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.






5 thoughts on “A Call to Give Up Christian Privilege for the Sake of Religious Liberty

  1. What we are experiencing is definitely a cultural war, and what too many don’t understand is that we are being played…and the single most effective way to use the single most effective tool, which is divide and conquer, is through using religion, and “what God said.”

    The fundamentalists are not just using fear, they are instilling fear, and then using it for their own benefit…but who is using them? and to what end?

    Too many are living their lives with anxiety and a knot in their gut and they don’t know why it is there, or how to eliminate it. Posts like yours help identify and allow for a noticing, rather than a judgment. Posts like yours allow for creating a way to change our minds not just about our world, but about ourselves in that world…which is where it must begin.

    I thank you for your bravery, Ms. Charlotte, for brave it is to speak for the majority from a minority position.

    1. Wise insights Therese. Yes who is using whom? And to what end? My theory is that the usual suspects of money and power play a huge role in this dynamic wherever and whenever it occurs. My theology says humans have been setting up golden calves in order to idolize ideologies and market forces since our earliest beginnings. Jesus identified the core commandments as loving God and loving neighbor; instead the rule of thumb for us mortals is to love ourselves and to use our neighbor. (Hmmmm…I feel another blog coming on!) 🙂

      Writing from the comfortable distance of my living room is not brave. It’s the people on the front lines that I admire. Maybe my one little voice will encourage others to use their voice for change. The quiet majority must speak up and find more ways to change the conversation. Thanks for reading and thanks for writing!

      1. Thanks, Ms. Charlotte.
        I recently read a book by John Shelby Spong, “Jesus for the Non-Religious”, that explained this same paradigm in some depth as well.
        The saying “Do unto others, and you would have them do unto you.” really sums up how we should live, doesn’t it? So simple, yet somehow so difficult when we are constantly told that we, as individuals, are more important than the Oneness that we really are. When we believe the individual to be most important, it is then easy to seduce with “things” and the convince us that not only is there not enough of those things to go around, but that someone wants to take those things away from us! From there, when it is your religion telling you this, it is just a hop skip and a jump to believing that God says it is justified for you to kill in a “holy war” to keep your things.
        What to do? We keep on writing, and having conversations long and short, with everyone we meet. I have a standard response now, when asked the habitual question by people in service industries, like waiters and waitress, cashiers, customer representatives, etc, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
        I answer, “Yes, you can help me create world peace!”
        Of course, they usually laugh, and say they wish they could do that…and I tell them that it all begins one person at a time Being Peace, so not to get discouraged. Sometimes I have enough time to remind them of Mother Teresa’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where she told us not to get overwhelmed by looking at the global picture, but to, instead, simply change ourselves. She told us that when we did that, we also had the opportunity to effect the people in our world…our family, friends etc., and by doing this, one person at a time we really could change the world.
        Of course, what must be different this time is that the change must be CHOSEN, not dictated. Any action that is not chosen is not likely to effect long term change. So this time we have to present a paradigm that works for the many, not just the few, while (and this is the tricky part!) still fully allowing for individual thought, creativity and opportunity.
        I think it’s do-able! I see no diminishing of the essence of a person by convincing them that billions of $ in the bank serves no one, not even themselves if it diminishes their humanity and compassion. I see no diminishing of individuals if all were given the basic things needed to survive…enough to eat to maintain life and health, shelter, water and sanitation, and that thing so contested these days, medical care, including preventative care. These things create a productive society.
        The “quiet majority” will change, and is changing, I believe, because women are being empowered. I believe that we are beginning to see that we live in a global Stockholm Syndrome as women, and that even when we were “liberated” in the 1960’s we adopted the male paradigm of power. “Powerful” women, to put it in a slightly indelicate way, had to “grow a pair”, and behave in a masculine way in order to be taken seriously. Women were seduced from the home and into the workforce…never realizing that their true power to change this world really is in the home! It is the person who raises the sons and the daughters who determines their attitudes and beliefs…can there be anything more powerful?! Being a homemaker was not only discouraged, it was ridiculed and disparaged. And what is the result? Just look around and you’ll know the answer to that.
        Yes, women can be and should be in any place in society that truly calls to them as the way to demonstrate their talents and whatever aspect of their Divinity that allows…but it should never be done at the expense of their feminine Divine. We women must have something very special. Why else would the male paradigm be working so diligently to suppress it?
        Oh! Clearly I just got on a roll! I’ll end this now with one statement: Don’t diminish your courage…it may be your habit now, but it is courage non the less!

        1. I love your “evangelism” for world peace! Lighthearted and deeply sincere. I may use that sometime. Do you blog, Therese? If you don’t, you certainly should.

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