By / May 29

I confess that I find politics exhausting and discouraging in our current societal climate. Important differences can’t be debated without vilification and the worst kind of assumptions. People on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum don’t treat one another with respect, recognizing the inherent dignity in their opponents. And worse yet, Christians are some of the chief offenders. Far from salt and light, we often come off more like vinegar and cast unhelpful shadows, both of which can tempt me toward a hands-off approach. 

But withdrawal is not the right course of action. That’s because government—however fallen—is a gift from God (Romans 13). And Christian participation in the public square is essential. Not everyone will be gifted or called to be involved in the same way, but we all have a role to play as salt and light in our nation’s governance. We may be compelled to serve in public office, passionate about legislating policy matters, or just eager to cast a wise vote during our local, state, and national elections. Regardless of the degree of participation, individual Christians, through their distinct difference from the nonbeliever made possible by the Spirit, should serve as a preservative in our culture and a light that illuminates the goodness of God’s ways and character. 

Our latest issue of Light magazine serves as a measure of encouragement and a reminder of our call as Christians to seek the welfare and flourishing of those around us through the way we live, speak, and advocate. Authors like Katie Frugé and Josh Wester discuss how Scripture compels us to seek our neighbors’ good through involvement in the public square. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, D.J. Jordan, and Alex Harris share wisdom about a Christian’s character in public service based on their experiences. And members of the ERLC’s staff provide a look at the various ways we advocate on behalf of Southern Baptists in accordance with God’s Word. 

I would encourage you to evaluate your own heart as you read this edition of Light magazine. Have you contributed to the vitriol we witness online? Do you regularly make assumptions about those you only interact with as an avatar? Are you apathetic to the idea that anything good can come from the public square? 

Politics isn’t everything, but it is something. It is not our hope as believers, but it is a tool God uses to allow us to serve our neighbors and to cultivate an environment where the gospel can freely go forth. Ultimately, Jesus—and the hope of the gospel—is the reason we go through the pains of participating in the public square. Only he can bring us the peace and satisfaction we often look for in the public square. And only he can usher in a kingdom that cannot be shaken or stained by sin. 

Lindsay Nicolet
Managing Editor, Light Magazine

By / Apr 26

The announcement of the death of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought to my mind many very pleasant memories of my interactions with her during both her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (1993-1997) and her service as Secretary of State (1997-2001). 

As you would imagine, we had substantive disagreements about many important issues, foreign and domestic. However, I always appreciated her deep and abiding love for America — her adopted country. 

Madeleine Albright’s personal story

Her personal story was a compelling one, a very American one. 

Her family had to flee Czechoslovakia in 1938 one step ahead of the Nazis. As a young girl, she experienced the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz along with her family. She had to flee persecution along with her family once again when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. She spoke eloquently about her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty as she entered New York harbor and she and her family were granted asylum in America.

She went on to a brilliant academic career and worked her way up to serving with the National Security Council and then the U.N. and the State Department. She was the first woman to serve as secretary of state and the second foreign-born secretary of state. (Henry Kissinger was the first.) I doubt there is another country in the world where a foreign-born asylum-seeker could ascend to a position as exalted as secretary of state. 

Secretary Albright understood down to her bone marrow the unique nature of her adopted country and how critically important American participation in the world was to the flourishing of freedom and human dignity. That conviction was underscored and reinforced when she discovered, as she was being vetted for secretary of state in 1997, that she and her family were actually Jewish, not Catholic, and that more than a score of her relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, including three of her grandparents. 

This life story gave Secretary Albright an existential understanding of the stakes of the world if America does not fulfill its responsibility to be a friend and champion of freedom and human dignity. Secretary Albright believed, as do I, in “American exceptionalism,” and that it is not a doctrine of pride and privilege, but one of service and sacrifice. 

Several years ago I was asked in a public debate, “What is your biblical evidence for American exceptionalism?” I replied, 

“To whom much is given, much is required. No nation or people have ever been as blessed as the citizens of the United States. A blessing by definition is undeserved. I believe we have an obligation to be the friend of freedom and the defender of human dignity whenever we are asked and whenever we can. We can’t address all the world’s ills, but when we can make a difference, we should.”

I know Secretary Albright agreed with that belief because I asked her. 

Friends of freedom, defenders of human dignity

I believe that we, as Christians, should prayerfully consider whether or not God has called some of us to serve in diplomatic roles, serving our government and the cause of peace and freedom at the same time. After all, Jesus told us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). 

As Christians, we should be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to bring about peaceful resolutions of conflict and pursue the good of our neighbors. As just war theory asserts, all “just” war must be defensive in nature. If all countries followed just war theory, there would be no wars. 

As we look back on the past 120 years, it is clear that war has become increasingly deadly, and with the advent of nuclear weapons, war has become capable of leading to a near-extinction level catastrophe. In such a world, diplomacy and peacemaking should be an extremely high priority. We should always remember Winston Churchhill’s observation, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”

One major bonus of American diplomacy being oriented to prioritize freedom and human liberty is that it makes the world a safer and safer place. If you start with the calendar year 1800 and search history from then until now it is extremely difficult to find instances where a government elected by the people and accountable to their own people goes to war with another country where the government is elected by and accountable to their own people. In fact, I can find only one instance where that arguably occurred — the American Civil War.

