Mingling Church and State while Social Distancing

Have a pandemic and all the government response completely undone the temporal-spiritual distinction? One expression of that differentiation is the separation of church and state (or religious disestablishment) that comes with the U.S. Constitution and early modern political liberalism more generally.

Baptists used to be very adamant about the separation of church and state, sometimes even celebrating a wall if it preserved religious liberty. In 1947 the Southern Baptists called for a Constitutional Amendment to affirm the separation of church and state and “to prohibit sectarian appropriations to non-public educational institutions.” This was likely in the context of certain kinds of state aid going to parochial (read Roman Catholic) schools. Twenty years later, a constitutional amendment was out of the question but a resolution asking Congress to make laws against federal funding going to church-related schools was still in the SBC wheelhouse.

we urge the Congress of the United States to enact legislation which would help clarify responsibility of the judiciary to interpret the meaning of the United States Constitution for separation of Church and State, including constitutionality of federal funds in church-sponsored programs

That now seems like ancient history with all the computer models, hand washing, apocalyptic headlines, and rising rates of death on planet earth. The wall between church and state has come down with a bang and Southern Baptists are apparently fine with it.

They may receive funding from the government‘s economic stimulus package through the loan portion of the plan:

The benefits allotted to small business, nonprofits, and houses of worship include payroll protection and access to a covered loan if the nonprofit organization maintains their employees. The loan can go to cover the cost of group healthcare benefits during periods of paid sick, medical, or family leave, and insurance premiums, employee salaries, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt obligations that were incurred before the covered period. The program is designed to allow for the loan to be forgiven if used to cover payroll expenses. . . .

In the midst of these uncertain times, this government aid can hopefully provide some needed financial relief for individuals, nonprofits, and churches.

Southern Baptists may also follow government guidelines restricting worship services under no penalty of violating religious liberty:

The current situation facing us is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority. Nowhere, at this point, have we seen churches targeted because of their beliefs or mission. At issue is a clear public objective—stopping the transmission of a dangerous virus by gatherings. . . . .

The situation will almost inevitably lead to even stronger and less voluntary government actions. Could these encroach on religious liberty? That is certainly possible, but not necessarily. To prevent that, we will need more secular leaders to think carefully about why religion is important and more religious leaders to be thinking through the complexities of public health. If we remain on the same ‘team’ when it comes to overcoming this crisis, we can avoid overreach on one side or paranoia on the other. And that’s what we will need.

Any order should include the maximum recognition of the need for clergy and other religious workers to carry out necessary ministry, in the same category as health care workers. Such ministry is necessary. A nursing home patient who is in peril needs a doctor to care for her physically, but also should be allowed to have a pastor pray for her, her priest administer last rites, or whatever the equivalent would be in her religion. We can make such exceptions without creating jeopardy to lives, just as we have in every other time in human history from the Black Plague to the 1918 influenza crisis.

I’m not sure which is more at odds with the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly seems pretty basic to civil liberties. When China cracks down on public protests, Americans shout “authoritarian”! But now, even Southern Baptists seem to be comfortable with government shutdowns of worship. They even seem incapable of wondering if government officials use an emergency for ends other than public health.

At the same time, giving money to churches (or lending money that will not have to be repaid) is about as big an instance of the establishment of religion as Protestants once imagined. Heck, they even worried about using public school buses (with funding from public coffers) to give Roman Catholic students rides to parochial schools.

But not every one is happy. Cue the atheists:

Organizations that advocate for strict church-state separation are criticizing the program.

“The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities,” argues Alison Gill, legal and policy vice president of American Atheists. “It can’t spend government tax dollars on prayer, on promoting religion [or] proselytization. That directly contradicts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the most drastic attack on church-state separation we have ever seen.”

According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.

“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”

The powers of COVID-19 seem to be more “total” than the president’s.

How Can You Separate Church and State When the Pope Speaks (so much) about Both?

