Religious Liberty: The Government Doesn’t Own Us

When I spoke at Southeastern Baptist Seminary last month, I also participated in an interview with Bruce Ashford.  These remarks on religious liberty are excerpted from that interview.

On temptations to curtail religious liberty.

“That’s one thing I observed on the campaign trail. This is West Tennessee that we’re talking about, where I was running [for office]. Part of my logic [was] that these are people who will be very interested in religious liberty.

“But that having been said, I would very regularly get people saying, ‘I’m totally with you on religious liberty, but what about the Muslims?’ I told them, if we embrace this concept of religious liberty, then we also will tolerate the Muslims to build their mosques and to live their lives….’

“Gary Johnson recently said that religious liberty is a ‘black hole,’ meaning that he thinks it authorizes just any unlawful activity. But that’s not really the case. If you look back to the founding fathers and their understanding of religious liberty, the idea [was] that people are entitled to the free exercise of their religion as long as they don’t essentially threaten the peace and safety of the community. So cutting people’s heads? That’s out. Sacrificing virgins? That’s out. Throwing the girls in volcanoes…. But, within the bounds of what we understand as the normal life of religious people, that should be accommodated.

God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything.

“Now, why should we request religious liberty? Well, first of all, if we embrace religious liberty, we are implicitly saying that the government does not own us. We’re kind of taking that Caesar’s coin view of things. Yes, God has given Caesar some things to do. God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything. Some things belong to Caesar. Some things are God’s and jealously guarded as such. And when you embrace religious liberty, you’re saying that, ‘Hey, Caesar, you don’t get it all. Sometimes I’ve got to obey the higher law.’ And it’s better if you acknowledge that.

“And, look, human beings’ integrity means that [we] live according to [our] beliefs. So if the government is going to interfere unnecessarily with you doing that, then it is truly oppressing you. It is oppressing your conscience. It is trying to force you to live in accordance with a code that you do not hold. And there’s something terrible about that….

“John Courtney Murray, the great Catholic theologian, did a lot of work in religious liberty back when it wasn’t popular for Catholics to do so. He said [that] you need to look at the religion clauses in the first amendment as articles of peace. That these are clauses that if we learn to respect them, then we can live in harmony with each other. We don’t have to stamp on each others’ beliefs and force each other to conform in ways that are unnecessary. In that way, it’s easier for us to live together. And in a pluralistic society, that’s even more important.”

The Cruel Reality of Trump/Clinton

The mixture of politics, Christianity, and conservatism has served as a continuing running theme in my life.  I have delighted in the exploration, the debate, and the expression.  And for the first time, I’m watching an election that is taking all the joy out of these things I have loved.

Trump v. Clinton is an acid in my life.  Some things it dissolves.  The things it doesn’t dissolve, it leaves marred.

Since I sat on the sofa with my mother watching Ford/Carter election returns coming in on television in 1976, I have been interested in politics.  My dad was a proud former Goldwater voter, not all that surprising for a meritocratic engineer-type of guy.  As a teen, I began paying close attention to the early CNN and its amazing show Crossfire with Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley.  An interest in politics developed into something more like an obsession.

Two big things happened in college at Florida State University.  The first was that I became a born-again Christian tutored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship to bring everything in my life under the lordship of Christ.  Second, I came under the influence of some serious free-market economists in the persons of James Gwartney and Randall Holcombe.  As a result, my anti-communist tendencies (pretty natural for a Cold War kid) combined with Christian social conservatism and powerful free-market thinking to create a worldview that turned me into a highly fusionist type of conservative without apologies.

Later, I would come to understand that there was a conservatism other than National Review’s style (such as the classic Burke/Kirk version) and that Christians came in a wide variety of viewpoints, too, but the underlying point is that I became a nerd of the type who has always been drunk on ideas and somewhat religious about them as well.  Although stopping the Soviet Union and protecting the free market were the first attachments, I later found the writing of Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer made a thorough-going pro-lifer out of me.  And Schaeffer associate John Whitehead showed me the fundamental importance of religious liberty over the course of a summer at his Rutherford Institute.

Take this package of beliefs and intellectual commitments and combine them with the presidential election of 2016.  I was a Marco guy with strong sympathies toward Ted Cruz, as well.  (Why Cruz?  I think that few understand the original constitutional design as well as he does.)  It also happened that I was a conservative who appreciated Jeb Bush.  Though he was often pilloried as some kind of sell-out squish, I knew he hadn’t governed that way in Florida.

