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Liberty can keep church from ‘cloud of oppression’comment (0)

July 4, 2013

By Andrew Westmoreland


Liberty can keep church from ‘cloud of oppression’

An interview with political scientist and Samford University President Andrew Westmoreland.

Q: What do you mean when you use the term religious liberty?

A: I’ll try to answer this question as I would in my introductory course in American politics. Let’s begin with the language of the U.S. Constitution, found in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As with most governing documents created over the centuries, this phrase left room for interpretation. The two clauses of this portion of the first amendment relate to “establishment” and “free exercise.” In the first case (establishment), the writers of the Constitution appear to have been intent on avoiding the creation of a “state church.” Our Baptist forbearers in Virginia were leading advocates of a similar provision when it was adopted by the General Assembly in 1786, and John Leland, a Baptist preacher, was an influential proponent of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to safeguard religious (and other) liberties. In the second case (free exercise), the amendment appears to offer protection from governmental interference as citizens practice their religious beliefs. We should note that the next clause of the first amendment protects the right to free speech, as the protection of speech is important to the practice of religion. Although the word “liberty” does not appear within either the establishment or free exercise clauses, “religious liberty” has evolved as the phrase to describe this segment of the amendment. It is at this point that a widely shared definition becomes a problem because Americans hold two very different views of liberty. One view is characterized as “negative liberty,” the belief that government should stay out of as much human activity as possible. (In my opinion, this seems to be the orientation of those who wrote the Constitution.) The opposing idea is known as “positive liberty,” which promotes the notion of government as an affirming actor in helping citizens to achieve personal fulfillment. These views create inevitable tension, which explains many of our deep divisions in American society today. My personal view of religious liberty is that the government should be severely restricted from inhibiting the faith practices of citizens. The “right” to pursue God existed before the adoption of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Q: In what ways is religious liberty important for the church; for civil government?

A: Religious liberty is important for the church because it means adherents do not have to live under a cloud of oppression in practicing their faith. In our case, that means that we are free to focus on doing the things Christ commanded us to do rather than fighting from day to day for our very survival. Religious liberty is beneficial for government because free people are less likely to revolt than those who are oppressed. As we see in so many totalitarian regimes around the world, people will find ways of practicing their religion, even in the most difficult circumstances. As a Christian, my primary commitment is to God through my relationship in Christ, whether I am a citizen of the United States or of any other nation on the globe. We find liberty in Christ, regardless of perceived freedoms found through the various systems of government. That knowledge ought to bolster our confidence in moments of despair.

Q: How can a non-religious person have religious freedom?

A: Through the protections of the establishment clause, all citizens are free from the requirement of any state-imposed religion, including those with no religious (or anti-religious) viewpoints. Of course, this has been a flash point over the past 50 years as citizens have tested the extent to which government can be perceived as endorsing religion, resulting in the debate over whether the intent of the Constitution is to offer freedom of religion or freedom from religion. In my view, the government has no place in the formal endorsement of religion, but the sometimes irrational pursuit of a strict wall of separation appears to result in the loss of unfettered speech for adherents to religion. In a free society, nonreligious voices and religious voices have equal standing. Another emerging question in this context is the provision of tax-exempt status for churches and religiously affiliated charities and educational institutions. Critics claim that the exemption constitutes direct governmental endorsement of religion. In the years ahead, I believe we will be called upon to defend this element of public policy as an important societal benefit. Of course, as the president of a church-related university, you would expect me to make the case that our country has benefitted from the longstanding practice of allowing tax deductions for gifts to churches and institutions. I do not believe that this is a violation of the establishment clause. 

Q: Why can’t the majority decide what a person can or cannot do in religion as is done in other areas?

A: We function in the United States within guiding principles that are under the heading of “majority rule and minority rights.” Without doubt, majorities (or pluralities, in some cases) determine the course of public policy, but we have also agreed as a society that certain rights are so important that they are protected against the possible tyranny of the majority. The establishment and free exercise portions of the first amendment afford this protection to religion. Perhaps there were times when Christians in the United States took this protection for granted. We may be entering an era in which our rights as a minority will become more important than ever.

Q: What are some examples of how religious liberty is protected in society?

A: On a day-to-day basis, we notice the protection of religious liberty most often through the parallel protection of speech. On weekends along Lakeshore Drive in Homewood, near a major shopping center, I regularly see a man (see photo, page 5)who has parked his vehicle and placed signs nearby, advocating his Christian faith. The displays may be irritating to some passersby, but I smile each time I see them because I am reminded that this gentleman is free to make his case. And despite the challenges we face today, few would argue that there are stronger havens of religious liberty than the United States.

Q: You have said that religious liberty in higher education is under attack. Can you give us examples of how it is being attacked, by whom and why?

A: Perhaps a better way to express this view is that religious liberty in higher education is in a long period of decline. Regardless of the terms employed to quantify this era, postmodern or even post-postmodern, it is clear that respect for Christian thought has declined within most colleges and universities. To those of us in the trenches, it can sometimes feel like an attack. At the heart of the divide is that adherents to religion — practically every religion — maintain affinity for a few core beliefs. In an academic world in which everything is relative, all arguments are accepted ... except those based in distinctions of faith and especially those based in faith in Christ. Laws that make no or insufficient allowance for the religious convictions of those who serve in institutions connected to faith communities will also serve to erode our religious liberty. A fully engaged and powerful government is best at one thing: promoting sameness. If institutions such as Samford become exactly like every state-managed university, we will have lost an important thread of diversity from the fabric of higher education.

Q: How are you defending religious liberty in Christian higher education against the current erosion?