Did Vatican II pave the way for Pope Francis’ recent change development of the catechism’s teaching on capital punishment? Korey Maas thinks so even if the laity (so far the bishops aren’t giving much guidance) are divide:

Largely unremarked in the debate over capital punishment, however, are its striking parallels with the half-century-long, still unsettled, and also increasingly contentious intra-Catholic dispute concerning religious liberty. This is all the more curious because Pope Francis’s own remarks—now echoed in the language authorized for the Catechism—appear quite intentionally to echo important aspects of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. According to that Declaration, for example, religious liberty is a right grounded in the “dignity of the human person.” As such, it is “inviolable.” This is precisely the language invoked by Pope Francis when he declared capital punishment impermissible because “it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

Moreover, just as Dignitatis Humanae asserts that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine,” while at the same time “developing” that doctrine, so too did Francis insist that his remarks in no way “signify a change of doctrine” or “any contradiction with past teaching”; they represent instead “the harmonious development of doctrine.” Both of these claims have proved controversial for the simple reason emphasized by Feser in the debate over capital punishment: “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.” As he and Bessette argue, the Church’s earliest theologians acknowledged the legitimacy of capital punishment, in principle, and this conclusion was consistently affirmed by popes up through the twentieth century. The explicit rejection of that conclusion, they therefore reason, cannot logically be understood as a “development” of it.

But precisely the same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the apparent claims of Dignitatis Humanae, since it deems religious liberty an inviolable right while also claiming not to have changed “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” That traditional Catholic doctrine—as taught by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils for more than a millennium—proclaimed it legitimate in both principle and practice to enforce that duty by means of coercion. Because Dignitatis Humanae appeared plainly to proscribe such coercion, however, it was not at all clear even to the bishops gathered at Vatican II how contradiction was actually being avoided. Indeed, just before the final vote on the Declaration, its official relator frankly admitted that “this matter will have to be fully clarified in future theological and historical studies.”

Once again the problem is that Roman pontiffs speak too much and all of Roman Catholicism’s history (and all those statements) make it hard to claim with a straight face that nothing has changed. History, in fact, is all about change (over time). So to present yourself as superior to Protestantism because you have 1500 years more history is also to open yourself up to the problem of trying to make coherent all of the church’s documents, laws, and doctrines. It is hard enough finding unity in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Now add to that endeavor 2000 years of papal pronouncements, council declarations, and revisions of canon law and you have work that could have made HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, break down in 1982.

Maas puts a fine point on the problem this way:

Quite obviously, given such disparate opinions, the controversy concerning the Church’s teaching on religious freedom is far from settled. But it differs from that concerning capital punishment because, as Feser himself notes, it is one that “most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have avoided.” And he is surely correct in his understanding of the reason for this: “the older teaching is extremely unpopular in modern times, and thus whatever its current doctrinal status, most Catholics are happy to let it remain a dead letter and leave its precise relationship to Dignitatis Humanae unsettled.” And yet, he finally concludes, “a question unanswered and ignored is still a real question.”

Indeed, it is precisely the same question raised in the controversy over capital punishment: can a practice endorsed for more than a millennium by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils now be condemned as an immoral and inadmissible violation of human dignity?

Protestants may have account for many denominations, but Rome has 2 millennia of cats to herd.

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?

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.

Move Over Kim Davis, Say Hello to Charee Stanley

Today’s news brings this item:

A Muslim flight attendant said the Atlanta-based airline ExpressJet suspended her for refusing to serve alcohol, a practice that is against her religious beliefs.

Charee Stanley filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week, saying she wants to do her job without serving alcohol, as she was doing before her suspension, her lawyer said.

Lena Masri, an attorney with the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said no one “should have to choose between their career and religion.” Employers, she told CNN, must “provide a safe environment where employees can feel they can practice their religion freely.”

Stanley, 40, began working for ExpressJet nearly three years ago. She later converted to Islam and only learned earlier this year that her faith prohibits her both from serving alcohol and consuming it. She approached a supervisor on June 1, Masri said, and was told to work out an arrangement with other flight attendants.

“We know that this arrangement has worked beautifully and without incident and that it hasn’t caused any undue burden on the airline,” Masri said.

But she said a co-worker filed a complaint on August 2, saying Stanley was not fulfilling her duties. The complaint, which Masri characterized as “Islamophobic,” also said Stanley had a book with “foreign writings” and wore a head scarf.

On August 25, the airline told Stanley it was revoking its religious accommodation and placing her on administrative leave.

So I wonder if Rick Phillips’ reasons for supporting Kim Davis would apply to Charee Stanley.

Kim Davis is not violating but rather upholding Romans 13:1, which says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

Hard to say that of Stanley since she is not pretending to follow the apostle Paul.

Kim Davis is fulfilling her God-given duty as the lesser magistrate.

Again, some disconnect here since flight attendants work in the private sector, not like county clerks. But since Stanley is an American and in a democracy all citizens are magistrates, Phillips’ reason applies.

Kim Davis is being persecuted for her Christian faith by hypocritical and tyrannical powers.