I said it was “arguably true,” because the U.S. federal government was elected by white males only (rather than “the people”). And the Confederate government was similarly elected by white males only, excluding not only white women but also 100% of the 3.5 million slaves (38.8% of the total Confederate population) held in bondage in the 11 states of the Confederacy.

The best conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that to the extent we can maximize democratic self-governing countries in the world, the more rare warfare will become. As President George W. Bush so succinctly put it in his second inaugural address in 2005:

“The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights, and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth.

Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security and the calling of our time.”

President Bush then immediately added this clarification: 

“And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way.”

I believe President Bush laid out in his second inaugural address, and Secretary Albright modeled for us, what is indeed “the calling of our time.” If we embrace this calling, through diplomatic means, we will leave behind a more peaceful, free, and just world to our children and our children’s children. 

By / Apr 7

When describing the relationship between the church and state, I often turn to the great language of John Leland: “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has to do with the principles of mathematics.” The quote is a reminder that the government has no authority to intervene in the religious opinions of citizens, just as it cannot dictate the rules of algebra or calculus. Leland was a relentless advocate for religious liberty, dedicating his life to the protection of this first liberty. He was also an eccentric figure, providing a massive ball of cheese to President Jefferson upon his inauguration, for example. Eric Smith, in the first biography of Leland titled John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America, gives us a window into the world and life of a man, in all his complexity, who spent his life defending the rights of all to live in accordance with their consciences. Smith recently joined us to talk about this new biography of this eccentric early Baptist leader.

Alex Ward: John Leland (1754–1841) lived across an incredibly dynamic period of American history. You point out that he could remember the coronation of King George III of England as well as the election of William Henry Harrison as the ninth president of the United States. He also would have grown up in the environment shaped by the First Great Awakening and lived to see Charles Finney’s revivalism of the Second. How did this affect Leland?

Eric Smith: Leland spent over 60 years in public life, in an era of unprecedented change in American culture. As an old man, he came to think of himself as a kind of Rip Van Winkle: had he fallen asleep before the Revolution, and then awakened in the 1840s to the age of steam trains and American political parties, he would not have recognized the same world! 

Leland’s long and eventful life intersected so many of the important changes that swept America from 1760–1840: the rise of popular, revivalistic religion; the disestablishment of religion in America and progress of religious freedom for all people; the increasing individualization of American society; the growth and sophistication of Baptist Christianity; the emergence of a popular political culture and the participation of evangelicals in partisan politics; the decline and modification of Calvinistic theology in America; the complicated journey of evangelicals and slavery; the rise of voluntary evangelical alliances to influence American politics and culture, and more. 

Leland celebrated many of these changes; others he fought kicking and screaming. In either case, his biography provides a unique vantage point from which to view the transformation of early America.  

AW: The word that so often comes to mind reading your biography to describe Leland is “individualistic.” He was a man who was led by his conscience and would not allow for another’s authority over him, even to the point of balking at ordination requirements in the Baptist church. Beyond just a strong personality, what led to his deep sense of individualism?

ES: Leland’s individualism defined his life, motivating his legendary efforts for religious freedom, as well as his more eccentric practices. He not only resisted the state-established church, but also ordination, settled pastorates, the use of historic creeds, denominational life, and even the Lord’s Supper. Without a doubt, Leland’s own, quirky personality lay behind much of this. But he also found his individualistic inclinations confirmed in his private reading of the New Testament, where God saves, leads, and judges men and women as individuals. If God called men to account as individuals on the last day, Leland reasoned, then each man and woman had the responsibility, and should be granted the freedom, to prepare for that encounter as best he or she knew how. 

The greatest historical factor in Leland’s individualism is the radical revivalism of the Great Awakening, which he imbibed from an early age in the “New Light” hotbed of Grafton, Massachusetts. Along with many of his neighbors in the 1760s, Leland exchanged the traditional, church-centered piety of Puritan Congregationalism for a highly individualistic brand of new birth religion. Along with the paramount experience of the new birth, Leland’s New Light spirituality involved the individual’s direct communication with God through charismatic phenomena, such as dreams, visions, “Bible impulses,” and prophetic premonitions.  

AW: When you describe Leland’s definition of religious liberty, you say that he “spoke fluently the revolutionary language of liberty, albeit with a Baptist accent.” How did these two strands work together in Leland’s thought? 

ES: Leland lived the majority of his life in Massachusetts, but spent his most formative, young-adult years in revolutionary Virginia. There, from 1776–1790, Leland absorbed and engaged with the religious freedom arguments of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Neither man could be considered a traditional, orthodox Christian. But both Madison and Jefferson maintained that the state and religion both flourished when individuals were left free to believe (or disbelieve) according to their own consciences. Leland would frequently quote and allude to the arguments of the Virginia statement for the rest of his life. 

But Leland also saw many New Testament principles at work in their reasoning. The individual’s responsibility before God at judgment; the theological distinction between the church and the state under the New Covenant; the necessity of a personal, supernatural conversion to be made right with God; and the inherent power of the gospel to change hearts all compelled Leland to argue for a policy of full religious freedom for all. After Leland returned to his native Massachusetts in 1791, he utilized a powerful combination of biblical and Jeffersonian arguments to contend for disestablishment and full religious freedom, in sermons, speeches, tracts, editorials, and in a brief term in the Massachusetts state legislature. 

