Melissa Rogers: America’s faith traditions can unify and heal wounds

While religious ideologies are increasingly cited as toxic and divisive forces in American culture and politics, faith also can heal those wounds when Americans unite around common causes such as hunger, poverty and disaster relief, according to Melissa Rogers.

The executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships spoke about the unifying power of faith during a recent Brookings Institution webinar.

One of the major goals of the office — reestablished by President Joe Biden after its closure by Donald Trump — is to foster connections between faith-based groups around common interests and causes to help heal wounds caused by religious antagonisms, including white Christian nationalism, said Rogers, who in the past worked with Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Melissa Rogers

“Trying to find more opportunities for people of different faiths and beliefs to work side-by-side really breaks the ice and helps us to see the good in one another in a way that is very powerful,” she explained during the webinar titled, “How faith leaders can help America heal.”

Since its original establishment by former President George W. Bush, and during its continued operation under the Obama administration, the Office of Faith-based Partnerships has worked through misunderstandings about its scope and authority, Rogers said.

In part, those stem from a misunderstanding of what the U.S. Constitution does and doesn’t allow with regard to government and religion.

“The Constitution says that the government can’t back religion and that it can’t be promoting theology — telling people that they should believe one way or another,” she said. “But it also says that people of faith have the right to express and practice their faith and that the government needs to protect those rights.”

For this White House office, that means enabling religious groups to navigate through government agencies and programs to find the resources that could help them in their ministries.

“It would be silly and hostile to religion for the government not to work with faith communities and community groups in these situations,” she said. “So, it’s incumbent on the government to engage with everyone, including faith groups, in this task. And, of course, we have to do that in a way that treats all faiths equally and does not favor one over the other.”

The needs the nation’s faith-based ministries are attempting to meet are painfully real, the White House said in a Feb. 14 announcement of Biden’s executive order opening the office and appointing Rogers as its leader.

“At a time of great challenge and opportunity, the Biden-Harris administration is re-launching this bipartisan initiative. The Partnerships Office’s initial work will include collaborating with civil society to address the COVID-19 pandemic and boost economic recovery; combat systemic racism; increase opportunity and mobility for historically disadvantaged communities; and strengthen pluralism,” the White House said.

As it did under past administrations, the office continues to establish centers in government agencies like FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services to connect ministries and other grassroots groups to federal resources, Rogers said.

“Faith and community groups are indispensable partners between government and people who are struggling.”

Results already have been seen in the establishment of church-based COVID-19 vaccination sites while “FEMA is making sure that faith and community organizations have information about preparing for hurricane season,” she said.

Rogers added that the office also will help support international aid, recovery and humanitarian missions and is working with partners to address crises around the world. “We just find, here again, that faith and community groups are indispensable partners between government and people who are struggling.”

The office also is charged with combatting hate crimes based on race or religion and received a boost in that mission in May when Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which streamlines hate-crime reporting processes and provides prosecutors with extra powers.

“It gives us a bunch of new tools to try to prevent incidents of hate that are unlawful,” she said. The office also is offering assistance to groups seeking to apply for federal nonprofit security grants, which are available to at-risk groups.

Rogers said her office may be able to play a role in countering the religiously driven polarization of American life.

“We recognize that people feel fear on different sides, that the way they would like to live their lives is being threatened,” she said. “Everybody is scared about what the other side might do to them if they get political power.”

The situation has encouraged the office to seek ways to let Americans name their fears before policy decisions are made, even if they oppose the president’s decisions.

It’s about “really listening to them … so we can give due respect to different views and learn something and sometimes change our views,” she said.

“Finding ways to serve together across our differences brings us back to where we started from and can be a relationship builder.”

And the service aspect can achieve similar results. “Finding ways to serve together across our differences brings us back to where we started from and can be a relationship builder.”

Rogers said she is optimistic that the gulf between Americans can be bridged through faith-based partnerships.

“I can’t get away from being hopeful because every day I have people reaching out to me … saying, ‘How can I help?’ Or, ‘Here’s what I’m doing’ and, ‘Do you think by combining our efforts we could make this effort more than the sum of its parts?’”


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Separation of church and state looks different through the eyes of minorities, BJC speaker says

The First Amendment and concepts such as separation of church and state and freedom of religion seem to signal that religious diversity is strong in the United States.

“Well, that’s not really true,” Khyati Joshi, author of White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, said during the May 20 installment of “Voices of Asian American Faith Freedom,” a Facebook series hosted by Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Khyati Joshi

Responding to questions from BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr., Joshi’s comments touched on the ways white Christian privilege generates overly optimistic assumptions about religious freedom, sets the conditions for religious discrimination and ultimately feeds into the rising tide of Christian nationalism.

“Christian nationalism rests on the foundation of Christian normativity,” which she described as “the way we go about our lives and the way that aspects of Christianity just become part of American life — especially white American life — where sometimes it may be difficult to separate what’s Christian and what’s American.”

Joshi, professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., said she’s experienced the negative side of white Christian privilege growing up in a Hindu family that settled in Atlanta after immigrating to the U.S. in 1971.

“I wasn’t Black and I wasn’t quite white, so that led to a lot of confusion.”

“It meant I was harassed and bullied. I had a lot of not-so-nice experiences,” she said, qualifying that it was the color of her skin as much as her faith that drew the unwanted attention. “You know, when you’re 11 and 12, they’re not separating out racial ethnic identity from religious identity. I wasn’t Black and I wasn’t quite white, so that led to a lot of confusion.”

And there are the challenges religious minorities routinely encounter in the U.S., like difficulty in getting time off for non-Christian holidays and fielding inappropriate or awkward comments and questions about their faith filtered through Christian concepts and language.

Joshi said she couldn’t count “the number of times I have been asked, ‘What’s your Bible?’”
To which she would respond: “Do you mean, what are my sacred Scripture or Scriptures? Or if I have one?”

White Christian Privilege was written to help people see when those benefits are operative, she said. “When I’m talking about Christian privilege, it’s not necessarily about right and wrong but it’s about seeing what is there, and for many it’s been invisible.”

