The 2013 Kuyper Lecture: Institutional Religious Freedom and a Surprising Call for Political Participation

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Over the past two years, religious freedom has quickly become a hot-button issue.  Unfortunately, few fully understand the implications of the religious freedom guaranteed in the first amendment and other laws passed in the last half century.  Last month, Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies sought to shed some light on this issue when he delivered the Center for Public Justice’s 18th annual Kuyper Lecture, entitled, “Prohibiting the Free Exercise Thereof: The Affordable Care Act and Other Threats to Institutional Religious Freedom.”  As the President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, Dr. Carlson-Thies is a preeminent expert on the topic.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Carlson-Thies is also my boss.)  Following the lecture, former U.S. Representative Dr. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich) surprised everyone be providing his thoughts on how best to bring about policy change.

 Dr. Carlson-Thies’ lecture focused on the importance of faith-based organizations having the freedom to make their “uncommon contribution to the common good”.  To start, he made the argument that religion often requires intellectual belief, but a change in one’s outward actions.  He demonstrated this by referencing Dutch statesman and theologian, Abraham Kuyper (the namesake of the lecture) who suggested that to “Love God with all our strength” requires us to make a material difference in this world.  From there, Dr. Carlson-Thies laid out the freedoms necessary for all citizens to be able to live out their religious beliefs in public life, and not simply in private.  The first is the liberty to opt-out of activities that go against one’s beliefs.  The prime example of this freedom is how Mennonites and members of other peace churches can declare themselves “conscientious objectors” during a military draft.  The second freedom is the ability to create and maintain organizations that represent the distinctions of the faith they emerge from.  This means, according to Dr. Carlson-Thies, that these organizations should have the opportunity to have an inner life of faith-shaped standards and provide a faith-influenced set of services, rather than have a cookie cutter format imposed on them. 

After laying the foundation of his vision of religious freedom, Dr. Carlson-Thies described the threats facing the religious freedoms of faith-based organizations.   These challenges were couched in a discussion of the current controversy surrounding the proposed rule of the Department of Health and Human Services that requires all employers, including those with moral objection, include FDA approved contraceptives and abortifacients in their health insurance policies.  According to Dr. Carlson-Thies, “The most significant religious freedom challenge in our country in our time [is the] struggle against these restrictive trends in order to preserve the freedom of faith-based organizations to serve the public in a counter-cultural way, to follow what they believe God calls them to do even when those practices differ from the popular consensus.” 

Dr. Carlson-Thies (left) with panel respondents Dr. Leah Sappen Anderson, Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College,  Shirley Roels, of the Council of Independent Colleges, and  Bill Blacquiere, President of Bethany Christian Services.

Dr. Carlson-Thies (left) with panel respondents Dr. Leah Sappen Anderson, Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College,  Shirley Roels, of the Council of Independent Colleges, and  Bill Blacquiere, President of Bethany Christian Services.

Dr. Carlson-Thies concluded with a deft counter to the idea that standing up for religious freedom is primarily an effort by conservative white men trying to defend their own turf.  He asserted, “Religious Freedom must protect convictions we ourselves do not hold and even convictions we are convinced are mistaken.”  To illustrate how institutional religious freedom protects more than just conservative evangelicals and Catholics, he pointed to the story of an entrepreneurial Muslim woman from Maryland.  Asma Hanif opened a shelter for Muslim women who are victims of domestic abuse.  The shelter provides accommodations necessary for Muslim women, such as prayer five times a day and Halal food.  The fact that organizations, and not just individuals, have religious freedom allows Ms. Hanif to run a shelter that caters to the needs of Muslim women.

After Dr. Carlson-Thies spoke, a panel of three experts responded; however, to the surprise of all, this panel was punctuated by former Congressman Vern Ehlers asking to say a few words in response to the event.  Rep. Ehlers’ comments did not deal directly with the religious freedoms of faith-based organizations.  Instead, he responded to the general attitude which was present in both Dr. Carlson-Thies’ remarks and those of the respondents; which is that the federal government is a big, scary monster in Washington D.C. that is out to get everyone.  He tried to provide a corrective to this attitude by reminding the audience that our government is a participatory one.  Ehlers rhetorically asked the question, “How can you influence politics?  The answer is,” according the Rep. Ehlers, “being there.”  He recommended that everyone work to cultivate relationships with their representatives in a civil manner.  If they do that, Ehlers suggested, members of Congress will be much more responsive when it comes to concerns surrounding things such as regulations. 

While I’m skeptical about Ehlers’ “simple as that” approach to swaying the opinions of policy makers, those who are concerned about religious freedom should heed his wisdom.  Treating the federal government as a big, bad, monster has been a weak point of the recent strategy of advocates of religious freedom.  Religious freedom, including the rights of faith-based organizations, is an absolutely foundational principle that must always be respected in laws.  However, champions of other causes will have no problem overlooking an organization’s religious freedom rights to advance their own interests. For this reason, their defenders of religious freedom must also develop, and publicly advocate for alternatives that would both satisfy said interest groups while also protecting religious freedom, a point Dr. Anderson made in her response to Dr. Carlson-Thies. 

Though, to my knowledge, no group has done this regarding the HHS mandate, Dr. Steve Monsma, another champion of religious freedom, provides a different example.  In his book Pluralism and Freedom, he suggests that while faith-based organizations should demand an exemption from and Employment Non-Discrimination Act that includes the LGBT community, the faith community should also advocate for including LGBT persons in and ENDA protection more broadly (169).  Sen. Rob Portman recently embraced this position.  Such a policy, in my opinion, would allow faith-based organizations to retain obedience to their faith while also standing in support of a group that is far to often marginalized in society, which is an equally if not more important aspect of the Christian faith.

Then question then becomes, for the audience of Shared Justice, why should this all matter?  Admittedly, this topic is rather wonky, but it is important for Christian millenials to consider.  In fact, I think we may be the ones to find the proper solutions to this vexing problem of balancing the rights of faith-based institutions and the rights of individuals.  Philosopher James K.A. Smith described our generation in this way:

“They have simply discovered a bigger gospel: they have come to appreciate that the good news is an announcement with implications not only for individual souls but also for the very shape of social institutions and creational flourishing. They have come to appreciate the fact that God is renewing all things and is calling us to ways of life that are conducive to social, economic, and cultural flourishing as pictured in the eschatological glimpses we see in Scripture.” 

We are a generation that is looking to seek justice, whether it’s bycaring about the foster care system, combatting AIDS in Africa or working to end sex trafficking.  We are also trying to transform many old perceptions about Christianity, such as it being a faith of intolerance and repression.  To effectively do the work of justice, we must embrace and participate in institutions that have come before us which have done similar work and when they do not exist, we should create them.  But, we also need the freedom for such groups to be uniquely faith based, and it is for this reason that we must understand and embrace the kind of institutional religious freedom that Dr. Carlson-Thies defended in his lecture.

-Paul Hartge is the assistant to the president at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He graduated from Calvin College in 2010 with a double major in political science and religion.