A Pentecostal, a Southern Baptist, and a Catholic Walked into the Press Club

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

There are Anglicans and Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Lutherans. There are Jewish leaders and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Church of Scientology are even represented. They’re all “standing together for religious freedom, as their new letter puts it, and they’d like you to join them.

“Here we stand. We can do no other,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, announced at a press conference today while sitting beside his Catholic ally, Baltimore archbishop William E. Lori — underscoring how the White House has unintentionally done wonders for Christian unity with its HHS mandate.

Today in Washington, an impressively ecumenical coalition released this open letter making the case to “all Americans” that opposing the HHS mandate is urgent. Through the mandate, the letter states, “the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) continues to breach universal principles affirmed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws. While the mandate is a specific offense, it represents a greater fundamental breach of conscience by the federal government. Very simply, HHS is forcing Citizen A, against his or her moral convictions, to purchase a product for Citizen B. HHS policy is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining – or casting aside – religious doctrine. This should trouble every American.”

The effort has been organized, and today’s National Press Club event was co-sponsored by, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC. Notably, as the letter states, most of the religious traditions represented have no theological objection to contraception, but stand with those who do in seeking protection from a mandate that demands they provide insurance coverage that violates their conscience rights.

Archbishop Lori has been a leading face of the Fortnight for Freedom, the second annual Catholic-led prayer and education effort. (I wrote a bit about the prayer vigil he led outside the Capitol building one recent Saturday night here.) It’s a natural fit for the archbishop of Baltimore, who is tasked at the bishops’ conference in Washington with chairing an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, an office started in response to the unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the United States posed by the HHS mandate. But the archbishop, who is also the national chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, is far from the only voice of the Fortnight for Freedom. Listen to my friends Kim Daniels, a religious-liberty attorney, and Sister Deirdre Byrne, a Little Worker of the Sacred Hearts and an Army captain, in an official fortnight podcast here.

In a conversation with National Review Online, Russell D. Moore, the new president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, talks about the letter, renewal, and the future of religious liberty.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do you hope to accomplish with the letter released today?

RUSSELL MOORE: We hope to mobilize our communities to recognize the serious incursions on religious liberty represented by the audacity of the HHS mandate. At a time when Americans are planning picnics and cookouts and fireworks displays, we wish to call us back to the founding principles of this republic, most notably the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religions. This is important to us because it is not simply another political issue. Without the freedom of religious liberty, persons aren’t citizens at all, but are rather congregants in a state church that has final accountability over their consciences. In this case, the state church demands we sing from the hymnbook of the sexual revolution. We’re singing a different song. 

LOPEZ: There seemed to be a bit of a collective yawn in response to the HHS’s final ruling on the mandate on Friday. Why do Americans not seem to be convinced that this is the religious-freedom problem you and Catholic bishops insist it is?

MOORE: Many Americans assume that religious liberty is safe so long as there is not the “shock and awe” of a display of totalitarian power, in the way we would see it in, for instance, the crackdown on dissidents in North Korea or Cuba or China or Saudi Arabia. But, on American soil, the most pronounced challenges to religious liberty have come not from the barrel of a tank but from the pen of a bureaucrat. In the founding era, my Baptist forebears objected to paying taxes to pay for Episcopalian preachingand objected to being forced to apply for a license to preach the gospel. The state told us these were trifling matters, issues of paperwork. The founding generation recognized, though, that much more was at stake. The same is true here. The government tells us they have resolved our moral objections with a paperwork sleight of hand on the insurance forms. We are not so easily hypnotized by such parlor games. 

LOPEZ: You talk about being advocates for freedom, but you also oppose same-sex marriage. How is that consistent? How is that fair to men and women with same-sex attractions?

MOORE: When it comes to the HHS mandate, the coalition is broad, and includes the whole spectrum of views on marriage. I support a conjugal definition of marriage not because I want the government in our bedrooms, but because I don’t. I believe, for instance, that my calling to be a pastor is momentously important to my church, and to my life. I don’t want the government to be involved in that, even if only to help us celebrate a good pastor by “certifying” him. The government has recognized marriage for one reason. The union of a man and a woman has implications for all of society in a way other relationships don’t. Male/female sexuality brings with it the possibility of children. Very few of us want the sort of “lord of the flies” laissez-faire kind of society which doesn’t care what happens to children. Encouraging the sort of fidelity that maintains, wherever possible, the right of a child to both a mother and a father is a state interest. When it comes to celebrating love or relationships, that’s what communities and families are for, not governments. Those of us who hold to a Christian sexual ethic love our gay and lesbian neighbors. We simply have a different definition of what marriage is. We all agree that there is some sort of limitation on the definition of marriage. For us, and for civilizations for thousands of years, sexual complementarity is at the heart of that definition. 