One place to start is with Christmas and other Christian holidays, she advised. “Can you notice that you were able to celebrate your holiday in full without worrying about a test, without worrying about a project deadline? This is something that religious minorities in this country have to do.”

But understanding Christian privilege becomes more nuanced when race is brought into the equation, she added.

“Sometimes I’m talking Christian privilege, and sometimes I’m talking white Christian privilege, because Black Americans who are Christian have Christian privilege and Asian Americans who are Christian have Christian privilege. But then there is race. Race is such a force in our country that Black Christians and Asian Christians don’t have the same kind of privilege as white Christians.”

Privilege also is a source of oppression, discrimination and marginalization, Joshi said. But that connection is masked by the belief that Constitutional protections shield the members of all faiths the way they do Christians.

“People may get that sense because they see mosques and Hindu temples and Greek Orthodox churches and big Catholic churches, meaning everybody can pray how they want and worship as they want,” she said. “But that’s not really the case, otherwise synagogues would not be getting attacked and masjids wouldn’t be attacked.”

Even when oppression is noticeable, it’s seen as a rare exception, she said. “We talk about anti-Semitism but there are more than just Jewish Americans who face discrimination. Think about all the Native American spiritualities, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam. Religious oppression is a system of advantages and disadvantages based on religion.”

Asked to give her take on “faith freedom,” the theme of BJC’s virtual talks, Joshi said it is about responsibility to others. “For me, faith freedom is not only being able to practice my faith freely but making sure that others can do what they need to do to be their 100% authentic selves.”

BJC will host Tahil Sharma in “What Can American Learn About Religious Diversity from Asian Americans” at 1:30 p.m. May 27 on Facebook.

Equality Act stirs passions about the definition of religious liberty and RFRA’s role

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act last week, the long-simmering battle between religious conservatives and the rest of the nation reached a renewed pitch.

At stake is the desire of religious conservatives — especially evangelical Christians — to be able to exclude themselves from having to provide services or accommodations to people they believe are living in grievous sin, pitted against Americans who believe gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons ought to enjoy protection from all discrimination.

In a sense, this is the ultimate expression of the so-called “culture wars” that have defined evangelical involvement in U.S. politics for the past 50 years. Other than abortion, no other issue motivates conservative evangelical voters like sexual orientation and gender identity.

Views against the Equality Act

The Heritage Foundation warns the Equality Act “would further inequality by penalizing everyday Americans for their beliefs about marriage and biological sex.”

Sarah Kramer of the Alliance Defending Freedom charges that the Equality Act “could regulate speech, forcing certain beliefs and ideas out of the public square under the threat of punishment. Specifically, those who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman or that biological sex is immutable could, in too many circumstances, no longer be permitted to speak or act consistently with those beliefs.”

Five committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Congress to protest the Equality Act.

Five committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Congress to protest the Equality Act, saying it “represents the imposition by Congress of novel and divisive viewpoints regarding ‘gender’ on individuals and organizations. This includes dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting ‘gender’ as only a social construct.”

Evangelist Franklin Graham took to social media to issue his own warnings against the Equality Act: “If passed, the Equality Act would devastate women’s sports and open the door for men who identify as women in restrooms, dorms, locker rooms, women’s shelters, and much more.”

Views for the Equality Act

On the other hand, the ACLU warns that although “under current federal law, LGTBQ people cannot be fired from their job just because of sexual orientation or gender identity,” there are “critical gaps that must be addressed.” To that end, “it’s more important than ever that LGBTQ people have comprehensive, nationwide protection against discrimination.”

Writing for NBC News, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons of the Center for American Progress argues that “for years the religious right has trumpeted a lie: that its opposition to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections has to do with, or is even required by, religion. It has even, on occasion, distorted the meaning of religious freedom to make this argument. But as its opposition to the Equality Act … shows, the idea that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections undermine protections for religious Americans is an egregious mistruth.”

“The idea that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections undermine protections for religious Americans is an egregious mistruth.”

The Human Rights Campaign explains on its website: “Despite significant steps forward, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Americans lack basic legal protections in states across the country. The patchwork nature of current laws leaves millions of people subject to uncertainty and potential discrimination that impacts their safety, their families, and their day-to-day lives.”

What is the Equality Act?

Described by its authors as intended to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation,” House Resolution 5 would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at multiple points. Repeatedly, it would add the phrase “including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’” to statements defining classes of people protected from discrimination.

The bill includes 23 “findings” that describe the kinds of discrimination currently faced by those in the LGBTQ community. The last of those states: “This Act furthers the government’s compelling interest in the least restrictive way because only by forbidding discrimination is it possible to avert or redress the harms described in this subsection.”

That language — “furthers the government’s compelling interest in the least restrictive way” — is key to understanding the religious implications of the legislation. Those words are a direct reference to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

RFRA, as the 1993 legislation is commonly known, says the federal government may not “substantially burden” a person’s religious exercise unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

Liberal lawmakers today worry that RFRA will be used to provide cover for discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds.

Although passed with support of a bipartisan coalition led by Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, more liberal lawmakers today worry that RFRA will be used to provide cover for discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds.

These fears were stoked by a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that said RFRA allows a business to deny employees health insurance for contraceptives on religious grounds, even though such coverage was mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court’s June 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County found that the protections guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act “on the basis of sex” also extend to discrimination against LGBTQ persons. While LGBTQ advocates celebrated that win, they were alarmed by Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent, where he described RFRA as a “super statute” that may displace the use of federal employment laws to protect gay and transgender workers.

Given the conservative majority now on the Supreme Court, liberals fear the court could in the future give more deference to religious conservatives who believe sexual orientation is a controllable (and sinful) choice, oppose same-sex marriage and believe gender is a binary reality determined at birth.

Those claims, liberals fear, could be made under the terms of RFRA, which speaks in broad terms and does not single out classes of religious belief or discrimination.

That’s why the Equality Act includes this key sentence: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

In lay terms, that sentence means anyone who wants to limit services or accommodations available to LGBTQ persons could not do so claiming their own right to religious freedom under RFRA.

