Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?

Terry Mattingly is Tightening My Jaws

Mr. Mattingly’s point, as someone with journalistic credibility, is to point out how journalists get religion stories wrong. I get it. Reporters make mistakes. Worse, they have bias. But what if Mr. Mattingly gets journalists wrong?

Case in point. He pits the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s (via Crux) coverage of Pope Francis’ refusal to meet with the chief Italian bishop as an indication of the pope’s refusal to identify publicly with a pro-family, anti-gay marriage parade sponsored by the Italian episcopate. Here is a crucial passage from the Crux:

Pope Francis abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight.

Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate.

In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day.

Mattingly thinks this shows that the Times’ report — which indicated a papal slap down of pro-family Italians — was wrong.

Why isn’t the papal speech on Aug. 22 – the one stating “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and every other type of union” – relevant to the Times report that was published on Aug. 24?


Saying something to the Vatican court is not meeting with the head Italian bishop. Nor is it an endorsement of the pro-family rally. Even Roman Catholic theologians know this:

[Pope Francis] has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics.

Sure, the theologian in question, Massimo Faggioli, is sympathetic to the Times except when Ross Douthat is the author. Still, its not as if Mattingly’s take on matters Roman Catholic is such an obvious one.

Does Anyone Remember Claudette Colvin?

That’s Colvin, not Calvin.

She was the fifteen-year old African-American girl who could have been Rosa Parks.

Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. “What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight,” he says.

The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin’s incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.

Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin’s situation.

“Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.

The reason for bringing Colvin up is to calm the outrage over stories about the press’ coverage of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who was refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. Now it comes out that she herself in addition to being a Christian is a three-time divorcee and so not necessarily the poster woman for religious freedom among the sanctified defenders of hetero marriage. Molly Hemingway does note in her wonderfully contrarian way that Davis’ conversion to Christian came after her prior divorces. So she is a little upset with the press’ slut shaming. Others have other thoughts about the matter.

Still, why don’t religious conservatives fighting the culture wars worry about style points? Why don’t they pick victims that are more squeaky clean than others? Why not understand that hypocrisy comes with the territory of headlines? If civil rights attorneys had to pick the right person to be the emblem of their cause, why don’t Christians have to make the same calculation?

It’s not like this is a problem that only believers face.

Putting a Point on Christian America

Would the United States possibly consider a bill comparable to the Jewish State proposal of Israel, which includes the following language:

The state of Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state. These two values are intertwined, and one does not outweigh the other. We promise equal rights for everyone, regardless of religion, race or sex. At the same time, Israel is the nation-state of the Jews only. This combination between the the rights of the nation and the rights of the individual, serves as the central thread in all of Israel’s founding documents.

Try that for a Christian America:

The state of the United States is a Christian and a democratic state. These two values are intertwined, and one does not outweigh the other. We promise equal rights for everyone, regardless of religion, race or sex. At the same time, the United States is the nation-state of Christians only. This combination between the the rights of the nation and the rights of the individual, serves as the central thread in all of the United States’ founding documents.

Would this kind of legislation make unsexy Americans happy?

Noah Millman, a Jewish-American of some variety, is not happy with Israel’s proposed legislation because it provides legal justification for a status quo that discriminates against Arabs:

It means that Arab citizens can be discriminated against in housing, including state-supported efforts to move Jewish citizens into Arab-dominated regions coupled with local discrimination to keep Arab citizens out of Jewish areas. That they can be discriminated against in education – most Arab citizens are educated in a separate school system from Jewish Israelis (actually, there are three official “streams” in Israeli education, secular state schools, Jewish religious state schools, and Arab schools, plus a large set of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools that are outside state control but receive state support, plus a small smattering of independent schools, but now I’ve probably given too much information). And so forth. . . .

This, in my view, is the most tangible practical significance of the Jewish State bill: that it would provide a legal justification for upholding the legitimacy of the discriminatory aspects of the status quo when faced with legal challenge.

The point of bringing this up is not the situation in Israel (where a modified bill is pending). It is instead to wonder how far Christian advocates of a Christian America are willing to go in their national self-understanding. Should non-Christians face discrimination in housing and education? Or if America is about freedom of religion as so much of the contemporary opposition to gay marriage has it, how is it possible to insist on a Christian America?

Muslims and Baptists Together (Calvinists too)

Barry Hankins observes that Baptists are beginning to understand the experience of Muslims in the United States:

what if Baptists, like Muslims, wanted to live by a different set of laws than the state of Texas or the United States? Funny you should ask, since in the run up to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage case, the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC) urged churches to insert in their bylaws a clause specifically defining biblical marriage. Anticipating the Court’s ruling, expected in June, CLC writer John Litzler said that if gay marriage becomes legal, this “will affect the relationship of all Texas Baptist churches in their dealings with local, state, and federal laws.”

Under current civil rights law, churches should be exempt from a redefinition of marriage. But no one can be sure where this issue may go in the future. . . .

