Tag Archives: Hosanna-Tabor

Words Have Meanings

Americans have a bad habit of assuming things. For example, they assume that the First Amendment protects religious liberty. They expect not to be taken to jail for praying on a street corner. They expect nobody will care if they give someone a Christian tract in a mall. Americans think it is quite normal to start meetings of a city council and the US Congress with prayer, because of the First Amendment. They even believe that the First Amendment protects conscientious objectors from fighting in combat. The claim of religious faith on daily life has been consistently been respected in the culture and protected by the law. The US has claimed from its inception to be a nation of laws, not men.

There is reason to be concerned today about the future of religious liberty. The First Amendment isn’t going anywhere, but religious liberty is at risk. Nobody is trying to arrest Christians for going to church. The attack is coming from a different corner. The attack is being launched by bringing up a discussion of the meaning of the word religion.

You may have heard children or college students engage in arguments about definitions. If so, you know that if one contender is determined not to be boxed into a definition, it cannot be done. There is always yet another twist to some word or phrase that allows the wily debater to slither away. The introductory arguments for a definition of the word religion make it clear that the meaning of the First Amendment could change dramatically if Christian lawyers are not as wise as the serpents on the other side of the argument.

Brian Murray has written a very important post at Public Discourse on the subject of what the Hosanna-Tabor case in the Supreme Court contributes to the body of law surrounding the First Amendment. He specifically mentions the issues that have arisen due to the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. According to his view, the cases surrounding the employer mandate have “reignited the debate about the definition of religion.” If you didn’t know that there is a discussion about that definition, consider yourself warned.

The legal profession has always been deeply engaged in discussions of definitions. The ability to make words mean what they must mean in order to prevail in court is the mark of a good lawyer. In the argument about religious liberty and the way the Affordable Care Act diminishes it, it truly is important to have a definition of the word religion, but Christian lawyers must be assertive in that discussion. Otherwise, religious liberty as Americans have known it will disappear.

It is clear to any attentive observer, and Murray confirms, that the present administration considers religion to be confined to “inward, private belief.” Murray further confirms that, for most Christians, religion is “just the opposite of the administration’s emphasis on private belief.” Most Christians believe that faith in Christ creates an imperative to live by the principles of faith and to share the faith with other people. The two views contrast sharply, and the two definitions imply very different interpretations of the term free exercise when applied to religion.

In today’s climate, with administration pressure to achieve some specific social objectives by using the force of law to compel politically desirable behaviors, it is dangerous for Christians to assume that it is enough to assert First Amendment protection for religious activity. While cultural pressure in opposition to sharing the good news may arise from time to time, Christians have not been pressured to refrain from sharing their faith or from making attempts to persuade non-believers to convert. If a definition of religion as a purely private matter were to prevail in the courts, the low-key cultural rejection of evangelism could become much stronger, as has happened in numerous countries where a secular definition holds sway.

The current administration’s definition has much more in common with the strictly secular definition of religion that prevails in the courts of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan than with the definition held by the founding fathers of the USA. In those countries, the government requires churches to register their buildings and provide lists of members. Every month, pastors must report every meeting held and who attended. Pastors must provide advance notice of planned meetings.  Some churches prefer the risk of going underground and meeting in secret to the risk of giving the government all the information required of the registered churches. American citizens have never had to contemplate such choices, because Americans have never defined religion as something to be kept out of sight.

Have you ever heard anyone complain that Christians are too public with their faith? Do you know anyone who thinks that Christian employers have no right to refuse to offer coverage for medical services and pharmaceuticals that conflict with the teachings of their faith? Have you observed any Christian being accused of wrong-doing for refusing to participate in activities, such as wedding ceremonies for same-sex pairs? All these situations are set up by a definition of religion as nothing more than a privately-held philosophy. What can you do to influence continuing religious liberty in the USA?


Your Testimony in the Court of Public Opinion

When Trayvon Martin was shot, there was a media rush to announce the public opinion that George Zimmerman was a murder, and a racist murderer at that. Many of the slurs against Zimmerman that passed for actual charges of which the reports convicted him have since been debunked. The court of public opinion is not a very good place for achieving justice.