Keeping faith in RFRA

As with another bill (the Do No Harm Act) just reintroduced into Congress, the Equality Act is viewed by some religious liberty advocates as possibly doing the right thing the wrong way.

That is the concern expressed in a Twitter thread from Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

Amanda Tyler

“As a Christian organization dedicated to faith freedom for all, @BJContheHill supports protections that are necessary to ensure that all people have access to opportunities, including employment, housing, and basic goods and services,” she tweeted. “Discrimination and other affronts to human freedom also harm faith freedom for all. @BJContheHill respects and supports the broad goals of the #EqualityAct.”

However, the carve-out from RFRA in the Equality Act could be unnecessary, she implied: “Courts generally have held that compliance with nondiscrimination laws is a compelling government interest and have denied almost all RFRA challenges to such laws.”

She continued: “So what’s wrong with a preemptive carve-out? The strength of RFRA is its universal application to all federal laws. It was designed as a balancing test to be applied on a case-by-case basis. Selectively applying the standard chips away at broad support for religious freedom. As shown in the House debate, opponents of the Equality Act use the RFRA carve-out to claim an attack on religious freedom. The alarmist rhetoric is overblown and misleading. But perhaps there is a better way to support the aims of the bill and protect religious freedom.”

Tyler’s conclusion: “The Equality Act could be more explicit about religious exemptions, including for houses of worship. Clarity would address many of the far-flung hypotheticals used by the bill’s opponents and show the bill’s supporters value both nondiscrimination and religious freedom.”

Public opinion versus political reality

However inelegant its execution, the legislation put forth by Congressional Democrats in the Equality Act resonates with the views held by a majority of Americans. The national majority opinion does not always translate into easy legislation, however, because senators and representatives are not elected by the nation as a whole but by subsets of the nation.

The research firm PRRI finds that “large majorities of most religious groups support the protections within the Equality Act.”

The research firm PRRI finds that “large majorities of most religious groups support the protections within the Equality Act.”

For example, PRRI data show that 84% all Americans oppose allowing licensed professionals to refuse to provide services to particular groups of people if doing so violates their religious beliefs. That category would include professions such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers.”

PRRI Research Director Natalie Jackson added: “White evangelical Protestants are least likely to oppose allowing licensed professionals to refuse service to specific groups, but even among this group, more than two-thirds (68%) oppose such religious exemptions.”

Also, data released from PRRI in fall 2020 found that if Americans had to vote on allowing same-sex marriage, it likely would pass handily. PRRI’s national poll found a majority of Americans (70%) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to only 28% of Americans who oppose it. Majorities of Democrats (80%) and independents (76%), as well as half of Republicans (50%), support same-sex marriage.

White evangelical Protestants were found to be the only major religious group in which a majority oppose allowing same-sex marriage (34% favor, 63% oppose).

Gallup polling data also confirms the trend. In June 2020, Gallup reported: “Two in three Americans (67%) say marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, matching the previous high Gallup measured in 2018.”

For now, the Equality Act has passed the House and awaits debate in the Senate. This isn’t the first time for the bill to get a hearing in Congress.

Similar bills have been proposed in Congress since the 1970s, but the current version of the Equality Act first appeared in 2015. It passed the Democratic-led House once before, on May 17, 2019, on a bipartisan 236–173 vote. However, it died in the Republican-led Senate, where it did not get consideration.

This year, the House passed the Equality Act by a vote of 224 to 206 on Feb. 25, with help from three Republicans. Although Democrats now control the Senate, they have the slimmest of margins there, which makes the bill’s consideration uncertain at best.


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Does landmark religious freedom legislation need a fix or is it fine as is?

Does the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 need a legislative fix? Some Democratic Congressmen and religious freedom advocates believe so, which has prompted a renewed attempt to resolve problems they believe have been created by conservative court rulings and Trump administration actions.

Other religious leaders, however, believe the proposed fix is merely an attempt to stifle the voices and religious convictions of conservatives. And still others see the proposed fix as either premature or unnecessary.

On Feb. 25, four Congressmen reintroduced legislation called the “Do No Harm Act.” The bill previously was introduced in 2016 and 2019 but did not advance. Adding to the gravitas of the moment: As a senator, Vice President Kamala Harris was a sponsor of a Senate version of the Do No Harm Act.

Some religious conservatives link her previous sponsorship and current position as indication of a coming threat to their own free exercise of religion.

Framing the need

The Human Rights Campaign is among nearly 100 civil rights, LGBTQ, health, labor and faith groups that have endorsed this year’s iteration of the Do No Harm Act.

The legislation “would amend RFRA in order to restore the original intent … by specifically exempting areas of law where RFRA has been used to bypass federal protections,” the HRC says on its website.

Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, echoed that explanation: “Despite the intent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect free exercise and religious minorities, some are misusing what they call ‘religious freedom’ to ignore nondiscrimination laws and deny people access to health care, jobs and government-funded services. This exploitation of religious freedom especially harms LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious by undermining their civil rights and equality.”

On the other hand, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has made opposition to the Do No Harm Act one of its legislative priorities for 2021.

“This bill, if passed into law, would weaken religious freedom protections for millions of Americans. The ERLC opposes the Do No Harm Act because it would do significant harm to the landscape of legal protections foundational to America’s first freedom,” the agency says on its website.

Kenneth Craycraft, the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, wrote a dire warning in the Catholic journal First Things. He called the Do No Harm Act a “comprehensive bill that would effectively render RFRA null and void.”

In the middle

Notably missing from the current debate and flurry of news releases sent out last week was Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — the Washington, D.C.-based organization that chaired the RFRA coalition back in 1993.

In previous years when the Do No Harm Act was introduced, BJC did not join the coalition promoting or opposing the legislation. It has steadfastly promoted RFRA as a good piece of legislation that was passed with diverse and overwhelming support.

Holly Hollman

“While BJC does not endorse the Do No Harm Act, we acknowledge concerns about RFRA’s broad sweep,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. “By design, RFRA applies to any religious claim and leaves it to courts to balance the burden on religious exercise and the government’s interest. It does not provide an automatic win for religious claims, and it is not surprising that people will disagree with some outcomes.