A: I believe our best defense of religious liberty is for our faith-related institutions to produce such exceptionally strong graduates that those outside our walls are drawn to a deeper appreciation of our values. That means we must prepare our students with sufficient intellectual heft that they are known for their minds and their spirits. Too often in evangelical life we have neglected the significance of academic rigor with breadth and depth. Years ago my friend Mark Noll authored a book called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” The scandal, he said, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” We advance religious liberty and the Christian faith when Christians are fully equipped to thrive within the public square. There are no shortcuts.

Q: How can individuals protect religious liberty in America today?

A: The first requirement of a democracy is the continual education of the citizenry. At great peril, at least in my view, we have abandoned the teaching of history and the study of government. We owe it to ourselves and to those who laid down their lives for our country to regain our status as people who are educated in the history of nations and ideas. The precepts of our government may still be discovered by scraping away the layers of political spin, simplification and reinterpretation applied over the years. Our origins weren’t all pretty, they weren’t necessarily fair and in a few cases they were morally abhorrent, but the founders managed to create an exceptional framework for governing the lives of American citizens. The old story, perhaps apocryphal, about Ben Franklin emerging from the Constitutional Convention and responding to a question from a lady about the government they devised, sums up our present and future: “A republic,” Franklin said, “if you can keep it.” Keeping the republic is the challenge of every generation. If we don’t fully understand what we have inherited, how can we successfully hold on to it?

Q: What should churches be doing to teach the importance of religious liberty?

A: First, and I suppose that I am preaching to myself on this point, I think we need to be careful with entangling alliances that threaten our integrity and undermine our message. When Christians are called upon to speak truth to power, our influence is compromised if we are perceived as mere agents of political faction. We are free as citizens to voice whatever view we may hold, but we should avoid wrapping every public policy position within the banner of Christ. Second, I believe members of churches should be regular and faithful in reminding public officials at every level of the significance of religious liberty so that those who serve in government remember they have an obligation to continue to secure these freedoms. Authentic worship is always best when free of the control of government. Third, I think every church member should vote in every election and should enter the polling place fully informed on all issues and candidates.

Q: What role does religious liberty play in a pluralistic society?

A: It is a truism to say that the United States of today is vastly different than the nation of 1791, the year in which the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were ratified. Even at that time there were pervasive cultural and political differences throughout the country, but nothing to match the diversity of the nation today. In the face of these differences, and as a way to “just get along,” I see an emerging bumper sticker philosophy built around the virtues of tolerance and coexistence. Without doubt, these are important qualities to maintain in civil society, but I believe they pale in comparison to the significance of liberty. Tolerance implies acquiescence, perhaps offered grudgingly, to another point of view. But liberty precedes tolerance because without the freedom to develop and advance an opposing view there would be nothing to tolerate. The grinding away of differences in pursuit of an elusive harmony will lead to the dilution of thought — and ultimately to the erosion of many of the doctrinal distinctions upon which we base our faith. So how do we bridge this gap between Christ and culture? Follow Christ, understand and embrace the authority of Scripture and show God’s love to all in our path. Love trumps tolerance and outstrips the need for coexistence. We need to remember that nowhere in Scripture are we assured that it is an easy task to follow Christ. 

Q: In a pluralistic society, how can universal truth among the majority be determined and acknowledged in light of religious liberty?

A: This seems to become more difficult each day. Perhaps we could once make a claim to an understanding of “universal truth” in the broader society, but that does not appear to be the case today. In a rush to accept everything, we have valued nothing.

Q: On what basis does a community base its legal system in a pluralistic society committed to religious liberty?

A: Whether or not we choose to admit it, public policy is a complex web of winners and losers. We would hope that lawmakers arrive at decisions based on noble constructs, but the real basis for a legal system in a democracy is a functioning majority over a sustained period of time. By and large, evangelical Christians have fit within that functioning majority throughout the history of the United States. Whether we remain in the majority is the question of the moment. If not, we will be more reliant than ever on the constitutional rights established through the First Amendment. 

Q: How does one bring moral and ethical conclusions into the public square in a pluralistic society committed to religious liberty?

A: I am afraid that our current pluralistic society may not have an abiding commitment to religious liberty, but that only escalates the importance of raising our voices in the public square. How do we do that? Perhaps we need to look at the techniques that have not worked and then strike those from our list. In any debate in any age, the qualities of preparation, respect for your opponent, temperate speech and wisdom have helped to win the day. Jesus also modeled for us the effectiveness of a ready and apt parable. 

Q: Religious liberty and pluralism seem dedicated to the value of the individual. How does this emphasis relate to the value of the group?

A: Actually, I think pluralism may be tied more directly to the group identity of individuals rather than isolated human beings, but exploring that idea would lead into an even longer answer to your question. In discussing the distinctive value of individuals and groups, we again face the friction between liberty and equality. Speaking broadly, claims for liberty are often identified with individuals, whereas the impetus for equality usually stems from a larger identification with a group. Perhaps it is easier for everyone to grasp and support religious liberty for the individual because Americans are fond of saying that “we are all entitled to our opinion, even if it is wrong.” But differences are more difficult when groups clash because the stakes are higher and the debate has a wider audience. My great concern at this moment is for the preservation of religious liberty for groups. As Christians we must understand that we can only claim this protection if we are willing to support it for other groups within society, even if our beliefs are in stark contrast. My perception is that many, perhaps a majority, of Americans do not see Christians as advocates of the rights of free speech of their adversaries. This is a distorted view, I think, but the label has been fastened to us and perception has become reality.

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