“What’s the most important thing to know about religious freedom for the years ahead?”
In a new roundtable video, Tim Keller (vice president of TGC), Russell Moore (president of the ERLC), and Kevin DeYoung (senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina) sit down to discuss the changing landscape of religious liberty in the United States.
DeYoung: Obviously, one of the most important issues in our day is the issue of religious liberty and thinking in particular about pastors, and Tim and I as pastors, what we really want to know about this issue of religious liberty is what does Russ Moore have to say about it? So, we’ll start with you, because you’re thinking about this, and you’re in this. What do pastors have to understand about this crisis of religious liberty that we’re facing?
Moore: Well, I think the first thing is just being able to explain what it means to be motivated by the gospel. I mean, the primary problem I think right now for religious liberty is not that you have people who are “plotting to destroy religion.” I mean, there are some people who, of course, are doing that.
But I think most of the problems come with people who just don’t get religious motivation. And so they assume if we apply pressure, cultural pressure, or political pressure, or legal pressure, we’ll get you where you’re going to be anyway, which is in a more secular progressive direction.
And so I think part of it is just explaining to your secular neighbors what it means to be motivated by the fear of the Lord, what it means to be people who really do believe that you’re going to give an account before the judgment seat of Christ. And so equipping your people to be able to have those conversations, I think that’s actually more important than even the important legal and political and other questions that we have to answer.
DeYoung: And have either of you found that effective? I mean, in talking to very secular people. And I ask the question I guess somewhat suspiciously thinking about some of the folks I know who might listen sort of kindly, but then turn around and say, “Well, I still think you don’t have a right to be motivated in those ways.” I mean, have you found that to get traction with people?
Moore: Yeah, I have.
Because what some people assume is that religious people must really have some other motivation. They must really be about saving money or about some sort of political power. And so coming in and explaining and saying, “No, people really do believe these things.”
And I found that it’s also important if we’re the ones standing up for people who do not believe the things that we believe in. I mean religious liberty is not special pleading for whoever has some real or imagined majority.
And so, pastors need to be the ones who are standing up and saying to their own people, and it takes some cost to do this, depending on where you are: “The mosque that is being constructed on the other side of our town needs to have no impediments from the government in terms of their construction.”
And to teach your people, we don’t need government power to defend the gospel. The gospel can stand up for itself.
DeYoung: So, Tim, when you try to have these conversations with non-Christians, explain your views, do they come around to thinking that you’re not a bigot?
Keller: Well, what Russ just said does resonate, because sometimes . . . I think the conversations are usually somewhat disarming because you are getting rid of stereotypes. What resonates is I’ve realized lately, in the last two years, I’ve talked to some . . . most of these, I won’t mention their names, so you’d know most of them are, you might say, Christian jurists, Christian law professors and all that, who have shown me—at first, it kind of panicked me—that, actually, religious liberty, there’s not a lot of actual hard in the Constitution law. Religious liberty has largely been a cultural mood that most people thought of.
Of course, you have to give people, you know, freedom for their religious conscience. There’s not lots and lots of really great laws for it. It was really the will of the society and now you do have these polls showing that like, 60 percent, 70 percent of people say, “No, you shouldn’t have the right to say this,” that, unless we actually just go out there and talk to people, it really is up to a great degree a matter of public opinion, popular opinion.
And I think a lot of the Christians who are being publicized, very often don’t speak very well for us. And I hate to say it, that’s a little bit part of the strategy is to highlight them. Because the ordinary reasonable Christian who simply says, “Well, you know, actually, I don’t choose this belief. I can’t help it. This is a belief I’ve gotten.” It creates a problem.
But when I talk to people, I usually talk about conscientious objecting. My father was a pacifist in World War II, lost all of his friends. All of his friends. World War II, you know, not Vietnam. And I often say there was a law, which was everybody had to serve, and yet the government defended some people’s right to not fight when really our lives were at stake. I mean, they would have come and taken us over. (You know, haven’t you seen The Man in the High Castle? They would have taken us over.) So here’s my father who says, “I’ve got a religious objection, and this is a law that I can’t obey.”
Even though, I mean, even though people were extremely unhappy with conscientious objectors, nobody said, “Let’s get rid of it.” It was just understood. So I usually ask people about that, people who say you don’t have the right because of your religious conscience not to obey the law.
And I say, “So, what do you think about conscientious objection?” I mean, there’s a law. There’s a law that matters. You have to go fight for your country, because, otherwise, they’ll come take us over. And I said, “So are you for getting rid of that?” And they almost always say, “No.” I say, “Why?” And they say, “Well, because . . . .” And I say, “Well, then why would you not . . . ?”
