By / Feb 18

Religious liberty, as a bedrock freedom, should be embraced and celebrated by every American. But in our contentious and secularizing culture, it in increasingly viewed as suspect, even harmful, especially as it relates to anything dealing with the intersection of evangelical Christianity and the public arena. While there have been important religious liberty victories at the Supreme Court, the court of public opinion often seeks ways to automatically belittle the issue at hand as destructive to the common good. 

What happened in Tennessee? 

Recently, religious liberty was haphazardly equated with Christian Nationalism in what can only be called a very superficial, cynical misinterpretation of a bedrock provision tied to the Constitution’s First Amendment. In a column for CNN, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons and Maggie Siddiqi engage in generalizations and grand pronouncements that are common in our culture wars rhetoric, especially against principles such as religious liberty which are viewed suspiciously as a means of harming others.

What’s the crux of their argument? According to Fitzsimmons and Siddiqi, and reported also in The Washington Post, a Jewish couple from Tennessee was denied participation in a foster care certification program that receives state funding because the organization — the Holston United Methodist Home for Children — overseeing the training only fosters and adopts to parents who agree with their statement of faith. To complicate matters, to facilitate the out-of-state adoption the couple sought, Holston was the only agency near their home in the county where they reside that offered the necessary foster-to-adopt training for out-of-state placements.

A statement from Brad Williams, the president of Holston, is quoted in The Washington Post noting how the organization is fully in compliance with Tennessee law, which protects religiously-affiliated adoption and foster care agencies, and the U.S. Constitution: “Holston Home places children with families that agree with our statement of faith, and forcing Holston Home to violate our beliefs and place children in homes that do not share our faith is wrong and contrary to a free society.”

However, that did not stop the couple from fostering to adopt. The article reveals that the couple in question were still able to foster-to-adopt through other agencies and are doing just that.

The problem with the article’s framing

Rather than let a Christian organization be true to its convictions, progressive culture warring now acts to make Christians an example of what happens when you stand true to your convictions: Face litigation and cultural harassment. The couple in question, and others who joined them, have filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services accusing the government of discriminating against them.

The authors of the column go on to tie religious freedom of the sort protected by Tennessee as “Christian Nationalism.” “Make no mistake: Christian nationalism is the opposite of religious freedom,” the authors write. “What these right-wing actors advocate for is not religious freedom, but rather the ability of some Christians to be exempted from laws that don’t conform to their theology.” And then comes the litany of civic vices all traceable to Christian Nationalism: anti-LGBT views, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism.

There are several problems related to the authors’ framing of their argument. But first, let’s acknowledge a point of potential agreement. To the extent that “Christian Nationalism” is an identifiable set of beliefs that intends to tell others they are less American because they are not Christian, well, then, I would agree that that use of Christianity is toxic. But appeals to Christian Nationalism are rarely framed to mean only that. Most appeals to discredit Christian Nationalism frame any sort of conservative Christian concern as an identifiable subset of the larger Christian Nationalism category and therefore, disqualified. The authors are guilty of doing just this in a sort of progressive genetic fallacy — refusing to evaluate the argument but just casting blame on a nebulous connection between religious liberty and “Christian Nationalism”. 

To the extent that Christian Nationalism is a convenient label used to dismiss conservative Christianity’s concerns about institutional integrity altogether, then the authors are just as guilty of using their religion to exclude others as well. To be clear, Graves-Fitzsimmons and Saddiq’s appeals to their own religious identity is just as much a form of “nationalism” insofar as it is used to forge a template for normative and non-normative interaction in the public square.

Christianity has a long history of demonstrating social concern that animates Christians to care, for example, the poor, orphans, and the preborn. Lazy, broad-brush, and cynical appeals to Christian Nationalism fail to differentiate how theology can and ought to function in democratically appropriate ways. Seen in this light, accusations of Christian Nationalism are an empty shibboleth used to discredit the concerns of evangelical Christians.

