Battle Over Dictionary Moves to Religious Liberty Itself

Define the terms of any debate before it begins, and opponents can then be put at a disadvantage

Image Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s often said that the current culture wars all boil down to a fight over the dictionary. Whoever gets to define (or redefine) certain terms doesn’t just gain a distinct advantage, but virtually assures victory for their side of the argument.

So long as the abortion debate is about “choice,” not “abortion,” pro-life advocates have their work cut out for them to try to convince their neighbors of the sanctity of life and the moral implications of that “choice” called abortion.

Or consider the terminology of “sex” and “gender identity.” Many federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of, among other factors, “sex.” While the meaning of “sex” was straightforward (male and female) when Congress adopted Title IX in 1972, a string of recent court rulings has begun to import “gender identity” into the law’s definition of “sex” — a drastic move that risks the privacy of women and girls in private settings like restrooms and locker rooms.

The next term under threat of revision is religious liberty itself, and that should concern all Americans.

Once the animating dream of those escaping the threat of religious persecution in Europe to establish a land of freedom in the New World, the concept of religious liberty is increasingly dismissed by many who would prioritize the forced celebration of LGBT+ lifestyles over the free exercise of religion the First Amendment guarantees.

As with most battles over the dictionary, the first move toward gutting religious liberty takes place via scare quotes, planting the seed in a reader’s mind that religious liberty is nothing more than pious pretext for more nefarious ends.

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It’s worth noting that, in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this line of reasoning out of bounds for a government agency, with seven justices agreeing that the “government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for [Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack] Phillips’ conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate.”

Related: Sessions Forms Religious Liberty Task Force to Move DOJ

But far more alarming than placing scare quotes around religious liberty was the political Left’s reaction to this week’s announcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that it had formed a Religious Liberty Task Force to ramp up its efforts to head off threats to Americans of all faiths.

While the task force — complemented by a DOJ event that showcased Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs — should come as a welcome addition to every American, regardless of his or her faith, the vitriol from the Left was as palpable as it was immediate.

Amid a flurry of furious responses was an op-ed at NBCNews.com from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, denouncing the task force as “part of a dangerous Christian nationalist campaign of discrimination.”

Wilson-Hartgrove, who is a Baptist minister, begins his piece claiming that the DOJ’s move was the latest in an ongoing push to redefine religious liberty — a phrase he couches in scare quotes — in order “to serve an extreme agenda.”

Related: The Three Most Important First Amendment Cases of 2018

Although Wilson-Hartgrove follows this charge with a call “for people who care about the future of democratic society to reclaim the concept of religious liberty,” it’s glaringly obvious throughout the op-ed that he’s willing to offer neither a definition nor defense of the concept.

Given his introduction, you could forgive the reader for being primed to hear all about what he perceives to be a truer form of religious liberty, along with a brief roadmap on how to get there.

If he’s slow to offer clarity on what religious liberty should mean, Wilson-Hartgrove is quick to point to the need for the separation of church and state, followed by a rather odd assertion that “Outside the extreme right, religious liberty has long been a progressive value,” as if religious liberty applies to one side of a political aisle and not the other. Then comes his closest stab at defining religious liberty.

“So long as an American respects the legal rights of his neighbor,” he writes, “the Constitution promises him the freedom to obey his own conscience when it comes to matters of religious conviction.”

Wilson-Hartgrove’s concept of religious liberty fails to account for the framers’ understanding of God-given natural rights, as opposed to man-made “promises” that come with conditions. The founders were all too aware that governments can, at any time, impose a law (what Wilson-Hartgrove refers to as “legal rights”) that undercuts natural rights.

When a government passes regulations that require Catholic nuns and other faith-based groups to pay for abortifacient birth control in contradiction to their beliefs, it may have created a new “legal right,” but it’s trampled on the natural right of free religious exercise in the process.

Or when a government agency decides to single out Jack Phillips for his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, setting his faith on par with justifications for the Holocaust or slavery, it’s clear that Jack’s natural, God-given right to operate consistent with his beliefs are in serious jeopardy.

That’s the question at the heart of religious liberty: Are my neighbor and I both free to peacefully live out our faith in all aspects of our life, work, and citizenship?

And that’s what’s missing from Wilson-Hartgrove’s accusation toward the end of his piece, where he says his fellow Christians are failing to love their neighbor by advocating for religious liberty.

Love for neighbor demands the protection of that same neighbor’s God-given right to religious liberty as a simple outworking of the Golden Rule, to recognize that freedom is a two-way street.

It’s a good thing for Wilson-Hartgrove that others have gone to bat for him wielding a much more robust understanding of religious liberty. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be free to use his platform in the church to voice disagreement with those in the state.

Jay Hobbs is deputy director of media communications for Alliance Defending Freedom.

The opinions expressed by contributors and/or content partners are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of LifeZette.

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