An overwhelming three-fourths of Americans identify as religious. Listening to some religious conservatives in the U.S., though, one might think believers were a persecuted minority on the verge of extinction. In the name of protecting the sincerely held beliefs of religious Americans, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have introduced a spate of controversial religious-freedom legislation in recent months. But apparently Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren’t the only ones fighting ghosts in 2016. The problems these bills claim to solve don’t actually exist.
The Georgia Senate passed a religious freedom bill that critics say will allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT persons on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill is a combination of the Pastors Protection Act, which protects clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages, and the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow taxpayer-funded organizations to deny goods and services to gays and lesbians. Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal could sign the bill into law as early as next week.
But a new study of Georgians’ attitudes on the matter shows that most residents of the Southern state are opposed to at least part of the bill. Roughly 66 percent of Georgia residents say that LGBT persons should be protected against discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, and housing. This includes a majority of both Republicans and Democrats.
In Houston, Texas, a controversial “equal rights ordinance” failed last Tuesday. The legislation sought to ban discrimination based on more than a dozen classes of people, including gender identity and sexual orientation. It was dubbed the “bathroom bill” because critics said it would to offer any person access to a public bathroom whether intended for men or women. At issue, according to supporters was protection for a particular kind of citizen: transgender people.
Christians–particularly those of the more conservative variety–often oppose accommodations like this for transgender persons. But these believers are having a very important conversation in the wrong direction. When trying to understand transgender issues, Christians should start with the personal, not political. When Christians begin by committing to political goals rather than educating themselves on the complicated, sensitive nuances of this matter, they often come off looking privileged, mean, or just flat out clueless.
If you ask protestors in Baltimore why they’re so angry, they may tell you they’ve lost faith in the powers that be. But perhaps that is exactly what such a situation needs.
According to Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who directed security operations for the city of Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, faith may be the secret to solving racially-charged conflicts involving law enforcement. A man of deep religious conviction, Johnson was partially credited with helping ease tensions in the face of racial unrest. Now he says that the solution to the problems around us may be the faith inside us.
“In these situations, we need to talk about faith and not be ashamed of it,” he says. “That can be our strength.”
After learning of his appointment, Johnson prayed that God would give him a plan. He often opened press conferences and meetings with prayer. When he struggled under the weight of discouragement, he would often end up on his knees and in tears. Johnson supports practical reforms such as body cameras and increased police accountability, but he believes many of our deeper problems are spiritual in nature. [tweetable]If a problem is spiritual, so too is its solution.[/tweetable]
ThIs idea should resonate with those who closely followed the Baltimore riots. After protests devolved into looting and destruction of property, more than 100 faith leaders stepped into the streets to model a better way. Following the unrest, clergy have been leading efforts to create dialog on police reform, jobs, and education.
In Ferguson, religious leaders also helped promote peace. At Q conference, a gathering of Christian leaders meeting in Boston last week, Johnson said that clergy were “voices of calm” during that crisis. He believes they can be powerful partners for reform and reconciliation in similar situations.
“What we’ve seen across this country is ministers coming outside their church walls in numbers and connecting with people, and that’s been such a powerful voice,” Johnson said. “It is like having a street revival, and people listen.”
These clergy are successful, in part, because they can draw wisdom from time-tested sacred texts. Johnson notes that the Bible’s story of hope in difficulty is sewn throughout its pages.
“When we’re searching for what to say, it’s right there [in the Bible],” he says. “No matter what the situation is or what the need is, it’s there.”
Ten years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian Americans can be wed in 35 states and the District of Columbia (Florida will boost that number to 36, starting Tuesday). This year, the Supreme Court may put an end to the skirmish by legalizing what progressives call “equality” and conservatives dub a “redefinition” of this cherished social institution.
The court last ruled on gay marriage in 2013 when the justices gutted much of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor and delivered a massive blow to anti-gay marriage advocates. Since then, the court has acted by not acting — in effect, doubling the number of states where gay marriage is legal, from 17 to 35, by refusing to hear a slew of appeals last year.
In November, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld gay marriage bans in four states, which will almost certainly require the high court to decide the issue once and for all.
Conservative Christians have been among the most ardent opponents of gay marriage and rights for decades. How will they respond if the Supreme Court makes gay marriage legal nationwide?
The answer, it turns out, depends on which Christian you’re speaking to.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has become a leading face for the next generation of Christians opposed to gay marriage. He expects the court to take up marriage this year, and is not optimistic about how they’ll rule given the Windsor decision.
What’s the surest way conservative pastors can avoid ever having to perform government-mandated gay marriages? According to one prominent religious journal and a growing number of ministers, the answer is not to perform any civil marriages at all.
First Things, a conservative religious publication, has launched a movement encouraging pastors to refuse to perform marriages as representatives of the state. A signing statement called “The Marriage Pledge” has been posted to their website where ministers can affix their names electronically. It was drafted by Ephraim Radner, an ordained Anglican and professor of historical theology at Toronto School of Theology’s Wycliffe College, and Christopher Seitz, an ordained Episcopalian priest and senior research professor at Wycliffe.
