Where do you even begin?

On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of woman paid for their participation.

This might not be news outside of my neck of the woods. I bring up here because of the interesting history of the fraternity. Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.

It is not really news that fraternities are hives of immorality. I know that. But reading the story did get me wondering how many of those young men had been raised in Christian families. How many of them ever give a second of thought to the Alpha and Omega after whom their organization is named?

There has been outrage over this incident. There have also been a fair number of defenders of the frat arguing that the morality police should keep their nose out of good, clean, consensual fun. This happens everywhere, they say. What’s the big deal?

It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people?

The hysteria over religious freedom

The state of Indiana has been in the news recently over a law passed by our General Assembly and signed by our governor. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed largely on a party-line vote and has provoked outrage near and far. It has been called a license to discriminate, and people have suggested that the law will give the green light to businesses and individuals who want to turn away gay and lesbian customers.

Indeed, some of the supporters of the law hope it will do just that.

But whatever the hopes of such people, the law does nothing of the sort. The law says that the government cannot burden the free expression of religion without showing a compelling government interest in the action that burdens religious expression and showing that the act in question is the least restrictive means available to advance that interest.

(It is worth noting that prior to a 1990 reversal written by conservative Justice Scalia and decried by liberal justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall, the standard in the new Indiana law was the standard advocated by the United States Supreme Court.)

The Indiana law does not allow discrimination. I suspect that even some of its opponents are aware of that.

When the law was being debated, the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union testified against it, warning of the harms the law would cause. It listed a series of court cases in which people made an appeal to religious belief to defend themselves against various charges. At the top of its list it cited the case of an Oklahoma police officer who said it violated his religious beliefs to be asked to attend or assign someone else to attend a community relations event at a mosque. It listed some other cases as well, but of those cases, the ones I could find online did not occur in a state covered by a religious freedom law like the one passed in Indiana. The case of the Oklahoma police officer made specific mention of the state’s religious freedom law.

In its testimony, the ACLU points to the fact the police officer asserted that his religious views shielded him from sanction for refusing to attend the event at the mosque. Tellingly, the ACLU did not mention whether he prevailed in that case, although the lawyers at the ACLU surely knew the answer.

And what was the outcome of the case? Did an appeal to religious belief give this officer a license to discriminate?


The U.S. Court of Appeals said the claim in this case had no merit. Freedom of religion is not freedom to discriminate, even when the law protects freedom of religion. The same can be said for another case the ACLU cited in its testimony. In that ruling as well, a court rejected the claim that free exercise of religion was a defense of discrimination, which was in this case against gays and lesbians.

Far from proving the point that laws honoring religious freedom are one step on the road to theocracy, the cases in the ACLU’s own testimony show that courts can and do discern reasonable from unreasonable claims of religious protection. And these cases were in Oklahoma and Georgia, places more likely than some to give added deference to Christian claims of religious freedom.

I’ve asked around and have not found anyone who could offer a single case that supports the claims that religious freedom is a license to discriminate. As far as I can tell, no one has used a religious freedom law to successfully defend discrimination since the passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. If I am wrong, please point it out.

Even if some supporters of the law hope it will allow discrimination, the legal history suggests otherwise. For a good analysis on this point, see this article by the Religion News Service. In the article, the author notes that religious beliefs have not been seen as grounds for discrimination in other cases.

As the Court made clear when it banned anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the government has a compelling interest in prohibiting racial discrimination with respect to marriage. And the least restrictive means of prohibiting it is, simply, not to permit religious exceptions to laws banning racial discrimination in matters related to marriage. So even though it was once common to cite Scripture as the basis for opposing “race mixing,” the courts won’t give florists, bakers etc. the religious right to refuse their services to mixed-race couples. (See Bob Jones University v. United States [1983].)

The appellate decision declaring Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional did so on exactly the same grounds as Loving — that it violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Across the country, almost all federal courts have come to the same conclusion. If the Supreme Court goes ahead and, as expected, does likewise, there will be no basis for differentiating same sex-couples from mixed-race couples, when it comes to religious exemptions.

So, why are such laws needed?

Let me turn one last time to the ACLU for my answer to that. At the very end of its testimony about the Indiana law, the ACLU raises the specter of interminable lawsuits and huge legal costs being incurred by governments and business if Indiana passed the law. The ACLU makes a passing reference to a case in Dallas that has gone on for 7 years.

Now, that is a grim thought. Years and years of legal battles by those claiming religious convictions trump local laws.

