Friday, January 22, 2021

Clergy vs. Laity Membership Numbers

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Following up on comments that Bob Harman has made on previous blogs, I constructed a table of lay membership and clergy numbers by annual conference for the last three quadrennium. Per Bob’s suggestion, this was an attempt to get a different perspective on the rates of growth and decline in the church in various countries.

The full data set is linked above for those who are interested. Rather than try to put that table into this blog (which is a formatting nightmare), I will instead share three reflections on what I have seen in the data as I have reviewed it.

Clergy Membership Data Is Not Necessarily More Reliable that Lay Membership Data
Membership data has a number of notorious problems: different definitions of membership, non-active members on membership rolls, out-of-date membership numbers, difficulty in assessing membership numbers in remote areas, etc. For a variety of reasons, problems with membership data tend to be especially (but not exclusively) present in the central conferences.

When looking over membership numbers, then, there can be sudden and (to the outside observer unfamiliar with a local context) confusing jumps in membership (up or down) or missing data for some annual conferences for a quadrennium.

For these reasons, it would be nice if clergy numbers gave a more consistent story. However, it does not appear that they do so in all cases.

There is still plenty of instances in which clergy numbers are missing for an annual conference for a quadrennium. There are still instances in which clergy numbers suddenly jump significantly up or down for reasons that are not clear to outside observers. It seems possible that different annual conferences may be using different methods of calculating clergy numbers. (More on that in a minute.)

For all these reasons, clergy numbers are not a perfect dataset that one can use to help sort out questions raised by lay membership.

The Roles (and Perhaps Definitions) of Clergy Are Very Different in Different Contexts
When one compares the ratio of laity to clergy in different areas of the world, it allows one to see just how different that role is in different locations. Having one clergyperson for every 16 lay members (as in Northwest Russia in 2014) is a very different model of church than having one clergyperson for every 5507 lay members (as in Cote d’Ivoire in the same year).

There are a lot of factors that could be behind such variation: average congregational size, number of congregations served per clergyperson, number of clergypersons in extension ministry, number of congregations served by lay leaders or others not included in the category of clergy.

It is also quite possible that there is some variation around the world in terms of who is included in the category of “clergy.” While one might presume that this category includes ordained, active clergy, The United Methodist Church is notoriously fuzzy in terms of who counts as clergy: What about people who are commissioned but not ordained? What about associate members of conference? What about licensed local pastors? What about retirees serving part-time? The list goes on.

Even differences in one or two of these categories for defining who is included in the count could lead to significant differences across contexts in the number of clergypersons counted.

Still, differences in definition aside, clergypersons in parts of Africa are clearly serving many more lay people than clergypersons elsewhere in the connection. This difference probably stems from both greater demands on clergy in these parts of Africa (again, more on that in a minute) and greater lay leadership of the church there.

Tracking Clergy Membership Is Important
In The United Methodist Church, there is a lot of attention paid to lay membership numbers as an indicator of denominational health: where membership is increasing, where it is decreasing, etc. At times, this focus on lay membership can seem like a bit of an obsession even.

At the same time as all this attention is paid to lay membership, relatively little attention is paid to clergy membership. The attention that is paid tends to be focused on clergy membership as an indicator of justice: The ratio of women to men, the presence of clergy of various races, nationalities, and ages.

This focus on clergy membership as an indicator of justice is good and appropriate. But I think that the UMC should also pay more attention to clergy membership and the ratio of laity to clergy as indicators of denominational health, rather than focusing exclusively on lay membership for that purpose.

Here are three examples of what attention to clergy numbers and the ration of laity to clergy can tell us about the health of the denomination in various places:

It can tell us about the membership stability of the church. Areas where there is significant growth in lay membership should be accompanied, sooner or later, by an increase in the number of clergy. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the increased lay membership will not remain in the UMC, if people feel neglected or ignored by the leadership of the church. Even in instances of flat lay membership, a drop in the number of clergy may spell impending declines in lay membership as well.

It can tell us about the financial stability of the church. In much of the United States, there has been a decline in both lay and clergy membership. But the two rates of decline are not always equal. Thus, over the past three quadrennium, there are fewer lay people per clergy person. This means fewer people giving towards the support of clergy salaries (along with buildings and connectional ministries). Ultimately, this means that the dominant current model of full-time clergy serving single point charges is becoming less financially sustainable.