So, what does the CLC warning to Baptists on gay marriage have to do with Sharia law? It’s simply this: Muslim leaders acknowledge that their religious practices are at odds with some facets of American law. Baptists are beginning to realize the same thing could happen to them. Under Sharia law, a panel of Muslim clerics wants the right to say to mosque members, “American law may say you can divorce or have an abortion, but Sharia says ‘maybe not.’ ” Likewise, Baptists want to be able to say, “American law may say gay marriage is legal, but it will not be practiced in a Baptist church. Baptists live by a different moral code.” Of course the individual Muslim or Baptist can choose to leave the mosque or church. Neither Sharia law nor Baptist bylaws can be enforced by the state.

It has been a long time since Baptists have had to live with this sort of tension between their theology and their nation’s civil law, but it was once the norm. As my new book Baptists in America: A History shows, for the first two centuries of their history Baptists were outsiders. In order to practice their faith they had to violate laws. Their colonial governments said they had to pay religious taxes. They refused.

In point of fact, all Christians have had to live with differences between civil and ecclesiastical (or canon law) since the disestablishment of churches in Massachusetts in 1833. Blue Laws might close down all businesses but the state wasn’t going to make you go to the evening service. State laws about divorce may have reinforced Christian notions about marriage but finding a church to let you out of a marriage (unless you’re Ted Kennedy) was much harder once upon a time in the church than in the legislature.

2k would have helped Christians set their expectations for public life appropriately. But from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, Christians have loved the fusion of religious and national identity. Should we thank homosexuals for reminding that we seek a better country?

Can Israel Save U.S.?

News that Charles Stanley is declining an award from the Jewish National Fund prompted me to wonder if U.S. support for Israel would wane if the State of Israel legalized gay marriage. First the news about Stanley:

Megachurch pastor Charles Stanley has turned down an award from a pro-Israel Jewish group, citing controversy over his views about homosexuality.

The Atlanta-based chapter of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) had planned to honor Stanley this week with its prestigious Tree of Life Award for his long support of the state of Israel. But a number of local rabbis and other Jewish leaders had protested the decision.

At issue are Stanley’s past statements that homosexual sex is immoral and a comment he made to a newspaper in 1986 that AIDS was a sign of God’s judgment.

But on closer inspection, it doesn’t look like gay marriage is an option in Israel:

In Israel, all valid marriages conducted abroad are recognized by the state, and foreign same-sex marriages are recorded for statistical purposes. That means a gay couple that weds in, say, the Netherlands remains wed in Israel. But that doesn’t mean a gay couple in Tel Aviv can walk down to city hall and procure a marriage license. Marriage is an exclusively religious institution in Israel, with separate religious authorities for Jews and Muslims, Christians and Druze. For Israeli Jews, marriage policy is dictated by the Chief Rabbinate, which is under the exclusive control of the Orthodox—and firmly opposed to gay marriage. Since the country has no civil marriage, gay couples seeking to marry within the borders of Israel are out of luck (as are any Jewish Israelis seeking a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony).

This arrangement—whereby marriage is in the control of the Orthodox rabbinate—is part of what Israelis call the status quo: an understanding between secular and religious Jews regarding the balance between religion and state. The status quo affects not only marriage, but also the education system, family law, supervision of kosher restaurants, and the opening of shops and public transportation on shabbat.

So for now, evangelical Protestants don’t need to worry about gay marriage undermining their support for Israel, though it would be curious to see how American Protestants who support a Jewish state would sort that ethical dilemma out. But could it be that Israel has the solution to U.S. marriage debates? Make marriage exclusively a religious institution and eliminate civil marriage.

As odd as that may sound, not so long ago, in 1930 when H. L. Mencken was married to Sara Haardt, the couple needed to find an Episcopal priest because Maryland did not provide civil marriages.

Thought Experiment

Is the persecution that U.S. Christians face comparable to that experienced by Syriac Christians?

On the situation in the U.S.:

If the media, the law and our elite institutions succeed in lumping Christian sexual morals in with white racism, how long will it be before believing Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox (and many religious minorities) find themselves labelled as members of “extremist sects,” no more to be trusted with the care of their own children than the Branch Davidians were?

Does that sound crazy to you? Then ask yourself why the German government, and the European Court of Human Rights, felt justified in seizing a Christian home-schooled student — with the apparent approval of the Obama administration. Think about the moral views you teach your own kids. Would your local education bureaucrats approve?

Perhaps Chicago’s cardinal, Francis George, wasn’t guilty of hyperbole when he said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

On Syria’s Christians:

Based on my contacts with Archbishop Behnan Hindo of the Syriac Catholic Church and Bishop Aprem Nathanael of the Assyrian Church of the East, who are the only heads of Churches remaining in Hassakeh, the situation over there is still very tense. People are in disarray and filled with fear.

The invasion by the Islamic State and its supporters on some 30 Christian villages on the Khabur River Feb. 23 resulted in the killing of more than two dozen people, the kidnapping of around 300 and the uprooting of around 2,500 people. The survivors had nowhere to go other than to Hassakeh, the capital of the province, where they obtained refuge in church halls and some abandoned buildings.

In Hassakeh, people manage to survive because of the presence of the Syrian National Army that ensures security, along with the Kurdish Protection Army and some Christian defense groups, which are monitoring and defending the city. Because of the ongoing tension, the region is besieged by terrorists. It happens that sometimes those entities clash among themselves, as occurred a few weeks ago. But what is most feared are the booby-trapped explosives that usually hit civilians and cause a lot of destruction, as well as instilling more fear.

Can we have a little perspective on Indiana?