Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Religious Liberty

In the April 2013 Imprimis of Hillsdale College, R.R. Reno writes about the changing face of religious liberty in the United States.  His position can easily be summarized in one line:  "Our secular establishment wants to reduce the autonomy of religious institutions and limit the influence of faith in the public square." He then goes on to say lay blame upon many groups for this trend, most specifically the "left" including the Obama administration, the libertarians and their utilitarian views, and more.  While his insights into the cultural shifts in attitude toward religion may be correct, I think his quickness to blame certain groups is sociologically naive, and he ignores the dynamics of the "orthodox" church that have contributed to the problem.

The fact is, throughout history, the greatest violators of religious liberties have not been the non-religious, but the very orthodox religious groups themselves.  The call for orthodoxy has a history of violence and oppression as those in power try to purge the heretics from church and country. This history contributes to the rise of the "nones", those people who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.  How?  In my 20+ years in the pastorate I have watched the Christian church and its diversity of opinions and expressions face a siege from evangelical and fundamentalist voices, who want to call the church back to a more orthodox (in their eyes) position. These voices were so self-assured and so strongly represented in the culture, that many church people were convinced that if their church or pastor did not agree with this new orthodoxy, that the church they were attending must be non-Christian, and so they left. Also, these voices so altered the perception of Christianity, that people who once were able to consider themselves Christian because there was room for them in that less dogmatic era, no longer found themselves comfortable or welcome in the new Christianity.

This redefinition caused issues which were debated within the church, to suddenly issues of church against society.  The case of creation and evolution is a great example.  In college I was part of an evangelical student movement, but even within this group the issue of evolution was little debated.  There was a strong understanding that some parts of the bible are not to be taken literally, and that science has its place in the discovery of God and how God works.  But that changed as the new call to orthodoxy arose.  Suddenly the room for Christian debate was removed and redefined to Christians versus Science.  (This situation is certainly not new -- it has happened repeatedly in history, so I am not claiming this is a first). As that happened, people became convinced that to be Christian meant to be anti-science.

In a similar way, issues of abortion, homosexuality, prayer in school, etc., became calling cards of the new orthodoxy and people whose opinions were different faced being called non-Christian, heretical, and so on. This essentially ostracized or silenced a whole segment of the church. Those orthodox voices then called for a re-Christianizing of our country, asking for Christianity (specifically the evangelical form) to be named a state religion, or at least claiming they were being persecuted and oppressed by not being allowed to practice their orthodoxy in ways that forced it upon others in schools, hospitals and courtrooms.

That culture has backlashed against this movement should not be surprising. The rise of the "nones" is not a sign of a less spiritual people; but the rise of a group of people that have found our current religious atmosphere to be toxic to their beliefs.  And the desire of those so affected to have themselves protected from this atmosphere legally and constitutionally only makes sense.

R.R. Reno omits this dynamic, and in doing so also omits one of the steps that is necessary for the retention of religious liberty in America -- and that is the willingness of Christians to realize that inflexible orthodoxy crushes the human mind, and does not save the human soul. What keeps the church meaningful in life, is its infusion with the Holy Spirit, its willingness to hear as God calls us to new things, new ideas, and new expressions of faith. Until we allow faith the room to breathe, faith has trouble growing, living and thriving in society.  In other words, until Christians themselves are willing to give each other religious liberty and freedom, we will not have it in the political arena either.