It can tell us about the health and well-being of clergy. When clergy are asked to do ever more and serve ever more members, or when clergy are left struggling to make budgets meet every year, that can take a toll on clergy health and well-being. Thus, there are risks for clergy burn-out both in areas where the church is growing and in areas where it is declining, even while those are not the same.

Clergy, however, are one of the church’s most important resources. I am a proud lay person, and I believe in lay leadership in the church, but I also recognize that a healthy denomination requires healthy clergypersons to help lead it.

In the early days of Methodism as a revival movement led by John Wesley, Methodism was not defined by the number of laity connected to it. It was defined as by the group of preachers in connection with Wesley, preachers who supported each other in the work of spreading the revival.

I do not want to go back to a clergy-dominated model, nor do I want to understate the vital role of lay leadership in forwarding the Wesleyan revival. Still, I think there is an insight there worth recovering: Healthy movements have healthy leadership.

In focusing on the health of our denomination, the health of our clergy leaders must be a central part of that conversation. Paying more attention to data trends about clergy numbers is one way to help engage in that conversation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Recommended Reading: What Is Christian Nationalism?

Following the riot at the United States Capitol two weeks ago, Rev. Ryan Dunn wrote a piece entitled "What is Christian nationalism?" for umc.org. The piece, which serves as an introduction to a term that has taken on increased importance in US political discourse, features several quotes and reflections from UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. Scott's comments also touch on the role of theology, cross-cultural learning, and mission in mitigating harmful versions of nationalism.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Robert Hunt: Religious Freedom and Christian Mission, Part III

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the third of a three-part series.

As I explain in the first post in this series, within the last 25 years, the United States has adopted two laws intended to widen the protection given to the “free exercise of religion”: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Have RFRA and RLUIPA benefited Christian witness to the gospel? No, as I explained in my last post, because there is no biblical or apostolic precedent for Christians advancing their mission by asserting special rights to freedom of religion within a secular political system.

Perhaps, though, these laws might be merely harmless, as long as Christians aren’t overly insistent on their own interests under these laws.

To assess this claim, we need to look at the presuppositions behind the law, not just the law’s impact. How does the framing of religious freedom in RFRA and RLUIPA compare to Christian understandings of the exercise of religion and the invitation to Christian discipleship?

Religion Freedom and Community
In scripture, Christian faith in God is always located in both a community and its tradition. The same is true of virtually all religious traditions. In Christian scripture, the first religion, to use the term anachronistically, is that of Abraham and his family, followed by the religion of Israel established at Sinai. In the Old Testament, it is communities, whether families, clans, tribes, or nations that possess what in modern terms we call religion. Similarly, the first Christians are Christians in community, a community so tightly bound that its members’ personal financial decisions and family relationships are a matter of community concern. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20 NRSV)

Moreover, this Christian community continually locates itself in the longer tradition of Abraham and Israel, to the extent that Jewish scripture becomes its scripture. And it locates itself in the traditions of Jesus and the apostles, which become the normative basis for all its teaching. Finally, these “Old and New Testaments” give birth to a tradition of teaching that ultimately gives birth to the communal creeds and liturgies of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and their offspring.

In terms of freedom, the first Christians and their successors asserted their freedom by both choosing to be followers of Christ, joining in the tradition and community of Christ, and by both expressing their faith in public and by expressing it in ways the benefited the public. They never claimed personal exemptions from the law or serving the public good.

Matthew 5:38–42: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

The RFRA and RLUIPA advance an understanding of religion, and religious freedom, that undermines this traditional understanding of religious faith and replaces it with one that is individual, idiosyncratic, and unconcerned with the public good. These laws ratify a cultural environment in which the fundamental invitation of the gospel, an invitation into community that will be a light to the nations, is undermined.

What To Make of Modern Religious Freedom
For more than 200 years, Christianity thrived in the United States. Christians have every reason to be grateful for, and supportive of the first amendment and the Bill of Rights. It not only affirms the fundamental freedom and equality of human beings taught in scripture, it has given us the freedom to witness to Jesus Christ without coercion and without dependence on the powers and principalities of the world.

In situations where free expression of the gospel conflicts with the law, it has provided a legal basis for Christians to be part of a discourse over the role of religion in society. Most importantly, its understanding of freedom of religion in relation to the public good is consistent with a Christian understanding of both religion and the public good.

The aforementioned legislative efforts to strengthen or extend the right of freedom of religion in the Constitution (RFRA and RLUIPA), however, actually undermine a Christian understanding of religion, weaken the Christian witness to the gospel, and undermine the rights of others.

