Why the “wall of separation” must be porous

Ruling on appeal of a preliminary injunction, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has–in a divided decision–ruled that a for-profit business may absorb the religious beliefs of its owner. This carves out space for Hobby Lobby, Inc. to continue its non-compliance with provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) known as the contraception mandate without the threat of daily fines of $1 million. While it is a procedural ruling, the notion that a for-profit company can “absorb” the religious beliefs will require clarification from the court and will be significant for future decisions.




Regardless of what you think about this decision, it does illustrate a deeper issue: religion and society cannot be separated by a wall that is not somehow porous. We can disagree with how porous the wall ought to be, but a complete separation of the two tends to favor tyranny rather than freedom.

Why? It’s imperative to acknowledge that there are things that matter more deeply than the way we order and govern our life together as a nation. In a highly pluralistic society, its imperative to recognize that “secular reason” cannot be the sole arbiter of our decisions without doing violence to the large number of people who acknowledge an authority deeper than that of the state. As a result, it is important to carve out exceptions for religious people and religious organizations and corporations as the court has intimated it may do in the case of Hobby Lobby.

The curious case of the praying valedictorian

My Facebook feed has recently started to light up with editorial responses to the young man in South Carolina who, as valedictorian of his graduating class, set his prepared remarks aside and elected to recite the Lord’s Prayer in violation of the school district’s prohibition of religious observance.

Here’s the video.

Your response to this act of defiance will likely differ based on your religious convictions, your political persuasion, and where you live in the country. Clearly those in the audience at the commencement exercise appreciated the gesture. From the video, it’s hard to tell what the faculty are thinking. Plausibly, “oh crap” is one possibility.

The decision to do this raises many questions…

  • About the student: is he brave or stupid? Heroic or reckless?
  • About the audience: how would they have responded to a muslim student doing something similar? Is applause a sign of belligerence rather than the appropriate reaction to the worship of God?
  • About us: how is our response conditioned by our prejudice? Against Southerners? Against Christians? Against fundamentalists?
  • About the act itself: is it really an exercise more of devotion to our Constitution and our conception of freedom in a liberal democracy than it is one of devotion to God? How does this relate to the biblical admonition to honor the civil magistrate?

This young man, I’m sure, intended that his act be one of positive witness to our Lord. I hope that in the lives of many it will be received as just that and that perhaps some will incline themselves to God in a new way. However, many will see this as something akin to an act of defiance by a dwindling majority.

It may be both.

What do you think?

If you’re a Christian, don’t be stupid

People can be stupid. Christians, unfortunately, are no different. Inside Higher Ed highlights a controversy embroiling Florida Atlantic University and centering around student reactions to the actions of a Deandre Poole, himself a Christian and a professor.

Here’s what happened according to the website:

The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involve[d] having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.

Are you following this? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the very letters J-E-S-U-S convey meaning and that in a culture influenced by Christianity, many will have some degree of moral dilemma in being told to step on a sheet of paper containing those letters. 

Dr. Deandre Poole

There are other symbols that could have been used–flags, crosses, a Bible, etc. And the point of the exercise it to make students uncomfortable, good lessons often do. Yet, responses to the event by parties ranging from a student in the class, to politicians, and also to the university administration can really only be classified as stupid. Let me rephrase: responses have been ill-conceived and in some cases are inconsistent with the very values espoused. “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Here’s a list:

  • The belligerent student. We don’t know if this student is a Christian or not. For the sake of argument, and because many will assume he is, let’s assume it to. According to reports here’s the student’s response:

After class, the student came up to him [Poole], and made that statement [“how dare you disrespect someone’s religion] again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that “he wanted to hit me.” While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.

  • The racists. Apparently this Christian professor has received death threats, some of which make reference to lynching (which makes me nauseated even to type):

He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. “One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree,” he said.

  • The university. Get a spine already.

A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended.

This unhappy episode suggests, once again, that not only is our society dysfunctional in communicating across disagreements but also that many of our cultural institutions seem unable or unwilling to make decisions or support faculty who are the subject of public disagreement or uninformed outrage.

Our culture is infantile. We stamp our feet. We scream our disagreement. And what’s sad is that often it is people who claim the name of Christ who are the worst–not always to be sure. However, in a culture that is moving beyond its Christendom moorings, we should be sure that when the offensive person or cause is related to Christianity, it is natural that our culture will make that connection an emphasis in describing the event or person.

St. Peter provides wise counsel for Christians in our current moment when he writes,

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3.16

That defense, I am sure, did not involve fists or shouts.