Chances are that Stanley is the object of more discrimination than Davis, numbers being what they are and Christians forming the demographic majority in the United States (where Islam is still an acquired taste). But Stanley’s case could remind Christians that they don’t need to be paranoid. Everyone experiences some kind of discrimination. The authorities don’t single out Christians.

Kim Davis is demonstrating the power of the grace of God in salvation.

Stanley clearly fails on this one unless you want to find some kind of common plan of salvation among the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, can Rick Phillips be so sure about what Davis means? That doesn’t mean that we know what her non-Christian or discomforting meaning is. But why, with all the baggage surrounding her, would you be so confidant?

Consider how Rod Dreher saw Davis’ release from jail:

She comes out of jail with that cheesy 1980s song “Eye of the Tiger” playing, and mounts the stage, holding hands with Huck, and giving God the glory. Now, religious liberty — our most precious freedom — is associated in the mind of the public with ersatz culture-war pageantry orchestrated by a cynical Republican presidential candidate.

I thought Ted Cruz’s turning up at the Middle Eastern bishops meeting and bashing them was the most cynical move I had ever seen by a Christian Right politician, but Huckabee may have bested that. The Family Research Council and other Christian, Inc. lobbyists are already writing the fundraising appeals, you can bet. And you can also bet that they’re bending the ear of clueless House Republicans to get them to propose provocative religious liberty legislation that stands no chance of passing, but every chance of discrediting the cause in the public’s eye. (In fact, I was told last night by someone deeply involved in this issue at the Congressional level that this is exactly what is happening.)

So I’m angry about this. Huckabee and Cruz, but especially Huckabee, are doing wonders to inject juice into their own presidential campaigns, but the political cost to the long-term good of orthodox Christians will be severe. But hey, we’ve Made A Statement, and demonstrating our emotions (and, while we’re at it, raising some money for GOP candidates and Christian advocacy groups) is the most important thing.

For conservative Christians who don’t understand why we should care about the political effect of the Kim Davis debacle, and the optics of yesterday’s release rally, I want you to consider how it would appear to you if Hillary Clinton staged a rally against police brutality around the release from jail of a West Baltimore thug who had been roughed up by the cops as they were arresting him for shooting up a neighborhood. The gangster takes the stage to the sound of gangsta rap, wearing pants hanging off his butt, with cornrowed hair and covered in tattoos.

It could well be that Hillary’s principles were in order, and an important principle was at stake. But think of how the imagery of celebrating this guy like that would make you feel. How sympathetic would you be to the worthy cause of fighting police brutality after that display? If fighting police brutality means having to stand with a victim like that, would most people be more inclined to join the cause?

Look, I’m not comparing Kim Davis to a gangbanger. What I’m telling you is how this situation, especially yesterday’s celebration, looks to a whole lot of people outside our bubble. And it matters. It matters to all of us. Our side has no leadership, only opportunists leading the mob.

If only Christians could lower the stakes. Turn this into a simple case of religious freedom, then you don’t need to baptize Kim Davis as the most devout follower of Jesus Christ. You simply point out the problems of the recent Supreme Court decision for all people who might object to same sex marriage. And if it’s only about religious freedom, maybe you also defend Charee Stanley and gain some street cred with non-Christians.

But when the forces of Christianity, the Constitution, and the GOP line up in one seamless whole of goodness and truth, more than Houston has a problem.

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?

Religious Liberty in Geneva

Okay, I know this is going to be anachronistic, to suggest that Calvin’s Geneva should conform to United Nations policy, but it may help to clarify differences between 1555 Geneva and 2013 United States.

First the eighteenth article from the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Then Tommy Kidd’s commentary on the Obama administration:

This statement is definitive because it is so specific. Religious liberty does not just entail the oft-criticized phrase “freedom of worship” that the Obama administration has often employed instead of the 1st amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise of religion.” Here religious liberty includes the freedom to convert to another religion, or to renounce religion altogether. This freedom is most obviously curtailed in the Muslim world, but also in places like China where many pay a steep political or legal price for openly professing faith.

It also entails the liberty to “manifest,” or to make public, one’s religion by expressing opinion, engaging in advocacy, and yes, attending worship services. This guarantee would also presumably include the freedom from government coercion requiring people of faith to engage in practices that violate conscience (such as military service or, more controversially, providing consumer wedding or church services to gay and lesbian couples, or offering contraceptive and abortifacient coverage to employees).

Debates about our current president aside, this is a pretty tall standard set for religious liberty. It was not the view that Calvin or Luther for that matter advocated. It did not become a desirable outlook until the late eighteenth century with the American and French revolutions. It may have become universally desirable during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

That rough historical schema should prompt readjustments to those who would attribute the American founding to Calvinism.

