Online Conversation | The State of Religious Liberty

The right to religious freedom is a central tenet of American democracy and one of the first rights enshrined in the Constitution. But what that means, how far that freedom extends, the threats that undermine its practice, and the proper protections around such freedom has been a matter of contention ever since. On Friday, August 26, The Trinity Forum sat down for an Online Conversation with Center for Public Justice’s Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance founder and director Stanley Carlson-Thies and scholar and legal advocate Kristina Arriaga to explore the meaning and implications of religious freedom in the U.S. With decades of legal and academic experience defending the principles of religious freedom, Stanley and Kristina discussed the problems currently facing religious liberty while providing insight on how to navigate the coming decades

Online Conversation | Arriaga + Carlson-Theis | August 26, 2022 

Jeff Pickering: Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Jeff Pickering and I’m the director of academic programs at the American Enterprise Institute. And it has been a joy for us through AEI’s initiative on faith and public life to partner with the Trinity Forum and the Center for Public Justice on this three-part event series. At AEI’s academic program, our vision is to renew healthy civic engagement on college campuses and in America’s public square more broadly by informing, equipping, and developing thoughtful and principled student leaders. To do this, we facilitate educational and professional opportunities for those students. And as part of this work, our initiative on faith and public life seeks to equip Christian students to think deeply about faithful participation in the public square.

Having first come to Washington, though, to work on religious liberty issues at a different organization, I’m personally honored that you all would be joining us for today’s conversation on the state of religious freedom. Rightfully and gratefully, I would add, religious freedom is enshrined in the first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution in this country. The freedom to live according to one’s own deeply held beliefs is one of the best promises of America. So we are delighted to have two terrific leaders and experts in this field, both religious freedom domestically as well as internationally, lead us in this important discussion today. So I’ll now turn it over to our moderator, Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder.

Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Jeff. I’d like to add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on the state of religious freedom with Stanley Carlson-Theis and Christina Arriaga. We’re so pleased, those of us at the Trinity Forum, to get to collaborate with our friends, the Center for Public Justice, ably led by Stephanie Summers, as well as the Institute for Faith and Public Life at the American Enterprise Institute, directed by Jeff Pickering, who you just had the opportunity to hear from. As Jeff mentioned, this is actually the final in a three-part series that we have hosted as part of conversations on faith and public life. We kicked this off last summer hosting Mark Noll and Vince Bacote on the challenge of Christian nationalism and also had the opportunity to hear from Walter Kim from the National Association of Evangelicals, Mark Labberton, and Claude Alexander on faith in polarized times.

And we’re excited that I think it’s around 1,000 of you have registered for this conversation today. So welcome to all of you. And a particular welcome to our around 125 first-time ever guests, as well as our guests joining us from at least 22 different countries that we know of, ranging from Belgium to Uganda, Pakistan to Poland and Portugal as well. So drop us a note in the chat feature if you haven’t done so already, letting us know where you’re from. It’s always quite fun for us to see the range of locales and hometowns that people are tuning in from.

If you are one of those 125 people who are joining us for the very first time or are new to the Trinity Forum in another way, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can engage with the big questions of life in the context of faith, for the purpose of ultimately getting to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope the conversation today will be a small taste of that for you.

As Jeff noted, religious freedom has been called the first freedom, the bedrock of all other freedoms. In protecting religious liberty, a government respects its own limitations and its inability to dictate answers to ultimate questions, and acknowledges that the human conscience answers to a higher authority than the state. It’s also the most basic requirement of any free society. But no freedom is absolute or uncontested. And here in the US, ever since the Constitution was ratified, we have been arguing about what religious freedom means, why it matters, and what it looks like through growing challenges, including the rise of secularism, greater diversity of religious expression, and even challenges from those who wish to more closely integrate church and state. So what is the state of religious freedom both in the US and around the world? What are the unique challenges to this first freedom in our own time and context? To help us grapple with these questions today, I am delighted to welcome two deeply respected and erudite experts on the topic Stanley Carlson-Theis and Christina Arriaga.

Stanley Carlson-Theis is the founder and director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice, where he advocates for religious freedom for faith-based organizations to both Congress and across the government. He previously served in the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for President Bush and then the Advisory Council on Faith-Based Initiatives for President Obama, and is the author or coauthor of numerous books including Free to Serve: Preserving the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations, The Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations to Staff on a Religious Basis, and A Revolution of Compassion: Faith-Based Groups as Full Partners in Fighting America’s Social Problems.

Joining Stanley will be Christina Arriaga, a respected scholar and internationally recognized advocate for religious freedom. Christina has led Becket Law, a public-interest law firm devoted to defending religious freedom for all traditions, has served as the vice chair of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, as well as served as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the US delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She has published dozens of editorials, op-eds, columns, and book chapters on religious freedom and other expressive rights, received the 2017 Newseum Free Expression Award, and currently serves as a trustee for the newly inaugurated Oversight Board of Meta. 

Stanley and Christina. Welcome.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Glad to be with you. 

Christina Arriaga: Thank you.

Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So as we start off, it seems like what religious freedom means is always a contested issue. And there are certainly challenges in our own time. And it’s always good just to begin with a definition of terms. So when we talk about religious freedom, what do we mean? And, Stanley, maybe we can start with you.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: So obviously we could spend a week or two on this topic, but I think of it as the legal freedom to follow God the way you think God asks you to follow, as a person, organization, when the law says otherwise. So the law says, “Do it this way,” and you say, “No, I have to follow God. That requires me to do something else and I need the freedom to do that.” So religious freedom protects that. It protects not just worship, but religion asks us to do things, not do things, outside of worship. And so that needs to be protected as well. And not just persons, but also organizations. That’s the way we get things done. Of course, this can’t be unlimited, but I think there should be a priority on people being able to live by conviction, by what they think is really fundamentally right. I mean, that’s the purpose of government is to help us live well and together. So we have to balance things. But it ought to be a freedom to live by conviction. 

Cherie Harder: Christina, any additional thoughts on the definition?

Christina Arriaga: Yeah, I think religious freedom is the ability for every individual to forge a path towards truth and whether that path takes them to organized religion or no religion at all, it is a right that we’re born with. What that means is that religious freedom does not protect religion. Religious freedom protects individuals. Religious freedom, in fact, is not about who God is, but it is about who we are as human beings. And the ability to live according to our deeply held convictions is something that the government has to protect.

Cherie Harder: It’s fascinating, Christina, you focused mostly on individuals; Stanley, you mentioned organizations as well. And one of the things I’d love to talk with you about—and, Stanley, maybe you can start—is we do tend to think about religious freedom as being primarily an individual right. But most court cases, it seems, that go to the Supreme Court, actually concern organizations and institutions with religious freedom. Is there a freedom of religion for institutions and organizations as well as individuals?

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, there has to be. Religion, it’s personal, but it’s not just individual. Even worship is not just individual. And once you get past very informal expressions, you know, around a campfire praising God or something like that, it has an organizational form, and a house of worship can’t exist without the freedom to do what it thinks God requires and to not do other things. So it is organizational in even that very basic sense to teach others the faith. But also, I think, organizations, faith-based organizations—different kinds, from seminaries to charities and schools—that’s a way faith is put into practice, because faith is not just kind of what you do internally and your worship with God, but it has to do with how you live your life. And religions, typically, they have something to say about how we treat our neighbor. So how do we treat our neighbor well? That has a very personal side to it, but it has a very organizational side. How do we carry out this faith as we do things like serve our neighbor who needs an adoption, who’s homeless? And so those organizations, if they’re going to be able to be faithful, need to have freedom. So I think of it as to carry out, in the Christian tradition, the two great commandments. One is to love God with all your heart, the other is to love your neighbor as yourself. How can you love your neighbor as yourself in the way God asks us to unless there’s freedom to follow God as you serve your neighbor? So I think that requires—I call it—institutional religious freedom.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, it’s undeniable that there is a growing number of those, particularly in the US, who subscribe to no faith, the people who are called the “nones.” And you know, the topic has come up several times that even people who do not, are not part of an organized religion, may not even believe in God, still have strongly held convictions, often moral convictions, about how they should live their life, what the good life looks like. And so it’s not surprising that there is an increasing challenge to the idea that there should be special protections for religious freedom—in that, why should there be something special for this kind of moral and spiritual conviction and not those who do not subscribe to a particular faith? Christina, I’d be curious what you would say to those who would argue that there’s no need for special protections for religious freedom. There’s just a need for greater pluralism or respect for others.

Christina Arriaga: Yeah. Religious freedom, again, protects everyone, A to Z, atheist or Zoroastrian. So religious freedom is again not about religion, but about our ability to live according to our deeply held convictions. And Stan said it beautifully, right? Religion is not who we are as individuals, but also in association to others, in association to God. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines religious freedom, talks about freedom of assembly, talks about the freedom of people not only being but becoming. In other words, you can change your religion, you can change your mind. And religious freedom affords opportunities for believers and nonbelievers to be able to live according to their deeply held convictions and also change their mind about it. Secularists, individuals who are talking about, “well, you know, there’s the rights of the nones and there’s—” Terrific. The only reason that we have the rights of the nones or the decline of the nones is precisely because religious freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution and in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It protects everyone.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, in addition to some of the challenges to religious freedom coming from secularism, there also have been challenges coming from different directions. I think about the fact that religious freedom itself includes the freedom to make choices with which we deeply disagree, choices about matters of ultimate significance. And in addition to a rising integralism movement, I think about a well-known megachurch pastor who recently said that in choosing religious freedom, we choose idolatry and hell. He even said religious freedom is what sends people to hell. So, Stanley, given that you have spent your entire professional life advocating for religious freedom, why do you believe that Christians should stand up for religious freedom, for the right of people to make the wrong choice?