Four ways churches manage the tension of gospel and culture

Evangelicals are learning to face some new realities about the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture. The church exists for the purpose of proclaiming the truth of the Christian gospel–that reconciliation with God is possible through Christ. As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc). We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity to do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation. As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned.


This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.

  1. Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
  2. Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
  3. Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
  4. Change the message, but not the means of communication. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.

These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054. Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel. Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.

Those are my thoughts–what are yours?

What our reaction to the Arab protests tells us about ourselves

Many of us are surprised by the vitriolic response by some Muslims to viewing The Innocence of Muslims, a film that appears to be so facile that many Westerners have difficulty taking it seriously. Circulation of the video in the Arab world has caused (with a little help from some bad actors aiming to use the unrest to further their own ends) protests in several countries. In Libya, the unrest allowed an insurgent group to launch an attack on the U.S. mission there, which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and several other foreign service personnel.


What’s the big deal? We might be tempted to consider this whole event as analogous to fundamentalist Christians rioting on the streets of London after the release of a movie like, say, The Life of Brian. Released in 1979, the movie (written and performed by Monty Python) chronicled the life of one Brian Cohen. Brian was born on the original Christmas Day, literally in the next stable to Jesus. He proceeds to spend the rest of his life being mistaken for the Christ–even as he is crucified.

Since I was four at the time of the film’s release, I have no firsthand recollection of responses to it’s release thirty-three years ago. However, some very brief research (via the internet) shows that responses were quite critical, especially by the religious establishment. In fact, the English town of Torbay only dropped it’s ban on showing the movie in 2008! Several countries (including Norway) banned the movie totally. To my knowledge, there were no violent protests, although the movie was picketed by Rabbis and Nuns when it was screened in London.

Our confused reaction to the Arab protests tells us a great deal about ourselves. More than anything else, our reaction shows how profoundly unfamiliar we are with anything other than secular societies.

“The secular” is a space in society where religious considerations are not permitted to be taken into account. In this realm or sphere we believe that secular reason becomes a common language (or authority) to which we can commonly appeal in making decisions.

Those of us living in the United States intuitively know, for example, that it is somehow not permissible to apply religious or theological litmus tests to creative works, government policy, or business practices.

Dan Cathy’s contention that gay marriage is inappropriate and his endorsement of tradition heterosexual marriage resulted in a lot of negative publicity and for his company, Chick-fil-A.

In discussing abortion in the 2008 election cycle President Obama made it clear that religious arguments for the sanctity of human life (even human life in utero) ought not to be considered in deciding policy.

No less a figure than Salman Rushdie has recently commented that in secular civil society no belief or tenet is off-limits to art on NPR.

So, art is created and disseminated in the realm of the secular as is policy. Business is conducted in the realm of the secular. To the extent that religious arguments or beliefs influence decisions it is not because those arguments (or considerations) are authoritative in themselves. Instead their influence is utilitarian. For example, when Howard Schultz decided to back out of appearing at Willow Creek’s leadership conference several years ago it was a utilitarian decision. The religious argument was: evangelical Christians discriminate against gays and lesbians therefore evangelical Christianity is, at best, discriminatory and, at worst, a hate group.

It’s likely that had Schultz thought this in the first instance, he would not have accepted the invitation. Instead, his decision to back out appealed to secular reason in the form of making a “business decision” because pressure from GLBT groups could have had an adverse effect on the Starbucks brand. This is not an explicitly theological rationale, it is a utilitarian rationale.

We are profoundly familiar with religious and theological considerations being marginalized in order for our highly pluralistic, capitalist society to function. Our secularism is enshrined in our First Amendment. Free speech can only exist where there is (intellectual) space in which that speech can take place–the secular. Americans find it intuitively ridiculous that, say, LifeWay Christian Stores should refuse to carry a book because the word “vagina” is printed therein. Why? Because we believe that the vast majority of our existence takes place in secular space, a marketplace of ideas and opinion with only secular reason as an arbiter of rival claims.

Our secularism does not permit us to conceive of a society in which all intellectual space is sacred. Or perhaps, more accurately, we have a hard time conceiving of a sacredness that could permeate our entire existence, individually and corporately. Until we’re able to do this, at least as a mental experiment, the fact that many parts of the world are offended by this film or do not particularly wish to be democracies, will always mystify us.

Civility and radical sexual autonomy

A story that broke this week exposes two currents in our contemporary society–a precipitous lack of civility and a firm commitment to radical sexual autonomy. That the two were exposed in a single ‘story’ is convenient.

As you may have heard, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke testified before a  committee of the House of Representatives.

Her testimony was that women covered by health insurances programs at religious institutions that exempt “reproductive health” from their insurance plans are detrimentally affected by that exemption. Her contention was that such an exemption is punitive toward such women and reproductive health coverage ought to be mandated.

