Although Americans cherish religious liberty -- and have from the beginning -- it helps to be clear what is meant by the term when different Americans use it.
For instance, many early settlers in what eventually became the United States wanted religious liberty for themselves but not for people with whom they disagreed about theology. Thus, on arrival in the New World to escape what they considered to be a religiously oppressive Europe they set about creating something approaching theocracies in areas that later became states.
It took people like Roger Williams to insist on the freedom to worship in ways other than those approved by the people who ran the early governments in cities and states. And eventually, after various states had created established religions, the wise people who wrote the U.S. Constitution realized that this experiment in political liberty wasn't going to work if the government set up an established religion. (The book to read is So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State, by the late Forrest Church.)
Thus, you find in our Constitution restraints on ways in which the government can control religion.
In recent years, however, the term "religious liberty" has been co-opted by some people as a way of getting the government to allow them to behave in ways that might otherwise be deemed unconstitutional.
For instance, some bakers of wedding cakes have refused to make them for gay couples even though gay marriage now is legal in all 50 states. That refusal is in harmony with the refusal of restaurant owners 60 and more years ago to serve African-American customers. But public accommodations laws now require everyone to be served.
My point in raising all this is that I think Sam Brownback, whom President Trump nominated last week as ambassador at large for religious liberty, will seek to enforce a religious liberty agenda that would appeal to people in sympathy with those those bakers. He'll almost certainly also place an out-sized emphasis on the real and traumatic persecutions of Christians around the world. When I say out-sized emphasis I mean he probably will do that at the expense of people of other faith traditions who also are being crushed in various countries.
Veteran religion scholar Mark Silk has an even more deeply pessimistic view of how Brownback might do in this new job:
"Making headway requires exquisite political skills, for dealing with an entrenched State Department bureaucracy, both sides of the congressional aisle and foreign governments that do not hear criticism of their treatment of religious minorities and dissidents gladly. And that’s in a presidential administration where foreign policy is functioning normally.
"When it comes to political skills, Brownback is, as Winston Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, 'a bull who carries a china shop with him.'"
Brownback's religious background is interesting, having moved from evangelical Christianity to conservative Catholicism and having been part of what this New York Magazine piece calls "the shadowy conservative Christian power-elite group the Fellowship" (or The Family).
Journalist Jeff Sharlet has written about the Fellowship, a group of politicians with whom Brownback became associated when he was in Congress. The books to read by Sharlet are The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (I've argued with Sharlet that the terms "Fundamentalism" and "Fundamentalist" are misused, and he's almost agreed with me.)
The position to which Trump has nominated Brownback requires Senate confirmation. My hope is that at least some senators have read Sharlet's books and other source material, have followed Brownback's disastrous performance as governor of Kansas and will have some sharp questions to ask him about his understanding of religious liberty.
A few times in his public career Brownback has surprised me on the upside. I don't expect him to in this matter, but the eternal optimist in me is open to the possibility that he has some good answers to the kinds of probing questions he should get. And yet, in the end, we have to remember that he has agreed to work in the Trump administration, something that it's increasingly clear no one thinking clearly would agree to do.
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WHERE WAS GOD IN ALL THIS?
The recent death of terminally ill Charlie Gard, the infant son of a British couple, has attracted worldwide attention, as did his situation when he was still alive. One question inevitably asked in these cases is why God allowed him to die. It almost certainly isn't the right question, but people ask it anyway. Here is one answer from a Catholic perspective. Do you have an answer that works for you?
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It recalls how area clergy reacted to the Vietnam War.