“The statute’s application to Hobby Lobby, a large, for-profit private company, led many to abandon RFRA and fear additional harms, some of which were described in Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion. For BJC, a greater concern than the application of RFRA to a private, for-profit corporation is that the court was too deferential in finding that the law at issue posed a substantial burden on the owners of Hobby Lobby.”

A perceived threat from the courts

Advocates of the Do No Harm Act see in several court rulings a threat to RFRA, which says federal government may not “substantially burden” a person’s religious exercise unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

RFRA itself was the product of concerns about court rulings interpreting the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty.

A BJC booklet celebrating the 20th anniversary of RFRA explains: “The story of RFRA began in 1990, when the U.S. Supreme Court shocked many religious and civil liberty advocates by announcing in Employment Division v. Smith that the First Amendment is not violated when neutral, generally applicable laws conflict with religious practices. This less demanding standard previously had applied only in specific contexts such as prisons and the military.”

Katherine McKeen

Writing in the journal Regulatory Review, Katherine McKeen analyzes the current landscape and writes: “So far, federal courts’ application of RFRA appears to favor conservative religious causes, such as corporate exemptions from contraceptive coverage, over more progressive ones, such as pro-immigrant advocacy. But RFRA’s origins and statutory language give no indication that it should be construed in this way.”

In other words, concerns about the effectiveness of RFRA may be more about its application and interpretation than about the law itself.

“Despite its broad language and influence, RFRA seems to have been used most effectively by conservative Christian groups seeking exemptions from laws intended to protect reproductive health and LGBTQ+ civil rights,” McKeen notes.

Supreme Court cases

Three Supreme Court cases stand out among the legal threats most often cited as evidence that RFRA needs a booster shot.

In 2014, the court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that RFRA allows a business to deny employees health insurance for contraceptives on religious grounds, even though such coverage was mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

In a dissent to the majority ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed concern that Hobby Lobby could lead to RFRA being used to sanction discrimination against minority groups. Two years later, in 2016, this reality came to pass in a decision by a federal judge in Michigan. In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, the judge ruled in favor of a funeral home that fired a transgender employee due to her gender identity. The funeral home claimed RFRA protection of its deeply held religious beliefs as a defense against the sex discrimination suit. The judge cited Hobby Lobby in his decision allowing such discrimination.

That lower court ruling eventually was overturned by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the initial ruling struck fear in the LGBTQ community and its allies.

More recently, in a dissent to the Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Samuel Alito described RFRA as a “super statute” that may displace the use of federal employment laws to protect gay and transgender workers.

The Trump influence

When introducing the Do No Harm Act again last week, the four Democratic Congresssmen cited “the Trump administration’s chronic misuse of RFRA to override anti-discrimination protections in federally funded programs.” They specifically cited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allowing South Carolina to waive federal religious nondiscrimination requirements for federally funded child foster care agencies.

The four Democratic Congresssmen cited “the Trump administration’s chronic misuse of RFRA to override anti-discrimination protections in federally funded programs.”

Several groups filed lawsuits on RFRA grounds to challenge President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order barring immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.

The Supreme Court upheld the ban in the 2018 case Trump v. Hawaii.

That sent a chill through pro-immigrant groups, who joined LGBTQ advocates in expressing fear that RFRA was on its way to being reinterpreted by the court to favor religious conservatives in their desired discrimination.

Yet at the same time, some religious communities in the new pro-immigrant sanctuary movement have claimed protection from prosecution under RFRA. In November 2019, a federal jury said RFRA protected a volunteer’s right to provide migrants near the border with water, food and other aid as a matter of conscience.

Also, in February 2020, a court vacated the convictions of four activists who had been found guilty of violating federal rules by leaving jugs of water and cans of beans at the border for immigrants to find.

Again, writing in Regulatory Review, McKeen identifies “the continuing importance of clarifying how courts assess a ‘substantial burden’ on religious exercise. One argument is that the (Supreme) Court has failed to define this standard — creating room for conservative causes to be favored under RFRA over progressive causes, without adequate explanation.”

What the Do No Harm Act says

Into this context, the Do No Harm Act now makes its third appearance. In sum, this legislation says RFRA “should not be interpreted to authorize an exemption from generally applicable law if the exemption would impose the religious views, habits or practices of one party upon another.”

Further, it says RFRA should not grant exemptions that “impose meaningful harm, including dignitary harm, on a third party” or that “permit discrimination against other persons, including persons who do not belong to the religion or adhere to the beliefs of those to whom the exemption is given.”

The language of the act is sparse, and both conservative and moderate critics say that leaves plenty of room for abuse.

The act also stipulates protections that cannot be undone by RFRA when they relate to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Violence Against Women Act, equal access to housing in HUD programs, and certain cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity.

The language of the act is sparse, and both conservative and moderate critics say that leaves plenty of room for abuse. In their view, the proposed fix for RFRA is no fix at all but instead weakens the 1993 legislation.

Conservatives’ fears

If progressives are fearful of court and White House actions favoring conservatives’ perceived discriminatory tendencies, the same can be said in reverse. Writing in First Things, Craycraft warns that the purpose of the Do No Harm Act “is essentially to remove the protections that RFRA provides religious believers without actually repealing RFRA.”

Kenneth Craycraft

The purpose of the bill’s language “is to force a business to finance abortion, contraceptive, or gender transition surgery for its employees over the business owner’s religious objection,” he wrote. And it would force artists and artisans (such as wedding cake bakers) “to create art that endorses — or even to participate in — same-sex weddings or other events to which they have religious objections.”

And finally, he warns, the Do No Harm Act “could reasonably be read to require a Catholic church to ordain a woman as a priest, for example, under laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Or it could be used to prevent a Catholic school from firing a teacher who publicly advocates moral positions, or engages in activities, that are contrary to the teaching of the church.”

For Craycraft and other conservatives, this threat is real because of their suspicions of the Biden administration, which is especially fueled by disdain for Vice President Harris.

