At a conference in Utah, rivals in the culture war call a truce and find common ground.
In late June, as the United States descended into a high-combustion immigration debate marked by a degree of rancor extraordinary even for an era characterized by discord, an alternate universe quietly unfolded in which cultural-political rivals of goodwill came together to discuss an equally contentious issue: the tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights. Resuscitating such old-school notions as common ground and fairness for all, the fifth Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah, gathered legal scholars, LGBT advocates, journalists, and concerned Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to grapple over court cases, questions about higher education and journalistic fairness, and — surprise! — common feelings of vulnerability.
“This is not a kumbaya attempt to paper over differences, but an effort to understand what’s at stake if we give up on the messy work of pluralism,” said William Pierce, a First Amendment advocate and senior director of APCO Worldwide, a public-affairs and communications-strategy consultancy. While the mostly professional and scholarly attendees gave the event the the look of a legal convention, a few clerical collars, kippahs, rainbow stickers, and headscarves attested to the viewpoint diversity that was most evident in panels and breakout sessions. Participants offered an unusual witness both that strongly held convictions — religious, cultural, political — are not going to disappear anytime soon and that they can be reasonably debated in measured arguments free of name-calling, shout-downs, and unfriending.
Clarion Call for Religious Identity
Diving into the pluralistic space in which deep differences on questions of identity, belief, and sexuality are disagreed on agreeably, Whitney Clayton, a high-ranking official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, managed in his keynote address to wow participants across the ideological spectrum. In a subsequent panel, Yale law professor and LGBT-rights advocate William Eskridge called the speech the “brilliant and central point” of the conference. Along with race and gender, Clayton said, “faith and religious conviction are the most powerful and defining sources of personal and family identity” for tens of millions of Americans.
“One cannot check religious identity at the church or synagogue exit or the door of one’s home any more than one can check their race or ethnicity,” Whitney argued, describing religion as much more than “something to grow out of, like a childhood belief in Santa Claus.” To those who believe that certain favored classes deserve special legal protections that do not extend to religious adherents, he said, “I would ask you to reconsider.” For many Americans, their religious identity “is vastly more important and profound than race, color, ethnic origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, profession, or wealth.”
Messy Haggling and Common Ground
How those identities and core beliefs play out in the public square was the subject of panels on common ground. Most participants agreed that religious-freedom and LGBT advocates need not endorse each others’ beliefs but that the core rights of both deserve protection in a free society. LGBT activists see their employment, housing, and other rights as tenuous in most states and worry about teen-suicide rates. Religious-freedom advocates resent having their deeply held beliefs dismissed as bigotry and are concerned about their own employment vulnerabilities, which range from being fired because of a religious affiliation to being discriminated against for attending a religious educational institution (or, as in the recent Canadian case of the law school at Trinity Western University, having their accreditation denied for a Christian honor code).
Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas is a legal scholar who advocates for both sides. He spoke on a panel titled “Finding Common Ground and the Common Good on Religious Liberty and LGBTQ Rights” and made a strong case for doing just that in good-faith negotiations. For LGBT activists, protecting their rights is an existential issue, and religious observers face a demographic threat to their religious freedom: Younger voters are increasingly dedicated to a vision in which the concepts of equality and justice do not encompass one’s ability to live by traditional religious teachings and standards. All of us want to live out our identities in the public square, says Berg, and religious and LGBT communities have some parallel concerns.
The Utah Compromise offers core protections to religious and LGBT communities alike — a remarkable give-and-take that has not been repeated on either the local or the national level since its successful implementation three years ago.
Many speakers and panelists despaired over the impoverishment of our society’s deeply polarized discourse. “Finding common ground is where the rubber meets the road in pluralism,” insisted Boston College theology professor Erik Owens, and being unable to disagree constructively bodes ill for the already ill body politic. Emma Green of The Atlantic looks to religious organizations themselves for examples of religious communities “used to working out hard things among themselves.” As people with Bible-based values feel more and more on the defensive, “how far will it go?” she wondered. “Will we even be able to talk to each other?” She, along with others, blamed the self-segregating silos of social media for some of the problem. “Twitter is a nasty place, and I would suggest you never go there,” she quipped.
