It’s been too long since I’ve written in this series. So let’s tackle something that I’m sure isn’t controversial at all – religious liberty.
I think this part is actually pretty straightforward. As guaranteed by the First Amendment, each person should have free exercise of their religion. This will feel strange at times as our country, which has traditionally been majority Christian, becomes more diverse. But at the basic level, we should welcome and spend time getting to know our neighbors of other faiths, and encourage the building and protection of mosques and temples in the same way we care for Christian churches.
“Congress shall make no law…”
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
Here’s where it gets a little more challenging. What does it look like to respect an establishment of religion? What about this “separation of church and state”?
From a Christian standpoint, we first need to have a clear recognition of how closely tied our American governments have been to the Christian church and Christian principles. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, it gets more and more difficult as our country becomes more diverse and as the general population becomes less and less devotedly (or at all) Christian.
The positive influence that Christianity can bring to this country must come from the church, not from the government. People will be drawn to Christ through the beauty and love of the Gospel message, not because Christians win legal battles to have school-sponsored Christian prayers and exclusive access to the city park for a Christian nativity scene.
But what about…
The current sticky places in the religious liberty discussion are where evolving cultural views of civil rights and protected classes come into conflict with sincerely held religious convictions. So let’s talk about just a couple of them.
The Gay Wedding Cake
This one is currently before the Supreme Court. Gay couple wants to order a custom wedding cake. Christian baker refuses. State prosecutes the baker for violating anti-discrimination laws. What’s a man to do?
If it were me personally, I think I would’ve been OK baking the cake. I’m not a professional baker, but I am a musician who has occasionally been paid for playing at weddings, receptions, and the like. And I would be OK with providing my musical services at the reception after a same-sex wedding. But that really just speaks to the state of my convictions, not the overall principle.
I’m still on board with Andrew Sullivan’s summary statement from last month: if the Christians had been more Christian, or the liberals more liberal, we wouldn’t be in this situation. There’s no question that our societal views are changing. What we need in an age of significant shifts is time for adjustment. Bend a branch too hard and too quickly and it will snap and cause significant damage. Apply pressure gently over time and it will accommodate the changes.
The Hobby Lobby case is the exemplar here. The law requires employers to provide a basic level of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage for women. The owners of Hobby Lobby have a religious objection to the use of some forms of contraception and refuse to provide the coverage. Slightly more challenging is the Little Sisters of the Poor case, in which a Catholic order that runs a group of homes for the low-income elderly similarly refuses to participate in providing contraceptive coverage, even to the point of refusing to sign a form saying they won’t provide it, because that form would then trigger government coverage, which the Little Sisters believe would make them complicit in the sin.
In these cases I’d like to sidestep things a little bit.
First, we need to take a long look at the rights of corporations. While corporate entities are necessary for the economy, the pattern of extending the rights of persons to corporations has a weakening effect on our democracy. When corporate entities are entitled to free political speech (spending), the richest can quickly overwhelm the political messaging arena in ways that ensure they get richer. With the Hobby Lobby case, the court allowed for corporations to exercise the religious rights of their owners. As a basic principle I would suggest that for-profit corporations should not receive all of these rights reserved for the people.
Second, the United States should get away from the employer-provided health care system altogether. Having health coverage tied to employment makes less and less sense in an economy that is moving toward more fluid employment situations and more self-employment / freelance work. While that discussion belongs in another post focusing specifically on health care, I bring it up here just to note that in a system where health coverage was not tied to employment, Christian employers would not be put in the position of needing to make decisions on covering procedures that conflict with their beliefs.
So let’s evaluate these against the five-principle framework.
1. Is it good for the poor?
Well, yeah, on principle free exercise of religion is good for everybody, including the poor.
2. Is it good for the planet?
3. Does it promote peace?
A focus on true religious tolerance would indeed help promote peace.
4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?
If we follow the line of thinking that free exercise and free speech are rights that properly belong to individuals and not all corporations, then yes, it would be a challenge to the powerful.