AW: Leland was not the only prominent Baptist advocate of religious liberty at this time. Isaac Backus, though a generation older, was an important figure for New England Baptists in their struggle against the Congregationalist state church. How were these two Baptists similar, and how did they differ when it came to church-state relations? Did the views of one or the other “win” in the Baptist tradition?  

ES: Backus had been the leading Baptist religious liberty spokesman for several decades when Leland came along, and the two men collaborated with and appreciated one another. But while Backus fought religious discrimination and compulsory religious taxes, he also believed that the state should promote religion in a general way. Leland spoke forcefully of “disentangling” or “divorcing” the church and the state, while Backus favored what he termed a “sweet harmony” between the two. For example, Backus had no trouble reading government-appointed fast day proclamations from his pulpit and did not object to the requirement of general religious test-oaths for state office-holders. 

Leland, more influenced by Jefferson and Madison, believed such “entanglements” of church and state ultimately damaged both. Church-state unions harmed the state by violating the consciences of law-abiding citizens, creating a frustrated and unstable populous. Church-state unions corrupted the church by filling it with nominal Christians who had not truly been converted. Leland thus drew a stricter line of separation between the church and the state than did Backus. They made common cause in the fight for disestablishment, but after this goal was achieved, the tension between their two positions became more apparent among American Baptists. Generally speaking, Backus’s view won out among mainstream Baptist leaders in New England and more urban areas, while Leland’s view held sway in more rural and frontier regions of early America. 

AW: How do we reconcile Leland’s strict separation between church and state and his willingness to baptize the argument of Jefferson and Madison, stump for political parties, and also preach before Congress? Is there a contradiction there for Leland? 

ES: Jefferson coined the famous phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state,” in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, on the same day that Leland delivered the famous “mammoth cheese” to Jefferson at the White House. Yet it is interesting to note that neither Leland nor his fellow New England Baptists utilized Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor. Precisely what Jefferson meant by this image remains debated: did he intend to create a radically secular public square, or did he envision a more “neighborly wall,” in which religion was safe to flourish beyond the reach of government meddling? 

Whatever Jefferson intended, Leland clearly favored the latter vision. He labored to distinguish the church and the state, and to “dissolve any unnatural connection” between the two, so that both could prosper in America. The government’s role was to protect the basic rights of all its citizens, regardless of their personal convictions. This meant refusing to privilege or “establish” any particular church. It also meant preserving citizens’ rights to the “free exercise” of religion. Citizens should be allowed to not only practice their personally-held beliefs, but to try and persuade (not coerce) their neighbors of the same. Leland believed that if the state would simply preserve these freedoms, the gospel would triumph over all rival belief systems of its own power.  

AW: Leland is probably best remembered for his religious liberty advocacy. But he was not restricted to that issue. One way he is often portrayed, incorrectly you argue in the book, is as a proto-abolitionist. Is that a fair depiction of him over the course of his life? How did his views change?

ES: Like many evangelicals over this period, Leland took a journey regarding slavery. In the 1780s, he ministered to slaves in the “Great Revival,” when thousands of black Virginians poured into Baptist churches. In the wake of this revival, Leland and other Virginia Baptists began to publicly denounce the evils of slavery, and called for its eventual eradication. Leland’s powerful arguments stirred the wealthy planter Robert Carter to liberate over 400 of his own slaves. 

While this is remarkable, it is also important to note that Leland was more “anti-slavery” than “abolitionist.” Rather than calling for an immediate end to the institution (as abolitionists in the 1830s would), he acknowledged the complexity of emancipation and urged Virginia legislators to find a solution “consistent with good policy” as soon as possible. After leaving Virginia in the early 1790s, Leland said little about slavery, and his Virginia Baptist colleagues also pulled back from the issue. As Leland identified more closely with the Jacksonian Democrats, he shared President Jackson’s criticisms of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. In the end, there existed little difference between Leland’s position and that of his political hero, Thomas Jefferson (who also lamented slavery, but offered no solutions).

AW: Recent polling has shown a sharp decrease in religious attendance and identification, especially among Gen Z. Out of this fractured sense of shared moral consensus, an ever-increasing competition of voices in the public square are seeking to define what is good for culture and society. What does Leland have to offer for modern Christians, and particularly Baptists, in how he interacted with the culture around him? 

ES: Leland is best remembered for a handful of splashy historical episodes, like his delivery of a 1200-plus-pound wheel of cheese to Thomas Jefferson, or his purported negotiations with James Madison to include a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. But Leland was first and foremost an evangelist. He spent the majority of his life preaching the gospel up and down the Atlantic coast as an itinerant revivalist and was proudest of the 1,524 converted individuals he led into the waters of baptism. 

Leland engaged in politics largely to ensure that Americans would enjoy the freedom to preach and to respond to this gospel. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not want the state’s assistance in establishing churches; he also did not fear the changes in American society, or the diversification of the American population. To the end of his life, Leland maintained that if the gospel is simply turned loose in a free marketplace of ideas, it will prove itself compelling, time and time again. I think Leland encourages us to spend less time wringing our hands over the state of the culture, and more time sharing the gospel with confidence in its power to change hearts. 

AW: What stands out to you as the most important factor of Leland’s life for modern Christians? Are there any ways that we can especially learn from this unique and idiosyncratic preacher? 

