The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.

The Hidden Debate: Free Exercise of Religion

by Matthew Raley

Several issues provoke heated claims about religion’s placein society—gay marriage, the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, and the status of organizations like InterVarsity at state universities.

There is a debate going on in the background of these issues. The hidden debate is about whether we should change the American model of religious pluralism in a secular state.

Our model for a secular state developed from thinkers like John Locke, who described a free society in which every kind of question is open for debate in public life. The colonies became a lab for this kind of society. They were theologically diverse. Quakers founded Pennsylvania, while the Puritans settled in Massachusetts. Virginia was Episcopalian, while Maryland was Catholic. This diversity required a guarantee of the free exercise of religion for the Constitution to be ratified.

No one wanted the federal government regulating people’s consciences in public life.

The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville described the vitality of our secular model in the 1830s. Volunteer religious organizations flourished everywhere. People were free to band together publicly and accomplish whatever their communities needed.

Tocqueville thought this was remarkable because he’d experienced the other secular model. In France, the revolution of 1789 had adopted the goals of Enlightenment rationalism, and the new state regulated society accordingly. The enforcement was terroristic, with massacres of priests and nuns and seizures of churches. (Later regimes softened but did not reverse this form of secularism.)

The French model is democratic today. It allows religious pluralism, but only within a strict separation of public and private. You may be a Muslim, for example, in your home. But at work or school, you must conform to the state’s secular code.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that Abercrombie and Fitch could not refuse a Muslim job applicant because of her headscarf is the American model in action. In France, such discrimination is national policy. Leave your spirituality at the mosque.

When we read about commissions fining bakers and photographers for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings, we should ask deeper questions. The activists who want these punitive measures are not totalitarians. But they are playing a game with everyone’s freedom. They are leveraging civil rights precedents against the First Amendment, seeking to restrict religious freedom to private spaces alone. They call this “freedom of worship,” but it is a big change in the American compact.

These activists need to explain why everyone should surrender the free exercise of religion. The line of power-grabbers waiting to control our public spaces has always been long.