It is strange in our time that religious people and communities that claim to serve an omnipotent God should feel threatened by social change. But stranger still is an assertion that the religion of Christ crucified will be rescued from the corrosive effects of secularism by pleading a special privilege for Christians to humiliate others and harm their neighbors based on laws that ratify a secular understanding of religion.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Christmas Covenant Videos

The United Methodists behind the Christmas Covenant, a package of legislation designed to promote regionalization and contextualization within The United Methodist Church, have begun releasing a series of videos related to the Christmas Covenant. The short videos (2-7 minutes) feature various supporters of the Christmas Covenant from around the world speaking in a variety of languages about the proposal. The group's Facebook page gives brief introductions to the videos as well. These videos are a significant opportunity not only to learn about an important piece of legislation for the next General Conference but also to hear and learn from a variety of voices around the world. New videos continue to be added to the YouTube channel, so it is worth subscribing or checking back so as not to miss new content.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

On Comparing US and Majority World Politics

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A week ago, violent, pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol, disrupting Congressional certification of the presidential election, and forcing evacuation of the country's highest legislative body. This event was rightfully and widely condemned, both in the United States (including by United Methodist leaders) and around the world (including by the Pope, the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches).

In their condemnations of the attack, some secular commentators in the United States compared it to what happens in "third world" countries. That comparison deserves some unpacking, as it and the sense of American exceptionalism behind it are worth critiquing in themselves and are moreover relevant to The United Methodist Church.

First, it should be noted that "'Third World' is an offensive term" to many people from the broad but vaguely-defined set of countries indicated by that term, as it is seen as linked to a hierarchical sense of the worth of different countries. Thus, this post will instead use the term "majority world."

The sense of hierarchy contained in the term points to the broader history of American exceptionalism behind the comparison. American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a unique role to play in the world-historical stage, a special, even God-given, mission that it is uniquely equipped to carry out because of its supposed moral and cultural superiority.

The belief in American exceptionalism is one way in which people from the United States have seen themselves as better than people in other countries. This sense of superiority applies to both other developed countries in the "Old World" of Europe and to the Majority World in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. When used with regard to those in the Majority World, a belief in American exceptionalism posits that the United States is richer and more economically developed not because of good fortune but because of some sort of moral, cultural, political, or other superiority.

To note similarities between current United States politics and political crises in certain Majority World countries thus is to draw attention to a disconnect between those US politics and how the United States has traditionally seen itself in relation to the rest of the world. There are two ways to resolve the cognitive dissonance of that disconnect, though.

One of those ways actually reaffirms the United States' sense of American exceptionalism. "Yes, there is a disconnect at this moment, but we will and must behave better to show that we still are better than the rest of the world," this line of reasoning goes. While this line of reasoning aims at good outcomes for American democracy (less violent unrest), it does so at the expense of America's ongoing relationship with the rest of the world (through a continued sense of superiority).

The second way to resolve the cognitive dissonance is to jettison or reduce the belief in American exceptionalism. This approach would say, "I guess there isn't as much difference between us and the rest of the world as we thought." There is a danger that such an approach could lead to political fatalism, but there is also an opportunity that it can lead to greater learning from others' experience with democracy and to greater resolve in work to sustain the United States' own democracy, not because it is inevitable, but because people in the United States realize that if they do not work for democracy, they will lose it, just like anyone else.

This second way to resolve the cognitive dissonance thus can work toward the reaffirmation of US democracy while at the same time strengthening relationships, solidarity, and identification with others around the world who are working to support their own democracies.

The question of how those in the United States process the cognitive dissonance between their sense of American exceptionalism and the events of last Wednesday has implications for The United Methodist Church as well as US democracy. The church is notably US-centric, indicating that a belief in American exceptionalism does not stop at politics but applies to the religious as well.

If US United Methodists resolve their cognitive dissonance in a way that reaffirms their sense of American exceptionalism, then the sorts of US-centric thinking and US domination of General Conference are likely to continue, with the dysfunctions and injustices entailed therein.

If, however, the events of last Wednesday prompt US United Methodists to take a good, long look at the national character in a way that mitigates their sense of American exceptionalism, then there will be benefits to The United Methodist Church as well.

If US United Methodists loosen their sense that they are morally superior and the standard around which the church should be organized, then there will be new opportunities for the church to listen to each other across national and cultural boundaries to discern the moving of God's Spirit and be faithful to God's will. There is the opportunity to better be the global church we aspire to be.

