How I Write

In this episode of Signposts, I talk about my approach to writing. From keeping track of ideas, to writing books and articles, this podcast offers you a look at the whole process. You can find the full transcript and links to subscribe below.


We’re about to take a little break here in the summer here on Signposts. I’m going to take a few weeks as I’m writing a book to really concentrate and give my attention to this book. As I was thinking about that, one of my colleagues said, “You should talk about on Signposts how it is that you write.” And I have to be honest, I’m really reluctant to do that because I said “Nobody cares how I write, first of all, and second of all I certainly don’t commend to anybody else my particular way of writing.” But he said, “There may be some people who can benefit from that as they’re thinking about how to write for themselves.” And maybe so.

Because you are probably going to be called upon to write something at some point in your life. It may not be that you’re a writer, but you may have to write a loved one’s obituary. Or you may have to write a letter to a child or a family member. All of us are going to have to put down on paper or on the screen our thoughts at some point. Some people just do it much more extensively than other people do it.

So here’s kind of the process I go through. And again, I don’t commend it to anybody at all. This is just the way that I work. What I wish I could say to you is that I sit down and make out an elaborate outline, and then have note cards in front of me, and I go through each of note cards. That’s not how I work. What I have to do is spend a lot of time, first of all, reading in whatever area I’m going to be writing in, and then a lot of time just processing that. So just thinking. A lot of the most important writing time for me actually is not in front of the screen, it’s walking in the woods. Because that’s when I’m thinking through “Okay but what about this, and what about that, what about this idea, and what about that idea,” and sort of churning as I’m thinking through this. And for me, exercising – especially sort of meandering free exercising – is what helps to put all of that together for me.

I also like to keep with me a little notebook because there will always be those moments where something will just flash. I’ll be reading in Scripture devotionally and something will hit me – “I haven’t considered that, that’s important for whatever this thing is I’m writing.” Or I may be sitting in a wedding somewhere and something hits me. So I want to have something that I can quickly jot something down about whatever it is that I’m thinking. Then just continue to churn and continue to think about these things. Then when I sit down to write what I typically want to do is to spend some time balancing writing what’s down on the page, usually these days in my study at home, with sort of pacing around the floor. So if you watched me – I would never want any one watching me. I have a couple of friends who will sit there and write while they’ve got people around them. That would be disastrous for me, because I just jump up and pace around the room, sit down and write a little bit more, jump up and pace around the room some more. It’s a really sort of neurotic thing to watch that I wouldn’t want anybody to see.

But as I’m writing things down, I have to have huge periods of solitude interrupted by short bursts of community. So what I need to do is to talk about what it is that I’m writing about, not all the way through, but in certain little bursts. So I’ll gather a group of friends together and just say “Hey, this is what I’m thinking about. Does this make sense?” Or I’ll call my friend David Prince on the phone and say “Hey, what do you think about…” and just start talking about what it is that I’m writing. Or my wife and I might go for a walk and I might talk to her about what I’m thinking through. That helps me to break out a little bit of the solitude in order to test out ideas. But I have to have this solitude.

So, often when I was at Southern Seminary I would drive down to Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, the place where Thomas Merton was a monk, and I would go there because I could just wander in the woods completely silent and quiet there. I could think things through, and then I could come back into the Abbey and write down the sorts of outlines of things that I thought about. I may be there all day and then get in the car and drive back and I’ve got the time driving also then. So usually it is better for me, it’s better time spent if I would take however long it took to drive to Gethsemane Abby, all day there, and however much time it took to come back. Even if I didn’t put anything on the page that whole day, that’s not a day lost because it’s all then uploading. And then I come home and I’m able to write.

It’s also true for me that I can’t write little dribbling out amounts in any sort of continuous way. So if I’m writing a book, I just can’t write a paragraph on a plane and then another paragraph in between meetings. I’ve got to write continuously and the flow of thought really can’t be broken away or interrupted. Now, you may be different. And it may be that the way that you write is best in terms of just planning out “I’m going to write a paragraph every morning” or whatever. If so, good for you. I wish I could do that but that’s not the way that I operate. That’s not the way that I do things.

