Category Archives: religious freedom

Thomas Kidd on Why He Agreed to Counsel Marco Rubio on Religious Liberty


Thomas Kidd’s recent biography of George Whitefield

Many of you have probably heard by now that Baylor historian Thomas Kidd joined GOP hopeful Marco Rubio’s team as an advisor to him on religious liberty issues. Rubio is smart to call on Kidd, an evangelical Christian, respected historian, and prolific writer on American religious history.

Kidd has doubtless taken some heat from his admirers and colleagues for agreeing to serve on Rubio’s advisory board. He is a thoughtful person, and I’m sure he carefully considered the invitation before agreeing to accept it. Rubio will certainly be well served by Kidd, and I am more than certain that Kidd will help Rubio to appreciate the liberal arts a bit more than when he made his infamous disparaging statement about philosophy this past November.

Here’s a portion of what Kidd had to say about joining Rubio in his Anxious Bench column today–

I can imagine some readers asking, why would I join such a board for a presidential campaign? I have written often about how politics is not ultimately the answer to much of anything, and how Christians in particular should not be searching for a political messiah.

Nevertheless, politics matters. We have some exquisitely bad candidates in the 2016 field who need challenging. So when Eric Teetsel, Rubio’s Director of Faith Outreach, asked me to serve on the board, I was intrigued.

Why did I say yes? 3 reasons:

Read his entire post here.

I have always respected Kidd as a Christian, a family man, and a scholar–and benefited tremendously from his writings, as many, many of us have. He continues to demonstrate his circumspection and care as he starts down this path.


What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.

Princeton Bound

I’m headed out to attend the Witherspoon Institute’s seminar on Religion and Liberty in the Founding Era in Princeton, NJ the week of July 27. It’s going to be an incredibly helpful seminar, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The seminar faculty will include Thomas Kidd from Baylor University, Daniel Dreisbach from American University, and Gerald McDermott from Roanoke College. For me, it’s really one of most unique educational and professional opportunities I’ve ever had.

To prepare for the seminar, the participants are reading The Sacred Rites of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American F0unding, edited by Dreisbach and Mark David Hall. Here are the readings we are going to be discussing on the morning of the first day:

  • Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed
  • Schleitheim Confession of Faith
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Act of Supremacy; Act of Uniformity; Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England
  • Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
  • The First London Baptist Confession of Faith
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  • William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience
  • John Locke, “A Letter on Toleration,” The Second Treatise
  • “Cato” [John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon], Cato’s Letters, Letter 66, “Arbitrary Government proved incompatible with true Religion, whether Natural or Revealed”
  • Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
  • William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

We’ll be working our way through all that week until the afternoon of August 1 to our last reading, which is from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Here is the description for the seminar–

This five-day seminar will examine the relationship between religion and politics in the period of the American Revolution, founding, and early republic. Open to untenured faculty and post-doctoral scholars in history, political theory, law, and religion, the seminar will explore primary sources at the intersection of church and state—charters, constitutions, and legal texts, as well as sermons, pamphlets, essays, speeches, debates, and religious texts. Topics will range from the colonial era and the First Great Awakening, through the revolution, constitution-making, and founding debates over religious liberty, to the dawn of the Second Great Awakening, with a view of politics from a religious perspective, and a view of religion from a political perspective. From Edwards to Emmons, from Mather to Madison, from Whitefield to Washington, major figures of this pivotal era in American religious and political history will be considered in their own historical settings. The seminar faculty will be leading scholars of American history, law and politics, and theology.

I’ll have to take a week off from my writing, but it’ll be all right–I’ve budgeted my writing time this summer around my seminar prep time as well as the week away. When I leave on the 27th, I’ll have 7 of my 9 chapters completed. Closing in on finishing up, and very excited to have the exceptionalism book done.

Do Equality and Fairness Trump Religious Freedom?

The Illinois legislature legalized same-sex marriage recently–starting on June 1 of next year, same-sex couples will be able to solemnize their relationships in state recognized ceremonies. Advocates stress that churches need not worry, that dissenting churches and clergy will not be required to honor requests by same-sex couples to perform weddings or to use their church facilities for the same.