To frame religious liberty the way the authors have typifies the careless use of the term. It paints Christians as insidious cultural actors while fundamentally misunderstanding the reciprocal nature of religious liberty. The logic that protects the Christian adoption and foster care agency to operate according to their convictions also protects the Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon-based adoption and foster care agency as well.

Interestingly, the authors cite my friend and ERLC Research Fellow Paul Miller’s research on Christian Nationalism. I reached out to Miller and asked him whether he agreed the authors’ appeal to his work is a correct appropriation of his work. He replied that it was not. According to Miller, “The right of private associations to define themselves exclusively has nothing to do with an effort to define the nation the same way.” In a longer tweet thread, Miller responded to the authors’ framing.

Miller’s thread is outstanding and offers the careful nuance missing in Graves-Fitzsimmons and Saddiqi. Rather than scoring cheap points, Miller demonstrates what is and is not at stake. There’s a clear categorical difference between using Christianity to exclude others from participating in a national identity and Christian institutions being committed to Christian principles that animate their social involvement. 

All this is to show that accusations of “Christian Nationalism” does not a Christian Nationalist make. Obscuring important constitutional principles in service to lazy labeling does no service to the common good; all it does is undermine it.

By / May 17

Nashville, Tenn., May 17, 2021—Gov. Bill Lee and state legislative leaders in Tennessee have asked the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to identify pregnancy resource centers across the state to receive life-saving ultrasound machines through the Psalm 139 Project, a pro-life ministry of the organization.

With the governor’s signing off the 2021-2022 budget, the Psalm 139 Project will receive a total grant of $183,000 to place machines in Tennessee. One hundred percent of financial contributions to the Psalm 139 Project go toward purchasing ultrasound machines and providing training for workers.

“The ERLC has a long track record of placing life-saving ultrasound machines in centers that serve women and families,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We are humbled to be asked to identify clinics across Tennessee with this request and now that Gov. Lee has signed this budget, we will do just that.”

“The Psalm 139 Project allows the ERLC the honor of aiding pregnancy resource centers by securing ultrasound machines and providing training for their staff,” said Elizabeth Graham, ERLC’s vice president of operations and life initiatives. “For us, as Christians, we do this work because we believe, as the Psalmist writes, that every person is fearfully and wonderfully made and known by God from the very beginning.” 

In 2020, the ERLC’s Psalm 139 Project placed an ultrasound machine at Palmetto Women’s Center in Rock Hill, S.C.; Mosaic Sexual Health Clinic in Tallahassee, Florida; and another ultrasound machine at Care Net Pregnancy Center of Las Cruces in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The ERLC announced in December 2020 that the Psalm 139 Project would be donating 10 ultrasound machines to pregnancy resource centers across the country. This is the most machines the ERLC has ever placed at a given time. 

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and all of its subordinate ministries are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Tax-deductible gifts may be made to ERLC, 901 Commerce Street, Nashville, Tenn., 37203. Learn more at psalm139project.com

By / Mar 20

As the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the ERLC engages a number of elected officials across the country. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is one of those leaders the ERLC has been privileged to work with over the years. During his two terms as Tennessee’s governor, Haslam presided over significant moments for religious liberty, ushered in protections for people of conscience, and conducted himself in a way that should serve as a model for Christians in public service.

Before the end of Haslam’s tenure as governor, Russell Moore had the opportunity to interview him at The Gathering conference in Miami, Florida, to talk about what Haslam has learned about leadership, service, and the current nature of our political climate. With the permission of The Gathering, this interview has been transcribed and lightly edited for clarity and length.

Russell Moore: How do you as a Christian [elected official] deal with navigating that pull toward the approval of people as opposed to finding your identity in Christ?

Bill Haslam: I feel like people know more about you and less about you than ever before if you are in political office because there is information available everywhere. I think one of the advantages of actually having been in office for a while is you get used to that; you get used to people saying things about you that you don’t think are true or you don’t think are fair, and you kind of grow accustomed to that and learn it’s okay. There are going to be some people that don’t like me, and I have to be okay with that.