If passed and signed into law, “President Biden’s enforcement of these and other religiously discriminatory laws will be vigorously effected (sic) by his vice president, Kamala Harris, and his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra. As a U.S. senator, Harris championed both acts. Becerra’s record as attorney general of California prosecuting persons and groups on the basis of their religious opinions is well established.”

What is religious liberty anyway?

And in this, the debate highlights the starkly different definition of “religious liberty” advances by America’s competing interests today.

A traditional understanding of religious liberty emphasizes both the right to free exercise of religious beliefs and the prohibition on favoring one religion over any other. In the modern era, conservatives have tended to emphasize the right to exercise their own religious convictions — such as against same-sex marriage, against transgender identity, against abortion, and for private education — above the demand to allow others to exercise opposing views.

This rift is succinctly illustrated in the high-profile court case known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which asked whether a cake shop that is open to the public can refuse to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. Conservatives believe RFRA should shield the evangelical Christian owners from having to do business with a gay couple; progressives believe denying service based on a customer’s sexual orientation is discriminatory in the same way as denying service based on a customer’s race.

Some Democratic lawmakers believe further interpretation of RFRA should not be left to a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to define.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case did not neatly resolve this question because the Supreme Court ruled on a narrow part of the lower court ruling, not on the larger religious liberty issue.

For this and other reasons, some Democratic lawmakers believe further interpretation of RFRA should not be left to a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to define. The threat is prospective as much as based in already-decided cases.

The four representatives — Robert “Bobby” Scott (Va.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Jamie Raskin (Md.), and Mary Gay Scanlon (Pa.) — said their proposed legislation “comes amid a sharp rise in the misapplication of RFRA to justify discrimination in a wide range of scenarios.”

Among the faith-based groups supporting their bill are the United Methodist Church General Board of Church & Society; T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministry; Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice; Presbyterian Church (USA); American Baptist Home Mission Society; Disciples of Christ Center for Public Witness; Metropolitan Community Churches; Muslim Advocates; and the National Council of Churches.

Christian nationalism deeply embedded into American life, Tyler warns

Christian nationalism has seeped so deeply into the fabric of American religious and political life that arguing with its adherents is frustrating and unproductive, according to Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

Tyler spoke during a Feb. 26 webinar titled “Confronting Christian Nationalism in Your Congregation” sponsored by BJC.

Amanda Tyler

This frustration at not being able to talk to family members and friends doesn’t mean Christians must silently submit to the corrosive ideology that has fueled numerous acts of violence, including the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, she added. “Christian nationalism is not going to be uprooted by posting an article on Facebook, but through conversation and one-on-one relationships.”

During the webinar, she offered commentary and slides covering the definition of Christian nationalism, how to recognize its numerous forms and why it is not, as its followers claim, simply an expression of faith and patriotism. She also presented viewers with steps they can take to confront Christian nationalism in their own churches.

What is Christian nationalism?

Christian nationalism is a “political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities,” she said.

That translates into an exaggerated form of American nationalism energized by the belief that God’s “providential hand” is directly involved in American history and politics and that the United States was created as a Christian nation “founded to privilege Christianity in some way.”

Christians need to take this ideology seriously because it seeks to coopt elements of faith to serve power-driven political ends, she warned. “The ‘Christian’ in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion.”

“The ‘Christian’ in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion.”

Nor is the movement a patriotic one, she explained. Patriotism is about love of country while nationalism requires “allegiance to country that demands supremacy over all other allegiances, including to Jesus.”

Polling data has teased out language that adopters of Christian nationalism often use in some form. They include beliefs and statements such as:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

Tyler advised against stereotyping the ideology’s adopters because polling has shown that a fifth of Americans reject Christian nationalism outright while another fifth, known as ambassadors, are fully steeped in it.

And nothing will dampen potential dialogue like name-calling, she said. “Don’t label them as Christian nationalists. We all find ourselves on a spectrum. The majority of the country are somewhere in the middle, not on the polar ends.”

Connection to racism

As she did during a National Press Club virtual luncheon last June, Tyler connected the dots between Christian nationalism, racism and white supremacy.

“Christian nationalism often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation,” she said, noting the nation’s history of slavery and racial injustice often are rationalized as part of God’s plan.

“Christian nationalism and racism are similar in that they are forces in our society and pervade our society.”

How to spot Christian nationalism

Christian nationalism appears in a variety of ways, some easier to spot than others, Tyler explained.

During Donald Trump’s administration, it was common to hear the former president described in messianic terms. To illustrate, Tyler presented a 2019 tweet by then-presidential adviser Brad Parscale describing Trump as “a savior to our nation” that God alone could deliver.

Many of the Trump supporters who assaulted the U.S. Capitol also described feeling called to be there and offered an overtly Christian prayer in the Senate chamber, she added.

Such actions conflate divinity with American politics so that God becomes an object of government control, Tyler said. Bestowing messianic qualities on Trump or any other political leader is idolatrous “and should be called out by religious leaders.”

The Jan. 6 attack in Washington joined other recent acts of violence inspired by Christian nationalism, she added. These include the 2019 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jews were killed, and the 2015 massacre of nine Black Christians at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

But there are many more less-violent manifestations of the ideology, Tyler continued.

One of those is embodied in a 2019 South Dakota law requiring all schools to stencil or paint “In God We Trust” in prominent locations on school grounds. The measure was inspired by Project Blitz, an evangelical movement that seeks to infuse public education with Christian nationalist ideals.

“Religious instruction is best handled by our houses of worship and our families,” Tyler asserted. “Do we really want our states indoctrinating our children in religion?”

A 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting a 40-foot cross to remain on government property in Maryland was troubling, she said, because it interpreted the cross, erected as a war memorial, as “a generic symbol of sacrifice.” The problem: “This is what can happen to our religion when it is coopted by the government for other ends.”

Tyler noted that U.S. flags displayed in church sanctuaries may be another cause for dialogue: “Are we worshiping the flag on the altar? Are we saying U.S. citizenship is equal to citizenship in God’s kingdom?”

