Depends On What You Mean by Religion

That is, if freedom of religion is under attack, don’t you have to define religion? Hunter Baker seems to have an expansive view of faith:

Big Business is a serious problem for religious liberty. Few people adequately understand that Big Business and Big Government go hand in hand. Corporations don’t like localism and various exemptions aimed at respecting rights of faith and conscience. They just want a monolith that they can understand and work with in a turnkey fashion. I have no interest in being the corporate candidate. The business executives of the world need to understand that when they undermine our liberty as people of faith, they are ultimately undermining liberty of all types, including economic liberty. I will fight for the soul of the party on this issue, just as many have bravely fought to keep the party pro-life.​

But what if religion is not everything I do, but certain practices and convictions I share with those in my communion? And here’s where I make a shameless self plug:

The difficulty here—and liberal society is by no means consistent about this—is that religion has shifted, in the American experience, from a corporate identity to a personal quest for meaning. Rather than faith being part of belonging to a religious institution and so including certain doctrinal convictions (belief in one God) and behavioral obligations (refraining from employment on Sunday), the courts’ understanding of religion leans heavily on notions of conscience (even Madison illustrates this). As such, religion is a deeply personal matter and the state should stay out of such private arenas.

Professor Bradley’s attempt to define religion very much follows in this trajectory, and she devotes several paragraphs to questions of conscience. The high stakes of individual conscience are not simply the products of the courts or the academy. Many Christians themselves also regard religion as a deeply personal matter. The revivals of the First Great Awakening during the 1740s promoted the importance of religious experience in ways that made church membership and corporate rites far less important for being truly religious. At the same time, the religious Right for the last three decades or so has taken a page from black, gay, and feminist political activists by arguing that faith is so comprehensive in its claims on the believer that he or she can never leave faith behind when entering the public square.

This notion of faith as deeply personal, rather than corporate or institutional, raises a great problem for liberal society. If faith informs everything I do, then paying taxes or baking a cake or sending my children to a public school may violate my conscience. And if a majority of the citizens have such sensitive consciences, conducting the affairs of government may become impossible. To be sure, the mainstream Progressive narrative of U.S. history includes instances where heroic stands for conscience based on faith—the Civil Rights movement—emerged as valuable contributions to a free society. By the same token, while many times religion coincided with the advancement of certain liberal goals, it has also motivated believers to protest existing norms and so has divided society along religious lines.

To illustrate the difference between religion personally conceived and corporately conceived, consider the membership vows required by my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. After being examined by a local congregation’s officers, a person needs to answer in the affirmative the following five questions:

Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?
Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?
Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?
Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

For this particular denomination, these are the chief parts of being a Christian. None of these questions pertains directly to business transactions, curricular matters, or medical procedures. Of course, the person who takes these vows might have firm convictions about how she should run her business, what school her children should attend, or what procedures hospitals should provide. Given that these other matters are incidental to requirements for institutional membership, our Orthodox Presbyterian should perhaps be less likely to invoke freedom of conscience if she ends up disagreeing with the decisions of local, state, or federal authorities about them. She might simply regard the friction that comes with a free and diverse society as the cost of doing business.

Part of the problem here may involve the old Burkean point about the value of mediating institutions. Those agencies of civil society that buffer persons from government can potentially pose challenges to the smooth operation of a state, but they also perform any number of services that add up to a society comprised of persons who place few, or at least fewer, demands on governmental agencies. Over the course of the 20th century, as the federal government’s power expanded, many institutions of civil society lost power even as the liberty of individuals increased. That process is no less evident in American religion, though the state’s hand in the loss of religious institutions’ power has not been as noticeable as it has in family life or educational or private associations.

Even so, the value of churches and synagogues in identifying and defining religion—as opposed to leaving it to individual conscience—may clear a path through the current debates that surround religious freedom and governmental protection of faith. If the state protected corporate expressions of religion more than personal ones, negotiating the interests of government and religion would likely be less litigious than it is now. To be sure, many Americans would object to legal or policy patterns that granted to pastors, priests, and rabbis greater authority in resolving matters of conscience. But without some mediating institution to inform and guide religious life, believers may be inclined to see religious liberty narrowly if only because they seemingly lack non-state institutions for resolving cases of conscience.

If the choice were between religious institutions or potentially outraged believers, the state might prefer to negotiate with churches and synagogues instead of with persons with easily offended consciences.

2 thoughts on “Depends On What You Mean by Religion

  1. The only way to avoid pietistic individualism is to join a true church, and since baptists and romanists can baptize with water but cannot have true churches, the ONLY way to avoid self-help moralism ( give yourself meaning existentialism) is to join confessionally Lutheran or Reformed churches that will not hesitate to excommunicate federal visionists who confuse water baptism and church membership with personal justification by grace before God.

    Carl Truman—-“Church discipline is meaningless if you are a Zwinglian on the Lord’s Supper. If your church has a low view of the Lord’s Supper, if it sees it as merely a symbol or … if it reduces it to the level of a mnemonic which recalls the events of Calvary, then I would suggest that there will be no such thing as an effective means of discipline in your congregation. To suspend somebody from the Lord’s Table in an environment where the Lord’s Supper is an optional extra or a merely symbolic gesture is scarcely a serious sanction. Only if the Lord’s Supper is held to be a
    means of grace and is thus of great importance to the Christian life — and only if we clearly and regularly teach that it is such — will suspension from it be regarded as a serious and sobering matter.”

    mcmark—The Magisterial Reformed marks of “the church” are “ordained university trained preachers” and agreement to “one church in one covenant of grace with (at least) one sacrament for some infants”. Only legalists would make a person’s confession of religion a mark of the church, and the only discipline which is needed is attention to the creeds and if the clergy confess these creeds. Any other “religious discipline” of individual members (for anything but gross immorality) is an unwarranted subjectivism—keep your personal private conscience out of it.

    Carl Truman—American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy ….if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.

    mcmark: if Truman were less defensive about his own tradition, and more concerned about those of us without the “means of grace”, he would not soften his smugness with notions of “imperfect true churches” which are Zwinglian . A serious welcome would warn us that there is no salvation outside his “true church”. If you are truly “High church” (but not federal vision, so you have two kingdoms, and two ways of being both in covenant and not), then being “high church ” can’t be a matter of personal preference.



    Peter Berger, Neuhaus, Robert Nisbet, and dutch Kuyperians all agree about the beauty of “mediating institutions”.

    If Burke orders your sense of order, can Oliver O Donovan and John Milbank be far behind?

    Double O—Even our refusal of Christendom has been learned from Christendom. Christendom offers a reading of those political concepts with which Scripture furnishes us….The more the political character of Israel’s hope engages us, the more we need to know how it has actually shaped the government of nations. The more the problem of our own modernity engages us Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, 194

    Eugene McCarraher– Edmund Burke in his brief on behalf of the restoration of Christendom– Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)—-“In the groves of their academy, you see nothing but the gallows.” The academy to which Burke refers is instruction in a “barbarous” philosophy— the appalling and disruptive idea that political institutions are human contrivances, not the edicts of an omnipotent divinity, and that underneath all pomp and rectitude lies the vulnerable flesh of human beings: Burke–“A king is but a man; a queen is but a woman… . Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity.” This iconoclastic rationalism is “the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings” and is “as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance.”


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