Politics & Policy

Hunter Baker’s Religious-Liberty Mission

(Image via HunterBakerforCongress.com)

‘I do not think it is adequately appreciated just how serious a crisis it is when an individual is caught between Christ and Caesar.” Hunter Baker knows whereof he speaks; his life so far has been devoted to thinking through that crisis — as an associate professor of political science at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn.; as a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and as the author of two well-received books on the subject: The End of Secularism (2009) and The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life (2014).

But the crisis is more serious than ever. Which is why Baker is running for Congress.

Earlier this year, GOP congressman Steven Fincher announced that he would not seek a fourth term as the congressman for Tennessee’s staunchly Republican eighth congressional district, prompting a stampede of bids from local, perennial Republican candidates. But for Baker, Fincher’s exit presented a different opportunity: to highlight the current crisis of religious liberty in the country. Baker hopes that voters will share his urgency and that they will send him to Congress, where he promises to be, first and foremost — and unique among federal officeholders — a missionary for religious liberty.

Baker has never held, or run for, political office. But it would be difficult to imagine a more knowledgeable envoy for religious liberty.

“For years, I’ve watched the battle over gay marriage play out,” he says. “It now seems obvious, but I knew that if gay marriage became a constitutional right, then we would have a head-on collision between Christianity and the new legal regime.” And that, he says, is exactly what is happening:

We have seen the cases of bakers, florists, and photographers pressed hard by secular authorities who cannot tolerate the idea that a small-business owner with a specific religious objection (participating in a wedding and not some broad prohibition) might deserve an accommodation. In those cases, the secular authority is putting its knee in the back of citizens with little power, and insisting they yield. It isn’t right. We should expect more from government than that blunt force, especially in the wake of non-democratic, massive social change.

In his scholarly work, Baker has developed a framework for thinking about this conflict. But he wants to convert his academic work into policy. And as a strong proponent of federalism, he sees potential remedies at multiple levels.

As a strong proponent of federalism, he sees potential remedies at multiple levels.

Baker supports the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: RFRA “is the only reason Hobby Lobby was able to prevail” in its lawsuit against the Obama administration, he notes. And he was part of a group that pushed unsuccessfully for a follow-up, the Religious Liberty Protection Act, in the late 1990s.

He notes that the Supreme Court will play an active role. On accommodations, he says: “I would prefer to have the Supreme Court go back in the direction of its Warren-Burger days, when the logic of accommodation had more force. That was blunted by Justice Scalia in the Employment Division v. Smith decision. We’ve had a less expansive view since then.” But he hopes that Chief Justice Roberts’s dissent in Obergefell has laid the groundwork for a more robust legal approach to religious liberty:

As Justice Roberts noted [in his Obergefell dissent], the constitutional right that is actually in the Constitution is threatened by the one that has just been discovered. I’d like to see the court move in Roberts’s direction in terms of its logic. Religious liberty is there and doesn’t need a lot of penumbras and emanations.

And since so many religious-liberty battles are taking place at the state level, he sees a need to give states space to make their own decisions:

It might be interesting to see the states divide in terms of their treatment of religious liberty. Let people vote with their feet. Let’s see if those elite corporations really want to give up the favorable business climate of the kinds of states that appreciate religious liberty. We might call their bluff.

Of late, corporations have taken a strident role in forwarding the agenda of the various groups threatening religious liberty. Last month, Apple, Disney, Salesforce.com, and the NFL joined forces to successfully intimidate Georgia governor Nathan Deal into vetoing a religious-liberty bill. A similar coalition of corporations is trying to roll back a religious-liberty law in North Carolina, and corporations stoked the outcry over the state-level RFRA, which erupted one year ago in Indiana.

Baker thinks the influence of progressive corporations might be mitigated if Republican governors would simply study up:

I would love to see these governors actually verse themselves in the logic of religious liberty. Read some of the literature. Familiarize yourself with some of the arguments. Read Robert George, Ryan Anderson, Francis Beckwith, and others. Schedule some time with attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom. Religious liberty is American and it is defensible. Instead of scrambling for cover, stand your ground and offer a reasonable justification for religious liberty. Emphasize that the goal is mutual respect, protection of the conscience, and community peace, rather than enmity and discrimination.

Those ends apply to the rest of Baker’s platform, which — on everything from the economy to health care to immigration to abortion (“I’m an ardent pro-lifer and a determined foe of Planned Parenthood,” he makes a point of saying) — will please conservatives of the Reaganite persuasion. (His father, he says, was a Goldwater conservative whose limited-government ideals rubbed off on his son.) But as important as his swath of policy proposals is his coherent, thoughtful philosophical framework for thinking about the relationship between the citizen and the state

We need to recognize that the different kinds of liberty — religion, expression, commerce, political, and others — are connected. The more we tolerate intrusions upon our reasonable liberties, the less we maintain the sphere of what is free. Thomas Paine had this great dichotomy between what he called “society” and “government.” For him, “society” should be dominant. It is the realm of the voluntary. We recognize that we are better off when we associate with and cooperate with others. But there are those who commit evils. It may be crime or abuses of the type we might call “negative externalities” today. For those, we have to have the involuntary sphere, which is “government.” But the government sphere should be much smaller than the counterpart in society. We are losing our understanding of that fundamental dynamic.

Baker wants to help restore that understanding — and it would be hard to think of a candidate more suited to offer a crash course — and then to get out of Washington, D.C. “I will go to defend life, religious liberty, and to moderate the appetites of the state so that freedom and self-government remain,” he wrote, announcing his bid for Congress on his website last month. “That will be the whole of my mission. When I am done, I will return to the district and take up my old life if I am able.”

It’s not a trifling mission. But it’s a worthy one. As Baker says:

Religious liberty is not just one issue that fits on a list. We’re talking about people’s deepest convictions about faith, life, obligation, duties to God, and the way we see the world. If we force people to act against their faith and conscience, we will damage them and the quality of our republican life together.

Voters in Tennessee’s eighth district will have an abundance of options in the Republican primary on August 4. More than a dozen candidates have filed for Fincher’s open seat. But those concerned about how we might “live together and maintain our integrity before God and man” — Baker’s words — may have their candidate.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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