When Indiana’s state legislature approved a bill late last week that seeks to protect the free exercise of religion, churchmen may have been expected to bless the statute. But some won’t go there, as it appears the legislation threatens to expose an uncomfortable wound in liberal Christianity.
The bill out of Indianapolis isn’t new. It was President Clinton who made the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 federal law and celebrated the Founders’ foresight in making the free exercise of religion our “first freedom.” He reminded Americans before signing the act that “religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”
As for the passage of the bill, the president admitted “that the power of God is such that even in the legislative process miracles can happen.”
Mr. Clinton suspected some kind of divine intervention because a routinely partisan Congress almost unanimously adopted the measure. But support for the act didn’t just cross party lines; it created one of the broadest interfaith alliances in recent memory. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and even Humanists formed the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, which enthusiastically lobbied for the act’s passage. Since 1993, several state legislatures have passed similar religious liberty protections — even a bill in Illinois that then-State Sen. Barack Obama cast a vote for.
Like the federal RFRA, Indiana’s new law protects people of faith from being unduly burdened by state or local governments. One concerned party might be a Jewish tailor who doesn’t want to be forced to stitch swastikas on a white supremacist group’s jackets. Or a lesbian-owned public relations firm that doesn’t want to be coerced into advertising the Westboro Baptist Church’s next rally. If the market didn’t already rebuff restaurateurs who deny service to a gay couple, for instance, those business owners would have an especially high burden in proving they should be granted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws — something courts aren’t accustomed to doing.
“This bill is not about discrimination,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said last Thursday, “and if I thought it legalized discrimination I would have vetoed it.” University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett took to the pages of the South Bend Tribune to assure opponents of the new law that “it does not announce that religious entities or individuals may ignore safety regulations or anti-discrimination ordinances.” Nor is the bill a “blank check” for religious exemptions; it only ensures “that they are entitled to a day in court.”
Some members of that 1993 coalition, who seem to have changed their minds about religious freedom, aren’t convinced.
Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Indiana-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was apparently unaware of her own church’s support for the 1993 law when she and other disciples penned a letter urging Mr. Pence to veto Indiana’s RFRA. Leaders of the church wrote that the bill is “contrary to the values of our faith.” They worry “some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses — might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.”
Setting aside the shrill suggestion that RFRA resembles statutory racism, Hoosiers might be hard-pressed to find a Disciples of Christ church or people in its pews. The church was once the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in America at nearly 2 million churchgoers in 1958. As of 2014, the Disciples of Christ report fewer than 500,000 members and only a handful of them regularly attend church.
But the Disciples of Christ church isn’t the only one in decline. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the mainline Protestant Christians who report waning memberships are also among the most political.
The United Church of Christ reported the 2000s as its “worst decade,” during which it became the first Christian denomination to endorse same-sex marriage. The United Church of Christ’s Rev. Kathryn Huey said then that the decision would help “grow the church,” but the numbers show that growth didn’t have a prayer. The Presbyterian Church USA lost faithful when in 2014 its General Assembly voted to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Still more left the flock when the church changed in March 2015 its definition of marriage as simply “between two people.”
This kind of sexual-revolution politicking leaves almost no room for prayer, and offers the faithful little more than what secular politicians already do. Perhaps in a last-ditch effort to stay relevant amid the rise of “nones,” pastors who politick from the pulpit seem to confuse their priorities. President Clinton warned in 1993 that “both religion and government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided.” If the religious ruckus in Indianapolis is any indication, Mr. Clinton might be a prophet.
This is the liberal Christian dilemma: accelerate decline with politics as usual, or confront the church attendance crisis with religion. The religious left’s Good Friday is here. If it drops the partisan social gospel, it could begin to see a resurrection of its own.
• Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion.org.