Defending the Faith

The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement

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Daniel Bennett
  • Lawrence, KS: 
    University of Kansas Press
    , July
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the fall of 2017 the Supreme Court will hear a case about an evangelical Christian baker who refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding, citing his religious objections to the marriage. He was sued by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for discrimination. This will be a divisive case, pitting the baker’s claims about respect for his religious freedom against the civil rights of his gay and lesbian customers. The baker’s defense is being conducted by attorneys from the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that positions itself as a conservative alternative to the ACLU. Though political scientist Daniel Bennett does not address this particular case in Defending Faith, it is symptomatic of the phenomena he documents, in which the central battlefield of the culture war has moved from politics to the legal system.

Bennett’s book is a study of Christian conservative legal organizations (CCLOs), groups that seek to use the law “as a tool of political engagement” on behalf of the Christian Right and the larger Christian legal community (3). By defending religious liberty in the court system, CCLOs hope to limit the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians and to secure greater prohibitions on abortion. Bennett persuasively observes that the increasing legal activism of CCLOs is driven by the Religious Right’s failure to block same-sex marriage: having lost the battle to ban it, they see religious liberty as a kind of cure-all that might legally shield them from the cultural shifts of the past few decades. While conservative Christian legal activism is an important topic, unfortunately, the exploration of it in this work is uneven.

At only 138 pages of text, including an appendix and several graphs and tables, this is a very short work. Chapter 1 provides an overview each of the ten CCLOs that Bennett studies. These brief summaries would make this the most useful chapter for scholars interested in the organizations involved in debates over religion and law. Chapter 2 examines the issues at the center of CCLOs concerns. Chapters 3 through 6 discuss the CCLOs in relation to a specific legal issue. Chapter 3 considers religious freedom, while chapter 4 focuses on same-sex marriage, and chapter 5 covers abortion debates. Chapter 6 includes what Bennett terms “niche legal issues,” an et cetera category of topics as diverse as the demand that store clerks say “merry Christmas” to calls for the repeal the Johnson Amendment (which prevents tax-exempt organizations like churches from backing political candidates).

Bennett’s hesitation to explore beyond his chosen ten CCLOs presents a problem for his analysis. Perplexingly, he states that the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty does not meet his definition of a CCLO because it is a “single issue group” (it focuses on religious liberty) (19). This is incongruous, as several of the CCLOs included in this study also claim to focus solely on religious liberty. (The senior counsel of First Liberty, for example, explains in an interview that his organization “only works on issues of religious liberty” [112].) The Beckett Fund’s importance makes its omission concerning, as the organization has provided counsel and won a number of the most publicized religion cases of the past decade, including Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, in which they successfully defended a for-profit business’s exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. The reasons for excluding such a major player in this legal field should be clearly explicated in the text.

The most valuable contribution of the book lies in the interviews Bennett did with attorneys working with CCLOs, which often provide insight into strategic differences between these organizations. The chairman of Liberty Counsel at one point expresses his support for personhood amendments, which seek to legally define fetuses as persons in order to stop abortion, a strategy that Alliance for Defending Freedom attorneys argue might backfire and hurt their own effort against abortion (86-87). The interviews also reveal that the CCLOs are at odds on whether it weakens their arguments for religious liberty if they seek to win cases using arguments grounded in free speech, rather than explicitly making them about the free exercise of religion (120). These explorations of legal strategy are less frequent than might be desired, but still very valuable.

The other source base on which the book draws substantially are online press releases from the CCLOs, but these are less revealing than the interviews. Bennett categorizes the topics of the press releases, and from the number of press releases in each category he claims that this reveals the priorities of the CCLOs (38). The main conclusion, that these groups focus primarily on issues of religious liberty, is certainly true, but it is also something that is apparent from their webpages, public statements, and even the names of some of these groups (e.g., First Liberty; Center for Law and Religious Freedom). Because Bennett relied on online archives from the CCLOs websites, he was only able to get press releases from seven of the ten groups he was studying, and it is unclear if he tried to gain access to print archives from these groups (35, 135). This data also excludes anything these groups posted on social media or sent to supporters by email (36-37). Bennett is candid about the limitations of what the press releases can reveal, but rarely makes use of additional sources (such as the legal cases that the CCLOs have pursued) to help fill in these gaps.

While Defending Faith is a timely work on an important subject, it is also an underdeveloped one. People working within the field of religion and law, either as scholars or legal practitioners, will find little that is objectionable in the book, but they will also only uncover a few morsels of new information. For those new to the subject, this book does not provide enough of a systematic treatment to get a foothold on understanding contemporary religious liberty debates. We should hope that Bennett’s book is a stepping stone that provokes other scholars to offer deeper, more detailed studies of this movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Barnes May is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Bennett is assistant professor of political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.


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