Why Christians need to ‘let go of winning’

Little Sisters of the Poor outside the US Supreme Court (Getty)

Free to Believe
By Luke Goodrich,
Penguin Random House, 288pp, £19.99/$24

Is religious liberty still a bedrock principle of American freedom? Are people of faith today ready to defend what has been called the nation’s first freedom? In Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, Luke Goodrich has produced a marvellous primer for lawyers and lay men and women who answer unapologetically in the affirmative.

Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is one of the nation’s foremost religious freedom lawyers. Since joining Becket more than a decade ago, he has been part of the legal team that won four landmark religious liberty cases before the US Supreme Court: Little Sisters of the Poor v Burwell, Holt v Hobbs, Burwell v Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC.

With the perspective of a veteran advocate and the faith of a sincere and humble Christian, Goodrich sets forth a theology of religious freedom as revealed in Scripture. He also outlines the unique religious freedom challenges facing the United States, and practical actions that people of goodwill can take amid our society’s cultural-religious conflicts.

Goodrich reminds readers through a look at Genesis and the Gospels that man has a unique capacity to enter into loving relationship with God Himself. It’s a relationship – if it’s authentic – that cannot be subject to coercion.

Goodrich makes only a fleeting reference to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (he’s an Evangelical Christian), but Dignitatis Humanae makes plain that the Catholic understanding of religious freedom is about much more than the freedom to worship. Ordering our “whole lives in accord with the demands of truth”, as the Council Fathers advised us, means that we take our faith beyond the parish parking lot and live our entire lives consistent with our beliefs.

Goodrich’s book then illuminates the distinct legal conflicts that can interfere with the full exercise of a person’s religious freedom in the United States today. He also provides readers with tools to persuade “sceptical neighbours and friends” of why religious freedom should be safeguarded. Religious liberty, says Goodrich, should not mean that “religious people get to do whatever they want, and the government can’t do anything about it”. Properly understood, it simply means that “the government, within reasonable limits, leaves religion alone as much as possible”.

The religious freedom conflicts percolating in America’s courts today are complex, and Catholics and Catholic institutions are by no means immune. Catholic healthcare workers and hospitals have opposed participating in abortions and sex reassignment surgeries. Religious orders and higher education institutions have objected to being forced to offer contraception in their healthcare plans, and Catholic social service agencies working with children and families have refused to endorse same-sex marriage. Rather than find the space to conscientiously object, many of these groups have had to seek protection in court. Sadly, the results have been mixed.

Goodrich holds up what he calls the “abortion scenario” as the best way to resolve these conflicts. Although our legal system recognises a “right to abortion”, it has also historically recognised that many people believe abortion is wrong and protects their right to behave accordingly. Applying this same reasoning, Goodrich argues that if the law recognises a right to a same-sex marriage, it should also protect the right of religious people and institutions to opt-out of participating in same-sex weddings or endorsing such unions.

The analogy is compelling, and Goodrich’s solution appealing.

If such peaceable solutions cannot be achieved, however, Goodrich maintains the importance of keeping a Christian outlook. He argues that we must “let go of winning”. That is, the primary goal in religious freedom conflicts cannot be to “win”.

Yes, a bit surprising coming from a lawyer but Goodrich is not just any lawyer. You might say that he is God’s lawyer for God’s ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union).

“[W]e’re called not to win,” he writes, “but to be like Jesus.” This means that we must “expect suffering, respond with joy, fear God, strive for peace, keep doing good, love our enemies, and care for one another”. That’s more important than emerging as victors in a culture war.

Living our faith with sincerity and compassion for those around us is – in the end – the best way to give glory to a Saviour who is victorious. Good counsel, legal and otherwise.

Luke Goodrich’s Free to Believe is a refreshing reminder that as we fight for the freedom to believe, we must never abandon the vocation to earnestly live out our faith.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal adviser for The Catholic Association Foundation and co-host of the podcast Conversations with Consequences ouse, 288pp, £19.99/$24