In the beginning, I saw Trump as a novelty candidate.  I called him the guy who says all the stuff your uncle drives everyone crazy with at Thanksgiving.  When he criticized John McCain for getting captured, I was sure he was done.  To my horror, he continued to climb.  Debate after debate took place.  Each time I saw a boorish performance by a man who was unprepared on policy and who just blustered his way through every encounter.

Of course, he won.  In retrospect, I see his victory as a classic 1980’s business phenomenon that fits perfectly with his 1980’s birth as a celebrity.  Trump’s coalition enabled him to perform a hostile takeover of the Republican party.  Like most corporate raiders, it looks like he’ll take control, drain the party of its useful assets, and then leave behind a crippled wreck.

Despite this dim view of Trump and my support for virtually anyone else at the primary stage, I did commit myself to supporting him in the general election.  The answer is simple and should be easily understood by all.  I know Hillary and her plans.  She is a pro-choice, secular collectivist of the type with whom I tend to disagree most vehemently.  The best thing about her, in my view, is that she is a much worse salesman for her views than President Obama has been for his.  Other will put the emphasis on her record, on Benghazi, on the email scandal.  Fine, but for me it is the continued development of U.S. policy in a direction I think of as hostile to true liberty and the marginalization of unborn human life that troubles me the most. Next to this, I saw Trump as a wildcard and an amateur.  I continue to think he would cede most governing to his vice-president and that he would mostly be a sloganeer and an image maker.

But I cannot deny the points that friends ardently opposing Trump have made.  They view him as a faux-Republican, a total non-conservative, a man of wealth without an apparent moral compass, and a political opportunist who must not be trusted.  In light of his recent comments which suggest sexual assault, they argue that he lacks even a baseline of character that we should expect of a president.

On the other hand, there are the friends who say that Hillary represents a generational threat for two reasons.  They fear that she will embrace an immigration policy that will fundamentally reshape America’s electoral balance.  (I disagree here, believing that even illegal immigrant families have a good chance of becoming Republicans.)  In addition, they say that she will turn the Supreme Court like a pro, which she is, and that the causes of life and religious liberty will be set back for decades.  While they often deeply regret Trump as the candidate, they feel that failing to support him represents a lack of seriousness and determination to fight.  Those who are unwilling to sully themselves by supporting Trump should get out of the way and let real warriors do battle.

I have many friends in both camps.  For my part, I have tended to be closer to group two than to group one because of my worries about the court.  I figured that a blustering dilettante with no government experience could scarcely do the harm that a master of the process could do.  For that reason, Donald Trump the candidate has seemed to be worth the trouble (if just barely).

But with this latest revelation (and knowing more is likely to come), the pain of the whole thing has intensified.  I have had to ask myself whether there is ANY point at which my personal sense of honor kicks in so as to deny the candidate my support, even in the face of an awful alternative.  (There must be such a point.  There must be.)

My #nevertrump friends don’t understand how hard it has been for me and others.  They look at me backing away from Trump in these last days and say, “What has changed?  Didn’t you always know this about him?”  In truth, probably so.  All I can say is that when one determines to persevere in order to vindicate a cause he is able to withstand the stacking of a great many straws before his knees begin to tremble.

We have to face the fact that it is terrible to be a conservative, a Christian, and/or both who faces the electoral decision before us.  There is no truly pro-life Republican or Democrat candidate.  There is no true religious liberty Republican or Democrat candidate.  There is nothing approaching an actual conservative of any type, really.  There is no one who genuinely shares our values, our spiritual commitments, and our way of life in this race.

We have before us a creature of Washington and a creature of Manhattan, one whose wealth was made through leveraging government access and another who made money selling vice and paying off politicians.  

Our situation is bad enough.  The least we can do is to stop tearing each other apart and to stop treating one another as though we no longer recognize whatever good once drew us together.  Goodness help us, we have all tried to do what we thought was right.

Trump v. Clinton: Round One

The first thing to say is that Hillary Clinton won this debate.  She won the debate when it should have been almost impossible for her to do so.

Why do I say it should have been impossible?  The answer is that Donald Trump faced a super low bar of expectations.  Basically, all he had to do was to appear calm, decent, and rational.  Despite that, he tripped over a bar sitting at ankle height.

He had moments.  Hillary referenced her vast experience.  He made out a case that much of it was bad experience for the country.  When she offered a short treatise on the implicit racism of police officers and systemic racism in the nation, he responded with a call for law and order for the benefit of people in the inner cities who have to live in unsafe conditions.  I thought that was reasonably well done.

