The Theological Hijacking of Religious “Freedom”

Since the passage and quick “fix” of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) there has been a robust national conversation about the merits and particularities of the such laws.

But noticeably absent from that conversation was any serious dialogue about the relationship between theology and the law.

Why should we publicly debate theology? Isnt that a private concern?

Hardly. Theological commitments are not easily limited to the private thoughts and inner lives of those who hold them. Those of us who study religion are often reminded of what Robert Orsi has referred to as the “power of theology as a component of lived experience.” Theologies tell stories about the way things should be. They make real-world demands.

The problem with ignoring theology in our national conversation about the limits and possibilities of religious freedom is that one side of the argument is using the logic of the law to promote a theological vision.

Here’s an example:

Earlier this month NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Rev. Tim Overton, a Baptist minister in favor of the original measure which, in Rev. Overton’s view, would have permitted denial of services on religious grounds, despite the repeated claims by some lawmakers to the contrary. In the middle of that interview, the minister laid out a major theological claim and he explained how his commitment to that claim shapes his imagination of “freedom” in public affairs.

Here he is in his own words, emphasis mine:

…we are saying that in—you know, all of life for the Christian is about glorifying God. We are worshiping God in the workplace. And so to ask a religious person who happens to own a business to do something that is against their conscience, I just don’t think that squares with the American tradition of freedom of religion.

Let’s consider for a moment his theology. The first part—that all of life is lived as worship before God—is actually a fairly traditional Christian theological claim. It’s a basic claim that on its own could likely be affirmed by wide spectrum of people of faith.

The second part, which makes the individual’s conscience sacred, has long been central to Baptists in this country. In fact, before the founding the United States, Baptist colonists such as John Clarke and Roger Williams were insisting that religious freedom was rooted in one’s conscience and that no one should ever be compelled to follow a particular religion.

What we have here is not some radical position or an outlier in the spectrum of American religious belief and non-belief. Rev. Overton’s views are grounded in his Baptist Christian tradition. Many Americans would certainly find resonance in this view—and leaving aside the claim about God and worship, individual conscience is certainly also a key for many people who hold no religious belief.

So, what’s the problem with this view?

The problem is not so much that there are a good number of Americans who have consulted their theological traditions and decided that it would be against their personal conscience to affirm same sex marriage. The problem is that in the recent efforts of many religious Americans, the law is being used to legislate a vision of freedom that defines religious freedom as “freedom from.”

Unlike the early American Baptists, who faced serious persecution, these advocates seek to use the law to protect their vision of worship in the workplace as a purity ritual. It is a vision of religious expression free from interference in the form of difference, free from the conflicting demands of our common lives, and free from any obligation to our neighbors that we might find uncomfortable.

This effort to use legal exemptions to justify freedom from difference, interference, and conflict is not limited to the events that took place recently in Indiana. Such efforts were behind the monumental Supreme Court extension of religious exemptions to private businesses such as Hobby Lobby and it seems likely to continue.

The idea that one’s conscience should never be challenged, that its freedom is a freedom from an other may benefit from recent legal actions, but it will not support the common good. Some will argue that the solution here is to remove theology from our public discourse. But a better option would be to engage theological claims directly. After all, engagement does not mean agreement.

In fact, I don’t have much in common with Rev. Overton theologically or politically. If I could have sat in for Inskeep on the interview, here’s how I imagine our conversation might have gone. When asked why he supported the law, the minister responded:

I, as a pastor, provide a service to my parishioners, but also to the community at large in officiating weddings. I receive compensation for these services as well as the state issues a marriage license after I officiate a wedding. So if I say no to a same-sex couple or there are issues of divorce in someone’s past that I will not do the wedding, some people are going to say that’s discrimination. But I think most Americans would agree that a pastor like myself should not be compelled by the government to use my speech to support someone else’s perspective. And I think that has parallels to the cake-maker. The cake-maker is using his or her artistic ability to make a cake, and that cake communicates something. I think that cake is speech, and it says we celebrate this union. And to force someone who doesn’t believe that same-sex marriage is correct in the eyes of God, I just don’t think they should be forced or compelled by government to use their speech to support someone else’s perspective.

Inskeep heard this response as helpful since it seemed to support the idea that in such circumstances services might be justifiably withheld under the unrevised law.

But here’s what I might have asked:

Pastor Tim, I appreciate your commitment to your faith and your sense of how such beliefs might shape our working lives, but it seems like you’re confusing ministry with business, and business with ministry. When you officiate a wedding you’re not acting as an individual, are you? Don’t you represent the church you serve? Do you have a lot of gay and lesbian couples who know your position on these issues still asking you to marry them? That seems kind of unlikely.

And about that cake-maker. You seem to be suggesting that every time a business owner sells something, she’s affirming everything her customer might do with the product being sold. Do you really think that? Pastor Tim, you seem to think about religious freedom from everything you don’t agree with. Does your faith ever free you for anything?

Our country has been debating the limits and possibilities of religious freedom for most of our constitutional existence. In 1939, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this about his observations of the American theological vision of freedom:

America calls itself the land of freedom. Today this means the right of the individual to think, speak and act independently…The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society that it is a statement concerning the church.

If Bonhoeffer was right,  more recently we’ve doubled down on our tribute to the state. Perhaps the growing resistance to these laws will signal to our churches and theologians that it’s time to move beyond freedom from.

It’s time to articulate the responsibilities of our public lives together.