Many Christians and others are concerned about rising threats to religious freedom. They feel the culture changing around them, and they fear that their beliefs will soon be marginalized as a form of bigotry. Others, younger Christians in particular, are tired of the culture wars, and they wonder whether courtroom battles are truly worthwhile, or even in line with the teachings of Jesus. Luke Goodrich offers a reasoned, balanced, gospel-centered approach to religious freedom. He applies biblical understanding to a number of the most hot-button cultural issues of our day. He also offers practical steps Christians can take to respond to religious freedom conflicts in an informed, responsible, and graceful way.
|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
No one told me the lawyers’ table in the Supreme Court is so close to the justices. I could almost reach across the massive mahogany bench and touch them. I sat just feet from Justice Breyer, studying his face and listening intently—when suddenly he suggested my client should lose.
My heart dropped into my stomach.
Had we come so far only to lose at the last moment? Our team had spent months preparing our legal arguments. The Wall Street Journal called it one of the “most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” Now we were finally in front of the justices, and no one knew how the case would end.
But I knew how it began—with a simple disagreement that could happen at any church.
This time it was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in Redford, Michigan. The church had 150 members and a small grade school with seven teachers. The fourth-grade teacher, Cheryl Perich, fell ill and missed the first half of the school year. To keep the doors open, the school initially combined three grades in one classroom. But when parents complained, the school hired a replacement teacher and asked Perich to consider taking the rest of the semester off and returning to work the following school year.
Perich wasn’t happy. She presented a doctor’s note saying she was cleared for work, showed up at school, and demanded her job back. When the school explained that it couldn’t just fire the replacement teacher, Perich threatened to sue the church.
This behavior was deeply troubling to the church. Perich had a long-standing relationship with the church, and she knew they had no lawyer and no money. More importantly, she knew they were a church—a group of Christians who are supposed to love one another, not sue one another.
Unable to reconcile with Perich, the school board met with church leadership. Together they met with the congregation and Perich. After much prayer and discussion, the congregation voted to remove Perich from her teaching position.
It was a hard decision, with hurt feelings on both sides. But it wasn’t an unusual decision. Churches have to make hard decisions like this all the time. Most of the time, people move on and life returns to normal. But this time life didn’t return to normal: Perich sued the church.
Perich claimed the church had discriminated against her by not letting her return to work immediately and by firing her when she threatened to sue. She demanded her job back, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and attorneys’ fees.
In response, the church said Perich was no longer qualified to be a teacher because she had threatened to sue the church in violation of 1 Corinthians 6:1–8, which instructs Christians not to sue one another in secular court. It also argued it would be unconstitutional for a court to force the church to employ a teacher who had violated church teaching.
By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The case was no longer about a small Lutheran church in Michigan; it was about the freedom of all churches to choose their leaders in accordance with their beliefs. Could a church be sued for discrimination if it hired only male pastors? Could a Christian school be sued for discrimination if it dismissed a teacher for having an extramarital affair?
These are the kinds of questions the justices debated as we sat among the Supreme Court’s massive marble pillars.
Food for Thought
Before I tell you the outcome, I’d like you to consider a few questions:
First, have you heard of this case before? It was decided in 2012 and is one of the most important religious freedom cases in a generation, yet most Christians haven’t heard of it. Why do you think that is?
Second, how do you think the case should turn out? And, more importantly, how would you explain your answer to a skeptical friend?
As for the first question, most Christians haven’t heard of the case because they’re busy with other important things—family, work, school, church, and so forth—and don’t have time to follow every new religious freedom case. What they know about religious freedom comes mostly from what they hear in the news, see on social media, or learn from family and friends. Religious freedom is not their top priority.
As for the second question—how should the case turn out and why?—many Christians would struggle to give a confident answer. Some instinctively side with the teacher because she lost her job and claims to be a victim of discrimination—and we all know discrimination is bad. Others tend to side with the church because, well, it’s the church. Most have a hard time explaining who should win and why it matters.
These responses are neither surprising nor unreasonable. Religious freedom is only one of many important issues affecting our lives, and we can’t be experts on everything.
But this also means most Christians are very poorly informed about religious freedom. We may have been told that the Supreme Court removed prayer from public schools or that there is yet another lawsuit challenging a nativity scene at Christmas. We may have heard that a county clerk got in trouble for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses or that a baker was sued for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. But most of this information comes to us as mere background noise. We have a vague sense that religious freedom conflicts are increasingly common and that maybe we should start paying more attention, but we don’t know where to start.
As long as life keeps humming along normally and we never face a violation of our religious freedom, our inattention won’t be a problem. But if things change—if our culture shifts and we start facing violations of our religious freedom—we’ll be caught unprepared.
Among Christian Leaders
This point hit home when I attended a gathering of Christian leaders who were concerned about religious freedom—pastors, theologians, university presidents, and ministry CEOs, many of them prominent leaders in the Christian world. We gathered as courts across the country were starting to legalize same-sex marriage.
The fear in the room was palpable. These leaders were not apathetic about religious freedom; they were on full alert. They had a deep sense of responsibility for the organizations they led and the people they served. They also had a deep sense of concern that our culture is changing and that the climate for religious freedom is deteriorating. Some of these leaders had already been confronted with religious freedom conflicts of their own: their organizations had been kicked off university campuses, penalized by local governments, or pilloried in the media.