Do you know what that case in Dallas was about?

It was a pair of Christian ministries that wanted to feed the homeless but were prevented by a local ordinance that outlawed providing  food to the hungry in most public places. The Christian ministries felt compelled by their faith to feed the hungry. The city of Dallas said they could not and fought for several years in court to stop them from doing so. Citing a Texas freedom of religion law adopted in 1999, the courts sided with the ministries.

This is the terrible plague of religious fanaticism that the ACLU feared in its testimony before the General Assembly – churches feeding the homeless.

Here is the face of the menace that laws like the one Indiana passed permit:

Source: Dallas Morning News

I hope the Indiana law bears similar fruit.

As I’ve read the response to the passage of the law, I’ve been perplexed by the reaction, and troubled by the comments of United Methodists and other Christians who have decried the law without — so far as I can tell — reading it or educating themselves about the actual consequences of such laws.

From what I can tell, a large part of the protest against the law is based on the fact that it is supported by Christians whom the protesters do not like. In logic this is sometimes called the genetic fallacy. Conservative evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church support the bill, people seem to be reasoning, so it must be bad.

Such points of view are understandable — sad but understandable — coming from people who don’t believe religious convictions should be given deference by the government or who despise faith altogether. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, the church should anticipate more and more people will dismiss the very notion of protection of religious expression as a valid public policy.

But we in the church should not be jumping on that bandwagon because someone screams the phrase “license to discriminate.”

In a letter offered in support of the Indiana law, several law professors, including a constitutional law professor at Indiana University who supports same-sex marriage, said that the claim that religious freedom laws lead to discrimination is a myth. The authors could find no case in the United States in the last 30 years in which someone discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and successfully defended those actions by appealing to religion. The letter goes on to describe what the authors anticipate would be the application of the Indiana law:

Most RFRA cases, of course, do not involve anti-discrimination laws or disputes that arise between private parties. Rather, they involve disputes between the government and a religious individual or group. In a case just decided under the federal RFRA standard, for example, a unanimous Supreme Court protected the right of a Muslim prisoner to practice his faith by wearing a half-inch beard that posed no risk to prison security. See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S. Ct. 853 (2015). Like the federal RFRA, the Indiana RFRA will be available to members of all faiths. It might be invoked by Old Order Amish, for example, to request that they be exempted from having their photographs on state identification cards, or to request accommodation from traffic regulations that unnecessarily impair their religiously based reliance on horse-drawn buggies. Or by Christian or Jewish students seeking accommodation by public schools for their observation of Good Friday or Yom Kippur. Or in a variety of other circumstances that might arise in the future but that are difficult to anticipate in advance. General protection for religious liberty is important precisely because it is impossible to legislate in advance for all the ways in which government might burden the free exercise of religion.

It is my hope that United Methodists in Indiana and other states would not join the chorus protesting such laws but instead embrace them. There are Christians all over the world today who suffer under regimes that do not grant them freedom to exercise their religion. We should embrace and uphold that precious freedom here.

Why they approve of our stand against sex trafficking

Last week, I got an e-mail reminding me that the United Methodist Women want us to raise awareness about sex trafficking.*

I don’t know why, but it got me wondering about the way the non-Christian world reacts to the church when we engage in such issues. Specifically, I asked myself this question:

Why do non-Christians approve of Christian work to end sex trafficking but oppose Christian teaching against fornication?

Here is one thought about that.

Our society lives and breathes a political philosophy that rose to dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries. The most common name for this political philosophy is liberalism, which is unhelpful in America because it creates confusion. In America, a liberal is most often thought of as a member of the Democratic Party. In political philosophy, though, nearly everyone in both major US parties are modern liberals — people committed to individualism, equality before the law, and social and political freedom.

Modern liberals operate out of a theory of the state that says it exists primarily to prevent one person from inflicting harm on another. “Your right to swing your fist stops at the end of your neighbor’s nose.” As such, liberals find themselves in a hard spot when trying to argue for public policies that appear to be strictly in the self-interest of individuals. Motorcycle helmet laws and seat-belt laws, for instance, are often defended because of the “harm” inflicted on the society when the costs of medical care or death from preventable injuries is taken into account. Similarly, the arguments for smoking bans are often argued in terms of harm caused to others by second hand smoke or the cost to the medical system of treating lung cancer and related diseases. When people propose such policies as good for the people being required to wear helmets or cease smoking, the reflex in our society is to say people should be free to hurt themselves if they want. Even as tobacco smoking bans take wider and wider hold in our country, the legalization of marijuana marches forward precisely because opponents, as yet, cannot come up with an argument against the drug that can be made on the basis of the harm it causes other people.

