Pastor Note #93: Religious Liberty, Privileged Christianity, and the Art of the Deal


Highland Park, Pgh.
Highland Park, Pittsburgh; photo by GAC

Religious liberty, if it is pure and principled, is a beautiful and precious thing.  It can also become a desperately dangerous concept if allowed to become conditional, qualified, or contingent in any way.  And that’s where this gets very tricky right away.  Everybody who wants to live in a humane and civilized society agrees that religious liberty cannot be unlimited.  Nobody today believes that religious practice in America should be unrestricted and without limits of some kind.

If you have any doubt about that statement, just let you mind imagine a new revival of Aztec religion in America, and I think you will realize that there are appropriate and necessary limits as to just what religious practices can and should be tolerated in a humane society.  I think we can all agree that human sacrifice regardless of its religious significance to its practitioners can never be covered by the first amendment.

Americans have been willing to impose a variety of limitations on religious practice in our country in the past.  Polygamy, despite its religious significance to Mormons at one time, was made illegal in America and still is . . . sort of.  Racial segregation, which some American Christians have argued to be biblically instituted, has been deemed to be outside the protection of the first amendment.  The point here is that religious liberty in America has always been understood to be one right among many rights and that religious liberty rights have to be weighed against other important rights and against other matters of general public welfare.

We can all see where this leads in our current situation.  The issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are being framed as matters of civil rights.  But as such, they butt up against essential aspects of my religious beliefs and practices.  For me, the core religious commitment at issue is my non-negotiable commitment to the authority of the Bible which is central to my conception of my Christian faith and out of which arises a non-negotiable sexual ethic that is at odds with what is becoming the dominant position in our broader culture concerning sexual orientation and identity.

I and others like me may welcome protections for my ability to structure my religious institutions and practices to incorporate that sexual ethic into all that we do.  And it may be possible to maintain those protections in a formal and legal way.  No protections of my religious liberty, however, that are imposed by the government, either via courts or the executive branch, will stop the dominant culture from declaring me a bigot for my views on sexual morality.  If my goal is to avoid being labeled a homophobe, religious liberty protections will be no help there.  I must either persuade the dominant culture of my views on sexual identity and morality, or I must resign myself to being a cultural pariah.

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Lancaster County (PA) Courthouse; photo by GAC

But certainly, I appreciate the advantages that have historically been afforded to religious institutions and individuals.  I would welcome the ability to retain them.  And that might be possible for a time.  But I personally expect to lose them in the coming years.  Some might call that a defeatist attitude.  I think it is just a realistic conclusion from the plain data.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2001 35% of Americans favored same-sex marriage and 58% opposed it.  Eighteen years later in 2019, 28% opposed it and 61% favored it.  I really think there can be no doubt that support for same-sex marriage will continue to grow in the coming years, and opposition will continue to decline.  And here I use support for same-sex marriage as a sort of marker for the broader notion of sexual orientation as a protected category for civil rights.  I don’t like that fact, but my liking or disliking of it is irrelevant.  It is going to happen.  And no coercive legal interventions are going to stop that.

Is there any way religious liberties in America can be preserved?  Well, I can see two possibilities.  One is a beautiful, pipe dream that I do not believe will ever happen.  The other is ugly, dangerous, and in the end almost certainly self-destructive.  Possibility number one is that a great movement of principled first amendment purists will arise and lead the country to a place where a principled commitment to a pure application of the free exercise religion rights will be preserved.

I call that a “pipe dream” because I don’t see anyone on the current American political landscape – right, left, or otherwise – who has that kind of pure and, more important, principled commitment to first amendment religious liberties.  The Trump base most decidedly does not.  In fact, in some cases they are quite open about their believe that the first amendment protections for religion apply only to Christians.  A pure and principled commitment to first amendment religious liberties would apply to all religious traditions equally.  Yes, I’m referring particularly to Muslims.

Let me illustrate that point by a sort of riff on the famous Martin Niemoeller quote.  Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook a call for the closing of all mosques in America.  He didn’t really offer any reason for wanting that.  I think he just saw it as self-evidently a good idea.  So, I wrote this in the comment section of the post:  “They closed down all the mosques, but I said nothing because I am not a Muslim.  Then they closed down all the Hindu temples, but I said nothing because I am not a Hindu.  Then they closed down the liberal churches, but I said nothing because I am not a liberal Christian.  Then they closed down my church, because I am not the right kind of evangelical Christian.  And no one said anything.”  The “right” kind of evangelical Christian would say nothing because they would be perfectly happy to see the “wrong” kind of evangelical and all the rest shut down and silenced.

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George Washington on the dome of the Washington County (PA) Courthouse; photo by GAC

If Muslims are not free to exercise their religion openly in America, then whatever freedoms Christians might enjoy, they would not be rights.  They would be religious privileges granted not by the principles of our constitution and Bill of Rights but granted by the current government.  And privileges granted by the government will apply to whomever is in the government’s favor, and can just as easily be withdrawn by the government from those who fall from favor in that government’s eyes.