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, in the first place, because God allows us to do that. Otherwise we wouldn’t be around. We all make wrong choices and we’ve all fallen short. That’s certainly what the Christian teaching is, that we’ve all fallen short, and instead of blasting us to oblivion, God allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, gives us opportunities, calls us, but asks us to come and believe, which I think is a little bit different than having the government say, “I’m going to throw you in prison unless you say this or that, do this or that.” So religious freedom, it’s not there to protect people doing the wrong thing. It’s to protect people following God. And we follow God in different ways. We make mistakes. And so we give each other space to do that. And religious freedom doesn’t mean that we then say it doesn’t matter what anybody does. It just gives you space to pray, to argue, to model belief, to serve others, to try to draw them into what you think is right, rather than saying, “I’m going to sic the government on you to force you into something.” I don’t trust the government to tell us exactly what’s right about God. And so we don’t want to go down that path. If the government could be perfect, that’d be one thing. And one day, as a Christian, I believe the government will be perfect. But that’s not the day we live in. So we need to have freedom so that we can follow God from our heart.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Christina, you have really dedicated much of your professional life to not only defending religious freedom, but defending it abroad. And we often take for granted in the US the extraordinary freedom that we have and protections that we have, whereas overseas there are people of various faiths, certainly including Christians, who are constantly persecuted and even killed for their faith convictions. What do you say to those who say that instead of spending millions of dollars and a lot of attention to address religious freedom concerns in the US, we should be focusing instead on international religious freedom, where the needs are so great and so urgent?

Christina Arriaga: Well, I would say that the United States, imperfect a country as we are, has also led the fight for religious freedom, particularly for the last 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, with the creation of a law called the International Religious Freedom Act, the United States became the only country in the world that had a US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. In other words, a diplomat whose only job was to monitor religious freedom and promote religious freedom. What that legislation did, it made every single US embassy all over the world to have to report on the state of religious freedom in that country and think creatively about ways in which we can incentivize those countries to protect and defend religious freedom. We know that countries that enjoy good religious freedom measures also have a better economy. We know that in countries where religious freedom is respected, women fare much better. So it is a good that influences all other goods that a country is looking at.

Regrettably, as Pew reported recently, 80% of the world’s population live in places where there are limits to religious freedom. So the United States Congress, thanks again to the passage of this legislation, has given us very powerful tools in terms of sanctions and to individuals who are violating religious freedom all over the world. But we have to do more. And this is the beauty of having this conversation and having 1,000 people listening to us from all over the world. Religious freedom only exists when there’s a culture of religious freedom. I mean, the constitutions of North Korea, of Cuba, of Russia, all protect religious freedom in writing, but they don’t do it in actuality. So it’s up to our listeners to make sure that religious freedom infringements, small or large, whether it’s a bureaucrat or it’s the government or it’s your neighbor down the street, never make it to a national level. A culture of religious freedom is vital for individuals to be able to live according to their deeply held convictions.

Cherie Harder: And how does one develop a culture of religious freedom? What constitutes that culture?

Christina Arriaga: Exactly like this. I mean, it’s like the culture of freedom of expression. We are facing in the United States and all over the world a very big problem with cancel culture. We just saw what happened to Salman Rushdie, whose only crime was to say something that the Ayatollah Khomeini did not like. We heard about his publishers in different languages being murdered over the publication of this book. The solution to hate speech, the solution to offensive speech, is not censoring people. It’s not silencing people. It’s to have more speech, to have more discussions. In the United States—I come from a different culture—we don’t talk about religion and politics at the table. I’d say talk more about religion, talk more about politics. Don’t let anyone silence you and also respect that other people disagree with you and have conversations about it. Most of the most important movements in the United States—the civil rights movement, for instance, the voting rights movement, the suffragette movement—they were all considered offensive at the time and they were not the common norm. When you have religious freedom, the bully in the park doesn’t get to bully the minority kid. On the contrary, we’re able to talk about it. Religious freedom is not a popularity contest and it should not be imbued in culture. So for our listeners: talk more, talk more, have these discussions.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: And can I add just a point about the international and what about international problems? We don’t have them here. How can our government push for religious freedom overseas if we don’t have it here, if we don’t cultivate it, if we don’t make good examples of how to do it. So it’s really essential that we keep it alive here in the United States. Many of the organizations that defend religious freedom, besides the government, overseas are faith-based organizations, some of them domiciled in the United States. How could they even do that unless they had the freedom to be faithful themselves? And the other thing, of course, is a lot of the world is in the United States, and by respecting religious freedom here, we’re actually respecting the religious freedom of many parts of the globe that live here with us.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So, you know, both of you have sort of mentioned limitations to religious freedom. And any freedom is not entirely absolute. I think it’s fair to say that if there were, say, a cult that believed in human sacrifice, that would fall outside religious freedom protections. And so, so much of our cultural and political arguing kind of falls down along the lines of what limitations are correct. And I’d love to hear from both of you—maybe we can start with you, Stanley—about just what guidelines you believe are the right ones to think about in terms of what’s a legitimate limit to the religious freedom and what’s the thinking behind those guidelines.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Yeah, so I think this is complicated, so I’m going to learn a lot from Christina, but I think it’s really important. I think sometimes religious freedom, we maybe unconsciously think about it as “that’s my freedom to kind of live my whole life by my faith and everybody else just ought to respect that.” Well, we’re diverse. We disagree a lot. And so there are just many points in which there are going to be disagreements between me and others. I think one of the wonders, one of the reasons why we can protect religious freedom so well in the United States, is because we have a very strong civil society in which there are organizations of all kinds, all kinds of flavors, that do things like education and health care and taking care of the homeless, even, and, you know, different levels of education. And they can do those in ways that are consistent with their faith in a way that doesn’t harm anybody else. And I think the more we kind of rely on that gift of civil society, the more we can reconcile the differences there are in belief and even, for example, sexual morality, an area of real conflict. So of course, there are places where things have to be the same. They have to be common. The government has to treat everybody identically. We have to be careful not to kind of extend that idea of treating everybody exactly the same so far that there’s no space for people to live uniquely by their faiths.