Freedom's Boomerang

On the eve of July 4th — here in Hillsdale residents are gearing up for the city’s annual parade — many Americans may give a thought or two to the ideal of political freedom. Roman Catholics in the U.S. have been having more than a couple thoughts of late since they have been observing what the American bishops have called a “Fortnight for Freedom.” According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

The fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action will emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country have scheduled special events that support a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.

But now to spoil the fun or complicate the prayers comes a piece at Religion & Politics on the limits of the bishops’ stand for freedom. Jessica Coblentz reports on parts of the American church where skepticism about the bishops’ project are evident:

Catholics for Choice (CFC), a reproductive rights group, has orchestrated the most expansive effort to actively engage the USCCB argument about religious liberty. In a statement, CFC asks the question, “Whose religious freedom are we talking about?” They argue, “No-cost contraception for the average woman, including many Catholic women, can mean following her religious beliefs, following her conscience.” Likewise, parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament parish in Washington D.C. released a public statement criticizing the campaign’s narrow depiction of religious liberty. “We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns,” they stated. “In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this ‘Fortnight’ evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny.” Other Catholics, from the editors of Commonweal Magazine to Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, have criticized the shortsighted, partisan nature of the USCCB’s charge that the mandate poses a threat to religious freedom.

I for one am not about to instruct Roman Catholics on their understanding of religious liberty. Part of the problem stems from apparently conflicting teachings on religious freedom and liberty of conscience. While Vatican I denounced freedom of conscience, Vatican II took a much more expansive and positive view of human rights and freedoms. One plausible attempt to reconcile this tension is here (though how well the bishops are doing at instructing the faithful on the nooks and crannies of church teaching is another matter). What does make sense is that Rome would never construe freedom of conscience in such a way as to permit sinful acts.

An observation a Protestant onlooker may responsibly make concerns the slipperiness of freedom for Christians in the United States. For almost two centuries Protestants believed that their religion was not simply the best to preserve American freedoms, but also that the nature of religious and civil liberty were virtually indistinguishable when Protestants were the ones holding the reins of liberty. This was, of course, a major source of anti-Catholicism among U.S. Protestants: believers loyal to a foreign prince (the Pope) were incapable of participating in a free republic. But this identification of religious and civil liberty was American Protestantism’s undoing. During the 1960s, when the complaints of African-Americans, women, and war protesters raised genuine questions about the extent of “liberty for all” in the United States, Protestant endorsements of political liberty looked remarkably hollow. In response, the Protestant mainline churches went from the biggest apologists for the United States and the West to one of the nation’s constant critics (they found their “prophetic” voice).

It looks like the Roman Catholic Church, with its appeal to religious freedom, may be experiencing the tension that afflicted Protestants. Granted, the bishops are not part of an informal ecclesiastical establishment the way that mainline Protestants were in the 1950s. Also different is the setting for the bishops’ effort — contested federal policies that potentially hurt and definitely disrupt Roman Catholic agencies.

Still, what is similar is the way that liberty is always contested. The liberties one group wants inevitably involve the loss of another group’s prerogatives. In the United States we used to have a political mechanism for resolving this tension — it was called federalism. What the Roman Catholic Church has to resolve the conflict in its midst over the nature and scope of religious freedom is another matter. Whether Roman Catholic officials have the gumption to quell this debate by appealing to the power of church hierarchy is a matter best left to Roman Catholic speculation. Still, it would be a curious feat to see the church resort to clerical authority in the name of religious freedom and liberty of conscience.

Religious Liberty Does Not Necessarily Include Feeling Affirmed and Empowered

Religious liberty is much in the news thanks to President Obama’s national health care program and its requirements for funding abortion and contraceptive service. (For what it’s worth, the bigger story here has less to do with religious liberty or freedom of conscience and health insurance than it does with who died and gave Health and Human Services powers no king could have imagined.) Outside THE beltway, religious liberty is also a topic for heated debate at Vanderbilt University. There officials have put a number of religious student groups in a provisional status thanks to their policies on student leaders. Christian groups, I suppose though cannot gather from one of the concerned websites, bar homosexuals from assuming positions of leadership. They may also exclude active unmarried heterosexuals. But whatever their policies, Vanderbilt apparently wants all organizations open to all students. If the student organizations do not comply, they may forego their lines of funding and places on campus.