“Remember, Christianity is not an American-only religion.”

Congregations must decide for themselves if the presence of the Stars and Stripes is idolatrous in their contexts, she suggested. “Remember, Christianity is not an American-only religion. It unites us with Christ followers around the world.”

‘A threat to Christianity’

Christians have an obligation to confront and “root out” Christian nationalism in the public square, Tyler added, saying that Christian accountability and discipleship require truth-telling in the face of the lies and half-truths that threaten authentic faith.

“Christian nationalism is a threat to Christianity, which it waters down and perverts,” she said.

Those who embrace this ideology often claim their opponents are liberals bent on stifling religious freedom, Tyler reported. A good way to respond to such a critique is to cite the Constitution’s prohibitions of government-endorsed faith and religious tests for public office, she continued.

While such exchanges may not change minds, they can lay the foundation for future dialogue by focusing on religious freedom for all.

Ideas for other constructive actions may be found through Christians Against Christian Nationalism, an ecumenical organization co-founded by BJC and dedicated to the eradication of the ideology. That movement has collected 21,000 signatures and is seeking more.

A podcast series and discussion guide also have been created to equip believers for conversations and sermons about the dangers of Christian nationalism.

The webinar came on the heels of a separate letter signed by 500 Christian leaders denouncing Christian nationalism and its role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“As leaders in the broad evangelical community, we recognize and condemn the role Christian nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6,” the letter states.

Tyler said letters, podcasts and other actions will not end Christian nationalism any time soon because elements of the ideology have existed since the founding of the nation and are deeply entrenched in American culture. “We are not going to change that in a single conversation.”

But change is possible, Tyler said, explaining that many Americans were surprised and appalled by the violence Christian nationalism unleashed at the Capitol, which now opens a door for dialogue.

“The ambassadors, it’s hard to engage them. But the majority of the United States is somewhere in the middle” and possibly open to learning about Christian nationalism, she said. “We need not be discouraged by those who are more entrenched.”

In addition to BJC, sponsors of the webinar included Christians Against Christian Nationalism, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas, Fellowship Southwest, Faith Commons and Faith Forward Dallas.


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Interdenominational panel warns of extreme danger of Christian nationalism

Christian nationalism represents a severe and present danger to American democracy, according to religious leaders affiliated with the group Christians Against Christian Nationalism.

People of faith must educate themselves about the movement, positively engage its adherents and pursue lives modeled closely on the Jesus of the New Testament, speakers said during a Jan. 27 webinar. And they must comprehend the immensity of the threat of Christian nationalism, added panelist Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.

Christian nationalism — a belief that America is a “Christian nation” and that conflates loyalty to country with loyalty to God — “borders on blasphemy and idolatry,” he declared. “That kind of nationalism is dangerous to civic health, dangerous to Christianity and dangerous to humanity.”

Curry was joined on the virtual panel by Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist whose research focuses on the ways in which religion is formed by contemporary American culture. He also is co-author of the 2020 book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.

The hour-long webinar was moderated by Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which coordinates the Christians Against Christian Nationalism coalition.

Dangers cited

Tyler opened the event with a warning about the dangers of Christian nationalism as a threat to religious freedom and to the separation of church and state as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. This belief system foments discrimination and violence and promotes legislation and governance shaped by blending of faith, nationalism and, in many cases, white supremacy, she asserted.

“Christians bear a special responsibility to understand and root out Christian nationalism,” Tyler said, adding later that “Christian nationalism threatens our faith and our democracy.”

Whitehead’s presentation sought to demonstrate just how real those threats are with a summary of sociological research showing that Christian nationalist attitudes cut across religious, ethnic, economic, educational and geographical lines.

“Cultural nationalism is a cultural framework that idealizes and advocates for fusion of Christianity with American civic life,” he said. “Christian nationalism is not new and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Andrew Whitehead

While civil religion pulls from Old Testament prophetic wisdom demanding public service and strong civic virtue, Christian nationalism uses biblical references to rationalize a fierce tribal, us-versus-them mentality in defending the group — violently, if deemed necessary, he said.

The nativist, white supremacist, patriarchal and militaristic assumptions embodied by the movement were on full display during the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, Whitehead added.

A pervasive ideology today

The pervasiveness of religious nationalism is another of its dangers. While its support is greatest among evangelical Protestants, it also has adherents in Black, Catholic and mainline groups, with smaller numbers among Jews and those with no religious affiliation.

Sociological research clearly shows that Christian nationalism exists across geographical regions and education levels and is shaping attitudes toward democracy and toward the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. “It is absolutely a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.”

Theologically flawed

Tyler asked the panelists to describe basic theological flaws of Christian nationalism.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

The movement is broken at its core because it co-mingles faith and government, which is precisely the opposite of early Christians who “faced persecution because they gave their allegiance to the Lord, not to the state,” Eaton said. She added that it was a basic teaching of Martin Luther that Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God, not of temporal powers.

Curry said there is no room for Christian nationalism or other aberrant theologies for those who seek to follow the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount and told the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Christian nationalism instead moves that Christ aside for an ambiguous one that serves its aspirations for power, he said, declaring that these impulses fueled American slavery, religious support for apartheid and the rationalizations of the Nazi church.

“Christ is Lord, not Caesar. When Christ is compromised, it’s, ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’”

Tied to white supremacy

Another flaw of Christian nationalism is its overlap with white supremacy, Curry said. “I have known since I was a child that the Klan professes to be Christian. We grew up knowing that it was an unholy conflation of Christianity and white supremacy.”

But this flaw also was evident in the nation’s founding, Eaton said. Religion was used to justify the racism and economic greed of white settlers as they took land from Native Americans. “White supremacy has been part of what this country is before it was a country.”

Noting that Jan. 27 was Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tyler asked why now is the time to speak out against Christian nationalism.

One reason is to prevent further violence inspired by the movement, Eaton said. The past four years have seen a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the United States, including the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in which 11 Jews were killed and six wounded. “It is the largest slaughter of Jews in the United States of America,” she noted.