Cherie Harder: Christina? 

Christina Arriaga: Well, Stanley said it so beautifully. I hate to say anything else, but one way we could look at this is all human rights are interdependent. They don’t live in isolation from each other, just like our organs don’t live in isolation from each other. We have to—in order to have a healthy society—you have to have a respect for all human rights. But when two human rights clashes, in the United States, we have a system—we call it a balancing—where we’re looking at both sides of the equation, where we’re looking at identity issues, where we’re looking at harms. Of course, we all know that it’s not in the state’s interest to have polygamy. We all know it’s not in the state’s interest to have human sacrifice. Although having had three teenagers, I could see how that could be a temptation for some people to advocate for. But in truth, we know what harm looks like, and we can never justify a harmful practice by evoking religious freedom. Regrettably, that has happened in the United States. For instance, in the state of Michigan, we had a court case on female genital mutilation cutting, where a distinguished Harvard scholar, Alan Dershowitz, argued that it was a benign, protected religious practice. And it’s none of those things. So on one hand, we cannot justify everything in the name of religious freedom, and it is not an absolute right. On the other, to weaponize religious freedom and to justify it in terms of harmful practice weakens both religious freedom and the rights of those individuals, in this case, women that are being argued before the court.

Cherie Harder: You know, one reason why I have been so excited to talk with you both is just the shedding of light on such a heated subject. And so I’d love to hear from both of you on what you believe just the state of religious freedom is, both in the US but also globally. Where are the big challenges and how are we doing? And, Stanley, maybe we can start with you.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Yeah, just a little bit and I’ll focus on the domestic. I think we have this like a paradox in a way. We have very strong religious freedom protections in the law and in principle, in our heritage and the Constitution. Supreme Court is standing up very strongly for religious freedom. But at the same time, our society is becoming so diverse that kind of a bit of a consensus we had—in some ways strong, although not very deep, I think—about Judeo-Christian values, that’s really evaporating. And there are a lot of competing moral systems and so on. So, it’s kind of like these two levels. One’s a lot of protection for religion, religious freedom, religious exercise, to be different as your God asks you to. And on the other side, kind of a vanishing of a consensus. And I think what that means is that we have to figure out ways, when there isn’t that consensus, how to protect everybody. And that I think, to my mind, it means religious freedom advocates need to actively think about how do we protect other people and not just yourself. And so that’s people of other faiths, but also people with other values, LGBT persons, for example. And we ought to say, “this is how we think we can live together in one society” and not just say, “let me protect my religious freedom, you protect yours.” And then I think that just ends up in being clashes. Instead, we ought to see how do we come together to live together in a way that’s maximally good for everybody.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Christina? 

Christina Arriaga: Yeah, Stanley has written beautifully about this and has written about the complexities of respecting each other, even when we think that the other person might be mightily wrong. But I think one of the biggest threats to religious freedom in the United States and abroad is this newly formed concept of “words are violence” and anything that we say that might be offensive, we need to censor. And those are two extremely dangerous ideas. This is what led, again, to the attack of Salman Rushdie. This is what has led for, all of a sudden, someone who says something that is against a prevalent religion to be defamatory. And in many countries that means that there might be a prison or even a death sentence. So we need to go back to the original meaning of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is we have the right and almost the responsibility to say things that may be offensive to other people. We cannot—we were meant to challenge each other. And again, some of the most pronounced developments in the world having to do with human rights, having to do with respecting other people, were born out of ideas that were considered iconoclastic and were born out of ideas of people that were targeted as troublemakers in society. We need to be able to preserve that, again, right to be wrong.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Stanley, I want to follow up on something you said, which is the need to kind of build a culture that protects religious freedom, in terms of civil society. You’re talking to an audience who’s probably very interested in how we can do that. What guidance would you give towards that end?

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, to have civil society be there as a way people can live out their lives, different employment environments, different kinds of services, different ways of teaching and so on, I think for one thing is the government just has to kind of back off and say, “We don’t have to do everything, we don’t have to tell everybody how to do everything. But we can play a role in supporting people exercising their responsibilities with each other, not just individually, but in organizations.” And I think that’s really important.