That’s different when I’m writing a book from when I’m writing a short article like a blog post or something. In that case, what I need is a dose of adrenaline. So what I need is for something to either make me angry or make me really, really happy where I just simply have to express it. I was telling that to a friend one time and he said “Really? Angry? Because almost none of your writing seems angry to me.” And I said “Well, that’s because the anger for me is a sense of provocation. It’s not what I then use to actually write the article.” So I may become really angry or grieved about something, but then I’m going to work through “Yeah, but why would somebody do this? Why would somebody hold to that view?” And then when the adrenaline hits I usually just sit down and just write the blog post altogether, in sometimes just a few minutes. But because it’s all there – whatever’s in the background has been fueled up with the adrenaline and then there it is.

The other kind of writing though that I find really beneficial is something that you’ll never see. It’s something that actually I heard recommended by a podcast host, Brian Koppelman, who is a filmwriter and producer and he hosts a podcast that I love called “The Moment.” And he recommended something called morning pages. As a matter of fact, he just mentioned “morning pages” one time on the program. And I didn’t even know what it was, so I Googled it. And I found out that morning pages is something recommended by this book “The Artist’s Way” which I then ordered and read. I don’t endorse everything or even most of what’s in that book. A lot of it is really New Age-y and sort of spiritually therapeutic sort of stuff. But there’s some really helpful stuff in there too that you can sieve out.

And one of those things was the idea of morning pages. And basically what it is that you get up first thing in the morning and you write 3 pages that no one is ever going to see, that you’re not going to look at at least for a long period of time. Where you can make all the mistakes and errors and you can just “stream-of-consciousness” write. And at first I thought, “That is going to be a total waste of time.” But I did it, and it was really helpful to me. Because when I would sit down first thing after waking up and just start writing, and not know where I’m going to go, I could find out some of the things that were actually burdening me at the time. Maybe some of the things that God was working on in my life. And so in doing that, I’ve kind of been able to find things to have more gratitude about. I’ve found some some sins to repent of. There are some things that I thought that I had forgiven, that when I’m doing these morning pages I realize “Wait a minute, if I’m still talking about this in this stream of consciousness way, then maybe I haven’t forgiven this.” All sorts of things have sort of come out of that, and it just kind of primes my brain to be able to think through other things during the day.

Again, what’s key to me is the idea that nobody is going to see this, I’m not going to look at this, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. Because perfection or the idea of perfection is what scares me from writing. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. It causes you to procrastinate because you think “I should wait until I can write this perfectly.” You’re not going to write this perfectly, there’s no way to write this perfectly, and you’re not even going to go back and look at it again. That’s important for me.

And then also, no one’s going to see it. You know, sometimes when I’m keeping a journal I’ve always got in the back of my mind “My kids are going to one day be reading this,” and I want to sort of put my best foot forward for my kids. This does away with the temptation toward that kind of performance or that kind of mask. Now obviously, I’ve got the notebook on my desk, and I could drop dead of a heart attack today and my kids could read the morning pages. But that’s not what’s in your mind as you’re doing it. So that’s helpful for me, and may be something that you enjoy or something that you don’t, but it has proven to be a source and a catalyst for a lot of things that I have later written about or preached about or talked about later on.

We’re going to take a few weeks off here on Signposts, and then we’ll be back coming into the fall with many new episodes of Signposts, including some things I’m really excited about right now that I’ll tell you about later. So have a good time, have a good summer, and we’ll reconnect afterwards.

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Independence Day and the Empty Tomb

A few years ago, I stood at the grave of Thomas Jefferson, and wondered. I was in Charlottesville to speak at the university Mr. Jefferson founded, and made my way up to his homeplace, Monticello. Standing at his grave, I was prompted to give thanks for his life and legacy.

After all, if it weren’t for Jefferson and his majestic Declaration of Independence, there might not even be a United States of America, and certainly not a country quite like it is now. If it weren’t for Jefferson (and the Baptists), would I have grown up in some cold, dead, state-established Anglican church instead of the vibrancy of a free church in a free state? And, of course, if President Jefferson hadn’t purchased the Louisiana Territory, I would have grown up some place other than America.

