Gordon College has been swept up into a controversy over a forthcoming executive order that will forbid the government from contracting with organizations that discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Frictions between sexual orientation and religious freedom are emerging as the key test of American pluralism in the coming years. Media coverage in the Boston area the past two weeks has not been encouraging, but there are hints that a more reasonable tone is emerging. After reports that Gordon’s accreditation will be under review this Fall, for instance, the accreditation agency has now clarified that there is absolutely no risk to Gordon’s accreditation. I wrote a little column about the controversy here.
Archive for category: Christianity
Naomi Riley has a fascinating and eye-opening new book called Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back about strategies the major American religions are using to draw in millennials. A little review I wrote of the book is here.
As everyone who reads this post is no doubt aware, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that religiously oriented for-profit corporations have religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As a matter of statutory interpretation, the Court’s conclusion that some for-profit corporations have religious freedom rights strikes me as fairly clearly right, as I argued in this op-ed about Hobby Lobby a few months ago. (The Court seems likely to reach the same conclusion as a matter of constitutional law if the question whether for-profit corporations can be covered by the Free Exercise Clause arises in the future). RFRA applies to “persons,” a term that nearly always includes corporations, not just natural persons, in legal contexts. And no one doubts that many (non-profit) corporations are covered by RFRA. After all, most churches are technically corporations.
The panic about the possibility that giant corporations will now start demanding exemptions for numerous laws seems wildly exaggerated. The majority limited its holding to closely held corporations like the two corporations in Hobby Lobby, leaving open the question whether a publicly held corporation could qualify. I think the logic of the majority’s opinion would extend to a religiously oriented public corporation, as Justice Ginsburg points out in her dissenting opinion, but I suspect that very few large corporations could demonstrate that they are religiously oriented.
In the next wave of cases, a lot will turn on courts’ application of RFRA: how they interpret the questions whether a law imposes a substantial burden on religious freedom (yes in Hobby Lobby, due to the stiff fines if the companies failed to provide the coverage); whether the government has a compelling interest in applying the challenged regulation (the majority assumed it did in Hobby Lobby); and whether the government has used the least restrictive means of achieving its objective (no, because the government could have simply paid for the four drugs in question itself, or offered the same accommodation its offered to religious nonprofits).
One interesting question is whether Hobby Lobby has implications for other areas involving the rights of corporations. I think it does. In this op-ed posted this morning, I speculate about possible implications for future campaign finance cases.
I’ll probably have more to say about Hobby Lobby soon …
The New York Times reported earlier this week on the ouster of Christian groups from Cal State, Vanderbilt and other schools because their leaders are required to affirm belief in Jesus’s resurrection and acknowledge him as their savior. (Bowdoin College, which is featured most prominently, has since challenged the story). The requirement that the Christian groups’ leaders be Christian violates the colleges’ policies banning groups that exclude any students from applying for leadership positions on religious or other grounds.
All-comers policies, which were upheld in a 2010 case involving the law school at Hastings, are in part a response to the Supreme Court’s shift (thanks in part to a series of classic articles by Michael McConnell) from strict separation of church and state in the 1960s and early 1970s to an emphasis on neutrality between religion and irreligion. In effect, these policies say: “You want neutrality. We’ll give you neutrality. We won’t allow distinctions of any kind.”
Christian groups can of course simply forgo campus funding and take their functions off campus. This isn’t a bad option, but it carries a cost both for the group and for the campus. Campus life is a little less vibrant if groups with distinctive perspectives are effectively excluded. Many of the students I talk to say one of their biggest frustrations is the inability to have open discussions about big, controversial issues on campus. A rule that forces groups that wish to foster a distinctive mission off campus is not likely to foster a robust marketplace of ideas.
The other alternative is for groups to give in, and to adopt a policy permitting anyone to apply for leadership positions. One problem with this is that it will often be at least a little disingenuous. A Christian group doesn’t really want a leader who believes Christians are deluded, any more than Republican groups want straight ticket Democrats or Democratic groups a Republican. The groups that are least well positioned to protect their mission are smaller and more vulnerable groups. If the leaders are chosen by vote, unsympathetic outsiders might even show up when the time comes to select the next year’s leaders and proceed to “take over” the group. This isn’t a genuine risk with most groups at most campuses, but it unfortunately could happen at some.