ES: Leland is not a perfect model, and he knew it. He liked to say that, “Christ did not trust his cause to the goodness of his followers, but rested it on his own shoulders.” But we can learn from both the strengths and the weaknesses of historic Christians. As for his foibles, Leland’s hyper-individualism led him to devalue the role of the church in the believer’s life. I find this to be a most relevant warning for modern American Christians. 

Yet there is also so much to admire about Leland. He was a courageous, passionate, single-minded preacher of the gospel. As an itinerant evangelist, he repeatedly sacrificed his own comfort and safety to tell early Americans about the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ. He stood out from many of his contemporaries in his ability to communicate the good news to ordinary people in an accessible and engaging manner. He also never forgot that he needed the gospel as much as any of his listeners. “Let the preacher view himself as a brother-sinner to his hearers,” Leland advised, “and view sin as a great misfortune, as well as a crime; and, out of pity and love, persuade, and pray the sinner to be reconciled to God, if he wishes to do him good.”

By / Nov 19

On Nov. 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced the rescission of waivers issued by the Trump administration that protect the religious freedom and consciences of millions of Americans. Notably, HHS is rescinding waivers given to South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, including child welfare agencies in those states.

Why does this matter?

This action is deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs. The waivers granted to these states protect the religious freedom of faith-based groups serving vulnerable children. 

We need more organizations serving children in foster care, not less. There are currently 423,997 children in the U.S. foster care system, and that number is likely going to continue to increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on families. At a time when children need safe, permanent, and loving homes, the government should be ensuring that more providers can serve.

One of the states whose waiver is being rescinded by HHS is South Carolina, and this action will impact an organization entitled Miracle HIll.

Miracle Hill Waiver

In 2019 under the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a religious liberty waiver for South Carolina’s faith-based organizations following a request from South Carolina Gov. McMaster. The governor made the request when one such organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, was in danger of losing its funding because of an Obama-era regulation that applied to all HHS grantees. 

For almost 30 years, Miracle Hill served all foster children of any race, nationality, religious belief, sex, disability, or political belief and was responsible for finding good placements for 15% of the over 4,500 children in the South Carolina foster care system. Miracle Hill is clear that its sincerely held religious beliefs are what motivate their work in caring for the needy and vulnerable. They view their foster care services as direct obedience to the biblical directive to care for vulnerable children.

This waiver, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), granted protections for faith-based organizations in South Carolina and allowed them to continue receiving federal funding without compromising their religious principles and convictions.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia  that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions. In the Fulton decision, the court strengthened and clarified the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The basis for the court’s ruling is a clause included in contracts by the City of Philadelphia that give city officials the power to grant certain exemptions. The city government said it has never given out such an exemption and had no intention of providing one to CSS based on their religious beliefs. While the Fulton case set an important precedent for faith-based child welfare providers, there could be lawsuits filed against HHS for this rescission of religious liberty waivers.

Americans have a Constitutional right to religious freedom, and our government must respect the First Amendment and people of faith who serve according to their deeply held religious beliefs.

HHS stated that they would “evaluate religious exemptions and modifications of program requirements on a case-by-case basis.” 

How is the ERLC involved?

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s Acting President, stated, 

“These actions not only prevent faith-based child welfare providers from serving vulnerable children in foster care, but they also reveal an animus toward people of faith. Instead of a government that serves the people, these actions show a government willing to target groups for their beliefs. This has the effect of further eroding trust at a time when government institutions can least afford it. Our public square cannot continue to sustain these sorts of reckless and arbitrary changes that are rooted in political ideology, especially those that punish faith-based adoption agencies and religious organizations. Children in need are the ones who end up suffering because of this unending political warfare. That must stop.”

The ERLC is advocating before the administration on behalf of the faith community.  As Leatherwood affirmed, “Every elected official must recognize that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the Constitution. Our government, therefore, has a duty to protect the rights of those who enter the public square with sincerely-held religious beliefs, not assail them. We have communicated our concerns about these moves to the Administration and we will continue advocating on behalf of the faith community on this important matter.”

The ERLC will always promote and defend the human dignity, religious liberty, and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations — within each administration, on Capitol Hill, and throughout the public square. We will continue to work to ensure that vulnerable children in our nation can find safe, permanent, and loving homes.

By / Oct 1

In this episode, Lindsay and Brent discuss the SBC Executive Committee extending task force negotiations, the CDC urging pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Youtube cracking down on anti-vaccine misinformation videos, COVID cases falling by 25%, and the Senate reaching a last-minute deal to avoid a government shutdown. They also give a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jason Thacker with “Is Facebook discipling your church members? How technology is shaping the church and altering our worldview,” Catherine Parks with “What is the state of abortion around the world? An international round-up of recent legislative efforts regarding abortion,” and Jill Waggoner with “Mindy Belz helps Christians think about the Middle East: 9/11, suffering, and the hope we have in Jesus.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. SBC EC extends task force negotiations
  2. CDC to pregnant women: Get vaccinated
  3. Youtube cracks down on anti-vaccine videos
  4. COVID cases fall by 25%
  5. Senate reaches last-minute deal to avoid shutdown

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By / Sep 10

On Thursday, President Biden took the step of expanding the list of workers who would be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or submitting to regular testing. His announcement follows the recent decision to mandate that all federal employees receive the vaccine or face possible disciplinary action. These changes reflect a shift from the previous posture of the administration against federal vaccine mandates. While it is possible for individuals in private workplaces to opt out of a vaccine if they are tested regularly, this regulation does reflect a more aggressive posture by the administration to control the surge in cases of the delta variant that is sweeping the country.  