But, much more than that, standing at Jefferson’s grave prompted me to realize that Jefferson is, well, in a grave. The Enlightenment ideals that gave this brilliant thinker a right understanding of natural rights led him to idolize human cerebral capacity. Jefferson’s anti-supernaturalism is seen in visual form in his famous Bible, with the miraculous parts cut out, most significantly the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I love Jefferson for standing up against King George, but not for standing up against King Jesus.

And yet, two hundred years later, belief in the resurrection of Jesus persists. Just days after I was at this hero’s grave, Christians from all over the world, despite all this science and all this progress and all this technology, confessed what the earliest believers in the catacombs of Rome cried out: “Christ is risen indeed.”

Thomas Jefferson is still dead. I thank God for him, but standing at his grave reminds me how limited even his legacy can be in the grand scheme of trillions of years of cosmic time. It also reminds me of the contrast with a Middle Eastern day-laborer whose monument isn’t a house or a temple made with hands, or even a simple grave-marker. It’s instead a borrowed tomb that isn’t filled anymore.

That empty tomb is, itself, a declaration of independence. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared him (and all who are in him) to be free from death, free from the curse, free from Satan’s accusation. I suppose you could say that Jesus was endowed by his Father with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… except that these blessings don’t end in a graveyard.


A version of this post originally ran on April 9, 2012.

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What Should You Say at an Unbeliever’s Funeral?

In this episode of Signposts, I talk about what to say at the funeral of an unbeliever. You can find the full transcript and links to subscribe below.


What Should You Say at an Unbeliever’s Funeral? — Transcript

The other day I had someone ask me about a funeral that she was going to. She said “This is a funeral for an unbeliever, and I’m trying to think through what to say.” I think that’s a really good question, and an important question for all of us, because we’ve been in this situation. Almost everybody has been in this situation, if you haven’t then you will be in the situation. So when she says “what I should say,” really that could be a number of things. It could be the question of what should you say when you’re just there and you’re going through the the line talking to family members, in which case I think the response to that is simply to grieve with the family members and say “I’m really sorry about the loss of your mother/dad/brother” or whomever it is and grieve with them. I mean the Scripture tells us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Jesus gives us the example of being grieved to the core at the death of Lazarus, and this was someone who obviously was a believer. But death itself is something Jesus sees as an enemy, and something that ought to provoke tears and grief. And so a simple “I’m here for you and with you,” “I grieve with you,” “I’ll be praying for you,”  — all of those things are appropriate at a funeral.

The question becomes more complex when you’re dealing with someone who has to give a eulogy or someone who is a minister who’s actually preaching the funeral. I have a great deal of sympathy here, because the very first funeral that I ever did was for someone that I didn’t know who was a complete unbeliever. Not just an unbeliever, but someone who apparently had lived a pretty awful life, because the family members were standing in the background, and the pallbearers were standing in the back as we’re about to go in for the funeral. And one of them looked over at the grieving family and said “Well bless their hearts, they’re better off because he was the meanest man I ever knew.” I thought “You know what, if at the end of your life, your pallbearers say that you’re the meanest guy they ever knew, you have lived a rough life.” And so here I had to preach this funeral.

There was another time where the daughter of a woman who had died said to me “You know, I’m trying to think through what to say in the eulogy and I really can’t think of anything kind to say about my mother except the fact that she kept the bird feeder stocked in her backyard. She cared for the birds.” I said “There’s nothing?” “No.” She could find nothing.

So I understand a little bit of the tension that happens there. On the other hand, I’ve been to many funerals where someone that I knew to have been an unbeliever is there, and the the pastor will stand up and talk about how aunt Flossie is in the presence of Jesus now and has graduated on up into glory. And obviously what the pastor is intending to do is to comfort the family with the idea of Heaven for the loved one. The problem though is it becomes really clear to people that what you’re doing is simply using Heaven as a means to an end. So you don’t really believe what it is that you’ve been saying about “No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ,” about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance for sin. Because once someone’s dead, that’s all over with. That sort of pious lying about the life of a person, really does–in my view–great damage to the gospel.