That’s fine, but as Robert Gilligan writes over at RealClearReligion, religious freedom is not merely contained within the four walls of a church. Religious freedom means just that–everyone has the freedom to hold to their belief systems and exercise those systems as their consciences direct them, just as it is articulated in the First Amendment and driven home in the Fourteenth. But the new law has no provisions recognizing religious freedom outside the church. Businesses, individuals, and faith based organizations outside the church are not protected from dire consequences if they dissent against same-sex marriage.This is alarming, given the fact that dissent against the new definition of marriage has become a new unforgivable heresy.

Here is a section of Gilligan’s piece

It’s all good, lawmakers assured faith groups and religious organizations. Your religious freedom is secure.

Where have we heard that before?

How about three years ago, when Illinois lawmakers promised during floor debate on civil unions legislation that no faith-based social service organizations would be affected. But within six months of civil unions becoming law, all Catholic Charities in the state were pushed out of their longtime mission of caring for abused, abandoned, and neglected children. The state refused to renew contracts for foster care and adoption services because of Charities’ religious belief of not placing children with unmarried couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual.

We know better this time. We know our religious freedom is not protected. And when we asked for more protection, our pleas for fairness were rebuffed and spurned.

What we are seeing in the culture then, is not only a redefinition of marriage, but also a redefinition of religious freedom. Religious freedom has been understood since Locke in the 17th century and before, as an individual right bestowed on each person by God at birth. The right of the individual conscience is a natural right, and the individual is responsible to none but God for the content of his faith. Now, under the new orthodoxy of “equality” and “fairness” which is being thrust upon us, religious freedom means government toleration of your faith system as long as it stays chastened within the four walls of the church.

Constantine and the Edict of Milan 1,700 Years On

This massive bust of Constantine is about 8 feet tall

Can you imagine Pope Francis counseling the heads of Western governments to heed the example of Constantine, the Roman emperor in the early 4th century? Neither can Peter Leithart, author of Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic, 2010). In this piece over at First Things, Leithart reflects on the contrast between how Constantine was viewed in the West at the 1,600 year anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 1913 with how he is viewed by contemporary Westerners at the 1,700 year mark today. What a difference a hundred years makes.

Here is a taste–

[Pope] Pius [X in 1913] wasn’t dealing in hypotheticals. Given his testy international relations with Italy, France, and Russia, it’s not difficult to identify his targets, and he used Constantine’s anniversary to exhort Christian rulers to finish what the first Christian king began. As late as the sexdecentennial, Constantine was still a symbol potent enough to have a role in ongoing political struggles.

At the septendecentennial, not so much. Constantine has nothing like the political heft he had only a century ago. I can’t see Francis invoking Constantine when advising Merkel, Obama, or Putin. During the past nine months, there have been more media references to DC Comics’ John Constantine than to the Emperor. Most news articles about Constantine have tracked the comings and goings of his head, now safely back in York after a year on display in Italy.

That’s a boon for Constantine scholarship. Freed from the need to defend or demonize, scholars can assume that Constantine was a Christian and get down to the business of sifting sources, analyzing his achievements, and tracing the accompanying changes in the Church. Politically moribund, Constantine can be pinned like a butterfly and formulated. The result is a more dispassionate, detailed, and accurate picture of Constantine than we’ve had for centuries.

From the fourth century to the twenty-first, the line between pro- and anti-Constantinians has been one of the fissures running through Western political and cultural history. From the beginning, he polarized. Pagans like Julian hated him for undermining the empire; Christians like Eusebius celebrated him for his pious devotion to the true God. He liberated the Church from persecutors, but over time became a symbol of the Church’s enslavement to empire. Millions honor him for saving orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea, while others complain that he imprisoned the gospel in a Hellenic creed. Critics of the papacy attacked Constantine because they believed he had granted imperial powers to the Pope.

Leithart argues in his book that Constantine’s contribution to the Church and to Western civilization was, overall, a positive one. He rejects the argument that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity was an indispensable factor in the later corruption of the Church. It is an interesting read because, at least in the free church tradition, Leithart’s position is often the outlier.

I agree with Leithart that the renewed interest in Constantine among scholars is a positive development. Like Leithart, I hope that this interest extends beyond the academy, and will bring awareness to the continuing reality of the curtailment of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians worldwide.

"Who Cares?"

That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) response to Michelle Bachmann’s (R-MN) comments on the Supreme Court ruling which struck down DOMA. Bachmann said in a statement, “Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted.” When asked what she thought of Bachmann’s statement, Pelosi shrugged her shoulders and drily remarked, “Who cares?”

