Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.
I get what Alan Noble is trying to do here, but this is a conceptually confused essay. Just look at the title and the first and last sentences of this quotation. Together they assume that “America,” “American public life,” and “modern life” are synonyms. Which they most definitely are not. It just doesn’t make sense to put American evangelical Christians on one side and “American society” (another phrase used here) on the other. That contrast assumes precisely the point that the cultured despisers of evangelicalism assume: that evangelicals are somehow less American than they (the despisers) are, or non-American. But American citizens who happen to be evangelical Christians are not by virtue of that commitment any less American than anyone else. Nor are they necessarily less a part of “American public life.” Last time I checked a good many of them were in Coongress, and on the radio and television, and in books and magazines.
I fear that Noble’s way of formulating the conflict — which he rightly discerns — plays into the hands of those who think that they get to decide how much of the Christian religion they are willing to tolerate. I, on the other hand, am not willing to grant them that authority. Nor is the law — at least for now.
One of the most important moments in the history of American religious freedom — now rarely remembered — is the letter that President George Washington wrote to the members of the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Those Jews had (graciously) written to thank the President for his suppprt of their religious freedom. To this Washington replied that he deserved no thanks: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”
I’m going to give you that again: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”
In the same way, people who happen to despise evangelical Christians cannot arrogate to themselves the decision of how much religion they’re willing to accept. They are not the arbiters of tolerance of others. We are all on an equal footing before the law, and should insist on that equality — for others more than for ourselves, but when necessary, for ourselves also.