The Diocese of Charlotte has posted two large banners near the site of the Democratic National Convention. One reads, “A message from the Catholic Church: Protect the Unborn, Defend Marriage, Safeguard Religious Liberty.” The other says, “A Message from the Catholic Church: Religious Liberty, The Soul of Democracy.” See CatholicCulture.org
Whether these banners are promoting the same concept of religious liberty is up for debate.
“Religious Liberty” is a hot topic this election cycle even though that terms means drastically different things depending on who you talk to. Some people believe that their religious liberty is “under threat” because they feel that society is out of their righteous control.Their liberty is under threat because a Muslim congregation wants to build a Mosque, courts do not acknowledge the primacy of their faith, they can’t require secular institutions to bow their heads in prayer, and they can’t stop others from using birth control.
The flip side is the religious liberty rights of the Muslim congregation that wants a house of worship just like other faith groups have, a member of a minority faith who is ignored in favor of the majority, parents whose children have to listen to prayers that contradict family teachings, and people who have no religious objection to birth control.
United Church of Christ Rev. Emily Heath has prepared a 10-question quiz on the Huffington Post that illustrates whether one’s religious liberty is really threatened, or whether they may actually be threatening the religious liberty of others.
The current “religious liberty” debate is framed by arguments from the Vatican, Mormon hierarchy, and evangelicals that their religious liberty is being threatened by public policies involving contraception, abortion, and whether same-sex couples should have the civil right to marry. Rightly or wrongly, this approach pits rights against rights and the winning side will gain tremendous political, legal, and social territory.
Others approach “religious liberty” as a matter of collective versus individual rights. In this scenario, those who value individual rights will agree that there is freedom for things that they may personally find morally and religious repugnant but that do not adversely affect others. Others believe that if the church is to regain its rightful place in society, they must actively use the government to block certain activities occurring elsewhere in society to preserve the general authority of their faith.
In 2008, where the Republican platform in parts sounded like a religious sermon, the Democratic Party’s platform mentioned God only one time:
“We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”
For 2012, the DNC platform mentioned faith based organizations but removed the term “God-given.” “God-given” is not a particularly theological term and certainly does not imply a religious endorsement but hand-wringers from the DNC removed it for whatever reason. Conservatives took it as an offensive symbolic gesture pointing toward a preference of atheism and the DNC ended up adding it back to the platform although the vote was hardly unanimous.
The idea that American conservatives should champion the ideas of smaller government and bigger religion is trending in 2012 and shows no signs of slowing down. On the other hand, American liberals are moving toward a concept of bigger government and smaller religion. Neither is great – the best answer is to recognize that religion and politics enjoy separate, yet important, spheres of influence.
I see the confusion of politics and religion as one of the greatest barriers to grace. C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.
Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 233