A Call to Give Up Christian Privilege for the Sake of Religious Liberty

Conversations about religious liberty continue to stir the pot of our public dialogue. Some presidential hopefuls and other public figures say Christianity is under attack and Christian freedoms are being threatened. Since I am a Christian minister in relationship with a wide range of Christians across this nation, I can say confidently: “Baloney.”

It’s not freedom that is being challenged; it is privilege.

Many other Christians across the Liberal to Conservative spectrum agree with me. Although the self-centered, tribal voices of privilege get more attention in news stories and news feeds, there are countless Christians who are speaking up in favor of an appropriate balance between Church and State. Many Christians are on front lines across America arguing that the religious and civil rights of all our citizens should be the undergirding principle of our public policies.

One of the more impressive, articulate voices speaking out to counter the hyperventilation of the Religious Right might be considered a poster boy for Conservative Christianity: dallin-h-oaks-largeElder Dallin H. Oaks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In a speech at a Court/Clergy Conference in Sacramento, Mr. Oaks laid out his premise:

I begin by speaking of the inevitable relationship between two different realms: the laws and institutions of government on the one hand and the principles (or “laws”) and institutions of religion on the other…

My thesis is that we all want to live together in happiness, harmony, and peace. To achieve that common goal, and for all contending parties to achieve their most important personal goals, we must learn and practice mutual respect for others whose beliefs, values, and behaviors differ from our own. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, the Constitution “is made for people of fundamentally differing views.”

Differences on precious fundamentals are with us forever … This does not anticipate that we will deny or abandon our differences but that we will learn to live with those laws, institutions, and persons who do not share them.

There should be no adversariness between believers and nonbelievers, and there should be no belligerence between religion and government. These two realms should have a mutually supportive relationship…

Two things stand out to me: 1) Government and Religion have an “inevitable relationship” and 2) “Differences on precious fundamentals are with us forever.” Two inevitabilities.

Some religious people wish that their own personal Religion should be established and privileged by the Government; some non-religious people wish Religion would go away altogether. Neither of these things will ever happen in a healthy USA. Religious faith will never go away as long as humans exist AND the Constitution presumes and guarantees the free exercise of religious faith within our society.

Our Constitution notes the “inevitable relationship” that has existed since our beginnings and outlines how Religion and Government should interact appropriately within American society. Thomas Jefferson (in a private letter) thought of it as a “wall” of separation; Mr. Oaks thinks it is more realistically a “curtain.”

Our current public discussion must continue to focus on the “hows” of the relationship. Certainly there is to be no “establishment” of religion by official forms of government, but how do we dismantle the historic societal privilege of one religion within this increasing multicultural, multi-religious culture? How do we work together to create a society where we can “live together in happiness, harmony, and peace?”

As a progressive Christian minister, I celebrate the diversity I experience within my Christian community, across my interfaith community and throughout my secular national community. coexistThat wasn’t always true. I was raised as a judgmental Fundamentalist, moved on to become a more generous Conservative and am grateful these days to be an inclusive, welcoming Progressive.

For many Christians, diversity is for celebrating but for others, diversity is intimidating. Nevertheless, these differences among us are “inevitable” and “with us forever.” As Justice Holmes noted: our Constitution “is made for people of fundamentally differing views.” I am very grateful for that truth.

Mr. Oaks’ voice is significant within this conversation about religious liberty for another reason besides his leadership within the Mormon faith community; he also understands this issue from a civil and legal angle. Oaks has served our country as a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court, as a prosecutor in the state courts in Illinois, and as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court. Therefore, I sit up and take notice when he says:

Believers should also acknowledge the validity of constitutional laws. Even where they have challenged laws or practices on constitutional grounds, once those laws or practices have been sustained by the highest available authority, believers should acknowledge their validity and submit to them. …

2dbb9186aaf3996a953dd8e78a9c1e3eFor religious citizens, a significant part of authentic religious freedom is our right to politic for public policy within the public arena.  But once laws are passed or when the Supreme Court rules on a law’s constitutionality, then all citizens are expected to obey the laws or suffer the consequences; religious citizens are not exempt.

