Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Religion? Or Politics?

The phrase “culture wars” usually brings to mind the current political polarization between self-described conservatives and the rest of us: more and more, that’s a line of demarcation that runs between Republicans and Democrats (and Democratic-leaning Independents). However, as a recent essay from the Guardian points out, cultural issues are also creating huge tensions within the more fundamentalist religious denominations.

Barry Hankins is a professor at Baylor who has authored several books and articles about the Southern Baptist Convention, and in the linked article, he examines the effects of the culture wars on that Evangelical denomination.

He begins with a question:

Is the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest and arguably most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States – being held together by culture wars instead of Biblical teaching? That is the question in recent weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.

Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a last-gasp chance to save white Christian America – theology, and, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.

Hankins has been a longtime scholar of the Southern Baptists, although he is not himself a member of that denomination, and he says that in the past he has defended what he terms their “serious theology,” despite the influence of cultural concerns on that theology. But by 2020, he says he had come to recognize that “conservatives of the right wing of the SBC were not just subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but had in fact lost their way as Baptists.”

At the SBC’s recent meeting–widely covered by the national press–we casual readers were relieved when the less political, less strident candidate, Litton, won the presidency of that body. But he won by a very narrow margin, suggesting that control by those Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice–and independence from identity with the Republican Party–is tenuous.

Hankins points to the narrowness of the vote as a sign  that the Convention has not “turned a corner.” And he insists that the differences are not theological. (Both sides are anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-submission of women. The list goes on…) The debate, he says, is political.

The side that lost last week, wants to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-era Republican party, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They are motivated, I believe, by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the Republican party’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe white Christian America is embattled and surrounded by a hostile secular-liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in America and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he geared up for his run at the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”

There’s more in the linked essay, and it’s fascinating, but aside from the specifics–doctrinal or cultural– the description of this denomination’s internal conflict raises a fairly profound issue: how does religion differ from political ideology–if, indeed, it does?

I did a bit of Googling, and came up with the following definitions.

Religion is an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Religious beliefs–as opposed to religious rituals– are the specific tenets that members of a particular faith believe to be true.

A political ideology–as opposed to the messy realities of campaigning and/or governing– is  a set of “ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement” that explains how society should work and offers a political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.

At the very least, there is considerable overlap.

The question for an increasingly multi-ethnic country that is legally and constitutionally prohibited from favoring one religion over others (or religion over non-religion or vice-versa) is: how do you decide what is genuinely religious and thus worthy of the governmental deference required by the Free Exercise Clause, and what is really a thinly-masked political campaign to protect a formerly privileged tribe?

Is the Southern Baptist insistence on the supremacy of White Christian America religious–or is it political? And even if religious, does it really deserve deference?

 

Twenty Percent Scary

I recently came across an article reporting that twenty percent of Americans are Christian Nationalists. I have no way of evaluating the accuracy of the survey research that led to that number, but even ten percent would be an absolutely chilling number.

Attention to the phenomenon and the threat it poses has spiked recently, thanks to the central role played by Christian Nationalists in the January 6th attack on the Capitol. A Google search for the term returns a large number of articles, academic analyses,  and opinion pieces, most of them highly critical. Thomas Edsall rounded up a subset of the academic articles in a recent column for the New York Times opining that it would be impossible to understand January 6th without investigating the movement’s role in the uprising.

Edsall quoted from a book by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry,“Taking America Back for God,” which described Christian Nationalism as a stew of “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.” Christian Nationalism, as they analyzed it, is ethnic and political as much–or more–than religious.

Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.

Edsall quotes a similar sentiment from the author of another recent book, “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,”

It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy, but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.

Perry addressed the role of Christian Nationalism on January 6th, noting the use of religious symbols during the insurrection such as the cross, Christian flag, Jesus saves sign, etc.

But also the language of the prayers offered by the insurrectionists both outside and within the Capitol indicates the views of white Americans who obviously thought Jesus not only wanted them to violently storm the Capitol in order to take it back from the socialists, globalists, etc., but also believed God empowered their efforts, giving them victory.

There’s much, much more. It’s important to recognize that Christian Nationalists aren’t going to be defeated by secular bloggers, critical “elitist” columnists, or worried academics. The movement can only be effectively countered by those I think of as actual Christians, and fortunately, some have risen to the challenge.Their organizational statement begins by describing their concern with “a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.”

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

Instead, these Christians believe that:

People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

I can only hope (and pray!) that these Christians number more than twenty percent…

 

 

 

Some Conflicts Never Die…

Back in 2000, I wrote a couple of newspaper columns and an academic article about litigation involving the Kentucky Baptist Children’s Home. The Children’s Home had fired a youth counselor solely because she was a lesbian; they admitted that she was an excellent counselor, but justified the firing by explaining that “the gay lifestyle” (discovered because her picture appeared in media snapped at a Pride parade) was inconsistent with their theological beliefs.

