Religious freedom: From what? For what?

April 8th, 2016

When Peter and the apostles were brought before the council in Jerusalem for questioning as to why they continued to teach and preach the gospel, they answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) This would not be the last time that Jesus-followers would clash with political and religious authorities in seeking to live out and preach the good news of the resurrection. Certainly we are fortunate as Christians in the United States of America to have our right to freely exercise our religion, as we understand it, protected. In the current state of religious pluralism, it almost seems difficult to imagine that only a few hundred years ago, Christians persecuted and even killed other Christians over issues like believer’s baptism, belief in saints, use of icons and the meaning of the Eucharist.

Now, in many Southern states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, our legislatures are seeking to reinforce these rights to our religious freedom, primarily by protecting our right to refuse service to people because of a religious opposition to same-sex marriage, transgender people, and even extra-marital sex, as in Mississippi. Contrary to what some fear-mongering media have reported, clergy have always been protected from refusing to marry anyone, whether that couple is heterosexual, same-sex, divorced, celibate, refuses to participate in pre-marital counseling, or any other reason that might be of concern to a clergyperson.

As litigious of a society as twenty-first century America is, I don’t begrudge those who feel they might need to be protected from extraneous lawsuits, which is about the most charitable reading of these laws that I could come up with. In my own state of Tennessee, these religious freedom protections might extend to therapists refusing to offer mental health services to anyone who seeks help with "goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselors or therapist.” Refusing to provide someone flowers or a cake for their wedding is one thing, but refusing to provide mental health services is potentially lethal.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are places where the Gospel of Jesus Christ and human authority, be it political or religious, come into conflict. Government bodies, in the end, are part of the empire, and the expectation that they should legislate a certain morality is misguided. On a recent roundtable podcast episode of Priest Pulse, I somewhat jokingly asked if a bakery, before providing a cake for a wedding, might require an inspection of the bride’s hymen to make sure it was intact in order to insure that no extra-marital sex occurred. While I was being deliberately outrageous, the question of privacy, particularly with regard to some of the so-called “Bathroom Bills” in many state legislatures, remains up in the air.

As a Christian, I am more concerned with how the state might limit my ability to live out some of the commitments that I made at my baptism: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love my neighbor as myself, and to respect the dignity of every human being. I am more concerned with certain city ordinances that prohibit organizations from passing out food in public parks. I am more concerned with potential lawsuits, like the ones threatened by the Texas Attorney General, against faith-based organizations that re-settle and support refugees.

When we talk about the religious freedom our Constitution provides, we might consider how we as Christians are called to use it. We have religious freedom from the state establishment of a particular religion, but for what are we called to use that freedom? Is the reinforcement of our right to discriminate or refuse service really in obedience to God? Or might we use this freedom of religion for something greater? We could use it to introduce our country and the world to a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead so that we might have new life without fear, so that we might have the freedom and desire to live out the good news of Jesus Christ, loving God and loving our neighbors.

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