Religious Freedom – the Movie

Is religious freedom now under threat in America?

A flurry of interest surrounded a draft executive order leaked at the beginning of February. This trial balloon featured greater “religious freedom” for organizations that don’t want to serve all Americans and yet want to be eligible for federal aid.  Basically, if you are working for or representing an organization that doesn’t agree with someone else’s beliefs, lifestyle, or choices, you and your organization would be allowed to refuse them services.

We’re encountering “doublethink” here, turning language inside out from its usual meaning. Religious people are claiming that their freedom to act in accordance with their beliefs is being restricted. But, as one legal commentator noted to the contrary, “Being denied the ability to discriminate against others is not discrimination against you.”

I thought religious freedom was freedom to worship (or not) in the religion of your choice.  I thought it was connected with freedom of speech and the press: you can speak up or publish your beliefs without fear of reprisal.  Exceptions would kick in only, as in general law, if you were advocating violence, or endangering others.

Religious free speech and action is restricted somewhat, in exchange for an organization’s privilege of being exempt from federal taxes. With that exemption, you have to obey federal law and, when engaged in public service, treat everyone equally (that doesn’t apply to religious worship or membership).  Also, your organization cannot publicly campaign for, endorse, or support political candidates and parties.

The idea is that religions are spiritual and charitable, and by common understanding, a benefit for society as a whole if they are kept non-partisan. Religion thus was defined as private to the person, with a social benefit of ethical and spiritual inspiration, from being “above the fray.”

If political candidates had a strong religious tradition, they assured voters that their religion was a private matter and would not interfere with their commitment to serve all the people.  In this delicate way, American democracy created a religiously pluralistic society without becoming anti-religious.

The latest proposals on “religious freedom” disturb me because they cast doubt on that subtle relationship. I am no longer sure that all religious Americans feel the obligation to respect their fellow Americans’ beliefs and practices, that they are willing to serve all without discrimination, and in their workplace and other places of service put the public welfare first.  The questions I have are mostly about conservative Christians, some of whom are Protestant evangelicals and some conservative Roman Catholics.  (Ironically, if I were in a diverse country with a majority Muslim population, I would likely be worried in the same way about some Muslims. It’s not about a specific religion but an inherent tension between a pluralistic society and particularistic beliefs and practices.)

Shadows appeared on my horizon when I realized how many evangelicals were being brought into the new administration. They include Mike Pence (VicePresident), Rick Perry (Energy), Betsy DeVos (Education), Scott Pruitt (EPA), Ben Carson (HUD), Sonny Perdue (Agriculture) and Jeffrey Sessions (Justice).  Reince Preibus (Chief of Staff) maintains an affiliation with the Greek Orthodox church that was his birth heritage, but for nearly two decades has been most active in an evangelical church. Similarly, Nikki Haley (UN Ambassador), grew up a Sikh but is now a committed Christian.  Two politically conservative Roman Catholics, Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, are high-level advisors.

As for Congress, the Pew Research Center finds not much changed over recent years, and reports a numerical Protestant decline in the 115th Congress. But Pew also observes that the number of “unspecified” and non-denominational Protestants has risen by 10 individuals. Without a detailed breakout we can’t say for sure, but those categories usually indicate membership in a community evangelical church or megachurch and could signal a growing influence from that wing of Christianity.

Even without that issue, Congress remains heavily Christian – almost 99% of Republicans and nearly 80% of Democrats. Overall, 90% of Congress are Christian compared to 71% of the American public. Only 2% of Congress is unaffiliated or not stating a religion, yet 23% of the American public is religiously unaffiliated.  Religion is overrepresented in general, as well as Christianity in particular.  Non-Christian faiths as a proportion of Congress are nearly the same as in the general population, about 8%, though Jews outnumber the others in that category which includes Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarians.

Then there was the presidential inauguration, where we saw a display of religion like we have not seen in our lifetimes: six invocations or benedictions by clergy.  From Truman through Nixon, it was common to have 3 or 4 clergy, including usually a Protestant, a Catholic, maybe a Greek Orthodox and a Jew. That stopped with Jimmy Carter in 1977, and – except for Reagan’s second inaugural – the norm became two people only; Protestants dominated, led by Billy Graham. In George W. Bush’s inaugurals, one was African-American. Obama had the first woman and non-clergy, and the first megachurch pastor.

But this time we were presented with three clergy before and three after the inaugural address; a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, an African-American minister, a minister representing the Hispanic community and a non-denominational pastor who is a woman.

On the surface, what diversity!  But not really.  We are accustomed to diversity meaning skin color, ethnicity, and gender.  What about diversity of belief and practice?  Let’s look:

  • Protestant clergy #1, Franklin Graham, is head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization and Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization.
  • Protestant clergy #2, Wayne T. Jackson, is the ordained bishop of a large evangelical Pentecostal church, Great Faith Ministries International, in Detroit.
  • Protestant clergy #3, Samuel Rodriguez, is the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (Evangelical) and an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.
  • Protestant clergy #4, Paula White, is senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, and is a televangelist. She will head the new administration’s Evangelical Advisory Board. (Did you know there is such a board?)

All evangelicals; plus a Roman Catholic, Cardinal Dolan, and a Jew, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Los Angeles Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The speakers performed the expected duties of praying for the president, vice-president, and government, for the unity of the nation, and for peace. Two of the evangelicals expressed a sense of the diversity of the nation – one mentioning the poor and outcast, and another the many groups that live here as one, even reminding us of “We Shall Overcome” — though he mentioned Mahalia Jackson as the singer rather than the Civil Rights movement the song came to represent.

The New Destiny representative – identified in publicity as the president’s “spiritual advisor” – gave a nationalistic invocation, asserting the blessedness of the United States in God’s eyes. The United States was a country that “You have decreed to Your people.” “In every generation You have provided the strength and power to become that blessed nation.” “‘Thy kingdom come Thy will be done,’ the psalmist declared.”

That wasn’t the psalmist. But this isn’t so much New Destiny as a reworked version of the 19th century’s Manifest Destiny.  Not to be outdone, the Reverend Franklin Graham declared that “in the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing, and it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

I was startled too by some dramatic invocations of Jesus. As I participate in many interfaith events, I am accustomed to prayers “in Jesus’s name.” I appreciated Rev. Samuel Rodriguez saying “respectfully, in Jesus’s name,” as though he recognized that some in the audience might pray in another idiom. I was interested that Bishop Jackson invoked Solomon and Joseph as well as Jesus as models for the president, and he used the Jewish priestly blessing, even though “in the mighty name of Jesus.”  (Members of his congregation wear tallisim, Jewish prayer shawls, and he gave a gift of a tallit to Donald Trump during the campaign.)

But I was taken aback by Pastor Paula White’s initial “We come to You… in the name of Jesus,” and ending with “Glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.” I was shocked by the Reverend Graham choosing to recite a passage from 1 Timothy that included, “And it pleases God our Savior, Who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

I’m not sure what scenario is being written here. What does religious freedom look like to committed Christians, evangelistic in religious approach, conservative in politics?    We can easily guess on some issues, like abortion, but what else will fall under the purview of the Evangelical Advisors?  A member of this board reportedly rejoiced on election night that, for the first time in his life, he’ll now be able to share messages from God directly with the president of the United States.

That could make an interesting scene – another dramatic episode in the new reality film.

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