LOPEZ: In this world that we live in with the HHS mandate and the marriage rulings out of the Supreme Court last week, how can conscience rights be assured?

MOORE: The Constitution of the United States guarantees those rights of conscience. We need to insist on electing presidents who will appoint judges and justices who recognize the importance of those constitutional rights. We should work to let Members of Congress know that we expect them to use their legislative authority to curtail the abuses of those who seek to run over such rights. We should make these petitions not as some interest group seeking a special favor. We’re not an industry wanting a subsidy from Uncle Sam. We believe these are natural rights, and, by definition, inalienable. 

LOPEZ: Do we have a fundamental educational, experimental, catechetical (in our various traditions) problem when it comes to religious liberty? Is thet Fortnight for Freedom about educating us as much as it is a political statement?

MOORE: This is precisely the problem. Religious liberty is maintained only when religious people ground their convictions in a theological vision. The Baptist ecclesial tradition I come from did a good job of this for many years. We had something called “Training Union,” a Sunday night class for children and teenagers that taught the importance of Baptist distinctives such as religious liberty and soul freedom. As time went on, this program died, without anything to replace it, and we assumed the principles of religious liberty rather than teaching them. Beyond that, the concepts were highjacked. Some used the term “religious liberty” to mean atomistic individualism, in which the individual isn’t accountable even to his or her church community for right doctrine and practice. Some used the term “separation of church and state” to mean secularism and hostility to religious expression. This isn’t what these concepts are about, but some of us who hold the “old time religion” became allergic to these concepts, seeing them as belonging to the liberals. They don’t. Separation of church and state is a good conservative phrase, and one we ought to reclaim. 

Especially in American Evangelicalism, thought about citizenship, freedom, and so forth were subsumed under a gaudy civil religion of “God and country” boosterism. This bears little resemblance to the apostolic teaching of the kingdom of God. Without a broader vision of the permanent things, religious liberty becomes, at best, a self-protection mechanism and, at worst, a pious slogan. 

The Fortnight for Freedom in Catholic parishes isn’t a political lobby, but is instead a teaching tool to remind Catholics of the Church’s teaching on the freedom of conscience and the limits of state power. I think we ought to emulate this in other communions. But, with apologies to my bishop friends, we should call it something else. Who in America speaks of a “fortnight”? 

LOPEZ: The HHS mandate doesn’t look so threatening if you’re a Nigerian Christian, does it? How is what you’re doing in Washington, D.C., today related to threats against religious freedom throughout the world?

MOORE: The HHS mandate is distant to Nigerian churches, but America isn’t. American influence, for good and for ill, wraps around the globe, seen in the ever-present Coca-Cola logos and Justin Bieber songs almost anywhere on the planet. John F. Kennedy was right that a country as powerful as the United States has a responsibility to live up to its own ideals. Whatever our views on foreign policy, we can hardly speak to emerging democracies about constitutional protections and minority rights if we aren’t willing to live up to our own founding principles on such things. This is why the American experiment is so glorious. We don’t hold these truths because we have the political power to make them happen. We hold these truths because they are “self-evident,” written into the fabric of the cosmos. 

LOPEZ:  Is the U.S. still worth fighting for?

MOORE: Some Christians assume that religious liberty is a selfish cause, that we are simply watching out for our own interests. This isn’t the case at all, which is why the Apostle Paul appealed to Caesar, and pleaded his case. We must remember that God holds both persons and nations accountable, as the prophets and apostles tell us. In a democratic republic, we are not only the people but also the rulers. When we allow freedom of conscience to be trampled, we are acting unjustly. This isn’t simply the problem of the ruling authorities, because we have no king; ultimately, we are the ruling authorities. Working for a free church in a free state isn’t simply about the freedom of the church but about the love of neighbor and leaving an inheritance of liberty for generations to come.