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.


  1. Thanks Robert for your thorough treatment of issues of church state relations.

    Is it fair to conclude that the adoption of RFRA and RLUIPA legislation has converted first amendment constitutional protections for communities of believers from a state sponsored religion into the creation of a privileged status for individuals using their religious beliefs / practices as a legal defense from certain government policies otherwise aimed at enhancing / supporting the public good?

    Evidences of this brand of favoritism by the conservative Supreme Court are plentiful. In a recent speech to his admirers in the Federalist Society, Justice Samuel Alito declared, "It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right." Then in a case brought on behalf of aggrieved New York Roman Catholic Churches and Jewish synagogues challenging restrictions of health pandemic mitigation guidelines for religious gatherings, Alito wrote for the ruling conservative majority, “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten... The restrictions here... effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

    For the conservatives, religious liberty protection is now a legal absolute even if it impinges upon the health, safety and well being of the public. I am especially grateful for your recitation of the teachings of both Jesus and Paul that model a servant teacher role for followers of the Christian Way that respects the needs of others first without any obligation or need to defend or protect the movement's freedom.

    1. Equally disturbing are Justice Alito's comments in court in the case of Philadelphia vs the archdiocese in which he asserts that a failure to.publicly fund a Catholic agency that excludes gays is somehow a prohibition of their religious freedom.