Over at National Review, David French takes umbrage at what he sees as Vanderbilt’s attempt to intimidate Christian groups:

The reality, of course, is that Vanderbilt is trying to force the orthodox Christian viewpoint off campus. The “nondiscrimination” rhetoric is mere subterfuge. How can we know this? Because even as it works mightily to make sure that atheists can run Christian organizations, it is working just as mightily to protect the place and prerogatives of Vanderbilt’s powerful fraternities and sororities — organizations that explicitly discriminate, have never been open to “all comers,” and cause more real heartache each semester for rejected students than any religious organization has ever inflicted in its entire history on campus. Vanderbilt’s embattled religious organizations welcome all students with open arms; Vanderbilt’s fraternities and sororities routinely reject their fellow students based on little more than appearance, family heritage, or personality quirks.

Hard as it may be to understand why Vanderbilt would fail to see the value of the diversity of groups — instead of making them potentially all the same with similar sets of members — confessional Protestants may also sympathize with parts of the university’s actions. As bad as blaming the victim is, can Christians at Vanderbilt really not imagine that all the social conservatism going on in the nation’s politics will barely leave a ripple in the lives of believers outside the political fray? After all, if all of life is religious as evangelicals claim, then is a student Christian group on campus simply about devotion and worship or does it not also have political implications? I suppose that Wheaton College refuses to recognize pro-choice student associations. Is Vanderbilt any more biased, intolerant, or tyrannical if they identify conservative Christian student groups with Rick Santorum and the Republican base?

Mind you, the officials at Vanderbilt could be more charitable and patient as liberals are supposed to be. They could seek a compromise with the student groups — only prayer and Bible reading, not speakers for political topics. But given their ideas about equal rights and tolerance, Vanderbilt’s policy should not be a surprise, especially in a climate of a politicized faith.

Another reason for being cautious about the situation is that so far — PTL — Christians in the United States have all the freedom they need to worship God. They likely enjoy more freedom than Americans did at the time of the Constitution’s ratification (since some states still had established churches). And compared to the rest of the world, Americans are as rich in religious freedom as they are in cash, vacations, and reality shows. (In fact, it looks a tad indecent for Christians to complain about their rights in the U.S. when Christians throughout the Middle East are truly persecuted for the faith.) The lesson for Vanderbilt’s students may be that the city of Nashville has many fine churches. If students want to worship God, they have lots of options and should use them. A confessionalist might add that worshiping God while part of a congregation overseen by officers and in fellowship with a wider communion is far better than using a parachurch group as an ecclesiastical substitute.

In other words, as much as I don’t care for what Vanderbilt appears to be doing to the principles of diversity, I’m loathe to beat up on the university to defend parachurch organizations when plenty of congregations in Nashville would be glad to see the university’s students gather with them for worship.

(Thanks to our correspondent inside THE beltway.)

Whither Muslims In Doug Wilson's American Christendom?

The Kuyper of Idaho (you know, pastor, college founder, magazine editor, culture warrior – so far, no prime ministry) has spoken on the proposed mosque in New York City near Ground Zero. As complicated as the issue is, because of the delicate balance between legal freedoms and democratic politeness, Wilson has used the occasion to denounce – you guessed it – secularisim. (Thanks to the Brothers Bayly for the link.) Wilson concludes:

. . . Muslims know what they are doing. What is that exactly? They are exposing the intellectual, theological, and ethical bankruptcy of secularism, and they are doing it on purpose. . . . Someone really does need to tell secularist America that her gods are genuinely pathetic. And currently, the Muslims are doing this because the Christians won’t. And the Christians who won’t do this are not so much in need of a different kind of theology as they are in need of a different kind of spine.

According to Wilson, the problem with America’s gods is that all sectarian faiths need to go along with the president in order to get along. He doesn’t like what such accommodation means for those who protest abortion and gay marriage on religious grouds. But if the United States prohibited abortion and gay marriage, would Wilson be content? Would Muslims have a place in Christendom. Over at another site Doug and I went round on this one and he seems to argue that Christendom makes plenty of space for freedom of conscience. He allowed that Servetus would conceivably grow to a ripe old age in Moscow, Idaho, if Wilson were in fact prime minister, and that Muslims would be free to hold their views, just not to practice their faith in a Wilsonian Christendom. I am not sure that Wilson’s version of Christendom does justice to the actual history of Christian Europe, where the relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was hardly harmonious. So if you want the freedom to practice your faith in America, don’t you need to allow for the freedom of other religious adherents to practice? I guess you don’t have to if your religious group is the one holding keys to the White House. But if you are going to make the cult the basis for the cultus, you are going to have a few conundrums about how to handle those “poor” and “tired” “masses,” streaming to the United States, “yearning to breathe free.”