Elder Oaks offers three wise suggestions, three general principles for walking (what he terms) the “center path:”

* First, parties with different views on the relationship between church and state should advocate and act with civility…

* Second, on the big issues that divide adversaries on these issues, both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory…

* Third, it will help if we are not led or unduly influenced by the extreme voices that are heard from contending positions…

Current day Christians would do well to remember our history: during the first three centuries of our movement, Christians mostly came from the under class and under belly of society, surrounded on every side by people whose beliefs, values, and behaviors differed from their own. It was in that decidedly unprivileged position that Christianity thrived. I say “thrived” not in a sense of power but in the sense of service: Christians went about the business of loving their neighbors, serving the poor, welcoming the stranger, caring for the least among them…

If we Christians continue to demand our Constitutional rights, then it seems to me we ought to be using those generous religious liberties to proclaim a faith that is actually authentic to the gospel and to actually practice a faith that is beneficial to our world.

Current day Christians would do well to remember (and to follow once again) the One whose name we wear: the Christ who abandoned privilege. The Christ who sought out relationship with “tax collectors and sinners.” The Christ who sacrificed his own personal freedoms out of self-giving love for others.

 

Elder Dallin H. Oaks: “The Boundary Between Church and State”
Second Annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference
Sacramento, California
October 20, 2015

 

Intersections logoCharlotte 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.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

 

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Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Marriage Equality

Dear Senator Cruz,

In my first letter, I offered the paradigm “love of neighbor” as an appropriate and helpful framework for creating laws and policies for our American society. Since I am a Christian pastor and since you are my Senator and have acknowledged your Christianity publicly, I am writing these letters to reflect pastorally on the values of Jesus Christ and how those values might inform your work in Congress. data-1

I received the most recent letter that you sent to your constituents and I must respond to say that your efforts to re-establish the Defense of Marriage Act is wrong on so many levels. I say this as a straight, middle-class woman; as a voter in your state; and as a Christian. Continue reading Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Marriage Equality

This is Outrageous: Loving our Muslim Neighbors

This past January, a community of Muslim Americans gathered to explore how they could foster more positive depictions of the faith they love. It was timely work for these practitioners of Islam given the terrorist actions just a week before – an extremist acting in the name of their religion at Charlie Hebdo.  

Muslim+Conference_41766895_927960 2 But their efforts for peace were interrupted by other extremists acting in the name of their religion: some “Christians” gathered to protest the presence of their neighbors, claiming Muslims had no right to gather at the local community center; claiming Islam is inherently violent. (These claims, by the way, were accompanied by Internet threats of guns and bombs.)

This happened next door to me. I lived in Garland Texas; I served a Christian church there; I sometimes worshiped at the mosque just down the street in the neighboring suburb. This is my community. This is my home. These are my neighbors. This is outrageous. Continue reading This is Outrageous: Loving our Muslim Neighbors

Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Love of Neighbor

Dear Senator Cruz, Since you are my Texas Senator, I often receive letters from you reporting on your work in the U.S. Senate; here is a letter to you in response. This is not so much a point-by-point political argument about specific ways you and I would approach our nation’s problems and solutions (you and I seem to have very different opinions on many of these matters). Rather, since you are a self-proclaimed Christian and I am a Christian minister, this will be more a reflection on the priorities of Jesus Christ and how his values might help you and your fellow senators better care for “the least of these” in America. (You probably recognize Jesus’ words in the parable from Matthew 25). Of course there are countless differences between Jesus’ time and ours, but there are also some timeless attitudes he demonstrated and some abiding charges he delivered that should challenge any of us who dare to wear his name: Christ-ian. data Since you are a man who speaks openly about your Christian faith, may I remind you of the fundamentals of this faith. Since you are a public servant, might I make some suggestions about how you could serve this nation more effectively… 1) Love you Neighbor as yourself Jesus was pretty clear about priorities – his and ours: we are called to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and we are expected to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was also clear about who is a neighbor and how we are to be neighbor. In a nation such as America, our citizens are free to understand and worship God as they see fit. I am grateful for the bold vision of our Constitution and the way our First Amendment protects people from state and federal incursions into our religious practices. I am a minister who believes very strongly in the separation of church and state because I see how marrying religion and politics has deeply compromised both our government and the church of Jesus Christ. That said, Jesus’ call to be the neighbor and to love our neighbors might inform and improve how Americans could live together in our society for the common good. A Christian discipline for the love of neighbor demands an unselfish generosity and a willingness to sacrifice our own preferences and convenience for the good of the other. But I am deeply concerned about our neighbors here in Texas and across America; I am concerned that their own government is working against them instead of for them. Those who finally have access to affordable health care may lose it if you have your way; the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act sounds selfish. Your pledge to work against immigration reform instead of working with President Obama to find solutions sounds foolish. Your effort to undermine our public school systems sounds short sighted. Such actions would undo the progress we have made as a community of neighbors, a community that looks out for one another: for “the widows and the orphans,” for the “little ones,” for the “strangers” among us, for those who are trampled under the feet of the rich and powerful. Your programs and policies that increase the benefits of the privileged and compromise the possibilities of the underprivileged are not the way of the Christ. 2) More is Less and First is Last When you read your Bible, I hope you especially notice Jesus’ words that proclaim “the least among you is the greatest;” that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Throughout the story of Scripture, God has always honored humility. One of my favorite biblical characters is Jesus’ own mother. Mary’s Magnificat celebrates God’s mysterious, upside-down-way in the world that honors the poor and lifts up the oppressed. When followers of the Christ acknowledge that same reality in our own day, then…

we too must do whatever we can to speak for those who have no voice, to stand for those who have no standing, to align ourselves with those who are maligned by the rich and the powerful.

I am deeply concerned about the gridlock in Congress that keeps you from cooperating together to work for the common good of ALL the people of America. These days – even more than most – you elected officials of Congress appear to be representing your own interests instead of the interests of those you are elected to represent. There is too much self-promotion and preening, too much self-righteousness and condemnation. ted-cruz-me-me-me-shutdown-10-17-13-webThere is too much hubris and not enough humility. Your inflammatory language is inexcusable. Your refusal to compromise with your colleagues is harmful. Your unwillingness to consider all sides of any issue is small minded. Your alignment with the rich and powerful is completely upside down from the way of the Christ. Sometimes I wonder who you think your “neighbors” are. If you continue to call yourself a Christian, then it would make sense to use the same definition your Christ used. If this has slipped your mind, then please read again the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10. Respectfully, Rev. Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Dear Nice Person Who Asked About My Recent Letter to Senator Cruz

Friday, January 23, 2015

Dear Nice Person,

Thank you for writing and thank you for your questions about my pastoral reflections for Senator Ted Cruz.

I’m impressed with your questions. More than that, though, I am pleased to see your willingness to engage in honest conversation with someone who holds different opinions. That kind of curiosity and openness is lacking in our current public dialog and I applaud your effort.

You are a student in a conservative Christian school and I am a progressive Christian pastor. You say you were “intrigued” by my letter and I can only assume that is because you have had very few opportunities to hear an articulation of Christian faith from a perspective that is different from your own. I get that; I was raised fundamentalist and it was years before I was able to see how very, very large this Christian tent actually is. I love that about our faith, but I know a lot of people are threatened by such diversity. I hope our conversation will help you see diversity is not harmful but instead is immensely helpful and healthy. Continue reading Dear Nice Person Who Asked About My Recent Letter to Senator Cruz