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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  • Juan Garcia

    Before human civil rights can exist, there must be human life. If human life is destroyed before it can be achieved what rights are we even talking about?

  • Sapient

    The Catholic Church has been devastated by the infiltration of perversions. The Church has been actively targeted for decades for destruction from within. And, today’s headlines show the result (ie, sexual perversion, marxist-inspired anti-capitalist rhetoric, open borders advocacy, etc.). While the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church may make it an easier target, we’d be foolish to think that the forces that attacked that Church don’t also have their eyes set on Protestant Churches and Christianity as a whole. Churches will crumble if this sort of twisted, contorted, perverted logic is adopted, promoted, or even tolerated. It’s poison and it’s designed to be just that.

    • Not so, the devil has no reason to attack what is of no threat to him. Most prots are well on the devil’s side as many comments on this site will attest to.

      The satanists used to target baptist churches in the 80’s because the baptists actually fought back against evil for a time, and closed many baptist churches in retaliation. They have no reason to do that now that I can see.

      The Church is indivisible, and the reaction to the scandal this week is just people finally finding out what evil sodomy entails.

  • Andrew Mason

    The problem is Hartgrove-Wilson’s point about people having the right to (peacefully) persuade their neighbours, but that religious leaders should not redefine religious liberty to enable discrimination, and enlist government officials to impose this agenda on a federal scale, is just as true of liberals as conservatives, it’s simply a matter of perspective. Where liberals see maintaining Constitutional religious freedom as discrimination against LGBT lifestyle choices, conservatives see the imposition of the LGBT agenda as discrimination against religious liberty. The difference is that Hartgrove-Wilson doesn’t care about castrating the liberty of Bible Believing Christians.

    We really need a new term for goats who leverage their claim to be sheep as proof of their authority all the while bleating their true nature.

    • Tim Pan

      any group who supports the gay agenda is not Christian. They are under the full power of Satan.

  • jcgrange

    The founding fathers executed homosexuals, but the end is near and too late to go back:

    “”That if any do commit the detestable and abominable vice of Buggery, with man or beast, he or she so offending, shall be adjudged a felon, and shall suffer death, in the case of felony, without the benefit of Clergy.””

    –A Collection of All Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia 1802, (Richmond:Pleasance and Price, 1803), page 179, ch. C [50], enacted Dec. 10, 1792.

    • Jim

      This is the 21st century. We’ve made progress since then

  • Abe Aboud

    “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30).

  • Ed Fisher

    Merritt is surely right about one thing: the founders would not recognize the current understanding of religious liberty which privileges imagined rights to sexual perversion and abortion over what they considered the God-given rights of conscience. Their understanding of the role of government in providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare presumably would not have included the enforcement of court-created notions of equality and privacy at the expense of inherent individual freedoms. Even this author’s understanding of religious liberty as entailing the support of any and every form of religious expression, even if, as in the case of Islam, it conflicts with other fundamental principles, would not comport with that of the founders, whose conception of religious tolerance, as embodied in the First Amendment, extended only to the various Christian denominations or sects.

    • Kevin Quillen

      True. Thank you.

  • Jed

    Smoke and Mirrors:

    Sessions’ quotation says nothing about specifically protecting Christians or Caucasians.

    The Leftist Agitator [ playing the humble role of ‘reeaason-able’ Christian ]
    — just creates a straw man by claiming some latent subtext about racism and privilege and nationalism and [ insert any post-modernist hyberolic socialist pseudo-jargon ].
    But here’s the thing … …

    None of y’all caught it

    Just fell right in line …
    Dancing like Reactionaries to the Agitator’s tune.

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