RM: When you think about your role right now and the life that you have had even before this as a business leader, how do you navigate ambition as a good thing? Sometimes people struggle with that because Jesus tells us whoever will save his life must lose it and yet, they are obviously godly ambitions. How do you personally navigate it?

BH: Think about the verse, “do nothing out of selfishness or empty conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” How does that translate into an election where you are saying, “I’m the guy. I’m the one that can solve the issue?” I hope the church at large gets a sense that one of the really legitimate ways we are called to serve is in government. Luther said, “Send your ablest not to preach but to government. In preaching, it is the Holy Spirit doing the work, but in government, you are dealing in a world where you have to reason with ambiguity and uncertainty, and so the difficulty is higher. . . .”

If you ever want to find out who you really are, go run for office. People are saying things about you. You are trying to remember why you were running. It is a physically grueling process, but underneath all that has to be this idea that this is what I am called to do. It’s no different than being called to preach or called to lead an insurance agency or anything else.

RM: Everyday is unpredictable and filled with really momentous sorts of decisions. I think there are a lot of people who struggle when they are in the whirlwind of their lives whether in business or a minister, government or whatever. How do you maintain personally a walk with Christ in the middle of all of that?

BH: I would argue that it is no different than anyone. I’d say for me, there are a couple of answers. One, I have to carve out some time to begin the day to pray and to study Scripture. I think the second part is I need people around me who have freedom to speak into my life in strong ways. Until I moved to Nashville, every Friday morning for 30 years, I had the same group of guys come up in my driveway at 6 a.m., and we literally shared our entire lives. When I came to Nashville, one of the first things I did was to seek out a group of guys just like that. I found I need somebody asking me hard questions because I can convince myself of things really easy that aren’t true.

RM: You mention politics as a vocation. One of the things I’ve noticed is that if I’m dealing with a group of older evangelicals, normally what I’m having to hammer is Christ crucified, not generic “God and Country.” When I am dealing with younger evangelicals, I often have to do the exact reverse, which is to say God wants some of you to run the school board, and God wants you specifically engaged. How would you encourage younger people who are kind of skeptical because of the way they’ve seen politics and faith used as a political wedge to be actively involved without losing their souls?

BH: I think that’s a great question for the entire church right now because I do think there are either folks that see politics as the answer—if we can just elect enough people who believe the right things, then our country will end up in the right place—or there are those folks who say I have totally given up, I don’t care, I can’t imagine how that would be relevant.

For the second group I would say this: it is pretty clear how Scripture talks about the role of government. God is not in favor of anarchy. In the state of Tennessee, we have 37,000 employees, a $37 billion dollar budget, and we are like a huge service organization. We help people that want to adopt children. We help those that are addicted to opiates. We run prisons. We educate four-year-olds and Ph.D. students. We build roads. It is our responsibility to provide the very best service that we can at the very lowest cost. I think what has gotten lost in this idea is that people say politics is about where you are on pro-life issues or how you feel about marriage, but it is really about providing service to folks that they can’t get from somewhere else, in most cases.

RM: Cynicism is one of the things that worries me most right now, especially among younger evangelicals because they have seen people who care about a political agenda and partisanship—and Jesus is sort of the way to get there. What you have managed to do, which is sadly rare, is to be able to be a committed Christian who is in the political arena, but no one senses that you are somehow claiming Jesus as your brand in order to advance. How would you advise someone who is a Christian that wants to be in the public arena?

BH: The temptation is to use God instead of being used by God. So, it comes back to that sense of being called. I [try to] remember, if we are called, we are not called to be about ourselves; even the Son of Man came not be served but to give his life as a ransom for many. That is the foundation below the call and why the call exists to begin with.

