Are RFRAs necessary for religious freedom?

Julia K. Stronks

Julia K. Stronks
April 5, 2015

A Christian understanding of religious freedom should advocate for pluralism - for others before ourselves.

April 6, 2015

"If we want to participate in shaping culture, we have to demonstrate that our concern for justice is not about 'just us.'”

Julia, I agree with you on this statement, and for my part, I often make a similar argument when backed into a corner about the state's involvement in legislating morality. I wrestle with this perspective a lot, though, because in my conversations with others whose opinion on these matters I disagree with I constantly butt heads with them over definition of terms. Many of the advocates for LGBT freedoms I encounter--and I only cite that particular example because it's the immediate instigator for the discussion here--do not define "justice" the same way that I do. Their understanding of justice is framed by a secular humanist worldview, which views human instincts as basically good, undergirded by a libertarian morality that insists that any curtailment of freedom is itself evil...period. But my understanding of justice is framed not by the authority of the state nor by majority opinion; it's based on the authority of God's Word. That's something on which I just don't get a vote, and I'm okay with that. Unfortunately, a lot of people I know are not okay with that.

At a more practical level, I often find that the people I disagree with are not content merely for me to consent to the state's legal protection of their right to behave in accordance with their beliefs. They want me to surrender my right to hold a contrary belief because, in their view, it is UNJUST for me to do so. They want to prevent me from teaching my children such a "hateful" worldview because to do so is unjust. We can never "agree to disagree" on this point and reach compromise because, even if they have the secular right to practice their beliefs as they see fit, their definition of justice will not permit me to continue to practice mine. I recognize, of course, that this is the very thing they detest from conservative Christians, and I certainly don't want to characterize all of the opposing voice as being represented by such individuals. But they are a very vocal minority, if not the actual majority of people I encounter.

I wonder...when the majority opinion and the authority of the state are wielded in such a way that justice itself is defined in a way that calls evil good and good evil, are Christians not obligated to resist the seizure of their religious freedom to believe otherwise?

I don't know, personally, where I come down on all of this right now. I want to take the humbler position advocated here. Alas...I fear there is too little honesty, too little humility, and too little rationality on BOTH sides of this argument for either civility or biblical morality to win.

April 6, 2015

"What about our rights?" What rights? Do Christians have rights? I thought we were either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ - I don't remember anything about having rights - certainly not the right to reject people because they live a lifestyle that we find sinful.

The freedom that we have, as Christians, doesn't grant us the ability to do whatever we want, it only frees us from the burden of our sin. But it enslaves us to be Christlike. How can rejecting our fellow humans because they do sinful things that we don't like be Christlike?

Aron Reppmann
April 6, 2015

Prof. Stronks, thank you for this very thoughtful and informative article.

Your emphasis that our concern for justice needs to be about more than "just us" raises a couple of connections for me, things I haven't been able to get out of my head as I listen to the news about the Indiana debate.

One is a passage from the New Testament letter of James: "If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:26-27). So true religion means 1) exercising restraint rather than going with one's own gut; 2) exercising special care for society's outcasts and vulnerable people; and 3) cultivating purity. It seems to me that much of the Indiana debate has focused only on a narrow reading of 3, and a deliberate ignoring of 1 and 2.

The other is something I wrote about in an earlier Think Christian piece about the distinction between positive and negative conceptions of freedom ("freedom-for" vs. "freedom-from"). The stance of those advocating for RFRAs seems to conceive freedom almost entirely in negative terms (I am free from doing this thing you want me to do) rather than asking what a positive understanding of religious freedom might lead to (I am freed up to do something I would not dare or imagine to undertake from within the boundaries of my own self-deception).

Doug Vande Griend
June 5, 2015

This is an excellent article. I would add only this: the Christians who spearheaded the passage of the federal RFRA were not thinking only of Christians, or even especially of Christians. They were thinking, as advocates of political pluralism, about good government. I'm not saying this as a mere claim but as one involved when RFRA was proposed, pushed for and passed. The case that prompted the RFRA effort was, after all, a case where these same Christians were defending a Native American religious ceremony right to smoke peyote. Hardly a Christian cause.

Sometimes, we (meaning Christians) like to characterize Chistians by Christianity's worst representatives and their actions or posture. There is nothing wrong in fairly representing Christians as a whole, even if that means casting Christians in an honest but favorable light.

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