The first thing you have to understand about the battle for free speech, religious freedom, and freedom of association in this nation is that it is primarily cultural, not legal. From a First Amendment perspective, legal protection against government censorship and government repression is at or near an all-time high. The First Amendment has never been more robust. Panic over court decisions is mainly panic at the margins, whether key decisions and doctrines will be undermined, not discarded entirely.
At the same time, however, talk to virtually any social conservative — especially a Christian conservative — and they will tell you that they feel free less free to speak and to exercise their religion now than they did five years ago, or ten years ago, or 20 years ago. Why? Because of cultural shunning. Because of cultural shaming.
Earlier this month, Immanuel Christian School in Virginia landed squarely in the cultural crosshairs. Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, took a part-time job teaching art to elementary-school students. Karen Pence is a believing Christian. The school is a church ministry, and it upholds orthodox Christian teaching about sexuality — the belief that sex is reserved for marriage, and that marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman.
A media feeding frenzy followed, with progressive pundits across the land condemning Pence’s alleged bigotry. A hashtag, #ExposeChristianSchools, popped up on Twitter, leading a New York Times reporter to openly called for people to come forward and discuss their Christian school experiences. And, this week, a local private academy called the Sheridan School decided to prohibit its sports teams from playing games at Immanuel. The reason? According to the text of an email from the head of school, obtained by Rod Dreher, some students felt “unsafe.” No, really. Here’s the key paragraph:
Since the majority of students wanted to play, we were initially planning to go to ICS with the student-athletes wearing a statement of support (such as rainbow socks or warm-up jerseys). As we talked more, we understood that some students did not feel safe entering a school that bans LGBTQ parents, students or even families that support LGBTQ rights. Forcing our children to choose between an environment in which they feel unsafe or staying home was not an option. So we decided that we would invite ICS to play all of the games at Sheridan. Since ICS declined our offer to host, we will only play our home games and will not go to ICS to play. [Emphasis added]
Unsafe? Absurd. Just absurd. But it’s worse than absurd. It’s bigotry. If there have been specific incidents that make a person reasonably fear for his or her safety at Immanuel, then the head of school should identify them. Otherwise, the argument is that Immanuel’s Christian environment is just too terrible to endure.
It’s hard to overstate how ridiculous this is. I attended a Christian college that had policies similar to Immanuel’s. For a dozen years my children attended a Christian school that had policies similar to Immanuel’s. I was the chairman of the school board for a year and on the school’s executive committee for four years. I helped write its sexual-conduct policy. My kids played volleyball, basketball, and football. I attended somewhere close to 100 sporting events on school grounds. I traveled to close to 100 games at other schools, public and private.
Time and again, officials and parents complimented our kids, our coaches, and our parents for their hospitality and sportsmanship. Games were intense, yes, but the intensity was related to the on-court action, not the race, sex, or sexuality of the participants. In my travels to public schools or to secular private schools, never once did I think that I was in a safer environment than the private Christian schools in our league. If the experience at Immanuel is different from the common experience of Christian-school parents and students, we need evidence.
It’s time for Christian parents, pastors, and politicians to understand a simple fact — in the fight for religious freedom, we often focus our efforts on the less important battleground. Legal protections matter less and less when the culture drifts so far from Christianity that shunning, shaming, and exclusion become the norm. Stay silent to keep your job. Change your policies to keep your educational opportunities. Say nothing so that you’ll preserve your public reputation.
And in this more-important cultural fight, it’s critical to wrap our arms around principles, not politicians. There’s not one darn thing that even the president can or should do to force the Sheridan school to associate with the kids from Immanuel. Combatting intolerance is a matter of persuasion, and it depends on Christians exercising a degree of personal courage and resolve — if you feel pressure at work, speak anyway. If you see a colleague facing persecution for his beliefs, stand with him. If a Christian school faces public shame and public sanction for its fidelity to Scripture, send your kids anyway.
Silence and compliance only embolden those who seek to sideline Christian thought and belief. Those who seek to censor and exclude have no reluctance to express their loathing for traditional Christianity. Christians must be equally willing to speak the truth and defend their faith. Otherwise, fear and shame will do what censorship cannot — drive the Christian faith from America’s public square.