Although these leaders were on high alert, they were also unprepared—and they knew it. They asked basic, sometimes misguided questions. Few had solid answers. Most didn’t know what legal risks they faced or how to prepare for them. Even among the pastors, many seemed to lack a theological understanding of religious freedom or the tools needed to equip their congregations for the challenges ahead.
I don’t mean this as a criticism. It is simply a description of fact. When religious freedom is secure, we don’t give it much thought—just like when I had no children, I didn’t give parenting much thought. But when I found out my wife was pregnant, I realized I’d better start learning! Otherwise I’d be unprepared.
Many Christians are now in the same position. We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought. Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.
That’s why I’ve written this book. Our culture is changing. Religious freedom is not as secure as it once was. And the church is unprepared.
What can we do about it?
As I spoke with the gathering of Christian leaders, I realized the pastors, theologians, university presidents, and ministry CEOs in the room felt ill-equipped to help the church prepare. They were just waking up to the issue themselves.
This reminded me of what C. S. Lewis once said about church leadership on social issues. He wrote that people often want the church to take the lead: “But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly.… We are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained.”
Instead, Lewis said, “the job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism and education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists—not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.”
The same is true of religious freedom. The clergy has a crucial role to play in equipping the faithful and walking with them through difficult times. Yet to understand religious freedom at a deep level and to help prepare the church for the challenges ahead, we also need Christians who are steeped in the field of religious freedom.
I’ve been steeped in nothing but religious freedom for over a decade, serving as an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nation’s only law firm dedicated to protecting religious freedom for people of all faiths. During that time, I’ve helped win four Supreme Court cases and many more lower court cases. I’ve taught and debated religious freedom at universities and on television. I’ve published articles about religious freedom in academic journals and newspapers. Most importantly, I’ve walked with faithful, courageous Christians and people of other faiths through some of the most difficult trials of their lives.
My hope is that this experience can be used to help the church understand religious freedom at a deeper level and prepare for the challenges ahead.
Based on many conversations with Christians over the years, I believe we have three primary needs that must be met before we’re fully prepared.
First, we need a theology of religious freedom. Too often we begin thinking about religious freedom as a legal, cultural, or political problem without first recognizing that it is a theological problem. Our thinking about religious freedom must be grounded first in the truth of God as revealed in Scripture. You might be surprised at how much Scripture has to say about religious freedom. So part 1 of this book offers a theological understanding of religious freedom, drawing on the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, and examples of religious freedom conflicts in Scripture.
Second, we need to understand the unique religious freedom challenges of our current culture. Our challenges today are different from the religious freedom challenges of fifteen years ago and different from those in other countries. We can’t be prepared for our challenges if we don’t understand what they are. Thus, part 2 applies our theology of religious freedom to the five most pressing religious freedom challenges in modern culture: (1) religious discrimination, (2) abortion rights, (3) gay rights, (4) Islam, and (5) the public square. As a lawyer on the front lines in these conflicts, I’ll explain what the key legal problems are, how they can be resolved, and what Christians can expect from our legal system in the coming years.
Finally, we need to take action. Our faith is not a set of abstract principles; it’s a calling covering every aspect of our lives. How should we, as Christians, live our daily lives when religious freedom is under threat? What can we do about it?
American Christians haven’t faced serious violations of their religious freedom for a long time, but much of Scripture was written to Christians who were facing just that. To live our faith in modern culture, we need to reclaim and reacquaint ourselves with what Scripture says to the persecuted church. Thus, part 3 is practical. Drawing on Scripture’s message to the persecuted church, it addresses how Christians should live when religious freedom is under threat.
A Final Word
Before we begin, I should tell you how the Supreme Court case involving the teacher and the church turned out.
We won—unanimously. The court ruled that churches must be free to choose “who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” The decision stands as one of the greatest religious freedom victories in the last fifty years.
In that spirit, I want to begin with a word of hope.
When I met with that gathering of Christian leaders, they were burdened by fear. They felt the culture changing around them, and they were worried about the serious religious freedom challenges ahead. Even now you can find any number of Christian books and blogs that play on these fears, warning that our culture is lost and that our rights will soon vanish.
But that is not this book. This is a book of hope, not fear.
As Americans, we can be tempted to place our hope in human institutions. Compared with the rest of the world, we have a stable legal system with broad constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. We have laws that protect our freedom to worship, to evangelize, to found Christian ministries, and to run businesses in accordance with our faith. Our Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of religious freedom. We think if we can just preserve those institutions…win the next election…get the right Supreme Court justices appointed…then we have hope.
But that kind of hope is hollow. As soon as we lose an election or lose a big case, that hope is replaced by fear.
And what about Christians elsewhere? As I write this, Christians in China face harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for worshipping in the underground church. Christians in Egypt risk death at the hands of suicide bombers who target their churches. Christians from Iraq and Syria are fleeing genocide at the hands of Islamist militants. Christians throughout history have suffered terrible persecution. Yet Scripture calls all of us to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 5:2), whether we live in North America or North Africa. Where does that hope come from?
That hope is not rooted in any human institution. It is not rooted in fair laws, favorable election results, or friendly Supreme Court justices. It is rooted in a person: Jesus Christ. He has already conquered every enemy we’ll ever face, and He has promised us an imperishable inheritance in heaven. So even when we’re “grieved by various trials,” we still “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible” (1 Peter 1:6–8).