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What does ‘free exercise’ of religion really mean?

Demonstrators at the Supreme Court during Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
Demonstrators at the Supreme Court during Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Current events have evangelical Christians and their critics talking past each other. With high-profile legal cases involving traditional evangelical morality (like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop) in the national news, evangelicals are under pressure to defend not only their beliefs, but their actions as well.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Alan Noble observes that disagreements over issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality are increasingly rooted in fundamental differences in perspective about what the free exercise of religion is—or should be—really about. Specifically, how should a person’s “private” religious beliefs play out in the public square?

Ron Clegg, pastor of Parkview Church (PCA) in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, Georgia, observes that people he encounters outside of conservative Christian circles think of religion differently than those inside. “To them, ‘religion’ is what you practice at church,” he says. “It doesn’t integrate with life or business or school. Whereas we evangelicals say that everything is integrated. We can’t and shouldn’t separate our faith from our work or play or interests.”

One reason for this disconnect is that Christians themselves often subconsciously buy into the idea of keeping faith compartmentalized. In Clegg’s view, many Christians live a secular life that is very much distinct from their sacred life, despite what the Bible may say. Being uncomfortable discussing matters of faith with friends or colleagues is one way this manifests itself. To non-evangelicals, this reinforces and perpetuates the notion of a distinction.

For the faithful, this mindset leads to conflict when they feel conscience-bound (as did the owners of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop) to take a public stand. Thus, what they view merely as the free exercise of their religion is interpreted by others as an imposition of a moral standard on those who do not share the same beliefs. With various parties approaching moral and legal conflicts with such differing assumptions, it is hardly surprising that conversations about these issues often result in heated arguments rather than mutual understanding.

Coming soon: addressing the question of whether these conflicts constitute “persecution” of evangelicals.

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