Ordinarily, this firing would not have given rise to a lawsuit-even in those few states that had then extended civil rights protections to gays and lesbians, religious organizations were (and are) exempt from civil rights laws. But the Home was essentially funded by the state of Kentucky. Some $12 million of its $15 million dollar annual budget came from state tax dollars paying for the children placed in the facility by the state. The lawsuit challenged the propriety of using tax dollars to discriminate.

The case ran into some technical issues not germane to the principle being litigated, and I lost track of its subsequent path. (A very similar case from Georgia was settled when that state agreed to abide by the Constitution.) Evidently, the Kentucky Home did not lose its state support–nor its insistence on disadvantaging members of the LGBTQ community–because AP has reported on the emergence of a similar conflict between the Home–now renamed Sunrise Children’s Services–and the state.

A cultural clash pitting religious beliefs against gay rights has jeopardized Kentucky’s long-running relationship with a foster care and adoption agency affiliated with the Baptist church that serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The standoff revolves around a clause in a new contract with the state that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and that Sunrise Children’s Services is refusing to sign.

It’s another round in a broader fight in states and the courts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights, including whether businesses can refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings. An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Pennsylvania case could be decisive in the Kentucky clash; it’s reviewing a refusal by Philadelphia Catholic Social Services to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.

The original case–twenty-one years ago–involved the home’s refusal to employ LGBTQ staff members, no matter how professionally competent. I was unable to determine whether that situation has changed, but this time, the argument is about the agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex foster or adoptive parents.

Sunrise wants its religious beliefs to exempt it from a law that applies to other agencies doing business with the state, a requirement imposed by what lawyers call a law of general application. It wants to continue benefitting from tax dollars paid by all Kentucky residents, gay and straight, while picking and choosing which rules it will follow.

That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

“If Sunrise doesn’t want to abide by that, that’s fine. They shouldn’t have access to state money, state contracts or children in the state’s care,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based gay rights advocacy group.

Hartman said he worries LGBTQ children in Sunrise’s care are “deeply closeted,” hiding their sexual orientation out of fear of “indoctrination and proselytization.”

Whether that fear is justifiable or not is beside the point. It was actually Justice Scalia–no champion of secularism–who wrote the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, confirming that religious belief does not exempt citizens from compliance with laws of general application.

Sunrise is perfectly free to follow its theological principles. It isn’t free to demand continued public funding at the same time it is refusing to follow the rules that govern distribution of that funding.

I sometimes wonder whether America has turned into a version of Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some folks (“good Christians”) think they’re entitled to be more equal than others.

 

A Breached Agreement

I am ceding today’s post to a longtime friend, Chris Douglas. I have frequently criticized school voucher programs, for the reasons Chris lists and for several others, but he brings a particular perspective to the issue– and a well-founded belief that school vouchers breach the promises of Indiana’s constitution.

With his permission, his recent Facebook post on the subject is below.

_________________________________-

I’ve reflected lately on the number of things that I have found jaw-dropping late in life…. that I could never have imagined… the latest being the State of Texas not only opening up fully and abandoning masks while so many of its populations are totally vulnerable.. but attacking municipalities like Austin that have maintained mask mandates.

Vouchers delivering tax payer money to religious ministries that discriminate blatantly against innumerable Hoosiers, but LGBT Hoosiers especially, likewise are jaw dropping to me, as flagrant violations of our State Constitution. The… I don’t know what to call it… cavalier attitude….indifference… disregard… that I find among some people of influence.. with regard to the plain words, intent, meaning and spirit of our constitution protecting us explicitly from being coerced into the support of ministries against our consent… prohibiting money from going from the state treasury to religious institutions…. and banning religious qualification for offices of public trust and profit….. all flagrantly and intentionally violated by Indiana’s Voucher laws in their current form.

Now we are all of us .. after 200 years of religious freedom in Indiana… being taxed to support “education” that the Catholic Church and various Evangelical Churches have openly declared are ministries.. funded by money flowing *directly* from the treasury to those religious institutions…. who are refusing to hire and indeed are firing LGBT people on religious grounds.

Honestly, when I pledged my life to this country as a military officer… and when I returned to Indiana as a gay man… a place where my roots run so deep I get emotional… I thought we had a deal. I *thought* others would defend my rights just as I had pledged my life to defend theirs… That others would take seriously the Constitution that in Indiana has given us so much peace and freedom, each to think, believe, and worship as we might wish… none to impose our faith upon others…. all to accept each other as equals under the protections of the law in the common cause of our democracy.

I find… even among readers here… you know who you are… you really don’t give a damn. You think it’s perfectly acceptable. You hold no one accountable. You don’t understand… you certainly don’t embrace… your personal obligations to finally speak up for the rights of people who aren’t you. You’ve pushed for this. As if state funding of discriminatory.. indeed, in some instances, hateful, ministries.. is the only way of achieving our Constitutional imperative of providing education.

