Christianity,  Politics

Are religious liberty and pluralism at odds?

John Inazu has a fascinating piece at Christianity Today about religious liberty vs. LGBT rights. I encourage you to read this so that you can better understand how we’ve landed in the pickle we’re in right now. Inazu also offers three predictions about where things are going in the very near future:

Prediction #1: Only religious groups (by no means all of them) will impose restrictions based on sexual conduct.

Prediction #2: Only religious groups will accept a distinction between “sexual conduct” and “sexual orientation,” and those groups will almost certainly lose the legal effort to maintain that distinction.

Prediction #3: Fewer and fewer people will value religious freedom.

Inazu argues that our first freedom—guaranteed as the first item in the first amendment—is simply no longer important to many Americans. Even though the principle is deeply embedded in our laws and traditions, fewer and fewer people see any need for it. Because religious liberty is quickly going the way of the Dodo, Inazu says that Christians should not expect to persuade a hostile culture with appeals to “religious liberty.” Rather, we should be making appeals to pluralism, not religious liberty.

Inazu says that one practical implication of preferring “pluralism” over “religious liberty” is that “Christians in states without any antidiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians might consider supporting those laws containing exemptions for religious groups, rather than simply advocating for religious freedom on its own.”

I’m still mulling this article, but two things come to mind that I thought worth mentioning now:

1. Supporting Anti-discrimination Protections with Exemptions: It seems that this is precisely what the President of Gordon College was trying to do (albeit at the federal level). He and the other signatories were not asking for President Obama not to issue the executive order. They were merely asking for an exemption. Merely affixing his name to this request has cost Gordon College dearly. In light of this, Inazu might add a fourth prediction. Supporting religious exemptions will become increasingly costly, and opportunities to do so may be diminishing in any case.

2. Christians should leave off religious liberty arguments in favor of pluralism arguments: I don’t think this is an either/or choice before us. There will be no pluralism without religious liberty. A society cannot have one without the other. As soon as a culture begins banishing religious viewpoints from public life (and indeed punishing them), pluralism is dead. The only way for pluralism to thrive is for all viewpoints to be allowed at the table—including religious ones. We may adopt the rhetoric of pluralism in the service of religious liberty. I’m completely open to that. But that does not mean that the one (pluralism) can exist without the other (religious liberty).

Again, this is a thought-provoking article about issues that are landing on our doorstep right now. Highly recommended.


  • Andrew Alladin

    What the people asking for religious exemptions don’t seem to understand is that they’re the actual targets of this executive order. The thinking behind the command to “let the dead bury the dead” is that sinful people have the same interests and the Christian should not become too entangled with the affairs of the ungodly, disobedient, and fallen. The unbelieving businessmen who do not take God into account will gladly follow this executive order. Their interests (getting more money from the state) and Obama’s interest (promoting disobedience to God’s law) are two sides of the same coin.

    But it is the Christian whose loyalties must be tested by Caesar. Caesar isn’t worried by pagans. And for Christians whose livelihoods are woven into the fabric of the secular state they are the targets of these seek-and-destroy missions. Can a modern, American,Christian university survive without the imprimatur of secular (ungodly, disobedient) accrediting agencies? It isn’t just about money. It’s also about the seal of approval, prestige, and recognition that secularists give to Christians.

    Barack Obama knows that in the end most Christians will bow to his demands. They’ve got too much to lose. They don’t want to be outsiders. They don’t want to be scorned, ignored, and laughed at. After all, this is not the Early Church or Reformation Christians opposing him.

    • Ian Shaw

      Most might bow to the demands, but there is a growing segment of evangelicali Gen-Y’ers that are much firmer when it comes to giving into the demands of Caesar than their parents. There are many of us who will take the charge from Nehemiah and stand in the gaps and fight for their wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and their homes, for our God is great and awesome.

      Gordon College just needs to stop taking federal dollars if they do presently.

  • Paul Reed

    Has social conservatism in America really come to this? If we’re arguing the culture war based upon “religious freedom” and exceptions to the rule, it means the other side is on the 99th yard line and ready to score. Remember when we actually got to make the rules, as opposed to just trying to get in exceptions? We’ve given up offensive and are really in a defensive position.

    • Ian Shaw

      I could agree with that. We put up more of a fight when it comes to handguns with magazines that hold more than 10rds…..(sarcasm yes, but it speaks a truth as well)

      • James Stanton

        Who is this “we”? The love affair with the 2nd Amendment has gone from supporting a reasonable right to outright idolatry. I don’t see a connection to Christianity at all.

        In all seriousness, I’d like someone to clarify what kind of offense they would like to see. What are the real world implications of the rules you would make? To me, this is a justification of theocracy and what would make one happy could be just as divisive as anything the other side has done.

        • Ian Shaw


          The “we” I refered to is that in many evangelical circles, there is an overwhelming idolatry (as you put it) towards supporting the 2nd Amendment to any cost and yet, where is the same effort towards evangelism and sharing the Gospel with others? That’s what I meant by that “we”. Not meant as a broad brush.

  • Chris Ryan

    I think this anti-Obamaism is fascinating–and awfully disappointing b/cs it seems to be vastly out of proportion to his politics and rooted in something else. The religious liberty that’s being sought by many here is nothing more than a theocracy, a way of saying that the views of Conservative Christians should be placed before any other group of people. Churches, synagogues, and temples get religious liberty WITHOUT restriction, but there’s no good (or Godly) reason that a Christian hospital, school, or business should get special privileges. And just as its insignificant that “Thou shall not commit adultery” precedes “Thou shall not steal” its insignificant that freedom of religion precedes freedom of speech or the 2nd Amendment. Using the logic articulated here you’d have to say that its more important to “Honor your father & mother” than it is not to murder but that, of course, would be a total non sequitur.

    • Ryan Davidson


      I generally agree. I’m not sure that the calls for “religious liberty” are necessarily calls for establishing a theocracy. Even so, the complainants do seem to be asking for something more expansive than what the Constitution guarantees or what Inazu’s principled pluralism commends. There seems to be a desire for the return to some kind of civil-Christian hegemony that once prevailed in many parts of the US.

      That desire is utterly foreign to me. After all, I’ve rarely lived in an area where any more than 5-10% of the population attended weekly religious services or where any more than 2-3% of the population identified as evangelical. So, I’ve largely been content if the surrounding culture just left us alone. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I were raised in an area where there was something of an evangelical hegemony. Perhaps then I would feel the need to preserve some remnant of civic privilege for Christians. But, from my vantage point, it’s hard to see what the big deal is.

      • Chris Ryan

        Yeah as Scalia convincingly wrote in Oregon v. Smith, nothing in the Constitution gives religious liberty predominance. So long as the state doesn’t single out a faith, religions must follow all generally applicable laws. In response to Scalia’s ruling Bill Clinton pushed & the Congress strongly supported the RFRA statute. When applied to individuals (as intended) most Americans agree with the RFRA. But most Americans don’t see why it should be legal for a Catholic hospital to fire a gay DR just for being gay. Sure a church shouldn’t be forced to hire a gay minister, but why should a hospital be able to discriminate? If there’s any faith in America that should fear discrimination it should be Baptists & Evangelicals. We’ve been victims of it most of this country’s history.

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