How to counter Christian nationalism

Bishop Michael Bruce Curry

To counter these “perversions of Christianity,” Christians must lead lives inspired by the Gospels, Curry said.

“Christianity must recenter itself on the teachings, the spirit and the example of Jesus of Nazareth. I mean the New Testament Jesus, the one in the book. Not the cultural one.”

Believers also must practice an “affirmative evangelism” that promotes a common humanity, he said. And they must reach out to people across race and religion to build relationships.

Whitehead said it’s also important to be educated about Christian nationalism. With more knowledge, Christians can advocate for minority groups and support legislation protective of Constitutional rights. “Christian nationalism, at its roots, is interested in power.”

Countering the movement also depends on knowing what a patriot is, Eaton said. “Christian nationalism is different from being a patriot. God knows I love my country, but my primary allegiance as a Christian is not to my country, but to my God.”

Tyler read a question from a viewer asking if it is possible to de-radicalize white supremacists and Christian nationalists.

Whitehead said that can’t be done through logical arguments or confronting adherents with facts. Rather, it requires engagement “focusing on emotions and relationships and building rapport with those people.”

And it’s important to remember that Christian nationalism is not a religion, but a cultural framework “that has a strong grip on the white Christian church in America,” Whitehead said. “I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t be patriotic or love their country. But Christian nationalism is a threat to the nation.”


Related articles:

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Who knew ‘unalienable rights’ could undermine life, liberty and true happiness? | opinion by Marv Knox

There are two Americas, and they are not on speaking terms | opinion by Alan Bean

Fundamentalists have a problem with Jesus | opinion by Mark Wingfield and Mitch Randall

Religious liberty groups praise Biden’s repeal of Muslim travel ban

Amid a flurry of executive orders issued by President Joe Biden on his first day in office was a repeal of the so-called “Muslim ban,” which prohibited entry to the United States by citizens of select countries mainly with majority Muslim populations.

Biden said in his revocation order: “The United States was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance, a principle enshrined in the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, the previous administration enacted a number of executive orders and presidential proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States — first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”

“Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”

The new president said the controversial and contested travel bans contravened American values and undermined national security. “They have jeopardized our global network of alliances and partnerships and are a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over. And they have separated loved ones, inflicting pain that will ripple for years to come. They are just plain wrong.”

Repealing the travel bans does not have to reduce national security, he added. “Where there are threats to our nation, we will address them. Where there are opportunities to strengthen information-sharing with partners, we will pursue them. And when visa applicants request entry to the United States, we will apply a rigorous, individualized vetting system. But we will not turn our backs on our values with discriminatory bans on entry into the United States.”

Biden’s first-day action made immediate headlines around the world. At home, the repeal was quickly applauded by religious liberty watchdog groups, including BJC and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Amanda Tyler

“Today’s repeal of the Muslim and African travel ban by President Joe Biden is a victory for faith freedom,” said BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler. “Since the first week of the Trump administration, we’ve seen various versions of this policy rooted in anti-Muslim bias, targeting individuals based on their religious identity. The specifics and wording changed over the years, but no aesthetic adjustments could alter the religious discrimination inherent in the ban.”

She added: “Religious freedom is threatened when our leaders use fear and othering to exclude entire groups of people from our country based on their religious identity.”

Rachel Laser

Americans United President Rachel Laser echoed Tyler’s sentiment: “President Biden’s swift action to end the Muslim and African Ban, which was driven by clear hostility toward Muslims and their faith, rights a terrible wrong. It is a crucial first step toward reuniting families and demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to protecting the rights of religious minorities.”

Both religious liberty leaders said repealing the ban is a good first step but not the only step necessary.

“It does not undo the damage this policy has done to religious freedom,” Tyler asserted. “If we want to truly preserve faith freedom for all, we as Americans must loudly and clearly denounce religious bigotry in all its forms — now and in the future.”


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Interfaith group calls on Biden administration to ‘restore’ religious freedom protections

House passes bipartisan resolution against blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws

It turns out there is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on about religious liberty in the current lame-duck session of Congress.

On Monday, Dec. 7, the House of Representatives passed on a 386-3 bipartisan vote House Resolution 512, calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was a lead sponsor of the legislation in the House and was joined by 42 others, including 14 Republicans. A corresponding bill in the Senate is sponsored by James Lankford (R-Okla.) and eight other Republicans.

Rep. Jamie Raskin

“I’m gratified to see our bipartisan resolution pass in the House,” Raskin said. “Authoritarian regimes use arbitrary blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws to imprison, torture and kill religious minorities. Today the House called for an end to these egregious human rights violations worldwide. I’m gratified by this crucial victory, but our work continues to ensure that no one is imprisoned for his or her religious beliefs across the globe.”

Although a resolution has no force of law and the U.S. Congress has no authority over other world governments, this sense of Congress, if also passed by the Senate, will inform U.S. foreign policy and global advocacy.

The resolution calls for the immediate release of religious prisoners of conscience worldwide. More than 80 countries use blasphemy laws to persecute and imprison religious minorities and dissenters, Raskin said. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that more than one-third of the world’s countries maintain the use of blasphemy laws, with penalties including fines, imprisonment, forced labor and the death penalty.

In addition to the bipartisan support in the House, the resolution — which was introduced in 2019 — received support from a diverse coalition of religious and nontheistic organizations. Among those was Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Jennifer Hawks, BJC associate general counsel, said blasphemy and apostasy laws “strike at the most fundamental human right: the ability for each individual to decide whether to be religious and, if so, what that religion will be.”

This runs counter to Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which says all people are entitled to religious freedom, including the ability to change religion or belief.

“Because of our Constitution’s First Amendment, blasphemy and apostasy laws are unenforceable in the United States, but much work is still needed around the world,” Hawks explained.

She emphasized that Americans still can be directly affected by these laws, even though they aren’t enforceable in America. For example, in July 2020, American citizen Tahir Naseem was assassinated when, according to the U.S. State Department, he was lured from his home in Illinois to Pakistan by people who then entrapped him with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. While Naseem was in a Pakistani courtroom for a bail hearing related to his 2018 charges of blasphemy, he was gunned down by a teenage vigilante. That vigilante now is being celebrated as a local hero.