Before you conclude that you are about to read a post defending Michelle Bachmann, let me assure you that you have nothing to fear. What I want to point out here is really a stunning and fearful reality that we as a culture have entered.

Notice what went on here with Pelosi’s statement. A member of the United States Congress expresses her view on a major ruling handed down by the highest court in the land. That Congresswoman’s view is informed by her religious beliefs, specifically, that there is a higher authority than that of the government to which all are accountable. Rep. Bachmann was expressing a religious assertion in objective terms, meaning, if she is correct, that assertion applies to all and if incorrect, that assertion applies to none. Rep. Bachmann made this statement as a citizen of the United States, and as a public servant. No matter what your political or religious views, these facts are beyond dispute.

When Pelosi–another member of Congress, a colleague of Bachmann’s, indeed, the Minority Leader–was asked her response, she did not do so with another objective assertion challenging the one Bachmann offered. She did not care what Bachmann said, and was unafraid and unashamed to say so. Furthermore, the response she got was laughter from the other members of Congress who were joining her on the dais.

Political commitments and party affiliation aside, this is an alarming little incident. It is alarming because here you have the utter dismissal of religion and the religious assertions of a citizen and member of Congress by one of the highest ranking officials in the government. “Who cares?” she said. What has happened in our culture is that religious people–and religion, by extension–have become a joke because religious assertions are seen as completely irrelevant, useless, rubbish.

When something is considered rubbish, it is discarded with the other rubbish. If religious assertions are viewed as useless, then what happens to the freedom to make those religious assertions? Well, there’s no use for that either, so it gets thrown away also. Of course, it perfectly fine to throw conservative religious views to the trash heap. But does it stop there? When the freedom of some is discarded, can the freedom of any be maintained?

Don’t be so alarmist, you say. It was only Pelosi laughing at Bachmann, not Pelosi denying anyone’s religious freedom. OK, that’s probably true. But while that may be true, there is much more here than meets the eye. Everyone in this country should be concerned when the dearly held religious beliefs of a citizen are cast aside as a punchline by a member of the US Congress. Instead of laughing at Bachmann, we should all sit up and take notice. Next time, it may be your dearly held beliefs that are tossed aside by the state. And when that happens, when does it stop?

The Conflict Between Religious and Sexual Freedom

Today’s Supreme Court ruling striking down DOMA will have all the obvious enormous repercussions in society. One of the not-so-obvious repercussions has to do with its impact on religious freedom. Benjamin Domenech argues in this post over at RealClearReligion that the problem with gay marriage is emphatically not that gay people are getting married. It’s also not that marriage itself is being redefined in society (although that is disturbing.) The problem with gay marriage is that it touches directly on the First Amendment’s guarantee that the “free exercise” of religion will not be “prohibited.” Adherents to faith systems that take homosexuality to be ontologically aberrant, and thus, objectively immoral will necessarily be shut out of the public discourse. Not only will marriage be redefined to include same-sex relationships, religious freedom will be defined as merely “freedom of worship,” safely stashed within the four walls of a church.

Here is a taste of Domenech’s piece:

So the real issue here is not about gay marriage at all, but the sexual revolution’s consequences, witnessed in the shift toward prioritization of sexual identity, and the concurrent rise of the nones and the decline of the traditional family. The real reason Obama’s freedom to worship limitation can take hold is that we are now a country where the average person prioritizes sex far more than religion. One of the underestimated aspects of the one out of five Americans (and one out of three Millennials) who are now thoroughly religiously unaffiliated is that, according to Barna’s research, they aren’t actually seekers. They’re not looking or thinking about being part of a community focused on spirituality, in prayer, fellowship, worship, or anything else. Their exposure to faith is diminished because they want it to be.

In a nation where fewer people truly practice religion, fewer people external to those communities will see any practical reason to protect the liberty of those who do. The world could in time come full circle to Mrs. Campbell’s old line: You are free to believe, as long as you don’t do it in the streets, so as not to frighten the horses.

We hear talk of living in a “post-Christian” society. I have my problems with that description, but one thing is certain–we have returned to the state in Western culture that existed in pre-Christian Europe: religious syncretism, subjective morality, and Christianity relegated to the outskirts of culture and law.

How the church responded to these realities in the second through fourth centuries, and again in the fifth through eleventh centuries, determined the subsequent direction of Western culture that has lasted a thousand years. How will the church respond this time?