Do Christians Really Support Religious Liberty? (Part Two)

Instead of advocating religious liberty, maybe Christians are really in the business of advocating a form of liberty closer to that defended by the American Civil Liberties Union

“If one Christian baker will make a wedding cake for a gay couple and another baker won’t, how is government supposed to decide? Christians who take faith so personally and without regard to what a church teaches or to what their fellow believers confess and observe give government almost no remedy for accommodating them.”

 

The first of this two-part series raised questions about an understanding of religion that so stresses morality as to undermine personal liberty. If Christians want the freedom to express their religious convictions in public life, and if those religious convictions include moral norms that prevent the liberties of other citizens, then someone can well ask whether Christians support religious liberty but only for the people with the correct morality.

A second difficulty for Christian advocacy of religious liberty relates again the dominant way that believers construe faith. In many of the cases surrounding religious liberty, the legal question comes down to freedom of conscience. Does a Christian business owner have to provide health insurance that covers procedures or treatments that violate specific moral norms (e.g. Hobby Lobby)? Or what about a baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding? If forced to provide services, have legal authorities violated the baker’s religious liberty?

If religion is simply what a person believes about the meaning of life or ultimate things, perhaps these examples constitute violations of religious liberty? But what if faith, especially Christianity, is not so personal? What if it is corporate or communal? Take the case of observant Jews who follow certain dietary laws. If a case arose where government required a Jewish baker to use bacon fat in the creation of a certain recipe for scones, officials would have an easier time spotting where religious convictions and personal interpretations of faith divided. The reason is that sacred texts, a long history, and community norms inform orthodox Jewish activities.

But this is not so for many American Christians where for each believer the application of religious norms can be a very personal and idiosyncratic affair.

The problem with very personal readings of Christianity is that government has a difficult time making provisions for so many different interpretations. If one Christian baker will make a wedding cake for a gay couple and another baker won’t, how is government supposed to decide? Christians who take faith so personally and without regard to what a church teaches or to what their fellow believers confess and observe give government almost no remedy for accommodating them. How can government tailor policy for every single evangelical’s understanding of the demands of the moral law? Far easier is it for courts to reckon with a religious body that has teachings, institutions, and structures that allow judges to see what a religion requires and to determine who belongs to that religion or not.

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