“Fear of government reprisals or vigilante violence exists in many countries.”

“While most Americans may give little thought to blasphemy and apostasy laws, our global neighbors and Americans who travel or work abroad are not so fortunate,” Hawks said. “Fear of government reprisals or vigilante violence exists in many countries for expressing or being accused of expressing a religious opinion that differs from the ruling class.”

These laws do not just persecute Christians, she added. “Pakistan, one of the countries where blasphemy is a capital offense, has charged more Muslims with blasphemy than any other religious group.”

The Senate version of this bill was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee nearly one year ago. The current session of Congress will conclude prior to the 117th session beginning on Jan. 3, 2021.

Everything I know about separation of church and state I learned from my mother

I must have been in the third or fourth grade when Mama said to me, “When people want prayer in the schools, they are assuming the person who is praying has the same beliefs they do.” And then she added, reflecting Southern Baptist cultural and evangelical concerns at the time, “It could be a Mormon.” Today she would probably say “Muslim.”

That was Separation of Church and State 101. The lessons would continue throughout her life.

Ella Prichard

Daddy had been transferred from New Orleans, where my mother’s family had resided since 1860, to Texarkana, buckle of the Bible Belt. Mama’s transition from First Baptist Church, New Orleans, home church of most of the administration and faculty of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, to the smaller, more conservative and less-educated churches of our town was not easy.

Mama’s Baptist ancestors had migrated from South Carolina after the Revolution to plant churches on both sides of the Mississippi­–Louisiana state line in the early 1800s. When her mother moved to New Orleans as a bride in 1899, she immediately joined First Baptist Church, where she was an active member until her death in 1970. Mama grew up in the shadow of Baptist Bible Institute, forerunner of the seminary. The old Garden District campus was her playground.

New Orleans was heavily Catholic with few Baptist churches, and Mama and her siblings were ridiculed by other children for being Baptist, told they were going to hell for not being baptized. Nuns in their habits taught in the public schools, and Catholic holy days were school holidays. In the small towns of South Louisiana, only Catholics could be buried in the town cemeteries.

My Uncle John, the only “downtown businessman” in the family, said that being Baptist was not respectable until after 1937, when J.D. Grey, later a president of the Southern Baptist Convention, became pastor of First Baptist Church and quickly established himself as a civic leader. Mrs. Grey recognized my mother’s gifts and asked her to teach young adult women in Sunday School, and so for six or eight years, Mama studied the Bible at the weekly teachers’ meetings taught by seminary faculty. And then we moved.

“Being a Baptist in New Orleans was not respectable until after 1937.”

It was only later that my mother pointed out that everyone in my school was Protestant. We had “home room” every morning, when the loudspeakers came on and we said the Pledge of Allegiance, Scripture was read and we had a prayer.

Our next-door neighbor, a Catholic (the only Catholic I ever knew in Texarkana), explained to Mama that the priest threatened to excommunicate any family who sent a child to public school, because of the “Protestant prayers and Bible.” That was long before Vatican II, when the mass was in Latin and Catholics were forbidden to attend Protestant services. Separation of Church and State 102.

I was reminded of those lessons when I visited a high school friend who had moved to Dallas. Her mother was a teacher, assigned to a public school in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She was indignant because she was not allowed to decorate her classroom bulletin boards with pictures of the Christmas story and the children didn’t sing Christmas carols. This was 1959. Even at 18, I knew that was the way it should be. Public school wasn’t a place for proselytizing.

Until rather recently, Baptists defined themselves by how un-Catholic they were. I didn’t grow up with Advent or Lenten observances. Baptist churches did not display crosses. Mama said, “We worship a risen Lord, not a dead Christ on the cross.” We didn’t wear crosses around our necks; we didn’t have creches. Baptist churches did not operate private schools (until the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and Baptist institutions did not accept federal funds for any reason. Government funding meant government control, Mama explained, and Baptists stood for separation of church and state.

I heard the stories of persecuted Baptists who were imprisoned and even burned at the stake in Europe; of Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island; of the colonial Virginia Baptists who were taxed for the support of the Church of England and whose preachers who went to jail for preaching.

I learned about the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now “for Religious Liberty”), how multiple Baptist denominations and associations came together in Washington for the defense of First Amendment rights and protections. However, from 1979, when fundamentalists gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists were not interested in supporting separation of church and state. Once the largest contributor to BJC, by 1991 the SBC had withdrawn all financial support.

“We have forgotten our history, that we were once a despised, ridiculed and persecuted people.”

We have forgotten our history, that we were once a despised, ridiculed and persecuted people. We and our Southern culture blended seamlessly, as now-retired Baylor history professor Rufus Spain explained in At Ease in Zion,his seminal book on Southern Baptists from 1865 to 1900.

We were wise to abandon our rigid anti-Catholicism, but it seems to me we have merely substituted other immigrant groups for Catholics. We grew too comfortable in our culture as we grew from minority to majority through our evangelistic efforts, and we developed a taste for political power.

Now all that is threatened, as another Baylor history professor, Barry Hankins, described 37 years later in Uneasy in Babylon, his book about Southern Baptists’ increasing discomfort in an increasingly diverse South in the latter part of the 20th century. Our church rolls are shrinking, and an increasing number of our young people are leaving the church. We are eager for religious accommodation in the broadest sense, where in the name of religion we allow discrimination against those of other faiths and show favoritism to our own; and in so doing, we reject our historic Baptist values and principles.

Near the end of her life, Mama quoted from Romans 12 when she explained in a final lesson why she was sure of her salvation.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Mama died 31 years ago. What would she say about this mess our country is in today? More important, what would Jesus say?

Ella Wall Prichard is a journalism graduate of Baylor University who is known as a philanthropist and advisor to Baptist causes in Texas and beyond. A longtime member of First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, she has served on committees and boards of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She was a member of the Baylor Board of Regents and a director of the Baylor Alumni. She is the author of Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, which recounts the story of her husband’s untimely death and her suddenly finding herself the president of the family oil business.