WASHINGTON (BP) -- "Societies destroy themselves," said Timothy Shah, "when they limit the religious freedom of their citizens."
Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, was one of five participants in a "Faith, Culture & Religious Freedom in 21st Century America" panel discussion Oct. 10 in Washington, D.C. Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Manhattan Declaration were cosponsors.
In addition to Shah, who also is a Georgetown University professor, the panel included ERLC President Russell D. Moore; Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times; Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation; and Kirsten Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast and a former Clinton administration official.
Although the panelists expressed their differences about specific cases and applications, they agreed that robust religious liberty benefits all citizens.
"Persecution and violence is more likely to occur where governments favor one set of views over another," Shah said, referencing the violence against Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt and Syria. Jennifer Marshall noted how religious freedom can help instill a shared understanding on issues such as marriage. "Marriage is not merely a religious or private institution, it's a public institution," she said. "It is in the best interest of all citizens that we have a common understanding of what marriage is."
Douthat, however, warned that religious liberty might not be a sufficient hedge of protection. "Arguments for religious liberty are not going to suffice if views of religious people are considered beyond the pale," said Douthat, referring to the clash between secular and religious views on sexual ethics.
The panel expressed concern about the growing clashes between gay marriage and rights of conscience. Photographers and bakers who have refused to participate in same-sex ceremonies because of their Christian convictions have lost in court or suffered financially, despite their appeals to religious liberty. "I don't want a state powerful enough to tell a person they have to offer their services to someone they choose not to," Moore said. "Shouldn't we have the right to say, 'I can't participate in this action?'"
On the question of marriage, Powers wondered where society should draw the line between individual conscience exemptions and living in a pluralistic society. Moore explained how in his own church he wouldn't discipline a congregant for "signing paperwork in a state where same-sex marriage is legal" but would for publicly advancing gay marriage. Shah questioned whether Christians in America have already lost on the issue of marriage, but Marshall said the case for marriage has not even really begun. "We have only just learned to articulate what had previously been assumed about marriage for millennia," she said.
In addition to issues of marriage, concerns about global persecution also were aired during the discussion. Shah asked what churches are doing about persecution across the world, saying, "We should be outraged." Moore agreed that the concern should be a greater priority for American Christians. "There's something natural about Christians being concerned about the worldwide persecution of all Christians," he said.
More than 200 people attended the discussion at the Miracle Theater, which was also live streamed at erlc.com. Questions from the audience were solicited via Twitter and answered by the panelists in the second half of the two-hour session.
ERLC will be making the entire video available on their website, erlc.com. For more information on religious freedom see http://erlc.com/religious_liberty.
Joe Carter is director of communications for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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