Yesterday, the day after the national election, I did very little, but I did make a contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union. Then, by chance, I stumbled upon a Facebook discussion of the ACLU in which one person challenged his opponent to cite any case in which the organization had defended against a violation of Christian rights. I must admit I cannot cite one such case, not only because I have never attempted to catalog ACLU cases, but because I don’t know of any such case at all. What does the phrase even mean, Christian rights?
I could develop a theological answer. We Christians, people who have entrusted our lives to God as we know God in and through Jesus the Christ, have been given the right to understand ourselves as daughters and sons of God, as long as we realize and respect the revealed truth that all other people are also daughters and sons loved by God, whether they themselves know it or not. We have been given the right to serve: to deny ourselves the privilege of self-centered living and to follow Jesus in his way of compassion without recourse to revenge or hatred. We have the right to come together in communities committed to serving God’s love for this world. We have the right to seek God’s forgiveness, as long as we also extend our forgiveness to others. We have the right to set aside our own desires and benefits to seek benefit for people in distress, as long as we hold to Jesus’ insistence that we never become benefactors who reach down with charity for which we expect gratitude or enhanced prestige. We are to be servants not benefactors (see the Gospel of Luke, chapter 22, verses 24-27).
In the United States of America, we Christians have no legal rights beyond those granted all citizens. Legally speaking, I know of no such thing as Christian rights. If we, as Christians, had legal rights above and beyond the rights of all Americans, they would not be rights at all but privileges. As such, they would be offenses against our constitutional democracy. As followers of Jesus the Christ, we must not seek such privileges but might find ourselves called upon to set aside concern with our own rights for the sake of others denied their rights in our society.
I am not being disingenuous. I’m confident I know what was meant by that challenge to cite a case in which the ACLU defended “Christian rights.” I’m confident it meant the supposed right of Christians to deny business services to people they see as disgusting. It’s about, I suppose, baking wedding cakes. It’s about, I suppose, a presumed right of employers to dictate what medical services they approve for their employees. People have no such rights in the sphere of business. Sin is not a legal category, and so my definitions of what is sinful do not give me the right to discriminate against people with whom I do business.
In our passions, we seem sometimes unable to distinguish between “church and state” – that is, between our constitutional freedom of religion and fictional rights to extend that freedom to the privilege of deciding what laws we will disobey. I have seen defenses of such exercises of conscience make appeal to the example of the German Confessing Church’s civil disobedience in Nazi Germany. To call such appeals overreach would be understatement.
There is such a thing in Christian tradition as status confessionis (Latin for a confessional situation in which faith must take a stand), but that designation of an extreme situation in which the Christian may be called upon to lay down freedom or even life is easily exploited and trivialized. One of the German confessing Christians, Martin Niemöller, titled a book of his sermons, Christus ist mein Führer (Christ is my Leader), thereby declaring boldly and dangerously that Hitler (Germany’s “Führer”) was not his leader and could not be. For that confessional stand, Niemöller spent seven years in Dachau. His situation differs markedly from that of a business person seeking legal license to discriminate against customers.
For a thoughtful treatment of the matter of confessional situations and stands, I suggest Robert McAfee Brown’s book, Saying Yes and Saying No, subtitled, On Rendering to God and Caesar.
As Christians, we need to distinguish between our rights and the waning privilege we have enjoyed as the dominant religion in the United States, which constitutionally may have no established American religion. I see no way in which the phrase “Christian rights” can make legal sense in our nation because we have no special legal rights as Christians the rest of our fellow citizens lack; neither have we, because we are Christian, been denied rights our fellow citizens enjoy.
We need also to make distinctions required by Christ’s call to follow him in his way of self-denial and humble service. Prestige as Christians is not our right. Power as Christians is not our right. We are not even to want to be the privileged people or the privileged religion in American society. We are called by Jesus the Christ to follow him in his way of doing justice in our own affairs and making justice happen in society for people denied it, choosing steadfast love and kindness, and walking humbly with our God.