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.