Christians Against Religious Liberty

By Mark Tooley Published on August 17, 2018

One of the weirder developments in the American battle over religious liberty is that some liberal Christians have come out against it for traditional Christians. Indeed, some claim the concept is a tool of white Christian privilege.

On July 30 U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a Religious Liberty Task Force at the U.S. Justice Department.

Sessions promised it will “fully implement our religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations. That includes making sure that our employees know their duties to accommodate people of faith.”

Religious Liberty as White Nationalism?

Liberal Christian pundit Jonathan Merritt in the Washington Post didn’t like it. Religious liberty wasn’t always controversial, he said. But now: 

In the hands of the Trump administration, the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians — specifically, the white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base. … [I]t now stands for exclusive primacy of the Christian faith.

Merritt claimed lack of concern for the rights of non-Christian Americans that are “actually at risk.” He claimed “nary a peep is heard from many conservative religious-liberty groups” when groups object to mosque construction. 

In fact, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Becket Fund, and the National Association of Evangelicals have signed an amicus brief in defense of mosque construction. They recognize that religious liberty applies to all Americans. 

Merritt found the real problem with religious liberty advocacy: its conflict with sexual liberalism.

Religious liberty advocates, he said, want to take apart Obamacare. He referred to the mandate requiring religious groups to fund birth control and abortion drugs. And he claimed religious liberty defenders want to “shield Christian business owners who refuse service to LGBT people.”

The latter of course touches on Christian merchants, especially bakers, who refuse to take part in same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court recently sided with Colorado baker Jack Phillips. He gladly served gay customers but declined to bake a gay wedding cake.

Merritt recalled “Southern Christians’ efforts to use their religion as an excuse to deny service to black Americans at lunch counters during the civil rights movement.” Now today a “new generation of Christians is attempting to revive old arguments while hiding behind a revamped notion of ‘religious liberty.’”

Jonathan Hartgrove-Wilson is a liberal Christian minister and activist who writes for NBC News. He echoed Merritt. He claimed religious liberty has “become a rallying cry for Christian conservatives whose religious and political interests align around issues like reversing Roe v. Wade and rolling back LGBT protections.”

According to Hartgrove-Wilson, “Christian nationalists” in the “name of ‘liberty’” want the “right to discriminate against those with whom they disagree.” 

Really? Is refusing to take part in offensive acts just like “discrimination?” Many critics of religious liberty now think so.

Reconstructing the Gospel?

Hartgrove-Wilson’s new book is Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion. He believes that modern conservative Christianity is the latest chapter in racist control.

“As a person of faith, I recognize others’ rights to try to persuade their neighbors to ascribe to their deeply held beliefs,” he concluded for NBC. “But I cannot remain silent while religious leaders try to redefine religious liberty as a tool of discrimination — and enlist government officials to push this agenda on a federal scale.”

He doesn’t admit that religious objections might fall under the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Hartgrove-Wilson agrees with Merritt that defending religious liberty in America is a sinister “linguistic shift.” It gives power to conservative white Christian nationalists at the expense of everyone else.

Merritt claimed “it’s fair to say that our founders would hardly recognize what is now called religious liberty.”  But it’s hard to see that any Founders would want government to force someone to take part in same-sex rites or fund abortion. 

Like secular voices, Merritt and Hartgrove-Wilson refuse to admit any difference between serving all people versus servicing specific events like gay weddings. And they don’t grant that the legality of birth control and even abortion differs from forcing religious groups with historic objections to fund them.

Religious Liberty for Everyone

Protecting religious liberty doesn’t just help white conservative Christians. Traditionalists from most religions have similar concerns. A Muslim immigrant from Nigeria would object to baking a gay wedding cake probably even more than Colorado evangelical baker Jack Phillips.

Religious liberty is not just for protecting traditionalists in an ever more hostile secular culture. Rights of conscience protect progressives too. Indeed, they protect all people who refuse to take part in events or actions deeply contrary to their beliefs.

Should Merritt or Hartgrove-Wilson be forced to cater a Religious Right rally hosted by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress? I challenged Hartgrove-Wilson on this point, via Twitter. He refused to admit the comparison. 

Most importantly, religious liberty isn’t just a political trick. America’s Founders saw that respecting religious convictions, no matter how unpopular, shows the dignity of all persons to follow their own God-given conscience, rightly or wrongly. 

A regime that does not protect religious freedom for everybody will soon fail to protect other basic freedoms central to human dignity. 

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