And I think we ourselves have to, just like Christina is saying, we have to accept other people’s saying things that offend us, you know, that’s just life. People say things that offend us. We have to accept that there are going to be organizations that do things or do things in ways that don’t make us very happy. But instead of saying, “let’s shut it down,” I think we ought to think about is there a better way of doing that and how do we join with others to make that happen? And when we do these things, exercise our responsibilities individually and with others, and tell the government to back off, I think then we create an environment in which there can be responsibility, organizational responsibility. There can be religious freedom that actually flourishes in practice and not just words on paper.

Cherie Harder: You know, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a second, but before we do, I’d love to hear from both of you, given the various challenges that you both have talked about to religious freedom, both home and abroad—secularization, integralism, cancel culture and the like—what’s your sense of the future of religious freedom here in the US and what gives you hope? And, Christina, maybe we can start with you.

Christina Arriaga: Oh, I’m extremely hopeful. I think we’re heading into a seismic shift when it comes to relating to each other. Some of us are old enough to remember when the Internet was created. We’re heading into the metaverse. We’re heading into a place where geographical boundaries are going to cease to exist. And with virtual reality and augmented reality, we’re going to be able to gather and even worship together with the protection of the global system that will be the metaverse. So many of us had relatives that died during the pandemic without the comfort of a religious figure. Now, we will have that ability. Many of us live apart from each other. We’re a generation where parents and siblings live further apart, and we will be able to come together in these virtual spaces. And for the persecuted community in so many countries, they’re going to have the ability to seek out other believers in their group and be able to get together with them. So I think that technology is going to bring us a lot of advancements in terms of freedom as long as we’re able to, again, like Stanley has said, make sure that our civil society supports a culture of freedom that allows us to live in these virtual spaces together.

Cherie Harder: Stanley? 

Stanley Carlson-Theis: I’d just like to add a word. I used to joke with my younger colleagues that I’m a millennial too. I was born in the last millennium, so I’m maybe more skeptical about the metaverse, but I’m not skeptical about religious freedom. I think there’s always the opportunity for people of faith to follow their faith. I mean, it doesn’t mean everybody’s going to make it easy for you, but it’s possible. And I’ve always been struck by the commandment in 1 Timothy 2. This is written during the time of Emperor Nero, who is not a big fan of Christians. And in that passage Apostle Paul says, “I urge that we get petitions and prayers and thanksgiving for all people,” he says, “for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” He didn’t say, “Let’s pray that the emperor be killed or that everything become Christian and facilitate,” but just that we have the opportunity to live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness. And sure enough, over the centuries, through many different kinds of persecutions and changes in society, the metaverse, there has been space for Christians, for other believers to live faithfully. And to me that gives hope that through all these changes there has been that space, and it’s a fundamental human desire to live in integrity. And I think that’s going to continue. That gives me hope.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers now. And for those of you who are joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a better sense of what some of the most popular questions are or topics of greatest interest. And we’ve been talking about technology, and so our first question kind of centers on that. It comes from Katrina Palmer Mosley, who asked, “How can we protect religious freedom in the face of big tech censorship?” Christina, do you want to take a first crack at that one?

Christina Arriaga: Yeah. Thank you. For those of you who have been following big tech censorship, there has been a movement both in the United States and in Europe through something called the Digital Services Act, to make social media platforms more responsive to user complaints. I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. I mean, the social media platforms have allowed dissidents to speak to authority. The power and authority are no longer equivalent to each other because of social media platforms. So I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to regulate, but I think it’s important to make sure that we are pushing so that the popular religion or the popular thought doesn’t prevail. In other words, that religious freedom doesn’t become a popularity contest, and that all of our views, whether they’re popular or unpopular in society, are able to be preserved in social media platforms.

I’m a trustee—as Cherie mentioned—on the Oversight Board, which is a precedent-setting, independent organization funded from Meta with $130 million trust that exists solely to push social media platforms to make better decisions. Spotify is creating one. TikTok is creating one. Participate in the process of filing user appeals, of pushing social media platforms. They do want to hear you because it’s their advertising revenue that’s making the money in order to sustain them, and particularly in this country where large amounts of advertising comes from social media platforms. So make sure that you have a presence in all of these processes and you push social media platforms, all of them, to do what’s right.

Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Kamish Sankaran and, Kamish, apologies if I’ve mangled your name. And he asked, “What are some helpful guidelines to distinguish between religious freedom versus exceptionalism? In other words, distinguish between protection and a privileged position?” Stanley, I’ll toss that one to you first.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, you know, religious freedom actually conflicts with exceptionalism. You know, religious freedom is not a principle unless it’s something that everybody enjoys. So it can’t just be religious freedom for me. That’s just kind of privilege. But if it is religious freedom, it’s protecting other people at the same time. And so that’s what we have to ask for. I think we should just be alert to the fact that who is going to need religious freedom protections? Like a court case—when is something going to come up in a court case? Somebody is going to say that law needs to make space for me. I think those kinds of questions change over time as society changes, as the laws change. And so we shouldn’t, I don’t think, look out and say, well, just because X and Y or that faith is in court a lot or winning a lot of victories, that means they’re getting special privilege. It could be that they’ve been especially harmed by the kind of universal law, and that’s why they have to go to court and get their rights vindicated. So I think we should be really careful to not think that court victories or what’s in legislation is actually privileging somebody. But we should ask, is everybody free to live by their faith? That’s the kind of question we need to be looking [at].

