Dear Christian Friends,
As I listen to your dismay over our nation’s rapid cultural shifts, I know this must be bringing up all sorts of fears. I’m hearing some of the discomfort and disorientation even articulated as anger; I get that. But what I truly don’t understand is why some Christians are claiming their religious liberties are at risk. I too am a Christian, a minister who has thought long and hard about this matter and so I offer what I hope will be a helpful perspective for those of you who are anxious about your religious liberty.
This nation has historically given us Christians remarkable privilege and extraordinary freedoms; that has not changed with recent court rulings.
People claiming their “deeply held religious beliefs” are already able to opt out of attending public schools, opt out of certain medical procedures, opt out of assisting with abortions, opt out of military service, opt out of reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Some religious non-profit organizations (churches and some charities) have long been able to opt out of hiring people of whom they disapprove. Now even for-profit corporations have been allowed to opt out of providing contraception for their employees.
The Courts across America have bent over backwards to make exception for religious liberties.
This opt out option is one way our society seeks to walk a fine line in our effort to provide “liberty and justice for all.” The issues of religious freedom in a nation founded on a commitment to separation of church and state are complex, but I am happy to grant some of my fellow citizens the right to conscientiously object to participating in activities that offend their deeply held religious beliefs.
The problem then is not that Christians are losing religious liberty but rather that some Christians – in the name of religious freedom – are attempting to limit the civil liberties of their fellow Americans.
Just because other people have civil rights doesn’t mean your religious rights are being compromised.
Douglas Laylock has provided a thoughtful and helpful analysis of this current debate in an article he published last year: Religious Liberty and the Culture Wars. He explains his purpose in the introduction:
The Article argues that we can and should protect the liberty of both sides in the culture wars; that conservative churches would do well to concede the liberty of the other side, including on same-sex marriage, and concentrate on defending their own liberty as conscientious objectors; and similarly, that supporters of rights to abortion, contraception, gay rights, and same-sex marriage would do well to concentrate on securing their own rights and to concede that conscientious objectors should rarely be required to support or facilitate practices they view as evil.
I agree. If some people object to abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage then, by all means, they should opt out. And by all means, the rest of us should support their freedom to do so. If some people believe these particular social behaviors are “evil” or damaging then, by all means, they should pray for our nation and preach their conscience. And by all means, the rest of us should support their freedom to do so.
Conscientiously objecting and opting out is a religious liberty that has been protected again and again by our Courts. However, the practice of discriminating against other people has been struck down repeatedly by those same Courts.
A recent poll provided by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that even religious people who object to certain social practices also overwhelmingly object to discrimination. A Religion News Service article notes: “PRRI found that 69 percent of people overall — including a strong majority of all major religious groups — would support nondiscrimination laws.” Even many socially conservative African-American Christians do not agree that business owners operating in the public sphere should be able to refuse service. “Nonwhite Christians…nearly 2 in 3 (63 percent) oppose exemptions to nondiscrimination laws. [A PRRI analyst] said the idea of legal loopholes for refusing service may bring up ‘memories of past experience with segregated lunch counters and businesses refusing to serve them.’”
In a nation such as ours that purports to value both religious liberty and equal civil rights for all its citizens, surely we can find a way to actually enact those values within our public policy. Surely we are smart enough and good enough to find our middle way in this complex dilemma.
But aside from any legal or social argument, as a Christian pastor I have to ask my fellow Christians: why would you be more concerned about your own religious freedoms than about your fellow human beings?
Our entire Christian faith is grounded upon the One who “emptied himself,” sacrificing his own good for the good of all. Our Christian ethic is shaped by the One who taught us: “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Those of us who call ourselves “Christian” must never be guilty of putting our preferences, our opinions and even our own rights ahead of any other human being. No matter what they’ve done. No matter who they are. No matter how we feel.
Rachel Held Evans’ wrote an excellent blog that also speaks to fellow Christians who feel they are being persecuted; who believe their rights are being compromised because of the recent changes in our society. She too quotes Jesus’ words, spoken to a religious people who actually did live with governmental oppression; whose liberties truly were severely limited. According to the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, here is how a Christian should act when they find themselves at odds with their society:
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven….
I must say to my fellow Christians that lots of people are tired of hearing us whine and blame and squabble and demand our own way. People will be much more inclined to listen to us when they can actually see us:
partnering across divides to feed the hungry;
advocating for a hopeful future for all children;
demanding justice for the oppressed;
challenging the abuse of our planet;
working to include the marginalized;
and maybe even baking cakes for our neighbors’ weddings. Maybe even “bake for them two.”
(Offering outrageous, amazing grace to others is never against our religion; it is the core of our religion.)
Dear Christian friends, as I listen to your dismay over our nation’s disorienting cultural shift, I know you must feel anxious. But we Christians know (at least in our heads) that fear and anxiety are contradictory to our faith in the One who is Grace and Peace. Today is a good day to open our hearts to that grace and peace as well.
Max Lucado, a wise conservative Christian pastor, wrote these words the day after the Supreme Court ruling on marriage:
Let’s replace our anxious thoughts with prayerful ones. “…in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known…” Now is the time for prayer and faith.
Something good will come out of this. Maybe now we can have this discussion where we need to have it. Face-to-face. In neighborhoods. Over dinner tables. Perhaps the hate-filled words will subside …
I agree. Something good can come out of this. So let’s meet around our dinner tables and within our communities, engaging one another in peace. Let’s do a better job of having civil conversations across cyberspace. Let’s learn to know and respect each other across our divides.
And let’s create a space where religious and humanist and right and left and right and wrong and red and blue and dark and light and gay and straight and male and female and rich and poor and young and old can all be grateful, gracious people together.
Surely this table is big enough.
Surely this is the way of the One whose name we wear.
Surely it is time.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequently shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.