RM: We are living in a time where people often choose a tribe, imbed in that tribe, and then find whatever facts support whatever your group holds to. How do you navigate that reality that we are living in right now, maintaining your personal integrity and what you believe to be true? Have there been times where you have had to sort of make decisions as governor where you thought this is not going to be popular with my people, but it has to be done?

BH: Yes, so, I’ll give you an example. Every context is different everywhere, but several years ago Vanderbilt, which is private and based in Tennessee, set up a deal that they called an “all-comers” policy for all student groups. This meant that every student group had to take whoever wanted to be a part that had equal access. So, if you are in InterVarsity on campus and someone who had different beliefs maybe wanted to be the president, they had to be able to do that. A lot of Christian groups said there are certain things we believe we are not going to give up on, and Vanderbilt said, “You can meet but you just can’t be on campus.”

Our legislature, a fairly conservative legislature, said, “We are not going to let them get away with that; we are going to take away Federal money, or any state money that goes to Vanderbilt because we don’t want them to restrict religious freedom that way.” They passed a bill basically saying that the state will fund Vanderbilt hospital through Medicaid and some other things, but we are going to restrict all state monies to Vanderbilt.

I ended up vetoing the bill, and I had calls from a lot of friends and people I respect saying, “Don’t you understand if Vanderbilt does this, then pretty soon everybody is going to do it, and we are going to lose who we are?” But I also felt like there was another principle: do we really want the state telling private institutions what they can do? Because there will be a day when the shoe is on the other foot. I just felt like that principle is a hard one.

RM: The legislature also passed a bill proclaiming the Bible as the state book, and you vetoed that as well. I bet that’s a hard day.

BH: I did.

“Honey how was your day?”

“I vetoed the Bible.”

And to this day, I still have people say they don’t understand it. But I know this: when we combine state and the church, the church is the one that loses long term. Look at Europe as an example, where the church and state were combined, and now the church is just kind of a semblance of what it should be. So I actually believe that we don’t use the state to establish our Christian belief. That’s not the state’s role.

And so the legislature said, “We are passing it because of historical significance; that’s why it will be the state book.” That’s how they kind of got around the Constitutional question.

I said, “Well that’s fine, but to me that Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is not an historical book full of great stories. And so we are either going to say we are going to ignore the Constitution, or we are going to act like the Bible is something that it is not.” I just didn’t feel like that was a great path.

RM: You know, it is a really bleak time in many ways. I know people will often say, “Well, we’ve had contentions in political environments going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.” But something feels different now, both in terms of decorum and norms from political leaders, but also just looking at social media and seeing the ways that people are arguing. People tend to change their positions not because they come to some different conclusion but based upon just whatever their political party or favorite political leaders hold. How do we get out of this? What’s the way forward?

BH: I think the reality is all that has been exacerbated by how we get our news today. Everybody gets to filter and screen their own news, a lot of which no longer comes through an editor because it is coming to you through social media, or you are watching Fox which is giving you one exact set of facts and then CNN doing the other.

The first thing I would say is make certain that you yourself are not setting up filters for how and where you learn the truth. The second is to come back to: 1. electing the right people is not what’s going to save our country; and 2. on the other hand, it is really clear that who we elect matters. As believers, of all people, we should be the ones that can get that balance right, who can understand both the ability that should come from us as believers but also the sense of there is such a thing as truth.

RM: When you think about trying to move from now, to being in elected office, to the next year, what do you see is your calling in this coming crisis?

BH: I’ve been the governor for seven years and eight months. In less than 17 weeks, I lose my job. I have loved being in public office, and if I never get a chance to do it again, I will be really sad. I honestly don’t know what will come next, but I will stay engaged in what I think are some of the bigger policy issues one way or the other. I think it really does matter, and I’d say this to the church at large: We live in a world where people are giving up on institutions, period. They are giving up on government, they are giving up on the church, they are giving up on media. I think the one way we can get folks’ attention back is by literally living out the gospel.

