In this episode of TGC Q&A, Russell Moore and Kristen Waggoner address the question, “What’s the future of religious freedom in the U.S.?” They discuss:
- Hope for the future of religious freedom (0:29)
- Why religious freedom is important (1:43)
- Preparing a church to strengthen the conscience of its people (2:43)
- Wisdom to differentiate violations of conscience from things that are not (3:58)
- Religious freedom outside of churches (5:36)
- Dying to self vs. building precedent for others (7:00)
- Being faithful and wise and seeing God move in ways we don’t expect (9:36)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of religious freedom.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Russell Moore: Kristen, you and I worked together a lot on religious freedom issues, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that most people aren’t attorneys. And even if they are, they don’t maybe have the bird’s eye view of everything that’s going on legally. You’re somebody who’s argued religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court and everywhere else, what are some things that Christians need to know about sort of where religious freedom is headed? Are you hopeful? Are you discouraged? What do you think legally?
Kristen Waggoner: Well, I’m hopeful. I mean, first of all as a Christian, I think we’re called to be people of hope. But second, just in terms of the legal realm, we are seeing the Supreme Court decide cases that are affirming the right of all people, any faith, to be able to live consistent and peacefully with their convictions. And so we’re very optimistic. I mean, especially even just this last term where the court issued two strong religious freedom decisions, Masterpiece Cakeshop as well as the Niffler decision, that set the stage even for these cultural flashpoints for the court to again affirm that people of all faiths and people of no faith should not be forced to speak messages or to live in a way that’s inconsistent with their core convictions.
Russell Moore: Yeah. One of the things that I’m concerned about within the church is that sometimes I see people who are either naively hopeful, everything’s just going to work out. Or they’re apocalyptic, everything is just going to crush us underneath their feet, when in reality it’s a kind of best of times, worst of times situation. So one of the major things that I’m concerned about is making sure that we have Christians who know why they believe in religious freedom, not just for themselves, but for everybody so that we can live out our convictions and seek to persuade one another of the truth claims that we have. And that means spending a lot of time working through what does conscience mean? What does it mean for people to be creating the image of God? Why does it do harm to people if their consciences are being impinged upon? And so a lot of that, in my view, starts in children’s Sunday school and working its way forward from [crosstalk 00:02:44]
Kristen Waggoner: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think if I think about the future, the one area that concerns me the most, isn’t what happens legally. It’s what’s happening in our own churches. You know, understanding of biblical sexual ethic. W Genesis 1:27 means, why God created man and woman. Why following those principles are so important, not just for believers, but for human flourishing in general. And there’s so many things that ERLC is doing, I think, to contribute to the churches, to help them be prepared, to talk about these issues. You know, we both have teenagers and the struggles that my own kids come home with, the conversations that are happening, even in their Christian schools, you know, how do we approach this with compassion and love, but also wisdom and a conviction about our beliefs?
You know, at ADF we talk about our role is to defend the right to be able to speak and live consistent with our beliefs. But how hollow is that right if the church doesn’t speak up and actually have the courage to say, “This is what we believe.” So would you mind just sharing a little bit about some of the things that you’re doing to, again, I know you’ve got the book, The Storm-Tossed Family, which has been so helpful in that front.
Russell Moore: Well, a lot of it is, sometimes there are difficult decisions to be made. I mean, think of, in one case, Jesus says, “We’ll pay the temple tax. We don’t need to, but we’re going to pay it so that we don’t offend them.” And then in other cases, the church has called too to say, “We can’t obey this, we have to obey God rather than men.” And so sometimes it takes the wisdom to work through and say what actually is a violation of conscience and what is something that we can say we’re going to be all things to all people. And some of that really comes down to, I find with Christians, sometimes people assume, well, because my conscience isn’t burdened or bothered by that, then I shouldn’t worry about whether or not yours is, which Bible teaches us otherwise to act according to conscience of sin, Paul says in Romans 12 through 14. So learning to be able to respect consciences even when we disagree and say the government shouldn’t have the power to pave over that, that’s really an important piece of it as well.