President Biden’s directive comes amid surging cases of the delta variant across the country, as well as new strains of the virus, lambda and mu. The rule will require all employers with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. They also must provide paid time off for employees wishing to be vaccinated. The rule comes as many larger private employers are already implementing similar measures including CVS Health, Walmart, and Fox News. The rule faces legal challenges and has already faced opposition from state officials who claim this is an overreach of federal authority. Similarly, the rule will likely face implementation challenges as the vaccine and testing date from each employer will need to be stored and verified by OSHA for enforcement purposes. The penalties for noncompliance have not been released as of the time of publication.  

What does an OSHA temporary emergency standard mean?

The regulation will be drafted and implemented as part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor. Established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the agency’s mission is “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.” OSHA’s mandate covers most private and public sector employers, making the vaccine mandate announcement one of the most wide-reaching to date. 

The rule, issued as a temporary emergency standard, can be used when OSHA demonstrates that workers face a grave danger and that the rule will address that danger. Further, employers must have a reasonable chance of implementing the rule. These emergency standards would override existing state policies except in those states where there is an OSHA-approved state level agency. For those states, they would have a window of time to adopt a rule that is as effective as the federal standard. 

This is not the first time that OSHA has intervened in the COVID pandemic. In June of this year, they announced a rule requiring healthcare employers to provide protective equipment such as masks and gloves, ensure proper ventilation, and screen patients at risk for COVID. This emergency standard was limited to healthcare employers (because of the group’s high risk factors), though additional optional measures were disseminated for other industries such as manufacturing, retail, and food supply chains. 

How will this affect churches and religious organizations?

With the implementation of this standard, many churches will likely not be affected because they will not meet the requisite number of employees. There is a subset of churches who will meet the threshold and thus could face OSHA violation charges for not complying. Religious organizations such as Christian colleges and seminaries, as well as religious hospitals, will be more likely to be subject to the rule’s standards because of the size of the organization and the kinds of work that their employees perform.

Religious employers are subject to some oversight of OSHA depending on the kind of employment and jobs performed. Where the organization only employs individuals for religious services (a choir director, organist, clergy, etc.), they are not classified as an employer and therefore are not subject to OSHA oversight. However, where a religious employer employs a worker for secular purposes, they are subject to the rules set by OSHA. Examples of the latter would include a private hospital or school operated by a religious organization, administrative staff of the organization, or staff employed for commercial activity such as running a bakery. 

At the time of publication, the regulatory language is unavailable so it is unclear what type of medical or religious exemptions may be granted under this new OSHA standard concerning the COVID-19 vaccine. 

How should Christians think about this? 

While some have argued that widespread vaccine mandates infringe upon one’s religious freedom, Christians should be very judicious when making claims of religious liberty violations. As Jason Thacker recently wrote,

. . . it is important to remember that approaching questions about religious liberty claims is something of deep consequence. We must not allow or give support to mere personal or political preferences masquerading as religious liberty claims. Indeed, doing so is not only morally disingenuous but also can do long-term damage to the credibility of pastors, churches, and Christian institutions in our communities. At the same time, pastors should graciously and patiently consult with those seeking such exemptions or accommodations in order to determine whether the request is predicated on sincere religious grounds.

In a time of intense polarization and a continued public health crisis, we must remember that religious liberty is fundamental to the Christian faith and to American life. It is a right that our government is designed to recognize, respect, and uphold.

The ERLC has emphatically stated since the beginning of this public health challenge that government officials should opt for providing guidance over mandates, while at the same time seeking to uphold the free exercise of religion. Elected officials and local health experts should be actively partnering with pastors and churches to serve local communities as this pandemic rages on. Whether through vaccine drives or combating the widespread misinformation, community partnerships and respecting religious freedom instills more confidence within the faith community about efforts to combat the virus and protect our communities from its devastating effects.

By / Jul 27

Thousands of Cubans are taking to the streets in an historic anti-government protest, demanding change after 62 years of communist rule, says NBC News. As the Financial Times, adds, the communist government is facing a major challenge to its authority for the first time without a member of the Castro family in charge.

According to international observers, there are three main drivers behind the protest: the COVID-19 pandemic, Internet access, and the economic crisis. 

COVID-19

Last year, Cuba was able to keep the coronavirus infections largely under control. But the country now has the highest infection rate per person in Latin America. Over the last week the country has reported nearly 4,000 cases per million people. That is nine times higher than the world average and more than any other country in the Americas for its size.

The sharp rise in new infections is putting a strain on their medical system. Doctors are reporting a lack of oxygen and other medical supplies — including aspirin — while some citizens say their relatives died at home without receiving sufficient medical care. This trend is not expected to change anytime soon, as less than 20% of Cuba’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Internet access

Government authorities have also blocked social media sites in an apparent effort to stop the flow of information. Citizens across the tiny island nation have been using social media to criticize the government and organize protests. But the Cuban government says social networks are used by “enemies of the revolution” to create “destabilisation strategies” that follow CIA manuals.

“The government has created a very sophisticated disinformation process,” says Cuban dissident Tania Bruguera. “They start by saying the people who protested were revolutionaries who were confused. Later, they said [the protesters] were delinquents. Now, they say [the protesters] are people who want the U.S. government to invade Cuba.”

