Depending on the outcome of the soon-to-be-announced U.S. Supreme Court decision in the historic Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius case, maybe someday they’ll call it The Day Religious Liberty Died — or Survived. While confident of legal victory, megachurch Pastor Rick Warren and other Christian Right leaders announced at a recent forum that they are committed to going to jail if their version of religious liberty isn’t upheld in this case—and forevermore in an ever expanding horizon of evangelical prerogative.
As we recently discussed here at PRA, the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores owned by the conservative evangelical Green family, many concerned conservative Christian groups, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) believe that the government’s requirement that contraceptives be included in employer insurance packages is a violation of their religious freedom under the First Amendment. Whether a secular, commercial entity like Hobby Lobby has religious rights under the First Amendment is one of the many implications of this case.
The recent “Hobby Lobby and the Future of Religious Liberty” panel, hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), offered a preview of the framing the Christian Right will be bringing to the religious liberty theme in the post-Hobby Lobby era. (The ERLC has a transcript) None of the panelists were lawyers, so they brought a different, but nevertheless significant, viewpoint to the subject. Rick Warren was joined by Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), David Platt of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, AL, and ERLC officers Russell Moore and Philip Bethancourt.
The panel is notable because the discussion was marked by frequent political hyperbole and paranoia. While in many ways, this is characteristic of the style and substance of much of the public policy approach of the Religious Right, that the panel was prominently featured by the SBC as the kick-off of their annual meeting brought a religious gravitas of leading SBC figures (and the non-Baptist Rodriguez) to the matter. Indeed, panelists made a point of insisting that the matter of religious freedom was first a religious issue, and not merely political or even legal.
Even though ERLC president Moore says he is confident Hobby Lobby will win their case, the panelists nevertheless agreed that Christians, and all people of faith, face creeping governmental “persecution.” The Hobby Lobby case, Pratt claimed, awakened some Christians to this, but more need to see it. “They need to know it’s coming,” he said. “It’s going to affect every person in every profession in the church.”
According to Warren, personal sacrifices will be necessary in the face of this persecution. “And,” Warren declared, invoking Martin Luther King, the matter of religious freedom “may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in. I willingly said it, I’m in.”
Platt added, “I hear Pastor Rick say, ‘I’m in,’ and I’m with you. And I want to raise up an army, an entire body of members that says, ‘I’m in,’ who are in regardless of what happens in this case.”
While Warren and Platt were claiming that they were willing to go to jail in defense of their notions of religious freedom, Russell Moore said, “I’m doing everything we can to keep out us out of jail, but there is one thing worse than going to jail. And that is staying out of jail and sacrificing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Samuel Rodriguez also invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in his remarks, and compared the contemporary debates about the meaning of religious freedom to the African American Civil Rights movement. “While ending racial inequality emerged as the civil rights issue of the 20th century,” he declared, “religious liberty will be the civil rights issue of the next decade” and for that matter, “of the 21st century.”
“Today’s complacency is tomorrow’s captivity,” Rodriguez continued. And, reflecting the kind of political paranoia that so infects conservative Christian leaders in this area, he concluded “The firewall against secular totalitarianism is religious liberty and religious pluralism.”
This point is worth highlighting. Rodriguez’s claim about “secular totalitarianism” notwithstanding, many religious organizations’ idea of religious freedom and religious pluralism are quite the opposite, and based on the notion of secular government and the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state that seeks to protect the rights of all. These religious groups, including major bodies of mainline Protestantism and Judaism, see no risk of “secular totalitarianism” in the Affordable Care Act or any of its provisions. Numerous religious groups, including the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, observed in an Amicus Curiae brief filed in the Hobby Lobby case that “Not only do different religious leaders have different views about contraception, but attitudes about contraception vary even within individual religious denominations.”
Indeed, if Hobby Lobby prevails as the panelists hope, the owners of secular corporations would be able to impose their personal religious beliefs on their employees in matters far beyond just insurance coverage. According to the brief, this means that “employees would find it more difficult to make personal decisions about healthcare and contraception in accordance with their own consciences. Those effects would be especially pervasive because most Americans receive their health insurance as part of their employment compensation.”
That hardly seems like creeping secular totalitarianism, especially coming from scores of religious organizations representing many millions of members. And yet this false framing of versions of secular totalitarianism vs. religious freedom will likely be one of the major elements of the debate going forward.
Also significant is how the Christian Right is seeking to avoid coming across as hateful, while still sustaining their anti-LGBTQ politics. According to Rodriguez, part of their solution is an attempt to adopt traditionally progressive language, branding his and Warren’s inaccurate version of religious liberty as the Civil Rights movement of the day. When the moderator asked whether equal rights for LGBTQ people were more important than religious liberty, Rodriguez invoked his Imago Dei Campaign, (his softer-language campaign which we have previously written about here at PRA).
Rodriguez and his Imago Dei colleagues Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, and Jim Daly of Focus on the Family insist on denying equality under the law to LGBTQ people (whom they also claim to love and respect), and that advocacy for civil rights for all is in effect, an effort to silence, or persecute Christians. Here is what Rodriguez said on the panel:
“And right now popular culture is saying, popular culture is saying if you believe a marriage is an institution ordained by God as a sacred union between one man and one woman, you are in a de facto if not in a de jure manner, homophobic. That is the attempt to silence the voice of Biblical truth. That’s why today’s complacency is tomorrow’s captivity. I do believe religious liberty is a greater civil rights issue than the LGBT agenda or drive for those rights. As Christians, we need to repudiate all vestiges of homophobia, without a doubt. We need to recognize the image of God in every single human being but we should never ever under any circumstance water down the Gospel or sacrifice truth on the altar of political or cultural expediency; our job it not to put smiles on people’s faces. It is to make sure they get crowns on their heads. It is to make sure people are saved and they recognize Jesus Christ is Lord.”