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.

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