Cherie Harder: You know, next, we have a real softball from Greg Christian who asks, “Should a public servant have the right to unlimited religious freedom? For example, if the law says that a gay couple is entitled to get married, but a justice of the peace feels that performing their marriage violates his or her religious freedom, should the justice of the peace’s position hold sway? If not, what principles should govern drawing the line limiting religious freedom? And perhaps more generally, how do we ensure that one person’s religious freedom doesn’t encroach on another’s?” So that’s a big one. Maybe we can have you both comment on that one. Christina, why don’t you start?

Christina Arriaga: Great question. And that is the type of question that comes up during Thanksgiving dinner that you want to make sure you get right. There’s a terrific book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree About Religion and Politics that I would strongly recommend that people who are considering these difficult questions take a look at. What Jonathan Haidt—Jonathan Haidt is a bestselling New York Times sociologist who talks about moral foundation theory. And he says that we were born with really strong tendencies towards fairness, but also towards conformity, and that whenever anything strikes us as being unfair, we have a negative reaction to it. And again, I’m paraphrasing the whole book in a couple of sentences. All this to say, that when a situation like that happens, our gut instinct is to immediately side with the justice of the peace or the person coming in and immediately get angry. But if you take three steps back, in a country like ours where we have diversity, we also have ways to accommodate people from both sides.

The LGBTQI couple has a strong identity claim. Well, so does the justice of the peace, who feels that maybe this is complicit in participating in something that he or she does not believe in. So how we balance that is the great question that we need to ask. Could the justice of the peace be assigned Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then could the LGBTQI couple come in on a Tuesday or a Thursday? There’s plenty of room for us to live, even when we’re looking at public accommodation. Think about what we lose when we side with one side or the other immediately. What we lose is the ability, for instance, of a gay couple to be forced to—that have a printer—to be forced to print brochures and pamphlets on the sanctity of marriage only between a man and a woman. Think about what we lose in terms of artistic expression as well. Should an artist be forced to do something that is against them? We have a couple of centuries of laws precisely preventing that from happening. When we let our emotions intervene in what is a difficult issue, when we don’t step back and take a look at the whole picture, both sides lose.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: I’d just add to that, if the government says they are going to do something, somebody has a right—a gay couple has a right to be married—then somebody should not be allowed to step in and block that. But often it’s the case that there are multiple ways to fulfill the thing that needs to happen. In the case of the marriage clerk, there are actually states, Utah’s one, that just worked out a system in which if somebody says “this really burdens my conscience, can somebody else do it?” then somebody else steps in. And nobody up the other end even knows what’s gone on. It’s just a way of accommodating all the different interests here. I think we need to be looking for those, let’s call it, both-and solutions. And rather than just saying, “Here are two abstract rights, they sure conflict. Who’s going to win?” we should think instead, “How do we find ways to live together when it’s complicated like that?”

Cherie Harder: It’s a great point. So a question comes from an anonymous viewer who asks, “One often hears claims that a church’s nonprofit status should be revoked for one reason or another. Is there a clear line that, if crossed, jeopardizes a religious organization’s nonprofit status?” Stanley, why don’t you take a first crack at that?

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, we do have a number of clear lines, actually. So fraud would create problems, if a church engages in a lot of electioneering during campaigns—that’s different than making a moral argument, but turning themselves into an election machine for one candidate or the other—they lose their nonprofit status by the law. If a church/religious entity does something—nonprofit-is overtly racist, we have a national policy that says no, thanks to our long history and the Civil War and the way we had to deal with that.

So there are, yes, there are limits to that, but I think the limit is not “they’re doing something that I just don’t like; I don’t want it to be that way.” That’s not a good reason. And I think the nonprofit status is actually there for a couple of reasons, for churches and other charities as well. One of them is it’s kind of a way to facilitate the good they do. And I think the other way is to keep the government from regulating something it shouldn’t regulate. You know, the power to tax is a power to destroy something. And so to just kind of make the government back off, except in these very limited circumstances, is a way of protecting the freedom of these organizations to help people carry out their religious freedom.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we’re getting quite a few questions asking about different scenarios and how they should play out. I want to combine two of them and, Christina, maybe you can answer first. So one person asked, “Many Christians used a ‘religious exemption’ to avoid their employer’s vaccine mandate. Was that a proper appeal to religious freedom?” And then somewhat relatedly, another person asks, “Can private employers begin meetings with prayer? Is that allowed?” Christina?

Christina Arriaga: Wow, this jumped right into the thick of it. There were certain segments in the Roman Catholic Church that felt that if some of the vaccines were derived from aborted fetuses, that they would be complicit in what the Catholic Church considers to be a very serious sin. However, the Catholic Church leadership came forward and said, “Look, if you can get these vaccines instead of that one, that would be better. But you’re not complicit in participating in any of these issues if you go ahead and get vaccinated.” Throughout history, there have been a series of anti-vaccine movements. We have to be respectful of their arguments. I personally believe that there is no religious freedom justification for not getting vaccinated. It is a complex issue that was regrettably politicized and science was removed from a lot of the equations. But I haven’t seen any excuse that seems valid to me.