Economic crisis 

Cubans are also facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Cuba’s communist controlled economy has been stagnant since the Soviet Union stopped propping up the local government. But recent actions by the government have deepened the problem. For example, recent economic reforms attempted to raise wages, but have also resulted in price increases. Economists predict prices in Cuba will rise between 500% and 900% in the next few months.

As the BBC reports, Cubans have to wait in long lines to buy goods such as oil, soaps, or chicken. Many provinces have run out of wheat flour and are having to make pumpkin-based bread. “Cubans are doing eight hours in line just to get a piece of bread,” add Bruguera. “And at the same time, the housing situation is worse. People said, ‘Enough.’” 

Cubans also rely heavily on remittances, money transfers from citizens or relatives living abroad. Western Union annually transfers approximately one billion to Cuban citizens from U.S. citizens. Last month, though, the Cuban government said it would temporarily stop banks accepting cash deposits in dollars, the main currency that Cubans receive in remittances from abroad. The move was seen by some economists, notes the BBC, as the most severe restriction imposed on the U.S. currency since the government of the late president, Fidel Castro.

“The American left needs to understand that Cuba is no longer the paradise of social justice. It’s a dictatorship,” says Bruguera. “And the U.S. government should be on the side of the Cuban people. I would say to the American politicians, to be on the side of the people and to not believe the fake news and the stories the government is creating.”

Global Magnitsky sanctions

U.S. President Joe Biden labeled Cuba a “failed state” that is “repressing their citizens” during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 15.

On July 22, the Biden administration sanctioned one Cuban individual and one Cuban entity for serious human rights abuse, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world. This action targets the Cuban Minister of Defense and the Brigada Especial Nacional del Ministerio del Interior of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior for their role in facilitating the repression of peaceful, pro-democratic protests in Cuba that began on July 11.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 2016, authorized the executive branch to impose visa bans and blocking sanctions against any foreign person or entity “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in any foreign country seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by government officials, or to obtain, exercise, or promote human rights and freedoms.” In 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order titled “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption” that significantly broadens the scope of the Global Magnitsky Act by authorizing sanctions targeting a broader range of persons associated with serious human rights abuse.

Global Magnitsky sanctions are a powerful tool to promote human rights abroad. By allowing the U.S. to apply targeted sanctions, these sanctions can pressure foreign government leaders and entities to change their behavior.  The ERLC has been supportive of the use of the Global Magnitsky Act to counter repressive regimes, most recently against China due to the ongoing genocide taking place against the Uyghur people.

By / Jun 1

On Monday, May 24, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a new bill into law regulating content moderation and online governance in the state on social media platforms. This bill is the first state bill to become law on these issues, with other states including Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah currently considering similar legislation. 

DeSantis championed the bill as a collaborative effort at the press conference where he signed the bill into law, highlighting how these major social media companies have inconsistently applied their often ill-defined content moderation policies or have not been transparent in the application or design of those policies.

What is in the bill?

The Florida legislature passed SB 7072 Stop Social Media Censorship Act the week before, which includes multiple provisions curtailing content moderation in the state, such as empowering the state election commission to impose fines — up to $250,000 per day if a statewide candidate is banned from the platforms, with lesser fines for candidate of local office. 

The bill contains other major provisions like prohibiting the platforms from taking “any action to censor, deplatform, or shadow ban a journalistic enterprise based on the content of its publication or broadcast” and forbidding the removal of content from news outlets above a certain size. It also empowers Floridians to sue these platforms as individuals if they believe that content moderation standards or policies have been inconsistently applied to them. The stated intent of the bill is to regulate the powerful social media companies that some argue have unfairly moderated content and users on an ideological basis, often interpreted through a partisan lens.

DeSantis tweeted, “Floridians are being guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab on speech, thought, and content. We the people are standing up to tech totalitarianism with the signing of Florida’s Big Tech Bill.” The governor decried that these “Big Tech” companies act as a “council of censors” and mentioned that they should be treated like common carriers

Similar arguments were made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in an April concurrence released alongside a decision on a 2017 lawsuit brought concerning President Trump’s blocking of individual users on Twitter. Of note, the Florida bill would not apply to Trump’s permanent suspension from Twitter and the indefinite ban from Facebook, which has been a controversial decision recently upheld by the newly created Oversight Board. The Florida bill only applies to candidates for state office, but its wide-ranging effects will likely be seen throughout the rest of the nation.

Big Tech censorship

Social media and the outsized influence of technology companies on our public discourse is one of the rare bipartisan points of agreement in society today. But there is little agreement on the particulars. Progressives traditionally argue for more content moderation, especially with the growing influence of misinformation, fake news, and hate speech online. Conservatives, though, have long argued for less moderation due to the notion that conservative speech and values have been unfairly taken down or suppressed — with some users being banned or even specific social media platforms being shut down completely, simply because of the prevailing ideological agenda in Silicon Valley.

These debates are often categorized under the moniker of “Big Tech,” which is designed to signify the outsized influence and ubiquity of these media platforms in the public sphere, though the term fails to account for some of the largest “big tech” companies in the United States, including Microsoft, Disney, Comcast, Verizon, and others. It also is focused on American companies, excluding tech and media giants such as Tencent and Alibaba of China who have concerning records on free speech and religious expression due to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The term is specifically intended to include companies like Facebook, Alphabet (Google/Youtube), and Amazon, as well as companies with much smaller user bases that have enormous influence in the digital public square, such as Twitter.

