I'd like to tackle some wrong assumptions in the current furor about the Obama administration's attack on religious liberty. The proximate cause of war, of course, is the Obama demand that all institutions, regardless of religious convictions, arrange to provide free contraceptives. I now want to upset both sides by saying that each is overlooking an inconvenient truth.
Inconvenient truth No. 1: The Obama administration, by stipulating that an organization to be defined as a "religious employer" must primarily serve only people of its own faith, is beginning to treat Christians as many Muslim countries treat Christians. Those countries allow Christians to meet for worship in nondescript buildings, but that's it. Christians cannot evangelize. They cannot make disciples. They cannot engage in social services and help others.
Some Christians in Muslim lands have some freedom of worship. They do not have freedom of religion. Muslim restrictions cut against two prime Christian goals: evangelism, and seeking the welfare of the entire city, as Chapter 29 of Jeremiah commands. For example, some Christians I visited in eastern Turkey had grudging permission to meet, as long as they kept a very low profile, with nothing on the exterior of their building indicating a church assembled there.
The Obama regulations, if put into practice, will exclude from the "religious employer" category many Christian social service agencies, hospitals, and schools.
Inconvenient truth No. 2: Some of those "Christian" institutions should be excluded, in theory. They are CINOs, Christian in name only (or Christians in nice outfits). In much of their practice they are government lookalikes. The Obama administration is right to define a religious organization as one working to inculcate its religious values. If a "Christian" organization has Jordan River posters or crosses on the wall but is a gospel-free welfare state adjunct, it should not receive special privileges.
The Obama regulations are wrong in two ways, though. First, if the administration says inculcation is the only task of a religious organization, it ignores Christianity's claim to deal with every square inch of our territory and every moment of our existence. Second, practice is more complicated than theory: It's above any bureaucrat's pay grade to determine which organization is truly religious and which is not.
If both the White House and its critics do some rethinking, they can come to an agreement that protects liberty. At a minimum, we should agree to define a religious organization as one working to inculcate its religious values, but part of that may be helping widows and orphans, ministering to the sick and the imprisoned, and following Christ in other ways as well.
Similarly, it's fine to say that a religious organization should employ in supervisory positions those who share its religious tenets—because how else will the organization teach those values? But a stipulation that a Christian organization has to employ only Christians would stop a group from hiring as a janitor someone from the community perhaps on his way to embracing Christ—or it could push some who need a job to make premature confessions of faith.
What's dead wrong: The Obama demand that religious groups serve primarily those who share its religious tenets. Jesus helped many in need without first demanding a confession of faith. His followers have done the same for two millennia. The Obama administration can end this battle in the culture war by recognizing that Christians are called to minister to non-Christians, and have enriched America in the process.
Government should not get in the way.