On the second part of the question, which I already forgot.

Cherie Harder: Whether private employers can start meetings with prayer.

Christina Arriaga: Look, can private companies, can stores, say “no shirts, no shoes, no service”? Yes. And it’s up to [the] private company. Private companies have First Amendment rights and we forget that. Right? Social media platforms, Facebook, you can go and stand in a corner and say something entirely racist and offensive. That doesn’t give you the right to demand that a social media platform and private enterprise broadcast those sentiments. They have the ability to have rules and regulations by which they operate. The famous case of Hobby Lobby in 2014 before the Supreme Court, this was a chain of retail stores that dealt with arts and crafts, but they founded the store according to their deeply held religious views. Churches are corporations. People forget that churches are nonprofit corporations, but they’re corporations. So does a boss, can a boss go ahead and pray in a private? Yes, this person has the right to do so. I would counsel the person to be sensitive to the other individuals, but it is not an illegal practice.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: I’d just add to that, I would ask that boss as well to kind of ask some questions about why are you doing this? And if others kind of feel compelled to participate in a prayer just because they’re employees, is that really what you have in mind with this prayer event? So that’s worth thinking about. And I do like the idea, I think it’s really important, for companies to say—if they’re not actually a religious company, there are some of those just like there are religious nonprofits—[but if] it’s kind of a general purpose company, to be accommodating of the religion of its employees as well. They’re required to by law, but I think to actually step forward, as some big companies have been doing, thanks to the work of Brian Grimm and Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, to just say, “Hey, you don’t have to leave yourself behind when you come to work, we’ll kind of accommodate you.” I think that’s really important. So I’d say to the boss, be a little careful of what you’re doing. This isn’t the church. This is a business. Not everybody necessarily agrees and can participate from the heart, and is that what you want to do? 

On the vaccine question, I think it’s really hard. You know, what’s important is not do I think there’s a religious argument or not, it’s whether that person does. And so that has to be weighed by the courts. I do think there is, seemed to me, that there was kind of this sense of “I don’t think vaccinations are a good idea because the government, I can’t trust them,” whatever. And what’s the reason? What kind of argument can I use to get out of it? “Well, there’s religious freedom argument.” And I don’t think that’s really appropriate. You just have to ask yourself, do you actually have a sincere religious belief and how does that relate to the vaccination and the way it’s prepared, why you’re asked to do it or whatever? And then it’s going to have to be tested, your sincerity. But religious freedom shouldn’t be something you pull out of your back pocket to justify something. You actually have other reasons why you don’t want to do it.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. As you might expect, there’s lots of questions having to do with where the rubber meets the road. Joyce Campbell asked, “How would you analyze the current conflict over books and curriculum in public schools in terms of religious freedom? Is it possible to have religious freedom in public schools?” Stanley, I’ll throw that to you first.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, yeah, there’s certainly a lot of religious freedom that has to be in public schools. And, you know, back in the Bill Clinton administration, actually, the Department of Education sent out guidance to all the public school principals that said you can’t just unilaterally and one-sidedly suppress religious speech. You can’t let teachers talk about other kinds of values and not talk about… And so on. But of course, there are power questions and what you can do as [an] official representative in all of that. But there is a lot of space to teach about religion, to have conversations. The Equal Access Act, going back to the eighties, says that if a school allows one kind of club, it has to allow religious clubs and so on. So there is a lot of space there, but public schools are government institutions. I think sometimes people forget that. And as government institutions they can’t establish religion. So there are boundaries. I myself think that because we’re a very diverse society, because education is more than just arithmetic and spelling, but it’s also about value formation and character formation, it would be good for us to move more in a kind of pluralist direction of saying, “We get it. There are a lot of different values out there that parents want to have their children raised in, and so let’s give more space to have alternative kinds of schools.” I think that’s really what we need to do here.

Cherie Harder: An interesting question from Ike Lassetter, which I want to toss to you, Christina. Ike asked, “Is it possible for social media platforms to censor disinformation while allowing dissimilar doctrinal systems?”

Christina Arriaga: Is it possible? Yes, it is. And again, the question is up to us. Social media platforms have algorithms. There are, I believe, 2.9 billion users of Facebook. The scale of the issue is extremely difficult to resolve, and the answer lies in a free market, frankly. Are we going to make sure that social media platforms understand that we would like this or that information to be allowed? It’s extremely controversial. But I have seen a great advancement in artificial intelligence and algorithms looking at this. And I also tell our listeners, a lot of us in the human rights movement don’t know much about technology. We need believers. We need people who understand human flourishing from a religious perspective to also go out and get those technical degrees and specialize in algorithms that will be able to continue promoting our worldview in social media platforms.