That brings me to possibility number two, the ugly, dangerous, and almost certainly self-destructive one.  We could simply depend on President Donald J. Trump to extend over churches his wings of protection via various executive orders, manipulations of tax codes, and general bullying of local and state officials (where he can do it).  Whatever we might try to say about Trump’s promises of protection for churches, it cannot be said to be a principled commitment to religious liberty.  A mental exercise might help here.  Can you envision the Trump administration intervening in support of a Muslim community’s efforts simply to build a mosque where the local community was bending every effort to prevent it?  And to do that on principled free exercise grounds?  I find that frankly inconceivable.  And I am entirely certain that the Trump base would not stand for it.

If Donald Trump promises to protect Christian “liberties,” it will come with a price – a dear price, a price that could cost us our integrity.  All this recent jibber-jabber about quid pro quos actually puts its finger on the one abiding principle of Donald Trump’s life.  He does not give something without expecting something in return.  Protection of Christian privileges—well, let’s be honest here—protection of evangelical privileges comes with the expectation of unconditional loyalty.

Mind you, he understands that we will have to issues the occasional squeak of disagreement – see, for example, Franklin Graham’s very brief and very passing whimper of distress at the shameful abandonment of the Kurds by the Trump administration.  Trump understands that we may sometimes have to keep up appearances with an occasional “tut-tut” at his coarse language or “unfortunate” tendency to demeaning and abusive treatment of people, especially the weak and vulnerable.  But let us be very clear:  there will be no Nathans allowed; he knows how to handle Jeremiahs better than Zedekiah did; Jezebel not David will be his model for dealing with principled religious opposition.  If we want Donald Trump’s protection of our religious liberty, we must in the end pay for it by adopting an unconditional loyalty to him.  We must not oppose him, and we must deliver votes.

I guess I would rather suffer the lost of my liberties than to pay the price of my integrity.  I do understand that others in good conscience might not see the situation the way I do.  I realize that others may have a more optimistic view of Donald Trump’s character than I do, but after watching him operate as president for the past three years, I’m not optimistic about his character.  And that is why I simply cannot see Donald Trump as a principled defender of religious liberty in America.

Even if Donald Trump could be relied upon to preserve religious liberties in a principled way, it seems to me there would still be a very steep cost to my voting for him on that basis.  If I vote for him in order to secure religious liberty for myself and my tribe, I will also get along with that all of Donald Trump’s other policy baggage.

  • Is the preservation of my religious freedom worth the cost it will exact on the desperate refugee and asylum seeker (“alien and sojourner”) turned away from our border, many to their death? I understand that no country can or should have open and uncontrolled borders.  And in fact, neither major American political party supports that.  But border control that is brutal, racially biased, and that refuses entry to people whose lives are in immediate and real danger is an offense to God.
  • Is the preservation of my religious freedom worth the cost that may be paid by those like low wage earners who are bankrupted because they got sick and couldn’t pay for health care?
  • Is the preservation of my religious freedom worth the cost being paid by those like Kurdish and Syrian refugees abandoned on a whim by their supposed American allies in order to please a Turkish autocrat or Yemani children blown up by U.S. bombs in order to please a ruthless and barbaric Saudi crown prince?
  • Is the preservation of my religious freedom worth the cost that may be paid by those like the elderly and the disabled (the largest two groups of Medicaid recipients) and to the children of the poor who will lose some or all of their coverage if cuts proposed by the administration are instituted?

As I have said above, I do understand and acknowledge that people of good faith can weigh these issues out differently and come to different conclusions.  Though, I must also say that, in order to do this weighing out in good faith, a person must raise these questions and deal with them seriously and not simply ignore them or brush them aside.  If after a serious wrestling with these kinds of questions, a person’s moral reasoning takes him or her in a different direction than it takes me, I can live with that.

In the end, I have to ask myself, though, “Is my own religious freedom worth costs like these?  Does the Lord Jesus give me permission to avoid persecution regardless of what that may cost others?  Doesn’t the command to love my neighbor, especially the ‘least of these,’ trump my desire to avoid persecution for my faith?”  It is these kinds of concerns that leave me unmoved by arguments that Donald Trump is the only real Christian option in the presidential election and, worse, that he is God’s chosen man.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY
Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY; photo by GAC

It is true that I find Donald Trump to be a disagreeable man and a disagreeable president.  But my deep grief and distress at this moment in history is not ultimately over American politics.  In an earlier post I wrote, “I am not an American who happens to be a Christian.  I am a Christian who happens to be an American.”  I care about America, but my deep passion and loyalty is with the global body that is the Church of Jesus Christ.  Its witness and integrity, especially in its American branch, are at great risk in these times.  Lots of good-hearted Christian people have voted for and will vote for Donald Trump.  That does not trouble me much.

What does trouble me deeply is that segment of the American evangelical church that has declared Trump the apotheosis of God’s hand in the world, prominent Christian and church leaders who have thrown their very vocal, very public support behind Donald Trump, who maintain an unconditional and uncritical advocacy for his presidency and call it a Christian imperative.  There is, I believe, arising in America a re-emergence of a kind of coercive form of Christianity that is looking for a means of coercively imposing the kingdom of God through earthly and political power.  I am inclined to believe that this movement is not pursuing liberties for all religious people but rather a privileged position of power for its form of coercive evangelical Christianity.  I believe the future witness and integrity of the church is very much at stake in this.  That is why all this matters to me.  For me it is not about politics; it is about the integrity of the Church’s witness and the costly and self-sacrificing discipleship to which Jesus call us.

©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

See also:

Pastor Note #76: Citizenship in the Only Christian Nation on Earth

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