So, when an argument against sex trafficking is made, it can appeal to liberals if it is put in terms of protecting victims from harm. What you cannot argue with them is that we need to prevent sex trafficking because the sex traffickers and purchasers of sex are sinning against God and imperiling their immortal souls.

And here is the difference. Christians believe that people around us can harm themselves by their choices and that it is a violation of our Christian love to ignore the harm they do to their own bodies and souls. We also reject fundamentally the idea that this is “our” life or “our” body that we can do with as we please. All we have and all we are is a gift from God that should be used only in keeping with God’s will.

These claims and beliefs run directly contrary to the spirit of modern political liberalism.

For my part, I think we can hold convictions that fornication is a sin against God while still living at peace in a society that does not agree with us. We can live under a liberal regime and still be Christians, just as we can live under feudal monarchy and still be Christians or under atheist totalitarianism and still be Christians.

What is important, though, is that we do not fall into the trap of confusing the reasons we take the social actions we take with the reasons that non-Christians take similar actions.

When we engage in Christian works of mercy, we may find ourselves working side-by-side with people who do not share our convictions. It is important that we remain clear in our own understanding about why we do the good works we do, and do not surrender the moral courage to include in our public witness the convictions that arise out of our belief that men and women are accountable before God and their sins bear a price that is beyond the reckoning of any human system of justice.

Christians oppose the evil of sex trafficking, but even so we pray for the repentance of the people committing these crimes and paying to have sex with trafficked women and men. We are grieve both by the evil that they do and the damnation that they call down upon themselves.

*The UMW would probably remind me here that the broader category of human trafficking is a much more widespread problem.

Light in our darkness

The local paper printed a commentary about the Hoosier native who was beheaded in Syria last week. It was a tribute to the man and his family. It ended with this thought:

But Abdul-Rahmin Peter Kassig and his parents, in a time of tragedy, reminded us of the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days – the humanity that links us all and the love that can sustain us in our darkest moments.

Reading that left me struggling for the proper response.

I got taken to task a bit on Twitter not long ago for getting into quibbles over words. The Rethink Church Twitter account had published a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I asked a genuine question: Was Mead a Christian? (She was.) My question was born of concern that her quote is singularly mistaken about “the only thing” that has ever changed the world. Jesus Christ changed the world. God changed the world. The Holy Spirit changes the world. That word “only” struck me as theologically myopic.

The Rethink Church Twitter account suggested I was making too much out of one word.

So, here I am again. I read this nice tribute to a man who was butchered, and I can’t get past that word “only.” The story says, “the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days” are our common humanity and the love that sustains us.

Maybe the author of these lines would permit me to read “love” theologically. That would take some of the edge off my unease.

But I am not sure he means the word to refer to God.

And so I’m stuck wanting to argue with this pronouncement in a way that will come across as church-y and all the other things we are supposed to avoid in this post-modern moment. That the young man in question converted to Islam, rejecting the Christianity nurtured by his family in a United Methodist Church, makes what I want to say even less palatable in this day and age.

I want to say to the author of that piece that there is a source of light much brighter than the feeble glow of our shared humanity. We are not condemned to huddle around our TV screens baffled by the barbarism and darkness of the world. There is a light that is brighter than death. In the approaching season of Advent, we celebrate that light as the world engages in an orgy of man-made commercialism and excess.

But I don’t know how to say those words in a way that will be heard in a world that imagines we have nothing more than our humanity to warm the cold winter night.

Fitting Hays with a black hat?

I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.

Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.

I hope so.

What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.

Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.

Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.

One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.

I hope I’m wrong.

I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.

Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.

What people with Down syndrome are worth

It appears women will soon have a better test to determine if their unborn babies have Down syndrome.

This story about the new test speaks of the $6 billion market that the test will create as women who can “afford to be choosy” pay for the testing.

The story does not mention the likely outcome of those tests.

Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, and Amos Yong have taught me to see such stories in a different light than I might have at one time in my life. The popularity of such tests reveal to us that we live in a society that declares people with Down syndrome of no worth. We would, if we could, prevent them from being born.

How does the church witness to God’s love for all his creations in the face of a secular discourse that decrees it is more merciful to eliminate people rather than care for them?