Tuesday, April 07 2015
Now that the state of Indiana has successfully amended the impact of their religious freedom restoration act, just in time to avoid additional national embarrassment during the final four NCAA Basketball championships (see: http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/indy-officials-final-weekend-success-80324/), and Governor Pence-bashing seems to have fallen out of the category of national pastime, I wanted to share a few reflections regarding the debate; especially now that it seems to no longer be relevant.
I grew up religiously conservative. We didn’t drink, smoke, go to movies, dance, play pinball machines, go to bingo halls, or participate in a significant number of “worldly” activities. We took seriously the admonition to be a separate people who saw secularizing influences as compromises with holy living. I was surrounded by thoughtful people who attempted to negotiate the world around them with a Biblical eye. What mattered was our own sanctification and our witness to the world around us.
It would be easy for me to look back on those days as silly and misguided, but I have to confess that the people who set the hedge of behavior around me and those of our ilk, were truly motivated out of love. They also gave me an understanding of the Biblical text, something I wouldn’t trade for all of the permissive “fun” I missed as a teenager. From them I learned my faith; and, while I interpret some things differently now, my core understandings of Christianity came from their hearts.
Curiously enough, what bothered me most about their approach was not their exegetical technique or unreflective social interpretations, but our implicit smugness. We were heaven bound, and most of the rest of the world was not. Too bad for them; but you could see the dividing line between the redeemed and the damned as clearly as a cigarette butt on a clean ashtray, next to a shot of whiskey. Ironically, the greatest temptation in my more liberal incarnation these days is to become just as snobbish against them as I once was with them. I don’t think becoming critical from another viewpoint is evidence of a maturing faith, it’s just the result of a different set of influences; equally corrosive of community, fellowship, civility, and I believe, The Gospel.
This brings me to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debate.
What seemed to frame the debate among Christians is the need for civil intervention to protect religious behavior – in particular the power of the State to require individuals or corporations to engage in commerce that supports the immoral behavior of others. Legal scholars disagree regarding the particular application of the Indiana law, but the follow-up legislation affirms that the previous legislation could not be used to defend outright discrimination. I’ll leave it to other scholars to determine what that practically means for the Hoosiers, what interests me is what Christian thought they needed a law in the first place.
I grew up with some seriously conservative people. My parents, who ran the church youth group, often negotiated with parents who didn’t want bowling parties - because there was a bar in the bowling alley, they didn’t want swimming parties - because that was mixed bathing, roller-skating was banned by some - because it was dancing on wheels; but at no time did anyone suggest there should be a law.
Discipleship came with a cost. True disciples would pay that cost without expecting legislative authority to take the sting out of faithfulness. Willing to face the cost of that faithfulness whatever the consequence. One would no more seek legislative protection from the erosion of commerce than the Apostle Paul would have suggested the pagan Roman Empire grant him special dispensation to preach the Gospel. Faithfulness was about conversion, not coercion.
That’s where I suggest we revisit our understanding of what it means to be evangelical. An evangelical faith is a chosen identity, it is unleashed from inheritance, land, ethnicity, or blood. Evangelicals suggest by their faith is only adopted through the preponderance of the evidence, the persuasiveness of the arguments, the irresistibility of the joy. Any reliance on legislative strength to enforce or defend witness or behavior would undercut the authenticity of the confession. The ideal evangelical society would be the freest possible society, because in that freedom the True Gospel would most confidently and certainly thrive. If bakers, caterers, banquet hall owners, or florists wanted their witness to be unfettered then they should jump at the chance to provide services to the most “lost”. In their commercial engagement they could provide a powerful witnessing presence that could “win-over” their adversaries.
Unfortunately, it seems those seeking civil protection to avoid engagement lack the evangelical spine necessary to defend their interpretation of faith and life, seeking instead to be protected from encounters they might find uncomfortable, challenging, or at least, awkward.
I would suggest the evangelical approach to civil engagement should be the lowest bar possible to permit free encounter and engagement with the most diverse community possible. Truth should not need protection in the marketplace if it is indeed truth, and hiding behind the shield of legislative protection would have shamed my conservative forbearers.