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Do Evangelicals Worry Too Much About Persecution?

religious liberty

Evangelicals are understandably worried about the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage decision for religious liberty. During the arguments leading up to the decision Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s solicitor general if the right of gay marriage would jeopardize evangelical educational institutions’ tax-exempt status:

“In the Bob Jones case … the court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”

The solicitor general’s response was not reassuring:

I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics … but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.

Eugene Volokh, law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, confirmed that conservatives should be concerned:

If I were a conservative Christian (which I most certainly am not) … I would be very reasonably fearful, not just as to tax exemptions but as to a wide range of other programs — fearful that within a generation or so, my religious beliefs would be treated the same way as racist religious beliefs are.

We are not just talking about photographers, florists, or cake decorators being forced to serve at gay weddings, though those concerns are legitimate. We are talking about adoption agencies being required to assign children to gay couples, colleges and universities being required to offer same-sex couples access to married housing, and any number of similar scenarios revolving around perceived discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Many Christians worry that marginalization and persecution are inevitable.

Perhaps I am naive, but I am not yet as worried that most Americans’ commitments to religious liberty are so weak as to evaporate so quickly. Should the activists and elites currently pushing the public sentiment on marriage and sexuality overreach and become radically illiberal on matters of religious liberty, I remain optimistic that their campaign will run against the still very real common sense convictions of the American people. Even the best social movements in modern American history, such as the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s, ran out of steam when they stepped ahead of public opinion. These things have a way of ebbing and flowing.

But I could be wrong. What then?

Conservatives need to do their due diligence, of course. There is hard work to be done securing the basic rights and privileges consistent with a vigorous American commitment to religious liberty. In 1993, when Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act almost unanimously in response to a Supreme Court decision that undermined religious freedom, Americans were solidly aligned behind it. Now, just twenty-two years later, the American Civil Liberties Union is withdrawing its support for the law.

Americans increasingly look upon religious liberty with suspicion. When I taught Religion and American Politics this past semester most of my undergraduates made it clear they believe evangelical talk of religious liberty is really just a cover for discrimination. Few seemed to think anyone’s religious liberty is in serious jeopardy in this country. It took hard work to persuade them to take seriously the difference between discrimination rooted in bigotry and a legitimate reluctance to perform certain services due to concerns of conscience, between a person’s refusing to sell a product to a gay person because of animus and a photographer’s sincere feeling she could not in good conscience participate in a ceremony she deemed immoral.

There is a serious communication disconnect here. Too many Christians have muddied the waters of religious liberty by using it to justify inappropriate discrimination, and as a result they have zero credibility when matters of genuine conscience are at stake. Simply put, the world can’t tell the difference.

As I wrote earlier, I have little sympathy with anyone who thinks their Christian faith ordinarily requires them to refrain from serving, living near, befriending, or otherwise loving gay and lesbian people. I believe most Christians agree with me. But refusing to participate in the celebration of a gay wedding is morally justified. How can we communicate this difference to our culture?

As believers and as churches I believe we need to do a better job demonstrating our commitment to establishing meaningful love and justice, liberty and equality, for all persons, including those who identify as LGBT. Our neighbors may not agree with the Christian version of justice, but they need to know that it is rooted in love.

In order to communicate that love, we need to worry more about communicating love and less about suffering persecution. The more self-absorbed we are, the more worried we are about perceived threats to our own businesses, schools, charities, and churches, the less we are thinking according to the mind of Christ. The more we worry about persecution and the loss of cultural power, the more we reveal how unfocused we are on the kingdom and its righteousness, and how unprepared we are to take up our cross and follow Christ. As far as the broader public can tell, evangelicals have been fixated on their own interests and political power for at least four decades now. The world sees a lot of rejection and not a lot of inclusion. Not a lot of love is shining through.

I know this public stereotype is not the whole story. Many evangelicals have long been devoting enormous energies into gospel-centered and charitable expressions of their faith rather than into politics. Though the media pays little attention to it, they have been at the forefront of struggles for justice or reform in areas of race, poverty, sex-trafficking, health care, and the environment. They lead the nation in charitable giving. And as my friend Judd Birdsall recently wrote in the Washington Post, most conservative evangelical leaders have responded to the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in exemplary fashion. Many evangelicals are wrestling deeply with how they can communicate their love to their gay and lesbian neighbors, brothers, and sisters.

This is good. We need to continue walking in these ways. We need to be less concerned about protecting ourselves, and more concerned about securing the rights of others. We need to continue working to promote policies rooted in love and justice, while demonstrating that our convictions are grounded in the reconciling gospel of Christ. We need to be prepared to turn the other cheek, to decline to resist evil, and to rejoice to be worthy of suffering for justice and the name of Christ, even as we continue to speak and live out the truth in love.

As the week preceding Obergefell v. Hodges taught us, white American Christians have not had nearly as much practice conforming to the suffering service of Christ as have our black brothers and sisters. We have been in power for far too long, and we have much to learn. We need to continue to be engaged – you’ll hear no praising of the Benedict Option from me – but we need to make sure it is the gospel that drives our engagement, not the law. It’s time that evangelicals were once again known first and foremost for their witness to the reconciling love of Christ.

religious liberty

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