11. Why a Wise Public Theology Matters

The Danger we Face

When I began this series of posts on The Naked Public Square, one of my favorite people told me my work was unnecessary. “No one really wants to exclude Christians from the public square!” was his or her opinion. Unfortunately, this observation is incorrect. For some time, the secular far-left has been trying drive Christian principles and Christians from the Public Square. For example, in one recent incident, left-wing Senators tried to block a person from a judicial appointment due to their Catholic faith and membership in the Knights of Columbus. [1] The person was a distinguished lawyer, well-qualified for the appointment, and ultimately confirmed.[2]

One tactic that has been used is to brand any conservative group that disagrees with the left’s social agenda a “hate group” and then attempt to block nominees on that basis. Conservative think tanks, for example, have been so labeled. [3] Another tactic is to malign Christians as not believing in science if they do not believe in evolution. Most recently, the faith of the Vice President was attacked as disqualifying him from leading the President’s Covid 19 response team. [4] One left-wing politician observed that he must be disqualified because he does not believe in science. [5]

Those who study history and philosophy know that, historically, antagonism to the Christian religion was characteristic of the first 300 years of Church History. After Constantine, Christian faith was protected, and during the Middle Ages Europe was both Christian and Catholic. Beginning with the Reformation, Europe began to experience a questioning of faith, which in France particularly became a full-blown opposition in the hands of some  Enlightenment thinkers. In postmodern Europe, the impact of two World Wars and Marxist thought created a large class of people hostile to Christianity. In America, we were spared this public, vitriolic antagonism until recently, but now  experience it in a major way.

In the face of hostility and bias, a defense of the right of Christians to engage in public life and to declare the relevance of their faith on issues of public concern is important. The growing attempt to remove Christian faith and Christian people from government is dangerous for all Americans, as it undermines our Constitution and freedom of speech and religion.

The Need for Religious Wisdom

On the other hand, in the past few days, the national and local news has included stories about churches which have violated the requests of national, state, and local governments to refrain from hosting public meetings. This forces serious Christians to think carefully about what it means to have the right to engage in public life and what exactly the first Amendment is intended to protect. The First Amendment provides that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.” [6]

There are two things set out in this provision: (1) Congress cannot establish a religion to be the official religion of the United States and (2) Congress cannot make a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion by adherents of a faith. While this may seem simple enough on the face of things, the fact is that religion and law interact on a number of levels that impact one another. In thinking about the request that churches remain closed for large worship gatherings due to the Covid 19 situation, one needs to begin the analysis by noting that nothing in these proclamations were directed towards establishing a religion or denying people the right to express their religious beliefs. The bans, so far as we know were designed to address a health crisis created by a highly contagious virus. Many of the national, state and local officials who made the request are serious and practicing Christians. The President and the Vice President, for example, were clearly not motivated by any animosity against religion, but by a concern for public health.

Religious leaders need to be careful not to claim too much for the First Amendment, just as more secular-minded individuals need to be careful not to claim too little for religious freedom. Some years ago, in Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946), the Supreme Court upheld application of the Mann Act of 1910 to a fundamentalist group of polygamous believers, including Cleveland,, who had transported their multiple wives across state lines for the purpose of cohabitation. While not precisely on point, the decision indicates that Congress may legislate in a way that protects the public from a perceived social evil, even if it impacts a particular religious group. It is important that in that case, the law at issue was not directed against Mormons at all. It was directed against those who transmitted women across state lines for immoral purposes.

This case illustrates the  principle that that there are circumstances where government may act in ways that impact religious groups. As one author put it, “Although the text is absolute, the clause should not be interpreted to mean absolute right to a course of conduct just because it is permitted by one’s religion. The courts place some limits on the exercise of religion. The Supreme Court has held that religious freedom must give way to reasonable restrictions that have been adopted to protect the health, safety and convenience of the entire community. [7]

Faced with a global pandemic, a virus posing serious health hazards to not just the citizens of the United States but of the entire world, state and local governments have asked Christians to cease public weekly worship. This does not prohibit families from worshipping as family unites or Bible studies from meeting in small groups that do not violate applicable local proclamations. I am able to post this blog, have internet Bible Studies with our small group. and watch our congregation’s worship services without any  interference at all. There is no indication that the vast majority of public officials were motivated by antagonism to religion. They were simply trying to protect the public against a highly contagious disease.

In times like these, many religious people will fear that these temporary restrictions might be the beginning of a “slippery slope” and that governmental hostility to religion might result in this exercise of power leading to more restrictive measures. Of course, this might possibly happen, which is why all groups in America need to rededicate themselves to our historic principles of religious liberty and respect for the views of people and their right to declare those views in the public forum. Law can only take a society so far. In the end, it is the commitment of the members of a society to its fundamental values that is most important and most effective as a guarantee of fundamental rights. As time goes by, this important rededication will be the subject of future posts.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See,  Michael Gryboski, “‘Anti-Catholic bigotry’? Judicial nominee grilled by Senate Democrats over Knights of Columbus ties Christian Post (December  27, 2018, Downloaded, APRIL 5, 2020.https://www.christianpost.com/news/anti-catholic-bigotry-judicial-nominee-grilled-by-senate-democrats-over-knights-of-columbus-ties.html). Jerrat Stepman “These 2 Democrats Are Finally Standing Up to Anti-Christian Bigotry in Their Party” The Daily Signal (January 10, 2019, downloaded at https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/01/10/these-2-democrats-are-finally-standing-up-to-anti-christian-bigotry-in-their-party/ on April 5, 2020).

[2] In preparing for this article, I wanted to quote from a recent article in a national newspaper. When I googled my search, I was astounded at the number of articles the paper had written complaining about the evangelical support of the President and doing its best to diminish it. I was also amazed by the fact that other searches, some fairly specific, gave search results critical of the President and evangelicals who support him. I actually had no idea there was so much of this kind of literature on the internet.

[3] For example, not only have the Knights of Columbus been so labeled, but the American Center for Law and Justice, which opposes legalized abortion, and other groups have also been unfairly  labeled as “hate groups” on the basis of public support for traditional marriage and family life.

[4] Moshe Hill, “Corona Conniption: Left Attacks Pence’s Faith after Task Force Appointment” CNS News Report (March 5, 2020, downloaded on April 5, 2020 from https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/moshe-hill/corona-conniption-left-attacks-pences-faith-after-task-force-appointment)

[5] Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Mike Pence literally does not believe in science. It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic.”

[6] Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment 1.

[7] See, “Freedom of Religion,” Lincoln University (Downloaded April 5, 2020, at http://www.lincoln.edu/criminaljustice/hr/Religion.htm)

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