What is the freedom of religion that religion needs?
In recent years some Evangelical Christians, represented in court by Hobby Lobby and its political allies, have asserted that their revealed religion is the comprehensive framework of moral behavior. Every decision is an ethical decision, and religion is an incessant drumbeat of moral demands. It touches every aspect of belief and action, and thus embraces the types of insurance they provide employees, the services their business offer and the customers that they will serve, and the ways that they discipline their children.
Because every act, or failure to act is morally consequential they do not want the government to unduly burden their religious/ethical behavior; whether that behavior includes refusing to give money that might be used to pay for abortions, refusing to provide a cake for a gay wedding, depriving their children of food and sleep in order to drive out demons, or allowing their children to die while they pray rather than taking them to the doctor. (Not all evangelicals practice these same things, but at least some of them practice each of them, and some of them practice all of them, and all have been defended under RFRA.)
And because their religious obligations are a product of special revelation they are not obligated to defend them in a public forum, they only need to assert them.
So Hobby Lobby Evangelicals have been quite insistent that the government not burden their all encompassing, yet not publicly accountable religious practice, and have thus embraced the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and now increasingly its state equivalents.
Maybe they ought to think this through. Are they really willing to possess the freedom to live entirely according to God’s command as found in scripture? (And will they extend that freedom to those who want to live according Shari’a? or the Laws of Manu? or the Haggakah?)
First let’s consider what it would mean to really live as a Christian by a comprehensive revealed moral code. Take just the apparently least offensive of the commands of God regarding social interactions: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (II Corinthians 6:14) Traditionally these words were taken as a reference to marriage between Christians and non-Christians, but the principle surely applies to all partnerships and contractual agreements. (As noted by more than one Christian commentator.)
That means that Christians really shouldn’t do business with non-Christians. Ever. The burden of anti-discrimination legislation, from which some evangelicals are seeking relief, doesn’t just fall on florists and wedding planners. It falls on us all, for the Bible obliges all Christians to exclude from their businesses all non-Christians. (It doesn’t entirely ban social interactions – unless those interactions “threaten the faith of the weaker brother.”) (See I Corinthians 8 – 10)
Of course this would apply in seeking services as well. Good Bible-believing Christians shouldn’t even begin to do business with pagans. I would expect those same florists and wedding planners who won’t sell their services to gays, or Hobby Lobby and Chic Filet who don’t want to provide adequate insurance to their pagan employees to immediately quit using their cell phones, tv’s, electricity, and rented premises on this basis. Indeed all city services are probably in pagan hands, certainly on the East and West coasts. And I would expect Hobby Lobby and its allies wouldn’t be bad Christians by hooking up the electricity grid. The flow of electrical current lighting their stores and homes almost certainly lit up god knows what heinous medical procedures and sexual acts. Good heavens, they might even have an intermingling of electrons generated by solar panals on an abortion clinic, so that just paying their electric bill makes abortions possible.
Indeed, I think Christian businesses should want to ask everyone as they approach the door to recite the Westminster Creed, or at least the Lord’s Prayer, before they are allowed in to become “yoked” by means of a bill of sale. That is if they are really Bible believing Christians and not just hypocrites focused on this or that form of behavior they happen to personally find distasteful.
(On a recent trip to Hobby Lobby – because I don’t discriminate – I found that the store was fully equipping customers to build shrines to the pagan fertility god called the Easter Bunny and carry out the equally pagan fertility ritual called the Easter Egg Hunt. Pretty shocking for a company with such fine Christian moral tuning that it can’t have an even tertiary relationship to an abortion.)
Hypocrisy aside, in reality the “undue burden” from which RFRA ultimately ends up protecting religious people is nothing other than the burden of living in American society and its social obligations rather than a sectarian enclave.
And that is the central problem of RFRA, in all its forms. It is an unintentional step backward into a fundamentally sectarian and tribal understanding of social obligations.
While the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that the primary issue was the “least restrictive means” test of RFRA, it also concurred that Hobby Lobby had a claim under RFRA that paying for insurance that covered abortion burdened religion because it was a morally consequent act (and thus a religious act) to facilitate the immorality of others. Whatever the limitations of that specific ruling, and despite the fact that the Federal RFRA, and many state RFRAs specifically exclude civil rights legislation from RFRA review, it hardly takes any imagination to see the unbelievably vast number of claims for relief from government mandates that could still be made under Federal and state RFRAs if a mandate or prohibition that facilitates the immorality of others is an undue burden on religion.
And of course many of the new state RFRAs go much further, extending protection not merely from government mandates, but requests for information or service by private individuals and corporations.
This is quite dangerous in the larger context of what is happening in our society. The social contract upon which our nation was founded is under attack. Instead of a nation seeking the unity and universality of ethical values chosen by free humans in an open democratic society, some Christians want a nation that is a vessel for religious sects and their private revelations. In their more pessimistic modes they want a nation of religious ghettos that alone provide the moral purity they seek. And in their more optimistic modes it is a Christian Nation governed by their version of God’s law. All they know is “put me in charge or leave me alone.”
Our founding fathers had something significantly greater in mind than either Hobby Lobby, its allies, or the present Supreme Court can imagine. Something greater than the old Christendom or Islamic civilization. They had in mind something new: a civilization built on universal values freely discovered in the unrestrained discourse of free people, and freely implemented by democratically elected representatives.
These founding fathers gave us the First Amendment so that the will of the people, expressed in law, didn’t become the tyranny of the majority. But they also understood that the pre-modern, unenlightened, thinking that characterized the Christendom they left behind could never be the basis of a flourishing multi-religious society. For America to flourish it is our conceptualization of religion and religious obligation that must change not our constitution.
I personally believe, as a Christian, that this is not merely possible but good. Our constitution gives us all the freedom that religion needs to have. Our founding fathers, some but not all Christians, were pioneering theologians. Like them I believe that the gospel of Christ compels me to find God’s will in dialogue with persons of many religions and ways of life rather than in the narrow boundaries of sectarian religious interpretation of the Bible. But I don’t begrudge the sects their right to be sectarian – so long as they recognize that to share the fruits of American soil they must also labor in it wide and diverse fields. This, it appears, they are unwilling to do.