The Florida bill immediately drew criticism from across the ideological perspectives, but for very different reasons. More progressive outlets mocked the bill for its blatant disregard for free speech and spoke of a plethora of lawsuits to be filed challenging the constitutionality of the bill. The Washington Post interviewed Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who “described the bill as bad policy and warned that some of its provisions are ‘obviously unconstitutional’ because they restrict the editorial discretion of online publishers.”

Goldman also pointed out that the Florida bill may run afoul of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is designed to shield these companies from litigation over third-party content on their platforms. Section 230 was enacted in 1996 on a bi-partisian basis to encourage these platforms to moderate content under “good faith” policies, removing content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” Conservative and free speech attorney David French argues, “the bill’s provisions compel private corporations to host (and also promote through application of their algorithms) speech they would otherwise reject. Not only do these provisions of state law conflict with (Section 230), they violate key First Amendment precedents that grant private citizens broad protections against compelled speech, protect the independent political speech of private corporations, and protect all Americans against vague and overbroad statutes.”

While some conservatives support the intent of the bill, they spoke of the overly broad nature of the bill and the interesting carve outs for certain companies operating in Florida. The carve out is for “any information service, system, Internet search engine, or access access software provider operated by a company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex.” This would exempt Disney and Comcast/Universal from these new moderation and content rules, even as they operate in the mass media space.

Other noted conservatives such as Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Andrew Walker of Southern Seminary argue that this bill is needed in order to ensure access to all political speech, similar to the common carrier regulations on television, radio, and print media. Walker notes that in a world of competing visions of the goods, certain rights can and should be curtailed in the pursuit of the common good of access to information, especially political speech. It should be mentioned that while this access to political speech is a public good, we also should call our public and civic leaders to higher standards of truthfulness and decorum given the role and responsibilities they have by nature of their position in society.

Though this debate isn’t actually over access to all political speech in general but particular access to speech that is deemed by these companies as inciting violence or spreading misinformation that negatively affects the common good of safety and truthfulness. 

But there is a concerning track record of these companies labeling certain religious and social beliefs as inherently bigotted and hateful, in particular issues surrounding transgenderism and human sexuality. As a people who claim an objective understanding of truth and human nature, we must be cautious to not label speech we disagree with as misinformation, which is common throughout our increasingly polarized and tribalistic society. Misinformation is not in the eye of the beholder, even if it has become a partisan tool.

The role of government in seeking the common good

As many noted public and political theologians have argued, the government does have a role in protecting the rights of citizens and the common good but up to a point. David VanDrunen argues in his recent book, Politics After Christendom, “every human community and institution must reckon with the degree of diversity it will embrace, or at least tolerate. No institution can stand completely open.” The question about the role of government in these debates is to what extent should the government be involved and what degree of toleration will be applied when disparate views of the common good and human dignity clash in the digital public square.

Does it actually serve the best interest of the public if a politician or user pushes misinformation to the extent that it actually leads to violence? Does the good of safety ever outweigh the good of free speech? Is free speech actually an instrumental good whose goal is to push back on the over reaching hand of government instead of private entities with their own speech rights? Obviously governments are accountable to the public in ways that the technology industry isn’t, but are we comfortable with that level of power over private entities and speech residing with the government, especially if those in charge may change with the next election cycle?

These are complicated questions that are often layered in partisan politics and talking points that need to be addressed in a nuanced and careful manner, particularly by those in the conservative movement. Many of these exact questions have been debated for decades by those specializing in content moderation and digital governance, well before many of these flashpoint issues arose to public awareness. 

While I am unable to expand on each of these issues in this essay, it is important for Christians to understand the nuance of this debate and the potential ramification of these decisions to the common good. One of the key areas of work to be done is building out a public theology for the digital age, which includes a policy oriented advocacy effort with these influential companies rather than simply relying on the government to dictate and set the rules.

While the coverage of this Florida bill has primarily focused on access for politicians, it is much broader than that and will have far-reaching implications on the relationship between the government, the people, and these companies who provide these platforms for society. The bill actually is reminiscent at certain parts to the privacy laws implemented in the GDPR and CCPA giving individual citizens the right to sue these companies for violating their “rights”. In the case of GDPR and CCPA, it’s the often ill-defined right to privacy grounded in the unfettered pursuit of expressive individualism, and in the case of this Florida law, the unfettered pursuit of free speech. Though, all rights must be balanced in this broken world and oriented to the good, the problem is that our society and the larger world have very different visions of the good. 

This leads to very different approaches to solutions for the rise of these platforms and their influence in the digital public square. Even amongst conservatives, there are radically different understandings of the role of government, free speech, and regulation. But we must keep in mind that while there are differences in approach, many of those involved in these debates have the same overall goals. Demonizing or outlandishly mocking friends will not push the conversation forward or achieve the goals of balancing these freedoms in the digital public square. The differences often lie in engagement, rather than the content of the actual issues. 

Need for policy-oriented engagement

While this debate continues, two areas of involvement are crucial from Christians: we need a more robust public engagement on these moderation policy issues and a way to rally together for a common change. One element of this vision for the digital public square is significant investment in key institutions that are equipped to work with the policy and moderation teams at these companies, instead of simply opting for social media activism. 

