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Joseph Loconte

Litigating the Good Fight

How Christians can avoid a persecution complex

A Season for Justice: Defending the Rights of the Christian Home, Church, and School
by David French
Broadman & Holman, 2002
215 pp.; $12.99, paper

Stories of hostility against Christians outside the United States have a way of putting problems at home in perspective. The deadly August attacks by Islamic terrorists on a Christian boarding school and a Christian hospital in Pakistan claimed the lives of ten people. David Wood, a teacher at Murree Christian School, lost a close friend in the assault. "I'll probably go home and cry," he said. Perhaps we should read every new book about anti-Christian bigotry in America with those plaintive words ringing in our ears. That might help to calm some tempers, invite reflection, provide clarity.

Certainly, readers who pick up David French's book, A Season for Justice, would benefit from such an exercise. Drawing mostly from his experience as counsel to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's Religious Freedom Crisis Team, French addresses religious discrimination in public schools, universities, and the workplace. His tone is sober, not hysterical, and there's sound advice about protecting churches and religious groups from heavy-handed government. But the book is thick with horror stories of persecution and light on principled approaches to fending them off. And it lacks what incidents like the killings in Pakistan can provide: an appreciation for the deepest sources of American-style religious liberty.

French offers Tufts University as a case study in anti-religious zealotry. A student governing committee voted to "derecognize" the InterVarsity group on campus, ruling that the organization had discriminated against a homosexual in its ranks. To their credit, the group's leaders had warmly embraced Julie Catalano, a lesbian student, but denied her request to hold a leadership post. French, who guided InterVarsity's successful appeal, sensibly describes what was at stake: an attempt to use antidiscrimination rules to destroy the independence of religious organizations. "If you banned the Tufts Christian Fellowship from applying its religious principles to religious decisions," he writes, "then you destroyed freedom for everyone." The Tufts student tribunal agreed and, with some hedging, overturned their original ruling.

This was precisely the argument that had helped defeat a recent Supreme Court challenge to the Boy Scouts. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, a gay scoutmaster sued the organization after being dismissed for openly endorsing homosexuality. By a 5-4 margin, the Court upheld the Scouts' staffing decision as a First Amendment right of free association. Had the ruling gone the other way, however, it would have ensured the steady decline of civil society in America. Once government controls the leadership of private groups and institutions, society is swallowed up by the state.

Still, religious groups continue to come under fire despite the Supreme Court ruling. Over a recent period, French reports, he advised InterVarsity chapters facing similar challenges at no fewer than 10 colleges and universities. He might have mentioned the scores of state and local rules that similarly threaten religious organizations by forbidding discrimination in hiring because of sexual orientation.

Secularizing pressures in public schools and the workplace also get attention in the book, but the analysis falls short. French sees the fear of litigation as the primary culprit, but it's more a symptom than a cause. As social thinker Os Guinness points out, the most important shift in church-state debates in recent years is the strategy to divorce civil and religious liberty. Liberals and secularists see little connection between a free and independent pulpit and a free and independent press; they view religious expression almost as a secondary civil right. Says Guinness: "There is quite simply no greater seachange from the world of the American Framers to the world of contemporary American intellectuals than this one."

Indeed, French would have done his readers a service by reminding them of some indispensable First Amendment history. For the generation of James Madison, any attack on the free exercise of faith was an assault on political liberty. For them, the linchpin freedom was conscience: as the seat of moral and religious conviction, it was "the most sacred of all property." For it is conscience that informs faith, stirs protest, incites collective action. It's no accident that the First Amendment begins with clauses on religious liberty, then proceeds to protect speech, the press, and the right to assemble. The political implications of this view were obvious: the disestablishment of religion from national government. Put another way, it meant the end of attempts to establish through law a Christian nation.

Many of today's evangelicals, however, cling to fuzzy notions of a "Christian America" to wage cultural battles. Just recall the hoopla over a federal court ruling in June, in which justices called the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because it contains the words "under God." The reliably wacky Ninth Circuit Court will almost certainly be overruled. But the response from some conservative Christians invites a similar judgment. "God and prayer were taken out of the schools, and we can see what has happened," complained a reader to The Augusta Chronicle. "We have allowed immorality to run rampant in this country and are turning a blind eye. Did Sept. 11 not get anybody's attention?"

This is Christian America talk, which French mostly eschews—but for reasons that seem too narrow. Battles over social issues, for example, are redefined as a struggle over the right to evangelize. "The culture war should be fought, not to impose our will or protect our turf," he writes, "but to ensure that this generation and the next can hear the words of Jesus and receive his grace." Surely the author is right to make the proclamation of Christ's gospel the first order of business for believers. But the gospel in its fullness has implications for all of life; it involves working for just laws, protecting the weak, confronting moral evil.

Understood in this way, evangelicals can make common cause with many outside the faith to promote God's moral truths—and to serve the common good. The protections of the First Amendment are not just for Christians, of course, but for every citizen. Yet too often evangelicals argue as if no other faith communities exist. Similarly, they act as if safeguarding the symbols of civic religion was the amendment's real purpose. A former litigator with the Christian Legal Society once told me that for years he fielded requests to protect school prayer, Nativity scenes, and the Ten Commandments. But not once was he asked for advice on how congregations could work more closely with public schools to mentor at-risk children, while avoiding church-state landmines.

There isn't much in the book to challenge these assumptions. (The subtitle—"Defending the Rights of the Christian Home, Church, and School"—doesn't help.) At times the rhetoric of protest gets a bit overheated. "In this struggle between two opposing religious ideas," French writes, "only one is protected by the government." When did Christians lose their constitutional protections to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Elsewhere he complains that it's only liberals who are "permitted to use the immense power and influence of government to teach [their] morality and, ultimately, change the heart of a nation." Again, when exactly did this massive political disenfranchisement occur? (And, while we're at it, what does the "heart" of pluralistic America look like?)

Nevertheless, at its best, A Season for Justice offers much-needed advice about responding wisely to threats against religious expression. In his chapter on workplace discrimination, French cautions against being quick to take offense. In his chapter on the battle at Tufts University, he explains how Christians should argue for academic freedom for all. A recurring theme: Believers must not impose their faith on others but rather should insist on the equal treatment of faith in the public square. "The answer to imbalance is not further imbalance," he writes. "The answer is freedom and neutrality."

Behind that counsel lies the heart of any biblical strategy for defending religious liberty: the golden rule. It's this rule, of course, that is so grievously ignored by Islamic regimes. Consider Pakistan, where the Ministry of Religious Affairs—entrusted with ensuring religious freedom—uses letterhead with this Qur'anic verse: "Islam is the only religion acceptable to God." When government picks religious winners and losers, civil strife is guaranteed.

Nevertheless, French argues, American Christians defending religious freedom are not blameless before the Lord's command. For starters, they should abandon the attempt to reintroduce state-sponsored prayer in the public schools. Christians wouldn't want their children to sit through Buddhist chants, so why require Buddhist students to sit through Christian prayers? Taken seriously, he says, the golden rule makes the school-prayer movement "self-defeating and possibly dangerous."

Perhaps the fact that a publisher would find these arguments fresh and provocative is a sign of how far evangelicals still need to travel on the road to cultural influence. Sadly, French's critique of school prayer could be leveled at much of what passes today for evangelical political activity. His book is a modest prescription for a new approach. Given the challenges to religious believers in the post-9/11 era, more radical surgery will surely be needed.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.

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