Christians have for some time been concerned about a perceived shift in the language of Washington from “freedom of religion” to “freedom to worship.” This shift is interpreted by some to reflect a narrowing of religious liberty to what occurs within the walls of a house of worship during service times.
Well, it seems that even that restricted notion of religious liberty might be coming under scrutiny. The Alliance Defending Freedom recently filed a pre-enforcement challenge to an Iowa law that could possibly be used to restrict freedom of religious speech even within a worship service, if such speech were to be deemed discriminatory. The guidelines are full of the usual mix of sensible statements whose meaning is obvious and the typically vague and aesthetic criteria that can be as fuzzy or elastic as one cares to make them. Here’s the specific wording:
Harassment includes but is not limited to: verbal, physical, or written conduct, conduct of a sexually inappropriate nature, physical or psychological abuse, repeated remarks of a demeaning nature, implied or explicit threats, demeaning jokes, stories, or activities, and intentional use of names and pronouns inconsistent with a person’s presented gender.
The law is thus being interpreted and applied in line with the canons of political and cultural discourse that have emerged over the last fifty years, where oppression is increasingly a psychological category and ethics is increasingly aesthetics, a matter of taste. This development is problematic on at least two fronts. First, it presses toward the elimination of any distinction (philosophical, political, and eventually legal) between relatively clear crimes against property and bodies and crimes against (for want of a better term) individual psychological well-being. The definition of what does and does not contravene the law thus becomes much harder to establish in any rigorous way. And second—and consequently—in practice the interpretation and application of the law become a function of whatever happens to suit the tastes of those who determine cultural values and wield judicial power.
This renders the law in general—the law, which is one of those means by which social stability and continuity is typically guaranteed—into something as volatile and unpredictable as the cultural aesthetics it has come to serve. We see this in the way terms that once were innocuous or even politically correct can quickly become their opposite—signs of ignorance or bigotry—and render anyone liable to being ostracized or demonized or even prosecuted. The law and its institutions are thereby ceasing to be means of transmitting one part of a culture’s moral convictions and aspirations from generation to generation. Increasingly, they are a mere function of the dominant tastes of the present moment, and a means of ruthlessly imposing the same.
Disturbing as this is, it is nothing new, but a well-established judicial tendency in this psychological age. What is new is the way this tendency is now being used as means of slowly but surely eliminating any space for cultural resistance. The potential application of the law to worship services “open to the public” is significant. Unless they are cults or secret societies, most churches want to reach out to their neighborhoods. Most churches want to be good contributing constituent members of their local communities. Most churches want to welcome visitors, especially to their worship services. Thus, if worship services are public services, and public services must conform to whatever is the psycho-political dish of the day, most churches might well find their freedom to speak as they wish severely curtailed. And given the way in which sex and gender now lie at the heart of contemporary notions of identity, the law could effectively require churches to accept any and every identity claim of every person who passes through its doors. That is not Christianity. That is Oprah Winfrianity.
The whole point of Christianity is not to accept and affirm autonomous or self-created identities as ultimately determining of who someone is, but to define what it means to be a person in terms of Christian teaching. On the surface, therefore, this law seems to demand that the church needs to cease to be the church and take on the role instead of a psychotherapist. It is a new kind of Erastianism: the church being slowly but surely co-opted as a means of social control, subordinated to the whims of the political lobbyists as they press their commitments to creating a society of Psychological Men, Women, and all points in between through the law courts. The pop culture fight is over, the legal fight is just beginning and the choice before our churches is becoming clear and unavoidable: Whom will you serve?
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.
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