He missed a big opportunity.  Hillary talked about how he had been very fortunate to have a rich father.  I thought he could have responded that she “had the great fortune to marry the future president of the United States.”  But he missed that.

In addition, let’s face it, he was a boor.  He frequently interrupted Hillary during her turn to speak.  When it was his turn, he often rambled and struggled to make a point.  There was a low information density to his answers.

But what about Hillary’s performance?  She betrayed no sign of ill health.  The concentration was there.  So was the patience and endurance.  I have to give her credit for being alert enough to tweak Trump at virtually every opportunity.  She knew what the points of attack were and she pressed them relentlessly.

And how about the email controversy?  Hillary was asked about it and made no attempt to excuse or explain.  She simply said that she made a mistake and takes responsibility.

Trump attempted to push that point, but he would have been wise to follow her example.  When she pointed to issues regarding his taxes, bankruptcies, etc., he put forward long, windy rationalizations that just made him look untrustworthy.  It would have been better for him to say that he has spent his life in an ultra-competitive business environment and often competed in a cutthroat way.  He might have regrets, but you’d want somebody as tough as him looking out for the country.  Something like that.  And again, he may have tried to basically say that but it was lost in the meandering mess of rhetoric.

By the end, Trump seemed deflated and beaten (and so was I).  He walked off the stage with his family while Hillary stayed up front shaking hands and smiling.  She knew she’d thrashed him.

The Need to Prepare for What You Want

During the past month or so, I concluded a campaign for Congress, wrote a couple of articles about it, submitted a significant scholarly project, and then spoke at one of the big Southern Baptist seminaries.  In between, there was a lot of teaching.

As I stood in front of the seminary audience of what looked like a couple hundred people or so, I felt the challenge.  Felt the necessity of having had to write something that would be meaningful to them.  Felt the obligation to try and keep their interest.  I had written about 6000 words for that purpose.

When you speak to an audience and have about 50 minutes, that can be a big mountain to climb.  It isn’t the same as teaching.  When you teach, you invite the students into conversation (or at least I do) and between the questions and answers 50 minutes can go by quite rapidly.  But when you carry that ball alone (and the audience is grading you instead of receiving a grade from you), it’s a bigger task.

I thought about how much I wanted to speak to audiences like that one when I was younger.  How I wanted to get the attention of groups and have them listen to what I had to say!  Now that I look back, I realize that was a classic example of the immature desire to do something when you aren’t even close to being ready.

I make no claim to being a great speaker.  For example, I don’t have the gift of memorization.  (It was tremendously comforting to me when I learned the same was true of William F. Buckley.)  But I do make a strong effort to develop the content and to really have something to say.  When I was younger, I think I would have felt fantastic about speaking to a big audience all the way up until the moment when I suddenly realized I didn’t have the rhetorical horse to ride.  (The same was true of the first time I tried to write a book.  I suddenly realized that I barely had enough for a chapter!)

I didn’t begin to hit my stride career wise until I was in my mid-thirties.  But all during those earlier years I was reading, thinking, making attempts at writing, learning from wiser men and women, and generally preparing.  I didn’t know whether all the preparation would bear fruit, but it did.  And now, when the time has come that there is some interest I have something to offer.

So, to follow the title of this piece, I want to offer advice to the young (or maybe even the mid-career or the old).  Perhaps you are like me.  Maybe you are that person who didn’t have a clean path to engineering or accounting or nursing or whatever profession where the steps seem fairly clear.  Maybe you have had some ideas about what you want to do with your life, but you have a lot of uncertainty about how to do it.  My advice is to turn preparing for that life into your hobby.  Read, watch, and learn.  Find smaller opportunities to do the things you hope to do on a bigger and possibly professional scale.

If you spend enough time getting ready, you just might have something to offer when a door opens before you.


Diary of a Congressional Candidate – Obion County Edition

Last night was the second big candidate forum of the campaign for TN Congressional district 8.  We had thirteen candidates in attendance and 235 people present to hear from us.  There was a straw poll.  Several of the big candidates brought a posse, including staff.

There are a few notable things to tell you.  First, I suspected there would be a question about Trump.  I drew the final answer on that one.  I watched as every candidate before me embraced him.  George Howell, expressed some reservation.  When it came my turn, I just told the audience exactly what I think.  I said that as a person who has spent my life in conservative and pro-life causes, I am incredibly disheartened by his nomination.  In addition, I characterized him as a crony capitalist.  However, I added, I view him as a wild card in comparison with Hillary and that I may end up voting for him in the general election.  Whether that stance alienated people I can’t say, but I suspect I gained ground in terms of voters who feel the same way.