And some of you line your pockets in the process… or cozy socially, professionally, or politically about… silent while hatreds are funded.. whipped up… with public money… against your fellow citizens. Somebody else’s job to fight. Not yours. Not your social, political, or professional capital to expend.

Even before the Archdiocese declared every teacher, counselor, and administrator a minister… even while academy after academy receiving public funding (while promoting creationism… the subjugation of women… and damnation for all who do not believe precisely as they) declare themselves ministries of their narrow faith…. even as we contemplate the silent, sometimes terminal, darkness into which we plunge lgbt youth, condemned even by their own parents…

I reflect on the private words… the sneer… of one leader of this mess to me: “You’re not supporting any ministry….” calling black, white…. calling up, down… calling a circle a square. Why? Because he really just doesn’t care.

Here in Indiana, we had a deal. It’s in writing. It’s 200 years old. It has enabled people of strong and diverse and conflicitng faiths to live with each other in peace and mutual acceptance as has not been possible in Europe, Ireland, the Middle east or Burma. It appears to me that deal is over, the contract not even shredded, just denied while looking us in the eye and daring us to defend ourselves against your attack.

I thought we were in trenches together as Americans, as Hoosiers, whatever our differences, sharing the values of our Constitution as our bond. Turns out, I look around… and your bayonet is fixed against us, our Constitution successfully pocketed, denied, nowhere to be seen. You’ve become what, when I pledged my life in defense of our Constitution, I pledged my life against.

I’ll never understand it. I’ll never get over it.

The Age of Grievance

There are a number of ways to escape “the news of the day.” Suicide, of course; substance abuse (mostly booze), studied ignorance…I can’t be the only person who needs some respite from the daily reports of Trump damage, environmental despoliation, insane conspiracy theories and the like.

Recently, I’ve been escaping into fiction. Mostly science fiction and mysteries–guilty pleasures that are finally available to an almost-retired person. I’ve particularly enjoyed a series written by a Canadian writer, Louise Penny, who follows an Inspector Gamache through sixteen books. I was reading book number 8, when I came across an observation that explained not just crime, but political behavior. The Inspector was explaining motivation–and attributing much of it to fear.

Especially, he said, fear of loss.

Could there be a more apt description of the political insanity we inhabit? During the past four or five years, the word “grievance” has become an indelible part of our political discourse. It applies almost always to people who believe they are at the cusp of loss–loss of the world in which their particular identity dominates others. As I have often noted, research has established that “racial grievance” is the most reliable marker of Trump support.

Other research has found that certain Christians exhibit an almost hysterical fear that their “religious liberty”–defined by them as their right to prescribe the behavior of others– is slipping away. Linda Greenhouse, one of the most thoughtful observers of the Supreme Court, focused on that fear in a recent New York Times column. She wondered whether Amy Coney Barrett would join the “grievance conservatives.”

Greenhouse began by discussing the recent 5/4 decision exempting religious gatherings from COVID restrictions, and noting that it was likely to be moot, since the restrictions had already been modified.

The real significance of the decision lay in the which-side-are-you-on test it posed for the newest justice. I don’t mean the conservative side versus the liberal side. Obviously, she’s a conservative. What matters is that a month into her tenure, she chose to align herself with what I call grievance conservatism: conservatism with a chip on its shoulder, fueled by a belief that even when it’s winning, it’s losing, and losing unfairly.

The embodiment of grievance conservatism is Justice Alito, who in a speech last month to his fellow members of the Federalist Society said that “it pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

Greenhouse pointed out how ironic this was:

Justice Alito is a member of a Supreme Court majority that during his nearly 15-year tenure has been more deferential to the demands of religious believers than any Supreme Court in modern history. Just this past summer, the court ruled that a state that offers a subsidy for private-school tuition must include parochial schools in the program; that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry; and that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plans.

As Greenhouse also reported, Alito and Thomas wrote “sympathetically in early October about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused for religious reasons to issue marriage licenses to same- sex couples.”

Since the two justices were neither voting to grant the appeal nor dissenting from its denial, their opinion was entirely gratuitous. They simply used the case as a platform to reiterate warnings about the threat to religion from official recognition of same-sex marriage.

Greenhouse is absolutely correct when she observes that what religious adherents want is not equal treatment. Equality is no longer sufficient. “Special treatment is the demand.”

There is also irony to this (quite correct) “special treatment” characterization. Back in the early days of the gay civil rights movement,  religious figures hysterically objected to any grant of civic equality to members of the LGBTQ community, asserting that laws against discrimination weren’t equal rights, but “special” rights.

What these frantic warriors for “religious liberty” really fear is loss of their unearned privilege. And as Inspector Gamache understood, fear of loss can make people do criminal things.