“In many jurisdictions, including many of the United States, civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female pairing,” the pledge says. “In a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will become the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with women.”
The lawyers who represented Hobby Lobby in their legal fight against Obamacare’s contraception mandate got what they wanted, but not exactly what they expected, from the Supreme Court today. Though they did not receive the unanimous decision they hoped for, the arts and craft retailer still won their case by a margin of 5-4.
As sports fans often say following a narrow victory, “a win is a win is a win.”
But those who follow such things know the Hobby Lobby case was just one crest in a larger wave of religious freedom battles sweeping through American courts and culture. So what is next in terms of religious liberty now that the Hobby Lobby case is behind us?
1. Non-profit contraception coverage: In terms of the Supreme Court, the Little Sisters of the Poor will be next up to bat. The order of Catholic nuns with thirty homes in the United States are headlining a group of non-profit organizations challenging the contraception mandate just like Hobby Lobby did with other for-profit business. Their case is about a year behind Hobby Lobby’s, but today’s decision tilts fate in their favor.
By Preston Sprinkle and Jonathan Merritt
After a botched execution in Oklahoma left an inmate writhing for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack last week, Christian leaders began making their cases both for and against the death penalty. As with any time Christians debate political issues, it felt a bit like Ping-Pong—except opponents in this game swing Bibles instead of paddles.
Pro-death penalty believers grounded their position in the Old Testament’s call for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder. Christians who oppose the death penalty countered with Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking and his acquittal of the adulterous woman.
“But what about Romans 13?,” some protested, referring to the Apostle Paul’s remarks that the government does not “bear the sword in vain.”
So who should we side with–Jesus or Paul?
For Christians who believe the Spirit of Jesus inspired Paul to write Romans 13, the answer is both. But how then do we reconcile the apparent contradiction between loving our enemies (Jesus) and killing them (Paul)? The answer, it turns out, requires a bit of digging into Paul’s letter to the Romans.
After this week’s botched execution in Oklahoma, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued why Christians should support the death penalty at CNN.com. Grounding his argument in Genesis 9:6, where Noah is told that anyone guilty of intentional murder should be put to death, Mohler says, “The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.”
In my experience, most Christian pro-death penalty advocates make similar arguments, rooting themselves in Old Testament teaching. On occasion, they buffet their thinking with a somewhat cryptic reference to the government’s ability to “bear the sword” to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” by the Apostle Paul. Rarely, will anyone cite Jesus’ teachings.
Mohler is a capable theologian and a thinker I respect. And I have many intelligent friends who support the death penalty. Yet, I think it is problematic for Christians to root their support of capital punishment in the Jewish Scriptures.
Such thinking requires a bit of arbitrary Biblical picking and choosing. Sure, the Old Testament prescribes death for anyone who commits pre-meditated murder. But it doesn’t stop there. The Hebrew Scriptures also prescribe the death penalty for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:12), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), making a sacrifice to a false god (Exodus 22:20), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual behavior (Leviticus 20:13), and premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
A priest was instructed to burn his daughter alive if she was guilty of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9). If a “son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” entices you to practice a false religion, they were instructed to “show them no pity” and “stone them to death” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Do you have rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) or kids who’ve hit or cursed you (Exodus 21:15-17)? Off with their heads!
Have you worked on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)? Try using your skills to bang license plates on death row.
Are you a banker who lends money with a high interest rate to make a profit (Ezekiel 18:13)? See you on the other side.
I am being humorous here, but the random picking and choosing of when to apply the Old Testament provisions for capital punishment is serious business that requires serious thought.
For example, what of the command in Deuteronomy 17:6 that someone could only be put to death on the evidence of two or three witnesses? Why don’t pro-death penalty advocates who ground their thinking in the Old Testament also require this provision before they support an execution? And what about the fact that in most of these cases a monetary substitute was allowed if the offender agreed to it? My pro-death penalty friends can’t seem to give me a clear answer on this.
The Green family, owners of the 609 Hobby Lobby stores, are to conservative Christianity what the Kardashians are to the E! network: poster children.
The billionaire believers are outspoken Christians who claim to run their company based on the teachings of the Bible and spend at least one-third of the company’s annual profits on evangelical causes. On March 25th, the Greens prayed together before entering the Supreme Court to argue that their $3.3 billion for-profit business should receive a religious exemption from the Obamacare contraception mandate. Conservative evangelicals everywhere were interceding with them.
Given the way the Green’s fight with the federal government has rallied so many believers, one might assume the 77% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian overwhelmingly support the Greens and the battle against contraception. (Hobby Lobby continues to provide insurance coverage for 16 forms of birth control but object to any form of contraception that would terminate a fertilized egg.)
But many believers—namely Christian women—don’t see the issue quite the same way.
New analysis of previously released data shows a sizable gender gap among Christians on employer provided contraception.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll of 1,009 Americans, 60 percent of Christian women agree “all employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost.” The survey also shows that a majority of Americans—including Catholics and white mainline Protestants—support requiring employers to provide health care that includes free contraception.