RM: I was talking to someone in political office who talked about his frustration with the church because he said that at his church he is seen as whatever his office is. So he is not able to find the kind of community he needs because everything he does or says is viewed through that lens. So, what do political leaders need from their churches?

BH: The obvious is prayer and encouragement. It is a lonely road because there is always somebody mad at you, and no matter what you say, you tend to hear those voices louder than the people saying, “Hey, you did that well.” So, encouragement and prayer is incredibly important. Also, particularly if it is somebody you actually know, the willingness to step in and say, “Hey, I know this is a hard one; if it helps any here, I’d be more than glad to sit down and talk with you on that.”

I do want to say this: I have an even greater appreciation for the role that believers play in our society since I have been governor. I just see so many who have been instrumental in working for the common good, and I would say don’t stop. I’ll give you an example. Memphis has the first or second highest poverty rate in the country and historic racial issues that, to this day, drive the city. But if you go down there to Memphis, the one thing that really is bringing life to that city is the church.

I can just tell you that whoever is the mayor of your city or the governor of your state, they may or may not have an appreciation for what you are doing, but I will say this: the feet and hands of Christ that you are being in your communities is so, so important. On behalf of all of us that get to do this, thank you, because I can’t imagine what it would be like without the church.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine.

By / Feb 29

It can be overwhelming to step into the voting booth. Immediately you realize that you are voting on much more than you anticipated. On March 1, known as Super Tuesday, voters will have the opportunity to choose their candidate for the Republican or Democratic nomination. As we get closer to Super Tuesday, discussions of a contested or deadlocked GOP convention this election cycle have become common. Though Donald Trump clearly leads coming out of the Nevada Caucus, he could have trouble reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination, especially if the GOP field does not begin to narrow.

In years prior, it has been common practice for candidates with fewer delegates to release their delegates to the presumptive nominee. The convention is mostly without drama. This practice has several implications, most notably the symbolic display of unity it shows to those within the GOP and to voters across the country. The narrative this election cycle is somewhat unprecedented since decades have passed since either party has had a contested convention (1960 for Democrats & 1976 for Republicans).

As a result, the selection of those delegates that the voting citizens of Tennessee send to the GOP convention is as important or even more important than their vote for GOP nominee, in the case of a contested convention. Here are four things Tennesseans need to know about a contested convention and the delegate selection process in Tennessee:

1. What is a delegate?

Delegates are those individuals chosen by each state to represent their respective party at their conventions. The selection process varies from state to state, depending on how each state’s party has the selection process drawn up.

2. The delegates you select could impact who the eventual nominee is.

If Republicans enter their convention with no clear-cut nominee, meaning no candidate has garnered the majority number of delegates required to win the nomination, then the delegates sent to the convention could very well decide the nominee for the Republican Party (not the GOP primary voters). This is what would be called a contested convention.

3. What is a contested convention?

In this situation, there would be multiple ballot processes. On the first two ballots, delegates must vote for the candidate to whom they are bound. If, by chance, after the first two ballots no candidate has received the 1,237 votes needed to win, the delegates would then be free to cast votes as individuals. For instance, if, hypothetically, there are a couple hundred or more delegates there for Gov. John Kasich, they’d then have the opportunity to cast a ballot for someone else (likely Donald Trump, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz). This process is repeated until a candidate receives the 1,237 delegates required to win the nomination. Obviously, there are countless other possible scenarios out there, but this gives you a better idea of the process.

4. Vote for the delegates who are pledged to your choice for the nomination.

When you enter the voting booth, you will first see the candidates listed followed by the delegates (broken down alphabetically by the candidate to whom they are pledged). You will have the opportunity to vote for 14 delegates (statewide), then three more delegates within your respective congressional district.

This process varies by state, with some quite similar to Tennessee. I would encourage you, if you live outside of Tennessee, to research the delegate selection process for your state prior to voting. You’ll avoid that all-too-familiar feeling of being overwhelmed in the voting booth.