Religious Right leaders love to claim that Christians are threatened in the U.S., the subject of a forthcoming PFAW report on the Religious Right’s persecution complex. The latest example comes from the just-completed annual conference of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Russell Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, hosted Rick Warren, David Platt, and Samuel Rodriguez for a June 9 panel on religious freedom in America through the lens of the Hobby Lobby case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to an account by Tom Strode in the Baptist Press, Rodriguez, who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, warned, “Today’s complacency is tomorrow’s captivity. The firewall against secular totalitarianism is religious liberty and religious pluralism.”
“Secular totalitarianism” in this context is the requirement, being challenged in the Hobby Lobby case, that for-profit businesses provide insurance coverage that includes contraception methods to which the company’s owners have religious objections.
“The justices will decide whether “there is the freedom to dissent and the freedom to accommodate these conscientious objections in the governing of people’s lives and the running of their businesses,” Moore said. “This will have everything to do with everything that your church does for the next 100 years.”
Moore of course is ignoring, or rather obfuscating, the clear constitutional, legal, and policy distinction between churches, who are exempt from the requirement, and for-profit corporations, whose claim to a religious conscience is at the core of the Hobby Lobby case.
Rodriguez and Warren agreed that religious liberty is the civil rights issue of the future. And panelists spoke as if Christians are on the verge of being jailed for their beliefs:
“I’m spending all of my time right now making sure that we stay out of jail,” [Moore] told the audience. “But there is one thing worse than going to jail, and that’s staying out of jail and sacrificing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Warren responded, “This issue may take – just as it did with Martin Luther King – it may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in.”
The idea that pastors are going to be thrown into jail is a ridiculous argument that Religious Right leaders have used to oppose hate crimes legislation and laws against anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. This kind of rhetoric is not only ridiculous, it is also irresponsible and damaging. As People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics says in explaining that religious and political leaders should not “cry ‘wolf’” about religious persecution:
Inflammatory charges about religious persecution can lead to an angrier and more divisive political arena. If you believe your political opponents are actually out to take away your religious freedom, shut down your church, and literally criminalize Christianity—goals that some Religious Right figures attribute to political liberals—you have little reason to treat your opponents civilly or engage in a search for constructive common ground or compromise. Creating that kind of environment is not good for our country.
It is possible to have a vigorous debate about political issues and about the separation of church and state without resorting to falsehoods about religious persecution.
The panel wasn’t a total bust, apparently. Unlike some Religious Right leaders, who claim that religious liberty protections apply only to Christians – or to a particular subset of Christians – news reports indicate that Rodriguez, Warren, and Moore said Christians should promote religious liberty for everyone in the context of religious pluralism. We don’t say this often about these guys, but we agree.