On a more hopeful note for common-ground initiatives, LGBT-rights advocates and religious-freedom advocates offered heartfelt praise for the Utah Compromise of 2015, bipartisan legislation hammered out by religious and state leaders alongside Equality Utah, an LGBT-rights advocacy group. The Utah Compromise offers core protections to religious and LGBT communities alike — a remarkable give-and-take that has not been repeated on either the local or the national level since its successful implementation three years ago. “It’s not happening in other states even though the LGBT side would be wise to get help with employment and housing discrimination,” said Tyler Deaton, a conservative gay-rights advocate who described meeting his husband on a Wheaton College Republican get-out-the-vote tour. Eskridge, the gay-rights advocate from Yale Law School, explained that national LGBT-rights groups don’t seem interested in building on what he regards as Utah’s “deeply principled statute.” However, Pierce, who specializes in finding-areas-of-agreement consulting, sees healthy conversations finally taking place in several states and thinks that they could lead to dialogue at the national level.
Getting the Religious Story Right in the Media
In workshops and in the second keynote address, by The Atlantic’s Green, the conference emphasized the importance of educating journalists about legal issues and the complexities and nuances involved in covering religion. But aside from NR, in this piece you’re reading now, the only outlets covering the conference were religious wire services and a local papernoted for excellence in religious-news analysis. Green and fellow journalists blamed the demise of religious-news coverage partly on falling ad revenues and editorial tendencies to prioritize sports and other departments over religion, despite religion’s being central to many news stories and crucial in many people’s lives. As pointed out by Bobby Ross Jr., chief correspondent of the Christian Chronicle, “the Dallas Morning News has multiple sports reporters and shallow religion coverage in an area where religion is tremendously important.”
Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist and senior fellow in media and religion at King’s College in New York, is “the godfather of all religion reporting and religion news,” as Green described him at one point. In a brilliant workshop titled “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Religion Beat,” Mattingly enumerated them:
- Use simplistic labels as often as possible (especially “fundamentalist,” as a soft putdown).
- Assume that religion is always about politics (instead of about bakers’ and florists’ inner convictions).
- Treat religious doctrine and tradition as mere opinions (that can be easily discarded).
- Be lazy (and settle for quotes from the same activist over and over).
- Focus on the most lurid examples of religious communities (as if they were exotic tribes).
- Always report on big national issues (while ignoring overlooked and local trends that drive them).
- Ignore the role that religion plays in hot topics (e.g., Kevin Durant’s being won over not by expensive gifts proffered by multiple NBA teams but by a visit from four Golden State Warrior players who hold Bible study together).
Mattingly’s first point, about editorial tendencies to use simplistic labels in referring to religious communities, found traction in multiple sessions, including “Religious Freedom Issues Facing American Muslims,” which featured panelists including multigenerational Arab Americans and others with connections to Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Asia. “Just try putting together an Arab Student Association as I did and you’ll see we’re not a homogeneous group!” joked Sahar Aziz, a Rutgers law professor. Aziz, Haroon Azar of UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, and Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center of Nashville all voiced concern over a range of religious-freedom issues: headscarf bans, zoning laws affecting construction of mosques, and some of the harsher rhetoric surrounding the travel ban. Muslim loyalties and affiliation remain multi-dimensional. Progressives often advocate for Muslims, recently voicing religious-freedom concerns over the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the travel ban, but Bahloul spoke for many of his co-religionists when he remarked, “I’m socially conservative. We contribute to morality and religious liberty, and our young people, raised in America, without accents, should not receive questions like ‘Do you have a bomb under your scarf?’”
Terry Mattingly considers the ‘But they hate us’ response from religious communities to be immensely unhelpful. ‘Conservatives pay a price for hating the press,’ he said. ‘So get a church media committee together with an articulate spokesman, and don’t be afraid to record an interview.’
Mattingly and Green pointed out the complexities of most faith communities, which media often label right or left. That “is not a helpful door to walk through,” Green observed. “Churches are much more complex, and holding these frames too tightly can trip us up.” For example, “the 80 percent Evangelical Trump vote is much more nuanced than that,” Mattingly explained. “Doctrinal and historical motivations are ignored, and also the reality that the current political system doesn’t give people a lot of options . . . which is why I voted for neither presidential candidate” in 2016. At a workshop on religious freedom and higher education, Beck A. Taylor, the president of Whitworth University, explained that “as a religious institution, we appreciate some things the current administration is doing and are worried about others. We are pro-life but stand with our DACA students.” Aziz insisted that “it’s especially important to avoid huge generalizations about very diverse Muslim communities. People coming from Christian communities understand there’s always bad apples in any group, but they don’t apply [that understanding] to the less familiar Muslim community.”
