The increasing threat to religious liberty and the brokenness of politics in this election year demonstrate the need for change among Christians in America, speakers said at a gathering Aug. 27 in Nashville.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) cosponsored the event – “The 2016 Presidential Race, Religious Liberty and the Future of the Church” – a day after the conclusion of the ERLC’s National Conference on cultural engagement and gospel faithfulness.
The church inhabits an America in which religious freedom is now a “polarizing concept,” ERLC President Russell Moore said, and the political culture is “shattered into a million pieces,” said David French, a staff writer for the conservative magazine National Review and a constitutional lawyer.
The clash between religious liberty and sexual liberty – manifested in the legal and cultural battles over such issues as same-sex marriage, gay rights and transgender rights – has prompted some former supporters of a 1993 federal law protecting religious freedom to reverse themselves. To regard that law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as a subversive idea is “a dangerous trend” for all Americans, because all protected liberties “hang together,” Moore told the audience.
“Once a liberty becomes too politically toxic to uphold or to maintain – and that means you simply toss it aside – there are other liberties that are then going to be [at risk],” he said.
In the long term, Moore said, the church must be able to explain to an increasingly secularized American culture “what it means to be religiously motivated” and to train Christians in what religious liberty really is – especially its “biblical and theological foundations.”
French described the 2016 election process – which resulted in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the Democratic and Republican nominees, respectively – as a “colossal, miserable, disgusting failure.”
Citing such factors as public rage about circumstances, ignorance about politics and lethargy among the electorate, French also pointed to the dominance of the Fox News Channel among conservatives as a factor in the broken political culture.
Fox’s “priorities become movement priorities. Fox fame becomes real fame,” said French, who considered a third-party presidential run as a conservative alternative to Trump. “Fox’s priorities are not the priorities necessarily of the movement, much less the priorities of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He thinks Americans “are about to see some significant changes culturally and nationally as a result of this election,” French told attendees at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
Rejecting the idea Trump could win the election, French gave different scenarios in case of a Clinton victory.
If she wins within what he described as the “perceived margin” produced by #NeverTrump voters like himself, “you’re going to be looking at the great blood-letting” among conservatives, he predicted.
If Clinton’s victory is greater than the #NeverTrump edge, “There’s going to be a need for repentance, a lot of repentance” by conservatives particularly – and white evangelicals especially – toward communities of color, French said.
The country will have just gone through a campaign in which the party of Abraham Lincoln “explicitly embraced a person who has himself explicitly given aid and comfort to some of the most vile racists,” he told the audience. “You can’t ignore that.”
Looking ahead to a post-election America, Moore said he is concerned about “what happens to the witness of evangelicalism in the middle of a moment like this,” especially when considering an evangelical church that is increasingly multi-ethnic.
Evangelicals “have to speak a word that we can live with for future generations of evangelical Christians and our neighbors,” he said. Evangelicals also must make the gospel of Jesus clear amid times when they can tend to become tools of a political agenda, he said.
“Politics in American life, across the board, far left and far right, has become a religion,” Moore said. “It has become a kind of transcendent source of authority and a transcendent source of identity.
“Part of what we have to do is dethrone politics as a religion and as a source of identity while at the same time remaining engaged in our responsibilities” as citizens, he said.
Culturally, evangelicals and other conservatives partly find themselves at this stage in America because progressives, or liberals, “have done a better job of capturing hearts and imaginations, telling stories that make, you know, the LGBT community more sympathetic,” said Mike Cosper, director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture. Conservatives have a “huge opportunity” to tell stories well, he said.
From a legal perspective, ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley said the Supreme Court has been a factor in the current situation by “not staying within its lanes, really becoming a legislative branch and legislating from the bench. There are balances that have been out of balance for a long time.”
The “lack of regard for religious liberty” by the high court and others, Stanley said, results in the denial of the “inherent, fundamental nature of religious liberty,” denies the freedom of Christians “to fully follow Christ” and “ignores the human cost involved.”
He reminded attendees God remains in control, “and our God can use the loss of religious liberty as an instrument of sanctification in His church and in His people.”
Jennifer Marshall, vice president with The Heritage Foundation, said the current state of religious freedom “is pressing us to clarify, number one, what we believe, which is long overdue; number two, to live that out more faithfully; and number three, that we would then become better at explaining it to our neighbors in ways that make it attractive in its substance to them but also move them from a position of saying, ‘You have no right to exist,’ to a position that would allow for this diversity, this true diversity, in society.”
Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, said Christians should expect the government to become more hostile toward them.
The result of this hostility will be persecution in the workplace, including the loss of jobs for Christians, he said. Another result will be that some will renounce their faith, Dreher said. “[T]hey will deny Jesus for the sake of preserving their career, their wealth or their social standing.
“This easy, easy cultural Christianity is a thing of the past,” he said, adding it is going to cost something “to remain faithful to the Lord through this new dark age.”
Christians need to “radically rethink the way we worship and live in our churches,” Dreher told the audience. “The church is going to have to become the center of our lives.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)