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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A Letter to my Christian Friends who are Anxious about your Religious Liberty

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.” LibertyAndJusticeForAllThe 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:DSC_0090

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. canstockphoto9505469Maybe 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 frequentlyIntersections logo 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.

Guest Blog: Pastors’ Letter – Texas public schools are not ‘Godless environment’

Speaking passionately and personally, we pastors are for Texas children, and we are alarmed at the language and legislation coming from some of the most powerful people in our land. It attacks neighborhood and community schools and the dedicated, faithful educators who nurture and instruct our children.

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

The lieutenant governor’s hand-picked advisory board issued a letter calling every public school classroom “a Godless environment.”

We are offended. Several of our spouses and many of our members work in public schools, and many of our children attend them. We are certain they take God with them.

We see first-hand the dedicated servants committed to the moral, ethical and emotional well-being of children as well as their academic preparation. We know the love with which counselors, administrators, classroom teachers and other staff work with the broad range of students.

They encourage all, fretting over those with particular challenges, pouring their hearts, their hours, their energies into the precious lives of children, no matter their native ability, economic background or ethnicity. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., also an Episcopal priest, points out that objects — like chewing gum — may be kept out of schools, but not God. God is the creator of heaven and earth.

Pickpocketing public coffers while simultaneously attacking public schools — anchor of the common good — seems to us inadequate leadership.

We applaud the 12 senators who opposed the disappointing voucher legislation, and we urge our representatives in the Texas House to defeat vouchers. Here’s why:

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

This time the ruse is not to give religious schools money directly but simply to allow a reduction of funds in the public treasury to be diverted to private schools.

Religious liberty is at stake. The separation of church and state is intended not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state.

With Thomas Jefferson, we believe it is sinful and tyrannical for government to compel people to pay taxes for the propagation of religious opinions with which they disagree, or even with which they agree. Authentic religion must be wholly uncoerced.

Faith should be dependent on the persuasive power of the truth it proclaims and not on the unwanted, and unneeded, assistance of the Texas Legislature.

George W. Truett, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church for the first half of the 20th century, said on the steps of the nation’s capital: “Religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree it is thus supported, it is a millstone hanged about its neck.”

As a practical matter, vouchers channel public monies to private schools with no public accountability. Private schools could use public money to discriminate on race, gender, religion and special needs.

Private schools define and meet their constituency’s needs, but public money must come with public scrutiny.

Vouchers have always been defeated in Texas because they neglect the lawful, public system and, thus, violate the Texas Constitution.

Article 7, Section 1, says: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

Texas benefits from a robust economy, yet hovers near the nation’s bottom in per-pupil spending. We feast at bounty’s table while some children subsist on crumbs.

Education is God’s gift to all persons. Education is a core component of democracy.

We pray the Texas House will defeat vouchers by whatever name.

Let us, rather, defend and protect public education in Texas, and let us affirm and support those who shape children on our behalf.

 

The authors are the Rev. Brent Beasley, Broadway Baptist Church; Tim Bruster, First Methodist Church; Carlye J. Hughes, Trinity Episcopal Church; Tom Plumbley, First Christian Church; Larry Thomas, University Christian Church; Karl Travis, First Presbyterian Church, all in Fort Worth.

Continue reading Guest Blog: Pastors’ Letter – Texas public schools are not ‘Godless environment’

Faith, Culture and Politics

A couple years ago, I was honored to join Coffee Party radio for a discussion about Faith, Culture and Politics. We all agreed that mixing faith and politics is very tricky. Unknown+copy

Whereas just a few years ago Evangelical Christians resisted political involvement now, in the conventional wisdom, “Christian” = “Religious Right” = “Republican.”

These days there are so many conservative political figures and outspoken lobbying groups that wear the name Christian that we progressive Christians have been immersed in their same bathwater and nearly thrown out of the public conversation.

But there is an appropriate place in our national discourse for the advocacy of a different kind of Christian voice other than that which has taken center stage.

In our radio conversation, we began by discussing the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I take this very seriously because the protection of religious freedom is a huge gift our founding fathers gave to us.

As a person of faith and a Christian minister, I come at the First Amendment from two different angles.

First, for this country that I love, I want all our citizens to realize the freedom to practice faith the way they best understand it and I’m proud that America’s insistence on this principle has been unusual in the history of the world; freedom of religion is one of our great strengths.

Of course, as a people, we have not lived up to our principles very well. The spirituality of the Native Americans was disrespected from our very beginnings. The enslaved Africans were forced to give up their religions in order to convert to a perverted version of Christianity that justified slavery. Asian immigrants were suspect because of the way they practiced their faith; Catholics were mistreated by the WASP culture of the day; Jews have been vilified and demonized; Muslims are still struggling to find their place in the midst of today’s paranoia.

