Kneeling is a Fighting Position
From the first settlements of the 17th century through to the ongoing social reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries, religious faith has always featured large in the American story. As much as free markets, the constitution (or even jazz and baseball) it is the religious impulse that cannot be lost if you want to preserve the defining characteristics of our national order. Religious liberty therefore, and the thriving faith communities that result from it, is the blood and marrow of American life. Without it, nothing discernably American can long thrive. While religious liberty is priceless, it is not free. Indeed, even a cursory look at today’s culture proves that the stability of religious liberty in America stands on a knife’s edge and might well be lost if wise and resolute action is not taken. Ahead of America’s faithful is the necessity to work on two planes: down on our knees in prayer and up on our feet defending ourselves.
From its earliest American articulation, liberty of conscience and religion was never seen as simply a concession bequeathed by an indulgent government to its people of faith. Rather, it was recognized as the inherent natural right to pursue our sense of transcendent purpose and as given to us by the Creator. As such, these rights were understood to be protected by, not granted by, our nation’s laws. As the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall writes:
The key to America’s religious liberty success story is its constitutional order. The Founders argued that virtue derived from religion is indispensable to limited government. The Constitution therefore guaranteed religious free exercise while prohibiting the establishment of a national religion. This Constitutional order produced a constructive relationship between religion and state that balances citizens’ dual allegiances to God and earthly authorities without forcing believers to abandon (or moderate) their primary loyalty to God.
This does not mean that the religiously faithful can exercise absolute license to do as they will contrary to the laws of our nation nor to run roughshod over the liberties of others. It does mean that local and national laws ought to make as much room as possible for the practice of religious faith. By taking a positive view of religious practice, the American model of religious liberty strengthens its own system of balancing powers. Religious engagement becomes essential to shaping public morality, to promoting ordered—that is to say to limited—liberty, and, thereby, to helping to maintain a rightly limited government, and thus a more open and free society.
As Americans go about the business of deliberation during a particularly difficult campaign season, it is crucial to understand the ongoing assault on religious liberty in this country and, therefore, what is at stake in the election ahead. All the public goods articulated above are at risk whenever a government attempts to relegate religious commitments to private life or to prevent religious institutions from carrying out their work in ways commensurate with their theological fidelities. But under the tenure of the Obama administration’s aggressive work of social-engineering, this is precisely what is happening.
Much of the assaults against religious liberty have involved the social justice crusades regarding matters of gender identity and marriage. From county clerks, to flower shop owners, to bakers, to wedding photographers or reception site hosts, Americans in their private enterprises and public functions are being compelled to participate, facilitate, or approve ceremonies that violate religious convictions. Elsewhere, in an attempt to restrict religious freedom in education, a recent California bill sought to strip public funding from any non-seminary school that imposes traditional Christian teaching against matters of sexual orientation or gender identity. Moving beyond these issues, maneuvers against conscience include denying religious exemptions from regulations requiring all pharmacies to stock and disperse abortion-inducing drugs even in situations in which ample alternative pharmacies exist so that there is no compromise to patient care. They include courts deciding against the rights of inmates to host and attend bible studies, or courts rejecting the rights of active-duty Marines to keep printouts of scripture verses on their desks. They include Muslim firefighters being fired for refusing to trim beards even when cut in ways that do not interfere with equipment or otherwise compromise job performance. They include native tribes being prevented from sending their sons to public school with long hair. Example after example collectively suggest that it is no longer crazy to talk about a concerted campaign to marginalize, silence, and render publically irrelevant people of faith.
There is little reason to believe that either candidate will do anything to reverse this trajectory. Hillary Clinton, for her part, appears stoutly in favor of it all. In a speech last year to The Human Rights Campaign, Clinton was at pains to express her belief that anyone holding theological commitments contrary to the moral views of the LGBTQ community is beneath respect. While in a recent letter to the Mormon community, Clinton insists she’s “been fighting to defend religious freedom for years” she most tends to reduce “religious liberty” to “freedom to worship.” This endorsement of privatized religion doesn’t tend to extend to its public expression. For instance, she supports the Obama administration mandate that religious organizations provide health coverage for sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, and called the ruling allowing Hobby Lobby a religious exemption “deeply disturbing.” Thomas Farr, Georgetown University professor and director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, insists “[Clinton’s] own words suggest that even churches will not evade her understanding of the kind of ‘compelling government interest’ that she considers abortion and same-sex marriage to be. Last year she told an international conference that religious groups who oppose abortion are going to have to change.”
For his part, Trump has done little to convince us he’ll have any practical affect on reversing the trend. In addition to the outrageous claims he’s made about American Muslims—on everything from creating national registries of Muslim Americans to special monitoring of all mosques—he’s given scant evidence that he even grasps the issues at play. Indeed, Trump’s go-to promise regarding religious freedom often seems to be little more than winning back the right to say, “Merry Christmas”. When evangelical leaders met with the GOP nominee, there were mixed reviews, particularly on matters of freedom of conscience. Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, reflected on the meeting:
I don’t think he understands the religious freedom issue as it relates to the LGBT movement and Christians…He did say he is for religious freedom, but I don’t think he really understands that issue. Either he doesn’t understand it or he doesn’t agree with us and he doesn’t want to tell us that.
Religious liberty is, of course, not simply about Christian liberty—it encompasses all faiths and people of conscience. Nevertheless, this essay is focused on Christian readers, in part because we, particularly, are largely ill-prepared for the fight ahead. This is partly due to our too often believing that Christianity is not a fighting faith, that a commitment to justice pits us against witnessing love, and that a disposition of self-sacrifice means we must be willing to forgo our rights. Moreover, as the editor of a journal intersecting the Christian intellectual tradition with issues of foreign policy, I am also keenly aware that American concern for religious liberty must extend to our brothers and sisters of religious devotion abroad. About a third of the world’s nations restrict religious expression to a high or very high degree. It is safe to assume that if our next president is unconcerned or adamantly opposed to religious liberty here at home, they will be equally so across the international scene.
American Christians need to grow bold again. This does not mean being indiscriminately nor obnoxiously pugnacious. It does mean pushing back against assaults to our constitutional freedoms and natural rights. There are no easy answers at present concerning the choice ahead of American voters. But the stakes are high and, so, especially when the way through is unclear, prayer is essential.
May God help our republic.