If, that is. If.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Robert Hunt: Religious Freedom and Christian Mission, Part II

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the second of a three-part series.

As I explain in the first post in this series, within the last 25 years, the United States has adopted two laws intended to widen the protection given to the “free exercise of religion”: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Given their claim to protect religion, have RFRA and RLUIPA benefited Christian witness to the gospel?

From the standpoint of measurable church growth, it appears not. Since these laws were passed the number of Christians relative to the US population has declined steadily and has dropped precipitously among Americans under the age of 35.

There is some evidence that high profile court cases allowing Christian religious schools, social services, and businesses to discriminate against women and LGBTQ persons have played a role in alienating younger Americans from Christianity. 49% of the Nones report that the positions churches take on social/political issues is a reason for their disaffiliation with religion.

In the context of COVID, high profile cases of Christian churches defying social distancing orders and Christian schools refusing to close on the basis of a right to religious freedom have played a similar role in alienating those who believe these gatherings put their lives at risk. In short, appeals to religious freedom have come to cast Christians as socially irresponsible and more concerned with themselves and their rights than with the welfare of others.

However, being popular isn’t the same thing as being a faithful witness to the Gospel. Is there then a theological rational for appealing to RFRA and RLUIPA to protect Christian claims of religious freedom?

The claims for exemptions from the law made by Christians have hinged on three types of claims. The first is that laws mandating non-discrimination in providing services, or in hiring, or in provision of birth control in company insurance policies force Christians to act in a way that is contrary to their closely held beliefs, or conscience. Their claim is that such laws force them to be supportive of behavior they find immoral.

A second claim is that religious schools have a right to discriminate against teachers who do not hold their religious belief. In 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that teachers in religious schools are the same as ministers in a church, and that matters of their appointment and dismissal are protected by the First Amendment. Basically, for the courts to interfere would violate both the freedom of these institutions and the establishment clause. Only a few weeks earlier the same court ruled that Religious schools should have equal access to state funding for private school scholarships, in essence allowing the government funding of religious schools through scholarships to pay tuition.

The third claim is that restrictions on public gatherings during the COVID pandemic violated the right to religious expression in public worship and communal religious gatherings.

Taken together these claims define the right of free exercise of religion, expanded under RFRA and RLUIPA, as allowing religious institutions to receive public funds for the propagation of religion while being exempt from democratically enacted laws designed to serve the public good. As Bob Harmon has already argued, this is unwise. Is this theologically defensible?

Religious Freedom and Christian Witness
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, chapters 12 - 14, urges that Christians place themselves in the place of servants to others and in particular (13:1-7) to be obedient to the law as a matter of conscience. Whether they are 1st century emperors or 21st century legislatures, God has given us laws for our own good, and even when these laws are burdensome, we should follow them.

Paul, like the early church, acted first out of obedience to Christ’s command even when it met resistance by local authorities and their laws. But it is noteworthy that Paul never asked for an exemption from those laws. Rather, Paul invariably surrendered his rights to the greater good of sharing the gospel without offending others.

First Corinthians 10:23 and onward: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. . . . So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.” (NRSV)

The theological reason for this is clear: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NRSV) The church is called to "in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV) It would appear that Christians asserting their own rights against the rights of others on the basis of human laws is the exact opposite of both what Christ did on the cross and the witness of the apostles and the early church.

This does not normalize acceptance of immorality on one hand or the abuse of human rights on the other. Jesus does not accept immorality, nor does Paul. What both do is assert that judgment belongs to God. As importantly, Jesus did not withhold either his fellowship nor his ministry from those who were regarded as immoral. Instead, he taught that individuals are to remove the log in their own eye before trying to remove the splinter in the eye of their neighbor.

Jesus was also a staunch defender of the rights of the poor, the weak, the sick, and the imprisoned over against laws under which they were oppressed. What makes his witness to God’s love unique is the combination of his ministry to and for the rights of the weak and marginalized and his surrender of his own rights. Indeed, it is his surrender of his rights that emphasizes that his kingdom is not of this world.

In placing himself totally in the service of others, even to death on the cross, Jesus reveals the nature of God’s love. He thus provides us the content of the gospel that we are to proclaim. Witness to Christ begins and ends with the defense of the rights of others, even at the cost of giving up the rights of the Body of Christ, as Christ gave up his rights on the cross.