Kristen Waggoner: I agree. And one of the things it reminds me of is so many times in the cases involving creative professionals, and someone will say, “Well, just bake the cake”, or, “Just design the flowers”, or “just create the film.” And I think what so many forget is we sink or swim together. So shifting back to the legal arena, if the government has the power to crush someone because of their convictions, it’s very naive to think that it won’t also crush you. We all have our convictions and our alliance and if the government has unlimited power in that way, eventually we all will be forced to violate our convictions.
Russell Moore: One of the things that comes up often, I was just having a conversation a few minutes ago about Christian schools and universities and nonprofits and homeless shelters and pregnancy resource centers and other, once you get outside of the church, where do you see the future of religious freedom as related to them?
Kristen Waggoner: Well, I think it’s a time to have clarity to our convictions. You know, a time of sifting in my mind. I think it’s essential in particular that Christian religious institutions are thinking about what are our convictions in these flashpoint areas, whether it be the right to a whole life, an ethic of life, whether it be sexual orientation and gender identity. What are our convictions and how do we live those out on our campuses? And, as you know, there’s right now today, there’s a hearing on the Equality Act in Congress, and that’s a federal law that is designed to force everyone to affirm gender identity ideology. And that’s going to wreak all kinds of consequences on our communities, on our schools, and it has no religious exemptions, which is, it’s scary. So I think it’s a time for religious institutions to think about what are our convictions, how do we educate our constituencies on what those are and adopt policies to live by them? What are you seeing?
Russell Moore: Well, one of the things that concerns me is that sometimes you have people that think, “Well, Jesus calls us to [inaudible] we’re not to clamor for our own rights, and so that means we’ll simply surrender them.” And what I think people don’t realize is the biblical pattern of, for instance, Paul appealing all the way up to Agrippa because it’s not just about his personal situation. What’s happening in these cases is they’re building precedents, either cultural precedents or legal precedents, that are actually going to be affecting future generations and future people.
So sometimes the question is not just am I willing to be persecuted, but in my actions, am I actually empowering the persecution of other people? And that’s a real question I think sometimes is confusing. So for some non-profits and educational institutions, standing and saying, “We’re going to stand up for our rights in this case”, isn’t about self, it’s actually about protecting freedom of conscience for other people, people that you may not even know in your lifetime.
Kristen Waggoner: Right. Well, one of the things that’s been so concerning to me in the Christian education context are schools that are willing to compromise and essentially impose laws on those in the marketplace or those in other spheres in order to protect themselves. And I think what is so disheartening about that is the whole purpose of Christian education is to train people to go into the world, to live out their faith in a dynamic way. And so the idea that we would protect for ourselves and the religious institutions, our own rights, but not also seek to protect the common good and those that we’re serving, is frightening.
I mean, we have a case right now involving a mission where essentially the government is saying you either will admit men to your women’s shelter, and they’re serving women who have been sex trafficked, experienced domestic violence. I mean, they’re in real jeopardy. And for the sake of ideology, they are having to face closing the shelter. And in one sense it’s a bit frightening, but in another courage begets courage. And when that mission stands and they win that, it helps others to stand. And I think it will affirm the principle in law as well.
Russell Moore: And when you think about what Christians and other religious people are doing in terms of orphan care, in terms of human trafficking and other things, it actually, having people with religious convictions, living out those convictions, actually benefits even people who are very hostile to that in the long-term. So we’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re also fighting for our mission field too.
Kristen Waggoner: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, as Christians, one of the things I hear as well, “Well, we need to have our eyes wide open as to what the future is.” Well, absolutely we do. But we also know that the scripture tells us that God is working at all times. And our role is to be faithful, to be wise and to stand. And His role is to determine the outcome of it. And so many times, I mean, even in our own cases I’ve seen, people take difficult stands and in the process the gospel is lived out and people are coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus, which is the whole goal of our faith in the first place.
Russell Moore: Yeah, that gets back to where we started this. Sometimes people have this dark apocalyptic view of the future in a way that paralyzes them. We have to remind ourselves we’re the church, we’ve lived through the Roman Empire and it’s collapsed. We lived through all sorts of things and Jesus is still building His church.