Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Infringement on Religious Freedom: Then and Now

A year ago, my blog posting was about Roger Williams, who arrived in Boston Harbor on Feb. 5, 1631. As you know, Williams became the great champion of religious liberty in the Colonies and influential in freedom of religion eventually being included in the U.S. Constitution.
But 113 years after Williams’s arrival in the “new world,” there still wasn’t religious freedom in the Colonies, at least not in Virginia. On Feb. 4, 1774, 240 years ago today, David Tinsley was arrested and charged with “having assembled and preached to the people at sundry times and places” as a Baptist preacher.
Tinsley ended up serving four and a half months in the Chesterfield County jail. During that time, though, he “preached to the assembled crowds through the grates of the prison” (This Day in Baptist History).
Just last year I learned the particulars about the preachers jailed in the 1770s because they were publicly preaching as Baptists. And I was especially interested in Tinsley, who was one of several so jailed.
My wife, June, was a Tinsley. So we began to do some research and found that David’s grandfather was Thomas S. Tinsley, the first Tinsley to be born in the U.S. (He was born in 1640, two years after his parents had come to Virginia from England.)
And Thomas S. Tinsley is June’s 7th great grandfather, so David was her first cousin, seven times removed.
Not being able to assemble a crowd and preach to them seems, certainly, to be an infringement on religious liberty. Accordingly, some of the most outspoken advocates of guaranteeing religious liberty were Baptists in Virginia, such as John Leland, a Baptist preacher who worked with (or worked on) James Madison in getting the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution.
But now, in 2013-14, there are Baptists claiming that they, and other Christians, are suffering from an infringement of their “freedom of religion.”
Just last week the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) told the U.S. Supreme Court, as part of a friend-of-the-court brief, that the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate (their words) violates a federal law protecting the religious freedom of for-profit corporations and their owners.
Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, in a Jan. 28 podcast said, “Our Baptist forefather John Leland wasn’t content to trust politicians with tyranny over the conscience. We are his sons and daughters, and we will carry the banner of soul freedom to the Supreme Court and beyond.”
What a difference! Leland was struggling for the freedom of Baptists in Virginia to preach without being arrested and jailed. But now Baptists like Moore are struggling for the right of employers not to provide insurance to their employees who might use that insurance in ways that they (the employers) do not approve for religious reasons.
Rather than religious freedom for all, it sounds as if these employers (such as Hobby Lobby’s CEO, who is an evangelical Christian but seems not to be a Baptist) are seeking to have tyranny over the conscience of other people. Since they do not believe in the morning after pill, they do not want to provide insurance that will allow their employees to use such measures, even if they can do so in good conscience.
David Tinsley suffered in jail because of preaching the Gospel openly. Hobby Lobby’s CEO and other conservative Christians are now “suffering” because of being required to provide insurance for their employees.
Somehow the “infringement” of the latter’s religious freedom just doesn’t seem quite as great a problem to me.


  1. These are provocative contrasts between Leland and Moore (and his corporate sponsors, taking a Baptist face?), Leroy. In musing over these things I realized how distasteful it is to me to think of Baptists being co-opted by and unwittingly supporting the corporatization of America. It is difficult to see how to take Moore and Southern Baptists seriously when they have to support the corporations' vital interest in not paying for health care in order to proliferate their opinion about abortions and and contraception. This seems cynical to me. I suspect that in both Leland's case and Moore's (and the SBC's) there are hidden economic benefits motivating their actions. I don't know enough about Leland's to say. In the latter's though, aligning with corporate America is obvious. I have been musing this week on a line from the opening chapter of Max Weber's "The Sociology of Religion:" "Thus, religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic."

    1. Thanks for these very pertinent remarks, Milton.

      When June read my article, she said that probably Hobby Lobby (and other businesses) are against providing health insurance benefits for economic reasons as well as for religious reasons. She is probably right.

      And I have often said, in any controversy there are most likely significant, underlying economic factors.

      Of course, for Virginia Baptists of the 1770s, like June's cousin David Tinsley, the main economic factor was being out of jail and able to preach, and no doubt to work, freely in order to eke out a meager livelihood.

  2. Right on, Leroy, and well stated. The same goes for the comments of MPH, and I appreciate being reminded of the Weber quotation.

  3. As I remember American history, each state was permitted to determine its religion. Hence, many were Episcopal, one was Baptist, one was Catholic, one was Quaker, and a Mormon one was added, etc. The issue these days seems to be more focused on the problem not of freedom, but persecution - many feel persecuted (and probably did back in the day as well). It is also interesting that there is a move to replace "freedom of religion" with "freedom of worship". (A push toward state controlled religion like China?) My guess is that all who consider themselves to be religious will be, and the devout will be vocal, including in the public, political, and work realms - regardless of there brand. Hence we also get very vocal secularists and atheists (anti-religionists), unlike there counterparts in Europe. All look out for their own interests. And the question returns to "What is Baptist", or "What is Christian"?

    I looked up the current stats on the original "Baptist" state - Rhode Island (with my rounding): 55% religious = 45% Catholic, 2% Episcopal, 1 1/2% Baptist, 1% Presbyterian 1% Methodist, 1% Jewish, 0.15% Muslim.

    1. PS - My family came to this country in large part due to religious persecution in Europe. I have never felt threatened in this country by any faith, regardless of other peoples religion. In fact I have felt quite welcome among them in public or their meeting places, whether, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim. And talk of religion has typically been cordial.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard send the following comments:

    "I agree that requiring corporations to provide contraceptive health care coverage hardly constitutes an attack on religious liberty. Commercial corporations (as opposed to religious ones) do not have religious beliefs. (Hobby Lobby, by the way, is a private stock corporation.)

    "There is a simple remedy to this problem. Designate all contraceptive medications and devices as over-the-counter since only prescription medications are covered under most health care plans. I strongly suspect that those on the religious right would not agree to this solution since it would still frustrate their real ambition--control over female sexuality."

  5. And this from Temp Sparkman, another local Thinking Friend:

    "A surpassingly relevant rebuke to the new interpreters of religious freedom, especially in its contrasting of the narrow parameters of the present claims with the great Baptist defense against egregious violations. Thomas Jefferson exchanged affirming correspondence with Baptist associations over this issue."

  6. I just read an article titled "Silence Inc." on Slate that points out that the secular corporate world has gone on total radio silence on this issue. Only two minor groups have filed briefs on the subject, and both opposed Hobby Lobby. It seems there are several reasons, all more or less economic. There is fear that dragging religious controversies into the board room would create chaos in American corporations. It is also feared that a religious race to the bottom could result, with corporations feeling pressured to find religious loopholes to all sorts of laws, even laws that serve valuable purposes for the corporations. But the real biggie was the fear that collapsing the divide between the corporation and its owners could ultimately destroy the principle of limited liability, which is one of the great privileges of corporations in the first place. Wow, all those reasons without even mentioning all the chaos and problems this could cause for the rest of society!

    For those who want to read the Slate article, check here: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/02/hobby_lobby_contraception_mandate_challenge_why_have_corporations_refused.html

  7. Thanks, Craig, for sharing the Slate article; I found it quite interesting.

    Since in "Citizens United" the Court decided that corporations are people (when it comes to political contributions), I have been afraid that they would come to the same conclusion, ruling that corporations are people whose religious freedom should be protected (even if that means denying employees insurance they find objectionable). But maybe not.

  8. Yesterday (2/5) the New York Times editorial board wrote that allowing employers to duck the birth control insurance mandate would violate the establishment clause, which enforces the separation of church and state.

    A valid argument, in my opinion.