This is not, it must be noted, a pragmatic political program, because its intention isn’t to reform society, but to initiate humans into God’s reign. There are arguments to be made that Christians should engage in such pragmatic political programs. But there is no precedent in scripture or the apostolic church for doing so by asserting a Christian claim to the right to either freedom of religion or a claim on public funds.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Recommended Listening: Robert Hunt podcasts on religious freedom

The complete Season 2 of Robert Hunt's podcast series, Interfaith Encounters, is now available for download and online streaming. The season consists of 11 episodes of interviews with national experts about the theme of religious freedom. As befits the title of the series, the interviewees are from a variety of religious backgrounds, including United Methodist. The podcasts, released over the course of the fall, vary from 15 to 30 minutes in length.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Rationales for a Non-Imperial American Christianity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In December, I wrote a pair of pieces about American Christianity as an imperial religion and routes forward toward (a) non-imperial version(s) of American Christianity.

Since writing those pieces, I have come to realize that they had a very "sociology of religion" feel to them that failed to provide a specifically Christian rationale for why the work of constructing non-imperial American Christianity is important.

Thus, I would like to attempt to do that in this piece. I want to lay out three such rationales for that project: one theological, one moral and ethical, and one evangelistic

A Theological Rationale
The theological rationale is the most basic: A religion that is primarily about empire cannot be primarily about Christ, as Christianity should be. You cannot serve two masters.

Yet it is clear which master imperial religion serves. I defined imperial religion as follows: "[A]n imperial religion [i]s one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit." Thus, the symbols of an imperial religion point primarily toward the empire.

In true Christianity, on the other hand, the symbols of the religion point primarily toward Christ. There are many different ways to use the symbols of theological language, ritual, art, and the like to point to Christ, but true Christianity is about orienting believers to a way of being in the world that is ordered around Christ.

Imperial Christianity, in contrast, may use Christ as a symbol, and a powerful one at that, but its goal is not to orient the adherent toward Christ, but to use the symbol of Christ to orient the adherent towards ways of behaving that conform to the imperial ordering of the world.

Thus, on a theological analysis, American Christianity cannot be an imperial religion and be true Christianity. Thus, for American Christianity to be true Christianity, it must take non-imperial forms.

A Moral and Ethical Rationale
Empires are built upon power and the interests of the powerful. Those interests almost always go against the interests of those without power, at least on some important points. Thus, empire is about the use of power to further the interests of a few at the expense of many others. It should be obvious that this is a system rife for moral and ethical catastrophe.

Imperial religion, as a handmaid to empire itself, takes on all of the moral and ethical ambiguities and failures of the empire itself. Indeed, one of the important functions of the symbols of an imperial religion is to deny or mitigate the sense of moral catastrophe involved in empire. Thus, imperial religion amounts to a form of aiding and abetting the misdeeds of the empire.

Yet true Christianity involves a system of ethics and morality that transcends and is not swayed by the interests of the powerful. Christianity promises that all alike are created in the image of God and that all alike stand under the judgment of God.

There are plenty of forms of moral failure possible for non-imperial versions of Christianity, but it is impossible to practice imperial Christianity without accepting moral failure as a basic feature.

An Evangelistic Rationale
Both of the previous two rationales combine in the third rationale: the evangelistic.

Evangelism involves pointing others towards Christ and aiding them in walking in that direction. Imperial Christianity disrupts both of those efforts.

First, as noted in the theological rationale above, imperial Christianity points not toward Christ but towards the empire as its most important point of orientation. Thus, evangelism as pointing others towards Christ becomes difficult if not impossible when all of the signs that say "Christ" on them are actually pointing to the empire.

Second, to the extent that one can successfully point toward Christ even amid a system of imperial Christianity, the moral and ethical failures entailed in imperial religion represent a major roadblock for those seeking to walk toward and with Christ. This is especially true in the attempt to do evangelism with those on the underside of empire.

For both of these reasons, then, imperial Christianity is a major hindrance to evangelism. Again, it is possible that non-imperial versions of Christianity may also have their own evangelistic problems, but the problems of imperial Christianity are clear and must be avoided.

Thus, for all three of these rationales, I do not believe it is possible to faithfully propagate an imperial version of Christianity.

Yet we are called to Christian faith. Thus, to be faithful to Christ and to our calling, we must try to be Christian in non-imperial ways, even if it is a difficult process or goes against the prevailing cultural forms of the faith. Our Christian faith must impel us toward non-imperial forms of that faith.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Robert Hunt: Religious Freedom and Christian Mission, Part I

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a three-part series.