This means earning a seat at the table through long-term nuanced and thoughtful engagement on particular policy issues such as privacy, hate speech, violence, international governance, and more. Historically, this is exactly how the conservative movement has seen such progress on issues such as abortion, free speech, and religious freedom. These policy issues typically involve NGOs and think tanks devoted to governmental affairs. But what if these institutions took a similar approach to the technology industry by building our teams to organize engagement and develop resources to better inform these companies on faith perspectives and common good accommodations in a pluralistic society?

Instead of defaulting to a government that must step in to solve all of our problems, we need to seek policy-oriented solutions and common good accommodations if we are to see true and lasting change in better policies that better reflect the diversity of thought on some of the most important issues of the day and champion free expression for all.

By / May 29

On Friday, President Biden released his FY 2022 budget proposal. His budget notably removes the Hyde Amendment.

Every year, a president submits their budget proposal, and it serves as a blueprint for the administration’s priorities. A president’s budget proposal has no binding authority over Congress — the budget proposal is a request and a statement of priorities. The budget proposal serves as a starting point for a long negotiation in Congress as their work on the 12 spending bills that fund the government.

This is the first time since 1976 that the Hyde Amendment has not been included in a president’s budget proposal.

What is the Hyde Amendment?

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion clinics were able to charge Medicaid for abortions. Three years later in 1976, Congressman Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, responded by introducing a budget rider on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill to prevent Medicaid from covering the cost of abortion. This rider alleviated taxpayers from being financially responsible for something millions found to be a grave moral wrong. The congressman’s rider was added as an amendment then and later expanded to the Indian Health Service, Medicare, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). 

This annual appropriations policy became known as the “Hyde Amendment.” An appropriations rider is not a permanent federal statute. Because Rep. Hyde attached the policy as a “rider” to the appropriations bill, it was only applicable for the money appropriated that year. The Hyde Amendment must therefore be attached to appropriations bills each year to be effective.

Why is the Hyde Amendment Important?

Before the Hyde Amendment was introduced, approximately 300,000 abortions a year were performed using federal Medicaid dollars. It is estimated that the Hyde Amendment has saved over two million lives since it was enacted. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has been passed by every Congress. Its success across the generations is not due to a shared belief about abortion but precisely because those representatives and senators believed the disagreement deserved respect. According to a recent Knights of Columbus/Marist Poll, 58% of Americans oppose taxpayer funding for abortion domestically. In addition, since Medicaid is funded both by federal and state dollars, states can decide to use their own funding to cover abortions. Currently, 17 states have decided to use state funding to provide abortions for Medicaid recipients

Other pro-life riders that should be included in the appropriations process

The Hyde Amendment is just one of many pro-life riders that deserve to be included in all appropriations bills. Congress should also protect the Weldon (discrimination protections for those with objections to abortion), Dornan (Hyde protections in the District of Columbia), Helms (protection against funds being used for abortion in international aid), Siljander (protection against funds being used to lobby for abortion internationally), and Kamp-Kasten (protection against funds to organizations that support coercive abortion or sterilization) Amendments. 

What’s next?

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will begin the appropriations process which includes a hearing to discuss budget requests and writing and marking up the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government. Congress will therefore have the opportunity to include the Hyde Amendment and other important pro-life riders. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), founder and chair of the Senate Pro-Life Caucus, led a letter to Leader Schumer pledging to vote to block any bill that would undermine the Hyde Amendment or any other pro-life protections. The letter included 47 senators.

Earlier this year, the ERLC sent congressional leadership a letter urging them to adhere to critical pro-life policy riders, including the Hyde Amendment. This week, we joined dozens of pro-life coalition partners in sending congressional leadership a similar letter. Each year, the ERLC is actively engaged in the appropriations process, working alongside committee and leadership offices to ensure that important pro-life, religious liberty, and conscience protections are included. The ERLC will continue to advocate for these pro-life provisions and other legislative measures that reflect God’s gracious love for every human life. 

For further reading:

By / Mar 24

We want to help you think well about immigration, especially as the surge in unaccompanied children at the U.S. southern border leads to greater public debate of these issues. Jeff Pickering, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, and Travis Wussow welcome Jonathan Hayes, a former federal official, to the roundtable to explain how our government shelters unaccompanied migrant children. Hayes served as Director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for caring for unaccompanied migrant children.

“Yet again, the situation at the southern border ought to remind us that unaccompanied migrant children are not a mere problem to be solved. They bear the image of God, and are endowed by him with dignity and worth. Jesus loves them, and so should we. These kinds of problems will persist at our border for as long as our immigration system is allowed to languish in incoherence. A better path forward will require government leaders — both in Congress and the administration — coming together in an honest search for solutions based on long-term strategies. In the meantime, we should do everything we can do, through both Christian ministry and government policy, to help alleviate the suffering of those who are attempting to flee violence in their home countries.” – Russell Moore on March 18, 2021

Guest Biography

Jonathan Hayes served as the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Administration for Children & Families at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services until March 2020 when he transitioned to the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response until January 2021. Prior to joining HHS, Jonathan served as chief of staff to two members of Congress spanning over eight years. Additionally, he has experience in the private sector working in broadcast television, sales and marketing, business development, international trade and customs and commercial airline operations. Jonathan received his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and minor in political science from Florida State University. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and raised in Panama City, Florida, he now lives in northern Virginia with his wife Tammy and their five children. He is also an elder at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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