Just as thorny as Wilson’s ideal of Christendom is his denunciation of secularism. In his post he cites what he regards as an ineffective piece by Charles Krauthammer on the “hallowedness” of Ground Zero’s ground. I concede that the idea of sacred space in secular America is a puzzle and I also believe that more effective arguments can be made about the impropriety (as opposed to illegality), for instance, of putting a German Lutheran church across the street from the National Holocaust Museum. It’s just not right.

But Wilson is so intent to denounce secularism (in order to prove the merits of Christendom) that he misses other fine points in Krauthammer’s secular piece. The op-ed includes this:

Even New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who denounced opponents of the proposed 15-story mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero as tramplers on religious freedom, asked the mosque organizers “to show some special sensitivity to the situation.” . . .

Bloomberg’s implication is clear: If the proposed mosque were controlled by “insensitive” Islamist radicals either excusing or celebrating 9/11, he would not support its construction.

But then, why not? By the mayor’s own expansive view of religious freedom, by what right do we dictate the message of any mosque? Moreover, as a practical matter, there’s no guarantee this couldn’t happen in the future. Religious institutions in this country are autonomous. Who is to say that the mosque won’t one day hire an Anwar al-Awlaki — spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, and one-time imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 terrorists?

And not to be missed is what Wilson’s secular pal, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the mosque. Hitchen’s calls for a discussion of the matter based less on the feelings of both sides – whether the Muslims or the survivors of 9/11 – and more on reasonable premises of American law and knowledge or recent experience.

Even within Wilson’s own post he acknowledges that the Supreme Court of the United States, in its Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) decision was able to see clearly through the lens of secular reason that “that freedom of speech did not include the right to stand on the sidewalk outside the funeral of somebody’s mom in order to taunt the mourners.”

Which leads to the question: why does Wilson go out of his way to denounce secularism when secular people in the United States provide plenty of evidence that secularism has its moments. One of those moments is the distinction between public (involuntary) and private (voluntary) associations. According to this division, religionists have the freedom to maintain their own institutions and keep out those who disagree. But in the public ones, everyone has access, no matter what their faith. This was the arrangement of secular America and it has worked reasonably well for Christians since they still are able to worship freely (along with Mormon, Jews, and Muslims). And it is what Wilson rejects, as if not maintaining one’s private views in public settings is a form of bad faith.

Of course, a secularism that tries to impose public standards on private associations is a real danger and this has been a feature of court rulings for the last four decades where justices do not respect either private associations or the rights of states. I understand that this is partly responsible for the reaction of the Religious Right. Many evangelicals felt and still feel threatened by the federal government extending its reach into private associations. (I also think this is more a political than a religious problem.)

But Wilson’s solution is not to return to the good secularism because for him only Christendom is good and secularism is always bad. In which case, his Christendom model is an effort to impose private rules of association on public institutions. That presents a problem not only for the construction of mosques but the presence (if you’re Reformed) of Roman Catholics and Anabaptists in the United States. One of the more perceptive readers of Wilson’s blog made this very point:

Interesting post, Douglas. But I’m not entirely clear about what you are saying. You say that building a mosque so close to ground zero should be prohibited because the existence of such a mosque would be “fighting words.” But using that standard, wouldn’t the building of any mosque be prohibited anywhere in the United States?

In fact, if we applied that standard, wouldn’t the establishment of New St. Andrews College in downtown Moscow be unconstitutional using the “fighting words” standard?

It seems to me that you should stay away from the constitution (you don’t like it much anyway, do you?) and stick to the Bible. The Bible is clear: permit only correct forms of worship (like Christ Church) and destroy all others.

In which case, the problem with the situation in New York City is not America’s gods but the nation’s feelings. Many officials are worried about offending the sensibilities of some aggrieved group, and they want to be sure to be seen as sensitive (as opposed to intolerant and insensitive). Now, if I were prone to the single-cause explanations as Wilson appears to be, I’d be tempted to blame the current predicament on evangelicals. After all, ever since Jonathan Edwards wrote Religious Affections, born-again types have been far more attentive to sincerity of motives than to formal expressions of doctrine or worship. If this is so, then the moral and political impasse to which this blessedly secular land has come could be the direct result of the success of Whitefield, Finney, Graham, and Rock the River Tours. But I am far too charitable to take the bait and blame it all on evangelicalism.