The reason I got this is, Pope Francis calls it “conscientious objection.” Whenever he talks about the Little Sisters or any place where he’s talking about religious liberty, he calls it “conscientious objection” and ties it to that. And I usually find . . . if you’re just looking for a strategy, I usually use it and then just talk reasonably.
And I would say three times out of four, people come away being a lot more on our side than they were before. One time out of four they’re just angry.
DeYoung: I mean it is important to show a sane, rational, decent, friendly Christian view. I mean, I live in a very liberal university city. And I’ll talk to people who will get talking to me about things, assuming that I must think the same way they do about transgender issues or about homosexuality because I seem like a normal person in a liberal town. And to try to voice another opinion, takes some courage. But hopefully, that puts some of that discontinuity.
I wonder, Russ, how do you respond to this typical sort of objection? You know, you talk about religious liberty or freedom and somebody’s going to say, “Well, what if my religion says that, you know, I don’t have to give my kids an operation when they’re sick, or my religion says that I can, you know, beat my wife.” You get those sort of reductio ad absurdums. What’s your response to that sort of . . . ?
Moore: Because that could apply to any right. You could do that with freedom of speech, you could do that with freedom of the press, you could do it . . . . Every right that we have in society is never absolute. So the question is, is this a natural right that we have to balance with other things?
And sometimes, you’re going to have easy cases, sometimes you’re going to have very difficult cases. But we have to have some standard, where we’re saying we have to balance these conflicting interests.
So no one is suggesting in American life that we all get a little golden card that says, “I have a religious objection and that means that I’m completely free.” With conscientious objection, for instance, that has limits. And so someone can say, “I’m a conscientious objector.” But that doesn’t mean that everyone who wants to just dodge the draft is able to do it and say, “Well, I’m a religious person.”
No, we balance those things, and we try to find a way to have people have sincerely held religious beliefs, while also upholding things that we need to get [inaudible].
DeYoung: And like with the Hobby Lobby case, you had to ask, “Does the government have a compelling interest in forcing someone to violate their conscience, and are they doing it in the least obtrusive means possible?”
Moore: Right. That’s right.
DeYoung: So just to go that route, I think can help people think a little bit. Oh, yeah. They’re going to be hard cases, but does the government have a compelling interest to do this? And is there an easier, better way they can do it?
Moore: Which is the Little Sisters of the Poor case. That’s what it all came down to. The question wasn’t, “Does the government have an interest in this?” It’s, “Do they have to do this with nuns?” Is this the only way that they can deliver these drugs and devices? And so that’s the question.
DeYoung: So, you know, last question, and we’ll give it to you, Russ. You know, we talked about . . . And I love the way you started this, by, you know, how do we talk to our neighbors? But give us just a little snapshot of the legal challenges. What are things pastors of churches should be aware of, some of the things that may be coming down, some of the challenges we might face?
Moore: I think most pastors, that I talk to, anyway, are worried about the wrong things. Many pastors are worried, “Is the government going to force me to do weddings that I don’t believe in?” And so forth. And my answer to that is no. I mean, I don’t think so, unless there’s a military coup and a repeal of the Bill of Rights. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
I think that the questions are going to be as you move out from the church with institutions’ adoption agencies, and colleges, and universities, that’s where you’re going to have religious liberty problems that are going to increase.
And then we also have to always be watching for those religious liberty violations with groups that we don’t agree with at all. I mean, Islam, I fundamentally disagree with Islam. But there is a constant series of ways of demonizing Muslims and seeking to actually legislate them out of existence. I don’t want to legislate my mission field out of existence.
I want to be able to have conversations with people where my Muslim neighbor can seek to persuade me that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet. And I can seek to persuade her that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him.
We don’t need government power to do that. And so we need to be watching for whenever you see this sort of foment that is coming against people because of their religious convictions. Because what happens is, you always just end up sending those people under cover of darkness. You don’t turn them into Christians. At best, you turn them into pretend Christians, at worst, you harden them. Yeah.
DeYoung: Well, I know I can speak for Tim and say thank you for helping equipping pastors doing this and being sort of that bridge between the people making some of these decisions and in helping the churches understand us. So thank you, Russ.
- Religious Freedom Is for Non-Christians Too (Russell Moore)
- Religious Freedom and Discrimination: Why the Debate Continues (Albert Mohler)
- Why Christians Should Support Religious Freedom for Everyone (Jim Campbell)
- 4 Cultural Trends Leading to the Decline of Religious Liberty (Trevin Wax)
- Why Religious Liberty Should Be a Foreign Policy Priority (Joe Carter)