Another question had to do with our likelihood of selling out the district when we go to Washington.  I pointed out that I am a Christian conservative who chose to go into higher education.  Such a move, I said, is either a sign of madness or of the utmost sincerity.  I think it is the latter.  I also noted that I have publicly promised not to become a lobbyist when I’m done.  Instead, I have pledged that I will return to Union University as a professor if they will have me.

We had the opportunity to make closing statements.  I used mine to talk about Nietzsche’s claim that every time a new sanctuary is built, the old one must be shattered.  There is a movement to build a new sanctuary, a secular progressive one, and an effort to destroy the old one, which is Christianity.  I reflected on Christ considering the coin and how he told us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar, but also to God what is God’s.  The soul is for God.  The soul is for God.  I said it twice to get across the reality that Caesar (the government) is overreaching.  It is not entitled to our souls and our consciences.

After we finished, several people came up to me to express their agreement and to thank me for some of the things I’d said.  The straw poll results came in.  Greer (the hometown candidate) won, Kelsey came in second, and Flinn came in third.  All three brought substantial posses with them.  I had just a handful with me.  Despite that, I came in fourth by one vote.  I was one vote behind a candidate with millions of dollars.  And I was ahead of two of the major suburban Memphis candidates.

What this tells me is that the message resonates.  If I can speak with the voters, I can share that message.  The website and facebook pages are the next best thing.  If I sound like your kind of candidate, please help me spread the word.

(I didn’t spend any money on this post, but Paid for by Hunter Baker for Congress.)

Diary of a Congressional Candidate

Last night I had my first real opportunity to participate in a candidate forum.  It was held at Union University, which is my home turf.  The Union University College Republicans hosted the event.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find that a straw poll was being held.  I panicked a little as I had brought with me Andrew Baker (age 13) and Grace Baker (age 11), neither of whom I felt would make sense as straw poll voters.  I considered what a disaster it would be to lose at the place where I teach.

In addition, I had to bribe the kids to sit through the two hour event with the promise to take them to Sonic afterwards.  They won their prize and even provided a little comic relief as Andrew shouted “Amen!” when one candidate said he agreed with me about religious liberty.

I’ll save you the suspense on the straw poll.  I think the students came through for me.  I won.

The event was a “forum,” which translated into each candidate giving a five minute speech and then answering questions in rounds at the end.

It may not surprise you to hear that I left thinking that we could save everyone a lot of time (and money) if we simply sat down for an essay test on the issues of the campaign and then let the voters apply their own grades.  (That’s the kind of answer a professor would give, isn’t it?)  🙂

One candidate promoted the credibility conferred by fundraising.  I wonder what he would have said if I had responded, “The candidate sitting next to you has raised about four times what you have.  Does that mean he is four times as credible?  In fact, should we just forget the forums and debates and put the guy with the best fundraising in the office?”

It’s pretty crazy to be a lifetime observer of politics actually on the stage watching a candidate do one of the things you have noticed in the past.  I’m not naming names because the phenomenon is what’s important.  One candidate clearly had something like a focus-group or poll-tested phrase to describe himself and his record.  He was careful to repeat it several times during the debate.  It reminded me very much of the 2000 election when Al Gore developed tremendous discipline around using the word “lockbox” to refer to his plan for social security and “risky tax scheme” to refer to Bush’s tax cuts.

I talked about the things you would expect me to discuss.  I said there is a civil rights struggle yet to be won, which is for the rights of the unborn.  Hillary Clinton has said the unborn have no constitutional rights.  I pointed out that many great thinkers, including Martin Luther King, Jr. have declared that an unjust law is no law at all.  Roe is an unjust law and must not stand.

I recited a list of the victims of the new sexual orthodoxy:  Brendan Eich, Kelvin Cochran, Eric Walsh, Barronelle Stutzman, David Daleiden, and even the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  Then I launched into a discussion of the aggressive secularism developing among the Fortune 500/DC/Hollywood nexus and how the only way to combat it is with solidarity of the type shown in the examples of the Chick-fil-A firestorm and the attempt to subpoena sermons of Houston pastors.

We covered all kinds of issues during the Q & A, including gay marriage to the consternation of some who complained the issue is “settled.”  The highlight of the evening probably came at the end when we received a question about transgender bathrooms.  George Flinn was unable to attend and sent a proxy.  His proxy was boisterous and loudly declared, “If you have a bathroom in your house, then it’s a transgender bathroom!”  Lots of laughter and a nice way to end.