Stanley Carlson-Theis: And can I just add something that actually Christina said earlier? I think it’s really important for all of us to get off our kind of “cancel something I don’t like” kick because that’s what the platforms are kind of responding to. Three people complained and then we’ve got to shut off the information to everybody else in the views. I think that’s just not right. We ought to just say, “We get it. People have very different views. I need to listen to them. I may learn something. It gives me a chance to give my point of view.” And I think if we all as customers back off a little bit from this, that would help the companies have a little bit more room to be marketplaces of ideas.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. So I’ll combine two somewhat related questions and would love to hear from both of you on this. We can start with Stanley. Doug Wicker asked, “How do you properly defend religious freedom and balance the protection of religious abuses, as you both discussed, without an understanding of objective truth?” And a somewhat related question from an anonymous viewer who asked, “How do you distinguish between supporting religious freedom on one hand versus acknowledging many gods?”

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Well, I think the latter one’s easier. So religious freedom is actually just kind of respecting the other person and their pursuit of God, and, you know, what I see in the Bible itself, which I think tells us about the one and only true God, gives space for people to make errors and to search. And then I say, religious freedom is not saying that you think every god is true. Rather, it’s actually protecting the pursuit of what’s true. We could instead just say, “The government is going to tell all of us we have to all agree that everything is, doesn’t matter.” No, instead, religious freedom protects people who say, “No, this really matters, but we just disagree on it.” That’s why we have to protect it.

I think, yeah, how does objective truth fit in with these questions? You know, if there wasn’t objective truth, I guess we wouldn’t even have to argue about these things. We could just kind of say “whatever you believe,” and it doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter what the consequences are if you follow this thing or teach people that. I think it’s exactly because there are consequences for what people do, what they want to say, I think these consequences come because the world exists outside of ourselves. It’s not just a creation of my mind, and I think God created it in a certain way that has ways that work and don’t work, but we don’t perceive that very clearly. So we have to give people some space. But there is objective truth. I don’t think that at all goes against having free speech and religious freedom.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Christina?

Christina Arriaga: Yeah. Very quickly, religious freedom, real religious freedom, is about authenticity, not relativism. What that means is that I can have my deeply held convictions, but also respect that the other person may have their deeply held convictions. That doesn’t compromise my own authentic religious belief. Again, as I said earlier, religious freedom doesn’t protect religion. It protects an individual’s right to have sincerely held religious beliefs.

Cherie Harder: Stanley, Christina, thank you. This has been a really fascinating discussion. And in just a moment, I want to ask both of you to close us out with a last word. But before that, a few things just to share with each of you watching. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending you a feedback form. We’d love for you to fill this out. I say this every time, but it’s true every time. We read every one. We try to take your input and comments to heart in trying to make these programs ever more valuable and relevant to you. And as a small incentive and show of appreciation for taking the time to do that, we will send you a code for the free download of the Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There are several that we would recommend that go more deeply into some of the topics that we’ve discussed, including “To Bigotry No Sanction” by George Washington, “City of God” by Augustine, “Children of Light and Children of Darkness” by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Democracy in America,” of course, by Tocqueville, and “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt.

In addition, tomorrow, for everybody who registered, we’ll be sending around an email with a link to the video, along with a whole list of additional readings, resources, curated recommendations for those of you who want to do a deeper dive into this topic. So I wanted you to be aware and alert that that will be coming soon. As a particular recommendation that we’re going to include, the Trinity Forum does have a curriculum on religious freedom, which we are calling the Great Experiment, which will be included as well.

In addition, we’d like to invite each of you watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help further the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership and provide spaces like this to wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith. In addition to being part of that community, there are a number of benefits associated with being a Trinity Forum Society member, including a subscription to our quarterly readings and our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations. And as a special incentive for those of you who are joining today or with your contribution of $100 or more, we will send you a specially curated bundle of Readings and resources on this topic, including George Washington’s “To Bigotry No Sanction,” the Great Experiment curriculum, and “Democracy in America.”

We will have a bunch of announcements coming soon about new Online Conversations, but do hope that you will join us on September 23rd for a conversation with James K.A. Smith on “How to Inhabit Time” and more Online Conversations coming shortly.

It’s been great to see you all. But as promised, I want to give the last word to Stanley and Christina. Stanley?

Stanley Carlson-Theis: Yeah. I was thinking about some really important words from Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, who’s written really insightfully about the struggle of African Americans to have religious freedom in a country where they came out of slavery. She talks about religious freedom as a legal protection, but also she said it is fundamentally a matter of living according to your faith. So you can have words on paper. But if we’re too cowardly to actually live out our faith, then we don’t have religious freedom. So religious freedom has to be enacted. You have to say, “This is important to me. I’m going to find a way to do it.”

Cherie Harder: That’s great. Christina.

Christina Arriaga: Be a troublemaker. I know trouble-making gets a bad rap in some places, but be a good troublemaker. Great things never come out of a comfort zone. And the only way to preserve religious freedom is not through laws, is not through the UN, it’s not through government, it’s through you and you establishing a culture of religious freedom.

Cherie Harder: Great. Christina, Stanley, thank you so much for your insights today. Thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.