Letter to the Editor
May 11, 2022
Mark Wingfield’s recent editorial on “performative Christianity” and religious liberty was both devoid of nuance and ill-informed of history. The “religious liberty” he advocates is no liberty at all, but the straight jacket of militant secularism which seeks conformity to the government’s view of a public square sanitized of religious expression.
Secularism, or the uncoupling of the church from state power, has served the West well and prevented innumerable conflicts over religion. In America, this secularism was achieved after a long period of agitation by white, male, Baptist Christians (among a handful of others) who lobbied the state to remove the privileged status of what was then deemed “orthodox.” Without their willful, voluntary and stringent efforts toward disestablishment, the First Amendment Wingfield radically misinterprets would look very different — if it existed at all.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, written by those with a foot in two eras (Protestant Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment), was meant to enshrine government neutrality toward religion. But Wingfield’s vision is not benevolent neutrality. It is open hostility. It is advocacy for what Stephen Macedo called “civic totalism.” It is the vision of John Dewey, rather than Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and John Leland.
This same civic totalism ensconces the government’s exclusive claim to the rights of arbitration and education in the realm of moral values, to the definition of civic virtues and to real, actual, coercive religious power and leadership. And this movement toward the enshrinement of government as its own faith has been under way for more than 50 years, a fact which scholars from Richard Neuhaus to William Cavanaugh have recognized (neither of whom could be described as “conservative”).
When religious expression is driven from the public square, the vacuum created is backfilled with greater government power, which crafts its own sacred institutions. Attached to those sacred institutions are formal symbols or beliefs thought of as sacrosanct. Law, or the dominant party’s interpretation of it, becomes virtue. Those who express themselves contrary to it are seen as morally repugnant, or at least ignorant, prideful and privileged — such as when a Christian baker refuses to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding or when a coach kneels silently in a field in an act of “performative Christianity.”
Wingfield’s emotionally laden vision actually poses a much greater impetus toward ubiquitous nationalism than Christianity ever has (Wingfield’s claims of unrestrained and burgeoning Christian nationalism, shared by the political left, are wildly exaggerated). Worse, he absorbs the other protective clauses of the First Amendment into the Establishment Clause. Religious freedom properly understood, in his estimation, appears to mean keeping one’s mouth shut and public religious professions confined to the four walls of the church — which negates free speech, creates a de facto establishment of an exclusive religion of government, and prohibits free exercise.
This is not the classical Baptist witness on religious freedom, which was beginning to deal with religious pluralism even as the nation was founded and which knew true Christianity had to compete in the marketplace of ideas to be authentic. That competition has depended on the public space for the communication of its ideas, because every space outside of our brains and bodies, is just that. It is public. As for those offended by the siding salesman next to them on the airplane (how Wingfield defines those practicing evangelism), perhaps a greater level of civic virtue and political maturity is needed — one which recognizes the history of the move toward religious freedom, which understands the contesting of ideas, and one which doesn’t find a privileged boogeyman behind every action, especially one meant to offer salvation in Christ.
Courts in the U.S. have largely, in the past, found the happy middle of the neutral ground the framers of the Constitution fashioned for their citizens. We will have to wait and see in the Kennedy v. Bremerton case if silent prayer is actually an endorsement of religion, if the expression of kneeling is an act of which violates the governments claims to the public space, and if a government employee is always and everywhere a government employee whose religious views must be subordinated (Christian of not) to those of the State.
Gregory Tomlin, Irving, Texas
Carroll Fellow and associate professor for faith and heritage
B.H. Carroll Theological Institute