Pastors shuffled into the Carl Grant Event Center Tuesday, March 8, as they prepared to hear Union President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver and Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission speak on a panel on religious liberty.
The West Tennessee Pastors Conference meets every month at Union to discuss issues related to pastorship and Christianity. Led by Justin Wainscott, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jackson, the organization’s topic for this meeting was religious liberty. The room’s chairs quickly filled up and more had to be brought it.
After taking prayer requests and going over logistics, Wainscott read Psalm 86 for the assembly. He then introduced Oliver and Bethancourt to the pastors, and began asking them questions.
Both Oliver and Bethancourt stressed the idea that fighting for religious liberty must include fighting for religious liberty for all faiths.
“Frankly, I’ve been concerned that all of the talk is about protecting Christians,” Oliver said. “That’s not religious liberty.”
Religious liberty, according to Bethancourt, requires not only practice of worship, but the ability to publically express faith. Therefore, religious liberty includes allowing anyone to worship God in ways that are in the public sphere. Allowing people to privately practice their own religion is good, but is not religious liberty.
“Freedom of worship is a vital aspect, but when it comes to religious liberty, it’s not enough,” Bethancourt said. “We are being doers of the word in the public sphere.”
In light of recent rulings, the political landscape for religious liberty has significantly altered, both panelists agreed. But there are many things that have not changed.
“What hasn’t changed is our mission, God’s word hasn’t changed, and Jesus Christ is still at the right hand of the father,” Oliver said.
The death of Justice Antonin Scalia had a significant impact on the discussion. Both panelists mourned his loss, saying that his absence will likely cause more difficulties in Supreme Court rulings for churches and religious institutions. Nevertheless, Oliver said Union will stick to the principles it always has. He said Union would not condone same-sex relationships, even if the government began to put pressure on the institution to do so.
“We will say no,” he said.
He said it is difficult for institutions to seem compassionate or kind, and the political climate has made strong moral stances on this issue seem unloving at times.
Bethancourt said it has been difficult to demonstrate that asking for religious liberty is not an act of bigotry, especially to members of the LGBT community who have previously faced discrimination from religious communities.
The current election cycle has been threatening to the discussion of religious liberty, Bethancourt said.
“It’s been a very discouraging cycle,” Bethancourt said. “Religious liberty has been a secondary issue. To see that marginalized and put on the back burner is not a good sign.”
He referenced current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims and John Kasich’s comments against bakers who refused to bake cakes for a same-sex wedding as examples of the lack of concern for religious liberty in the current campaigns. Bethancourt did say that the current race has allowed religious liberty advocates to see who is willing to stand for the issue.
“It helps to winnow people,” he said.
Oliver said it is important that institutions be careful to not allow room for equivocation and use few words, to prevent being misunderstood. He also said Christians must apply the Christian sexual ethic completely. He encouraged pastors and leaders of Christian institutions to be just as steadfast on condemning unbiblical heterosexual relationships as they are in homosexual relationships.
“We have to be consistent on the biblical sexual ethic…we don’t pick and choose,” he said.