I realize that what I’m describing here are not legal issues that hearken back to the government’s role as described in the Bill of Rights but rather some of the cultural realities of our society. I’m describing divisions that happen within the human family just because we are human.

But the genius of the First Amendment is that our various governments are charged with protecting all religious freedom; not only should our laws not favor one religion over another but they also must not “prohibit the free exercise” of religion. In a multi-cultural society such as ours, that has to refer to people who hold a wide range of spiritual beliefs and participate in a variety of religious practices.

Christians who want to claim that America is a “Christian nation” founded on “Christian principles” and therefore justified in continuing Christian privilege skew American history.

It is true that most of the Founding Fathers were at least loosely affiliated with some kind of Christian denomination or another. That was the acceptable culture of the day.

But we cannot say America was founded on Christianity, because it is clear that the Founders were very intentional about moving away from the model they were used to, the model so common in England. They yearned for a new way and so they debated and comprised and came up with this brilliant plan that the government should not use its power to establish one religion over another, one denomination over another, one ideology over another.

That said – it is also true that Christianity has been the dominant religion in America since our beginnings and it is hard, hard, hard for humans to give up their privileges and advantages.

I know that some Christians feel like they are being persecuted because the culture is shifting and they are losing their long held privilege and influence. I’m sorry people feel that way; just because a group is losing power doesn’t mean they are being persecuted.

I like to use the metaphor of a family dinner table. The people who have had the most access to the table need to be gracious enough to move over and make room for everyone to have a place. The quirky son-in-law. The outspoken cousin. The rowdy grandchildren. The aging parents.

America’s family table IS big enough for all of us.

And in a society like ours that values the freedom of speech as much as it values the freedom of religion, the First Amendment insists that all citizens are invited into the national conversation.

Religious and non-religious, progressive and conservative, rich and poor, Black and White and Brown: citizens can and must speak and vote and write letters, sometimes even protest. These are just a few of the ways all of us can continue to grow and learn how to live well together.

The government cannot prohibit the participation of anyone in this large cultural conversation and we the people should not shut down each other’s voices either.

But then there is second angle on the First Amendment that is important to me: as strongly as I feel about Americans being able to practice religion as they see fit, as a pastor, I am even more concerned that Christians should actually live out the faith of Jesus Christ with more faithfulness, and I am very concerned abouUnknown-1t the ways Christian faith is compromised whenever it is wed inappropriately to civic faith.

For example, when Christians are so enamored of capitalism that we can’t critique the inequitable distribution of wealth within our nation – then the teachings of Christ are ignored and Christian faith is compromised.

When Christians join in the mindless drumbeat for war – then the example of Christ is lost and Christian faith is compromised.

The people who raised me and influenced me when I was growing up were all very conservative – theologically, socially and politically. It wasn’t until I was able to think for myself and ask hard questions that I began to shift my beliefs.

Change is hard – but immensely important work.

I know a lot of good, kind conservative people who don’t necessarily believe that change is good; their definition of faithfulness is to avoid change. Or maybe they just can’t allow themselves to question what they have always believed to be true; I know from experience questions can be very scary.

But it was only when I gave myself permission to question the narrow dogma of my childhood that I was able to grow into a broader, more inclusive understanding of Christianity. And interestingly, that shift directly affected my social values: how I believe we should treat each other as people living together in a society.

Some of my conservative Christian friends wonder if I’m really Christian at all. Some of my liberal friends wonder why I even still bother with Christianity given its very poor reputation these days.

But this is who I am, deep in my core, and I cannot betray it; I can only hope to live my faith in such a way that its circle of goodness and grace might touch the people and the situations of my wider world.

Feed the hungry.

Welcome the stranger.

Free the oppressed.

Speak out for the least of these.

Give without expecting return.

Trust. Persevere. Love.

These actions flow from my faith but also from values that I share with the Coffee Party USA – Civility, Continuous Learning, Authenticity & Transparency, Integrity & Clarity, Inclusiveness…

I hope I will always be alert to ways I may inappropriately wed Christian faith to patriotism or nationalism; that’s always a deadly marriage.

But I also hope I will always be alert to the ways that faith and hope and love can help nudge my culture and my nation to greater wisdom, goodness and wholeness.

 

This essay is excerpted from Press 1 for Democracy, Coffee Party Blogtalk Radio, October 6, 2014: Faith, Culture and Politics.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/coffeepartyusa/2014/10/07/faith-culture-and-politics–p1fd-10614

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. Intersections logoShe is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

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.