Last week, UCLA Law Professor and Volokh Conspiracy blog author Eugene Volokh and I talked about “Justice, Faith and the Human Condition” at a Veritas Forum at UCLA. (Elizabeth Bawden was the excellent moderator.) Eugene raised lots of wonderfully interesting questions: how can I talk about a Christian vision of justice when there have been so many different Christian stances on different issues? Might Americans a century from now view our era as horribly unjust because we continue to eat meat?
Eugene described his own approach to justice as “muddling through,” and this became a recurring theme in our discussion. I think muddling through is an apt and evocative description of the approach many Americans take to justice. They wrestle with a particular issue, and reach a conclusion that seems most likely to further justice as they understand it. The problem with this approach, in my view, is that it doesn’t provide any objective basis for thinking about justice. If someone like Eugene is doing the muddling, the outcomes will be quite good, because he is extraordinarily bright and sensible. But the same approach is equally compatible with awful results in the hands of decision makers who are, to give just one example, not especially interested in human rights.
I’ll save my discussion of a Christian perspective of justice for other posts, other than to note that the starting point is a vision of proper relationships within a society, based on the belief that each of us is made in the image of God. I’ll also make the perhaps tendentious point that, when muddling through produces good results, especially in this country, it’s often because the muddlers are piggybacking on a Christian conception of justice. They aren’t truly starting from scratch.
I can’t resist ending this post with a Eugene Volokh story I heard from one of Eugene’s colleagues. Eugene was a child prodigy, starting college at UCLA at the age of 15, and later going to law school at UCLA. When he applied for a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the UCLA faculty gave Eugene rave recommendations. (As most readers will know, a Supreme Court clerkship is the highest possible honor for a law student, available only to students at the absolute top of the class). After his clerkship, as UCLA’s law school was considering Eugene for a faculty position, the hiring committee called Justice O’Connor to get her impressions of him. Why do you want my recommendation, she quite sensibly asked, given that you were the ones who recommended him to me? The hiring committee’s somewhat sheepish answer was that they were interested in hearing whether Justice O’Connor thought Eugene would work well with those who are not quite at his intelligence level, given that many of Eugene’s students wouldn’t be as bright as he is. Justice O’Connor’s reply? From what she’d seen, Eugene seemed to get along quite well with the other Supreme Court clerks.
Complexity is widely viewed as an embarrassment for Christianity. How can a faith whose origins date back thousands of years possibly speak to a world as complex as we now know the world to be? This often is the first question I get from friends who are intrigued by my faith but doubt the plausibility of Christianity.
In my view, elaborated at length in True Paradox, the assumption that complexity is an embarrassment for Christianity actually gets things backwards. Although the materialist perspectives of Harvard linguist Steven Pinker or New Atheists like Richard Dawkins seem much more sophisticated and contemporary, their explanations of puzzles of our subjective experience—such as our perceptions of beauty and suffering—are anything but. Pinker has described artistic creativity as an evolutionary accident, for instance, and our sense of beauty in nature as designed to alert us to the presence of food.
Christianity explains our experience of natural beauty as a reflection of the goodness for which the world was intended, and the transience of the sensation as evidence that this goodness has been corrupted. Artistic creativity is a reflection of our having been made in the image of God. It is one of the ways in which, to paraphrase the theologian N.T. Wright, we reflect the beauty of creation back to God.
I will have much more to say about both sets of explanations (including interesting new developments in evolutionary psychology’s accounts of beauty) in the coming months. My point here is that critics of religion like Pinker and Dawkins, both of whom I love reading and profit from enormously, seem to flatten out some of the key complexities of human experience. They treat some of the richest and most perplexing features of our lives as unimportant or accidental.
Christians certainly aren’t immune to this tendency either. We make a similar misstep when we suggest we can “prove” the truth of Christianity with simple logical arguments, and ignore the messiness and complexity of the world as we actually experience it. But Christianity itself is at home with complexity. In my view, this is one of its biggest selling points.