Let’s begin with an axiomatic statement: The purpose of the Christian religion is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. The Church was not given rights by God, it was given a mission. So, a central question for Christians is whether the right to freedom of religion, as understood in the context of the United States, benefits the mission of the church.

To answer this question, we must first understand just what freedom of religion has become in the American context.

The United States constitution, in its Bill of Rights states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We know from the writings of those who crafted the Bill of Rights that their concerns emerged from the history of church-state relations both in Europe and in the American colonies. But it is notable that the founders didn’t use the word “church” but instead the word “religion.” In doing so they fixed in law a concept, that of generic religion, that emerged only in the modern era.

The meaning of the term religion as it emerged in the modern era referred to a community of individuals bound together by freely chosen beliefs and practices. Religion, as understood by the founders, was thus both communal and personal. By dis-establishing all religions, and protecting the freedom exercise of religion, the first amendment guaranteed the right of individuals to form communities of shared beliefs and practices.

Yet these words, taken by themselves, obscure a complex reality. Just because a government doesn’t establish a religion doesn’t do away with the fact that religions, particularly Christianity, have an established place in the culture and society. It would remain for the courts to define the extent to which government entities could support or hinder the work of religious institutions in the interest of the public good. Those decisions were based on an understanding that the free exercise of religion took place in the context of an established religious community, and this provided a basis for determining what constituted the legitimate exercise of religion.

A Change in the Status Quo
A change in the long-standing status quo occurred with two laws intended to widen the protection given to the “free exercise of religion.” The first of these was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The second was the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The first of these laws, RFRA, stated that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The effect of RFRA was that persons could be excused, on the basis of free exercise of religion, from laws limiting their religious expression even if the laws were religiously neutral and didn’t target their particular religion.

In 1997 the Supreme Court overturned much of the first RFRA. However, proponents of RFRA quickly sought to have identical bills passed at a state level, and 21 states passed such acts. Further litigation would determine the meaning of “substantially burden” and whether specific laws were genuinely of “general applicability."

The second of these laws (RLUIPA) sought to further define the meaning of religious freedom by allowing legitimate claims to the exercise of religion “whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The Act made clear that it was to be "construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.” This would allow, for example, for religious claims to exemption from zoning ordinances, or claims by inmates that their personal faith demanded practices not generally allowed in prison.

In other words, individuals and religious organizations could make a claim to the free exercise of their religion even if their beliefs were idiosyncratic and lacked support by a recognized religious tradition or community. And again, the term “maximum extent” would be defined by litigation.

A Cultural Shift
Taken together, these laws ratified a major shift in American culture. Previously “religion” focused on communities and their established traditional teaching, something equivalent to a “church” but more generic. A person had a religion because they were part of a religious community.

With RFRA and RLUIPA, the focus became individuals and individual congregations and their idiosyncratic self-understandings. Religious individuals and congregations were a religious law unto themselves, and whatever they determined was the exercise of religion had a legitimate claim to protection.

Much has been made of the bi-partisan nature of RFRA and RLUIPA, as if this somehow indicated that rather than being merely a partisan, presumably conservative, effort to defend religious liberty, they amount to a fulsome recognition of the liberties owed all Americans.

But a sociological analysis would suggest that the bi-partisan nature of the legislation is more indicative of the political establishment reflecting the political will of a thoroughly secular society. What these laws ratify is the kind of religious identity described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, an identity that emerges in a cultural environment that offers autonomous individuals a “supernova of religious options.”

Whatever the conscious intention, these laws amount to the secularization of religion as a political construct. The idea of being religious has been un-moored from belonging to or being responsible to either a religious tradition, a religious community, or the wider society. It is a concept of religion the writers of the Constitution would have never recognized.

The same, incidentally, can be said of the concept of patriotism, as fully manifest in the Trump era and supported by his administration and its allies. But it began earlier as presidents became less representatives of policy or ideology than celebrity embodiments of inchoate hopes, dreams, and fears associated with identity. As I write in late 2020, the claim to be a patriot has become detached from being part of the American people and serving the good of the nation and has been relocated to a personal relationship and loyalty to an individual (or hatred and fear of an individual): in this case the President.

The impact of these laws (RFRA and RLUIPA) on all religions and religious individuals has been increasingly defined by cases recently and now before the Supreme Court. However, the question for Christians is whether these laws actually benefit Christian mission. More specifically: does having the right to the free exercise of religion as defined by RFRA and RLUIPA actually help the Christian church in its mission? I’ll address this question in my next two posts.