Although faulting newsrooms for assigning inexperienced writers to cover complex religion stories and in general for failing to take the religion beat seriously enough, panelists praised the media’s coverage of the legal aspects of religion stories. Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that “Masterpiece Cakeshopcoverage in general has been particularly good, capturing both sides of the issue.” Berg led a workshop that began with what he called a “half-hour whistle-stop tour of the story of American religious freedom.” He focused on how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected,” went from enjoying near-universal political and cultural support to losing that consensus in the 21st century.
Panelists pointed out that churches need to do their part in communicating with the media. Mattingly considers the “But they hate us” response from religious communities to be immensely unhelpful. “Conservatives pay a price for hating the press,” he said. “So get a church media committee together with an articulate spokesman, and don’t be afraid to record an interview.” Ross of the Christian Chronicle recalled an incident that threw a 1,500-member black church “with a long history of community service into a scandal over two tweets.” For this and other reasons, Hollman urged, “it’s important for reporters to talk to church people, and religious leaders must be willing to get out there and tell their stories.”
Journalists who cover higher education expressed their willingness to cover religious issues fairly. On a panel dealing with a range of issues — the rights of religious student groups, concerns over grant funding, concerns that religious schools have over the possibility of losing accreditation — Taylor noted that students at religious institutions can “bring their whole selves into their university experience.” “We don’t always include religious colleges in our stories, so it’s incumbent on us to improve,” Katie Mangan of the Chronicle of Higher Education admitted, adding that she’s “learned a lot the last couple of days and can go into a story with more sensitivity now.” When an attendee during the Q&A described pushback from a large university at which he was trying to organize a religious-freedom conference, Soctt Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed, urged him to “go public.” “Give me a call and I can ask the university for their reasoning behind the decision.”
Pluralism in Practice
Those who worry that the mutual respect in evidence at this conference might require the watering down of core convictions need only have attended the final day’s general session. The Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III and his wife, Jacqueline C. Rivers, were living embodiments of Clayton’s rousing keynote address on religion as a core identity. Rivers’s faith began, he said, when he was a twelve-year-old “surrounded outside by dudes who wanted to kill me.” Hovering inside his home, he listened to a sermon by Billy Graham (“even though he wasn’t exactly my demographic”), accepted Jesus, and went on to major in philosophy of science at Harvard, “to add intellectual depth to my testimony.” After graduation, he and Jacqueline and their infant son moved to the worst section of Boston, where “our high liberal friends didn’t follow us.” Their house was shot at 29 times on their first night. “But my well-educated wife’s religious convictions compelled her to stay,” explained Rivers. “She told the police, ‘How can we leave when others can’t?’”
From there, the Riverses began transforming their community through the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which emphasizes partnership between faith communities and law enforcement. It is a model for anti-violence programs being implemented in several U.S. cities. Black churches “are usually the smallest and neediest and serve the poorest and least educated, “Jacqueline Rivers said. “Faith-based organizations have also come together to turn around enormous crime waves.” The aim is to share food and other resources, she explained, but also “the most precious thing we have: our faith.”
Reverend Rivers addressed the question of what religious freedom means for black Americans in light of the history of slavery. Deliverance from slavery gives religious African Americans “the basis of our identity — our faith, and knowledge that God delivered us like the Israelites. White people can compartmentalize the religion alongside their money and resources, but God is the center of our lives, and Pew surveys back this up.” He went on to quote Genesis 1:27 on the nature of male–female complementarity, noting that “we don’t need fluidity and confusion among the poor.” He asked the audience for their prayers for his and his wife’s work in some of the most violent neighborhoods in our country’s cities.
Elizabeth Clark, the conference organizer and the associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU Law School, related that a speaker told her after the forum had ended, “This is so valuable — no one else is in this space. They should be.” For Clark, the conference represents more than religious-freedom issues. “These discussions illustrate what pluralism looks like in practice,” she says. “It’s hard and messy, and no one may end up perfectly satisfied, but it’s a crucial part of the American project.”