. To be sure, many Americans would object to legal or policy patterns that granted to pastors, priests, and rabbis greater authority in resolving matters of conscience. But without some mediating institution to inform and guide religious life, believers may be inclined to see religious liberty narrowly if only because they seemingly lack non-state institutions for resolving cases of conscience.

If the choice were between religious institutions or potentially outraged believers, the state might prefer to negotiate with churches and synagogues instead of with persons with easily offended consciences.

Instead of advocating religious liberty, maybe Christians are really in the business of advocating a form of liberty closer to that defended by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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