The faith questions

Here's where our liberties may be most tested

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

Suppose you're a small business owner, and God is prospering what you're doing. Year by year, your business grows-and with that growth comes the need for more and more good people. Within that little scenario, strange as it may seem, may come one of the most severe tests of conscience for Christians in America in the next few years.

Many WORLD readers don't have to suppose the scenario; they are already in it. And they fear an ominous future.

Here's why I do too. WORLD magazine, and its parent organization, God's World Publications Inc., now employ about 150 people on a full-time and part-time basis. Because we continue to grow, we are also constantly about the task of hiring still other people who we think can help us do our work better. It's likely, for example, that over the next few months we'll be adding to our staff at least these four people: (1) Someone who is gifted at writing for children; (2) someone who can sell ads for WORLD; (3) someone who has gifts in typographic design; (4) someone who can pick and pack at least five or six boxes of books per hour in our mail room.

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In that lineup of four people, put a check mark, if you will, next to those for whom you think it is "essential to their job" that they be a committed Christian. For, you see, in most employment situations in our society these days, an employer increasingly faces a legal obligation either not to discriminate on "religious" grounds when selecting personnel, or to demonstrate that such discrimination is integral to the nature of the business being conducted. When such a demonstration is possible (at least for now), big-brother government is condescendingly willing (at least for now) to grant exemptions to permit you to hire that employee (at least for now).

So (at least for now), it's not been terribly difficult to demonstrate that writers in our organization must come with a working knowledge of a biblical worldview. Ad sales people, too, are greatly benefited by being able to explain to clients the Christian nature of our publications. But typography? Most people will argue that's a purely technical skill. And for anyone to insist on a "Christians only" policy for box packers would be a sure sign of intolerance and in-grown exclusivism.

Those arguments, of course, are not altogether without merit. So let's suppose that we meet that point-of-view halfway. We don't want our organization to become a Christian hothouse; it would be good for us all, we agree, to test our faith and our witness by deliberately hiring a few non-Christians-so long as (at least for now) they are not in a position to affect our main publishing mission.

But then we come to a critical point. "At least for now" passes into history. Our mailroom supervisor is retiring, and everyone agrees that the very best candidate for the job-technically speaking-is the non-Christian who for the last half dozen years has faithfully done his work and earned a path to a promotion. "Sorry," I say. "Our policy is that we will hire as supervisors only those with a clear Christian commitment. We want supervisors who can pray with their people and counsel them from a biblical perspective. We appreciate what you've done, but no, we can't promote you." It is, of course, a recipe for an instant lawsuit.

In fact, WORLD magazine and God's World Publications Inc. may be (at least for now) largely exempt from the initial hiring issues mentioned here. Our corporate charter authorizes us to operate as a "religious and educational" organization, and our business is done under the 501(c)3 (nonprofit) section of the Internal Revenue Code. Both those designations have tended to give us more freedom than so-called "secular" and for-profit businesses enjoy.

But such a distinction is, in the end, altogether foolish. It is capricious to argue that only those employers who call themselves "religious" or "nonprofit" should be able to make hiring decisions based, at least in part, on considerations of faith. Every employer in America should have the same freedom-and should know that it is guaranteed in perpetuity. A person's faith commitment is, after all, the very most important thing you can know about him or her.

Yet the main point is that under our present system of jurisprudence, the freedom some of us think we enjoy actually means little. For whatever latitude might be awarded in the initial hiring phase will almost certainly be quickly swept away at the point of promotion. And as soon as that happens, whatever laws and policies govern the promotional phase will, by implication, gallop backward to circumscribe all initial hiring as well.

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