I disagree, at least in part. Fluke states that the cost (over three years) of paying out-of-pocket for contraception can amount to $3,000. That is not an inconsequential cost. And I understand that it would seem unjust that two students (at comparable law schools) could be paying comparable premiums for comparable services and yet one would be forced to pay for contraception (at or around $3,000) and the other not (or at least charged only for a prescription copayment of $5-$25).

In order to think through this issue, we have to balance this claim against a counter claim to see which is more compelling. The counter claim simply is this: that Georgetown University is a religious institution related to a Christian Church for whom it is a batter of theological belief that contraception violates the will of God for His people (see the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae).

The question then becomes: which interest is more compelling? Is it more important for the government to protect the right of women to have access to contraception or for the government to protect the right of a Church to exercise its religious beliefs freely? I would say that the latter is more compelling and note that, in general, I am in favor of government-funded health insurance.

A presupposition of Ms. Fluke’s testimony is that she, as an autonomous moral agent, ought to be able to make decisions about sexual behavior without interference (even in the form of non-coverage of contraception) from any party other than (conceivably) her hypothetical sexual partner or partners. By refusing to cover the cost of contraception, Georgetown is compelling law students to alter their sexual behavior or to engage in behavior that is dangerous (i.e., might get one pregnant). The individual has been dethroned and, as a result, the cry of oppression arises.

To be fair, Ms. Fluke lays out cases to demonstrate that her case doesn’t necessarily rely on an appeal to ‘freedom of dalliance.’ She offers the case of the women with ovarian cysts. And my heart goes out to that woman and, I agree, it seems unreasonable that an insurance company and/or university would be unable to conceive of contraceptive medication beyond its instrumentality to stop pregnancies. There is much, however, that we don’t know about the specific case she references. For one, we do not know that the only effective treatment for her condition is taking  such medication. Are there alternatives? Has she exhausted her appeals to the insurance company and the university? On balance, it is compelling but not enough to outweigh the broader, more fundamental case–the desire for absolutely sexual autonomy.

I might add that a second presupposition (that I cannot explore here) is that pregnancy is a disease, a pathology, something to be controlled and manipulated and made to fit into the exact point in the narrative of our life where we wish it to go. This is unsettling.

And to eddy of cultural forces already at play in the discussion of reproductive rights, the freedom of religious expression, and the theoretical framework in which we fit pregnancy, an individual by the name of Rush Limbaugh (see right).

Here’s how Limbaugh responded to Fluke’s testimony (as reported by the BBC):

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan [sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex…. It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

Limbaugh’s critique (perhaps an overly generous word) is not that this is all about the desire for absolute autonomy in sexual practice. As far as I can tell, he’s fine with that part of the narrative. In fact, his critique advances an equally individualistic view–he’s concerned that we (the taxpayer) will be forced to pay for the mitigation of the consequences of sexual encounters.

That critique (while I don’t really agree with it) is fair enough. What isn’t fair, however, it to presuppose that Ms. Fluke’s case is really only about her own sexual behavior. This woman clearly has a proven track record of caring about access to reproductive health resources. And while, in general, that’s not something I’m particularly passionate about and often am opposed to (where it is code for abortion) I respect her commitment to a cause she cares about.

Limbaugh, however, wants to win his argument at any cost. In general when speaking with co-belligerents the easiest way to win a case (because your opponent isn’t present) is poking fun at her. So reasoned discussion gives way to, “she’s a slut who wants us to pay her to have sex.” This is clearly misogynistic if for no other reason that, in general, I’m sure there are an equal number of male students at GW eager for contraception to be subsidized as well. Limbaugh too easily falls into the “women who want sex are sluts” and “boys will be boys” metanarrative that has haunted our life together east of Eden.

Limbaugh has the right to his opinions and to broadcast those opinions. However, if he really cares about the health of our society (and not just about his own wealth) I would suggest that he apologize and begin to speak a little more carefully in future.

Incivility on College Campuses

CNN is reporting that Karl Rove was seriously heckled while delivering a speech at the University of Iowa. Members of the crowd apparently mocked him and repeatedly interrupted his speech. Since the university was paying $40,000 to listen to him, one might be tempted to think that these were some seriously expensive interruptions.

There is a growing incivility in our society. I think that this is partly what makes Barak Obama’s campaign so compelling. He seems largely able to be civil in the midst of a rather dirty business. It’s also what make a film like Purple State of Mind pretty darn compelling. Simply: two people/parties can disagree with one another on pretty darn important (even foundational issues) and do so in a way that honors both the personhood of the other person and the content of that other person’s opinion.