There is not much justice in the court of public opinion for Christians either. Christians are under fire for being narrow-minded and disconnected from reality. They are accused of meddling in things that have nothing to do with Christianity, and they are accused of not being Christian by people who do not know what a Christian is. Christians often feel rejected and belittled, at the very least. Sometimes they feel positively oppressed. The court of public opinion is not rendering much justice any case involving Christians.

Let’s look at the charges.

Christians are narrow-minded and disconnected from reality.

A prime example of this accusation is found in the ongoing discussion of whether an adoption agency can be compelled to place children with gay couples. Advocates of the LGBT agenda contend that it is illegal and immoral for Christian adoption agencies to refuse to place children with gay couples. They accuse Christians of narrow-minded bigotry in their unwillingness to approve gay couples as adoptive parents. LGBT advocates believe that Christian agencies have no right to implement rules for adoptive parents based on the Christian view that homosexuality is a sin. (It should be noted that Christians today are not of one mind about this. However, acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual expression by any Christian group is very recent, and the vast majority of Christian groups continue to classify homosexuality as sin.)

Christians like to meddle in things that have nothing to do with Christianity.

Even though the Supreme Court decided in favor of the church in Hosanna-Tabor public opinion considered the decision unjust. The core of the case was a question about the employment contract between a teacher and a church. The teacher signed a hiring contract that included a requirement that she submit any disputes about the terms of her employment to arbitration within the church. This contract amounted to a prohibition to go outside the church with any such dispute. However, when the church ruled against the teacher in a dispute, the teacher went to the EEOC with her complaint against her employer. The terms of the contract into which the teacher entered of her own free will led ultimately to the determination against the government. In the court of public opinion, there was considerable dismay that the contract was not set aside in the courts, because public opinion did not like the idea that the church was able to enforce such a contract. Public opinion felt that terms of employment are precisely the sort of thing churches ought to stay out of and leave to the government. What do terms of employment, the public asks, have to do with Christianity?

Christians are accused by non-Christians of not being Christian when Christians assert moral principles at odds with popular political and social agendas.

This problem is expressed on a broad range of issues. Non-Christians seize on a Christian teaching such as “Love your neighbor,” and accuse Christians of not loving their neighbors when they call their neighbor’s behavior “sinful.” It is likely that Christians contribute to the problem when they react with anger and outrage, but non-Christians do not understand that Christians can reject the behavior without hating the person. Christians can call homosexuality “sin” while simultaneously inviting homosexuals to church or while continuing to befriend a homosexual neighbor. A Christian can rejoice in the birth of a baby to an unmarried couple without condoning the fact that they live together without marriage. Non-Christians seem to believe that we cannot love people with whom we differ. More important, they believe that we DO NOT love our neighbors who engage in behavior we call “sin.” We probably need to work on our behavior and speech, but we probably also need to accept the fact that most people will continue to call us bigots for not approving and accepting all behavior we consider to be sin.

In the court of public opinion, these charges are made and the media reports conclusions without much published testimony from Christians. How are we to offer a defense against the accusations?

It is not likely we will ever refute these arguments once and for all. The arguments do not spring full-blown from the thinking of human philosophers. These arguments are the same arguments our enemy Satan has leveled against us from the beginning. When you boil all the accusations down to their essence, Christians believe they should listen to God, and Satan wants us to stop listening to God. It is the argument Satan used against Eve when he asked, “Did God say that? Well, he lies.” (My free paraphrase of Genesis 3:1-5)

Probably the touchiest issue is to be able to disagree respectfully and sustain love for the person with whom we disagree. Our opponents do not make it easy. In public discourse there is a lot of completely illogical speech. Too many people have been called “racist” or “bigoted” simply because they disagree with public opinion. It would be wonderful if that sort of thing could be ended. It can’t. If you speak or act to defend Christian teaching or Christian values in the court of public opinion, you need to be ready to cope with mindless name-calling.

Our only real defense against these accusations is to live lives that faithfully demonstrate the love of Christ for all people. When people say terrible things about us, when people lie about us, when people make fun of us and act as if we are immature children who believe fairy tales, it is easy to become angry. Satan loves it when that happens. It simply proves his point. The big challenge before us is to trust Christ completely. If we remember that he said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” then we will be able to respond lovingly to name-calling and public scorn. We don’t need to be doormats. We do need to be loving at all times. When we don’t quite know what to do, we need to ask ourselves what will show Christ to those who see us.