I think its worthy trying to recapture a sense of meaningful dialog between deeply divided and different people/parties that allows both to maintain their particularity and yet to understand the other more deeply. In a pluralistic society its the only healthy way forward.

Canterbury: “Shut It!”

The Times of London is reporting that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is proposing the replacement of Britain’s blasphemy laws with restrictions of what he calls “cruel and thoughtless speech.” Read the article: here. While I don’t particularly like cruel and thoughtless speech, I have a fundamental problem with the legislation of speech codes. I especially am not fond of the seeming low standard that he is advocating:  

“The legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting…”

 A couple of thoughts:

  1.  Controversy is always “debased” to some degree when it becomes public. While I appreciate the input and influence of experts and the intelligentsia, who have a certain technical ways of speaking and writing, it is important that those outside of the guild be invited to participate in the controversy. To people like Williams, an academic theologian, this impulse may well be counter-intuitive. However, it is the basis of a liberal democracy.
  2. Intention is significant. Williams seems to be saying that, regardless of intent, speech that is deemed “cruel” or “thoughtless” by someone (the article doesn’t specify if he means “the person on the street” or the person/group about whom the speech is made) should be punished under this legislation. 
  3. At the same time, he seems to have the effect of such speech in mind. It is speech that has the effect of silencing further speech that would be subject to the legislation. How does one measure this? 

  (Via: The Reformed Pastor)

Resolution at UW Superior

InterVarsity Students at UW-Superior Win Re-recognition
April 13, 2007

News Release
For Immediate Release

(Madison, WI)—Alec Hill, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, today announced that InterVarsity and the University of Wisconsin (UW) have reached an agreement that settles a lawsuit and fully restores recognition to InterVarsity’s student chapter at the UW-Superior (UW-S). The agreement also removes the threat of derecognition that has been facing InterVarsity chapters at the UW-Madison and other University of Wisconsin campuses.

“This is a positive step towards the goal we seek, which is equal treatment of all student organizations, including those that are religious,” said Hill. “We hope that this agreement begins a new, cooperative relationship between the University of Wisconsin and all religious student groups.”

The university notified the UW-S chapter that it was being stripped of official recognition in February 2006. The chapter has been active on the UW-S campus for more than four decades. UW-S officials said that the chapter’s requirement that its leaders affirm InterVarsity’s Basis of Faith violated the university’s non-discrimination policy. InterVarsity maintained that a student religious organization should be able to require reasonable religious standards for its student leaders. To resolve the dispute, InterVarsity filed suit in Federal Court in October, 2006.

The settlement provides for the InterVarsity chapter at UW-S to regain all the benefits of recognized status. Those benefits include the rights to:

* use the university’s name in its title
* the use of the university’s facilities
* exercise campus advertising privileges
* use the university’s administrative services
* apply for student segregated funds

“We are very happy that we can meet freely on campus once again, like all the other student organizations,” said UW-S chapter president Nancy Hudack. “We don’t have to worry about our future as a student organization.” The chapter was allowed to continue weekly meetings in the UW-S Rothwell Student Center even though it had been derecognized.

The agreement includes a precisely worded constitution that will be used by the UW-Superior chapter, as well as chapters on the Madison campus and on other Wisconsin campuses that have been questioned on the discrimination issue by school officials. The constitution may serve as a model for other Christian groups who are facing similar situations on UW campuses and other college campuses, since the constitution was negotiated with the UW and approved by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz.

The Campus and the First Amendment

The Daily Tar Heel, student daily of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, recently ran the infamous cartoons of Mohammed that have caused violent protests across the globe. There is now a group of UNC students protesting this editorial decision by marching in front of the Daily Tar Heel office.

It is interesting to note the irony in the way the dominant culture of the university handles this sort of thing. What is happening here is, in effect, a call for censorship. The grounds for this call is that the cartoons represent a religious tradition in a way that is offensive to adherents to that religious tradition (and others). The cartoons can be construed to imply that Islam is a religion of violence, ignorance, and folly. At least part of this is true, but not in the way stated above. Rather I would restate as follows:

Islam is a religion that is comprised of adherents who are human beings.
Human beings have an immense propensity to violence, ignorance, and folly.
The violence, ignorance, and folly is not innate to Islam so much as it is to the human condition.

The same might be true of any world religion since all world religions have this in common: they are social constructs that exist in human society, and human society is fallen. That is to say: human beings (individually and corporately) have inherited a fractured relationship to God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it is only through redemption, believing on Jesus Christ and hoping in the Christian Gospel, that this fallenness is overcome.