That doesn’t mean though that we go in the exact opposite direction. I was at a funeral one time where the person had died and they had multiple pastors. The first pastor stood up and said, “This is someone who’s in heaven right now and rejoicing with Jesus.” The second guy was an Independent Fundamentalist sort of pastor who said, “You know, I keep hearing all of this about how this guy is in heaven right now. But this guy never had time for the church, never had time for Christ, and never was willing to repent of his sins and put his faith in Jesus Christ. And I just want you all to know that at 3:45 AM last Tuesday, he busted hell wide open.” That’s not an appropriate word either at a funeral.

Instead, I think what we need to do at a funeral is a number of things. The first thing – whether you’re giving the eulogy or whether you’re officiating or whether you’re in some way leading this funeral – the first thing is to recognize and honor the dignity of that life. Whether it’s a believer or an unbeliever, this is somebody who is created in the image of God. This is somebody who in some way was “imaging” God. This is someone who operated within the common grace that God gives to all of humanity. So when we find something that’s praiseworthy in the life of the person who has died, what we’re saying is that this life really mattered. God displayed Himself in some way in this person’s life, and so I’m affirming that this person is created in the image of God, and I’m affirming all the good things that God did through this person.

In many cases, even someone who has made a total wreck of his or her life has had those times where God has used that person in some way or another in order to bless other people. Finding those things as an aspect of gratitude to God. “Thank you for the fact that you gave us this person. Thank you that you used this person in the following ways.” is completely appropriate to do at a funeral. Now having said that, be honest and don’t make up attributes about this person who has died. If you do, all that you’re going to communicate to the people who are hearing you is not comfort. You’re just going to communicate the fact that you’re a liar. And they’re not going to believe anything else that you’ve said.

So if you have somebody who was a very miserly person, you don’t want to get up and say “What a generous person this is.” If this is somebody who harbored bitterness, you don’t want to get up and say “This is somebody who was so forgiving.” You want to be truthful in the things that you say. That doesn’t mean that you have to get up and say “You know, this was a really bitter woman,” or “This was a really unforgiving man.” You don’t need to say that. You leave those things in in silence. They don’t need to be said.

There are some cases where I think it’s appropriate to raise the sort of issue that everyone’s thinking of. I was at a funeral one time for someone who had been a really, really short-tempered guy. The Lord had used this guy in all sorts of ways, but everybody had had a run in with him, and every one of those run ins were really scorching. And so his son simply said, “Hey, my dad was not the easiest person to deal with. He was kind of a prickly guy.” And there was laughter, a kind of relieved laughter that took place in the room. Because the point of the eulogy was not to settle a score with his dad, it was to say “Hey, I know you all are thinking about some difficult times that you had with my dad, but let’s also remember the ways that God used him.” I think that’s entirely appropriate in that case.

When it comes to the eternal destiny of the person who has died. When you’re dealing with a believer, of course, what you’re going to do is to draw on all of those Scriptures of hope. So you’re going to say “We grieve, but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” You’re going to talk about Resurrection in Christ and Resurrection from the dead. When you’re dealing with an unbeliever though, you don’t have all of those things. So what do you do? Well, I would want to say don’t presume that person is eternally lost. Don’t presume that the person is eternally saved. But don’t presume the person is eternally lost. And the reason I say this is that salvation is through faith. Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness. We receive salvation as beggars, and Jesus has told us that it doesn’t matter whether we received salvation very early in our lives and lived our life for Christ, or if we cried out for mercy and Christ in those last seconds or nanoseconds before we go out into eternity. He’s given us the parable of the workers in the field, and the ones that came on early in the day and in the ones who came on at the end of the day being paid the same wage.

So we ought to recognize that. We also ought to recognize the example that our Lord gave us of the thief on the cross. And what stays in my mind constantly any time that an unbeliever I know dies or any time that I go to an unbeliever’s funeral is hearing a message in Southern Seminary Chapel probably 20 years ago where the preacher from Wales is preaching on the thief on the cross. He gave the illustration of a man who had been horseback riding and he was an unbeliever, all of his family had just given up on him as a hopeless unbeliever. He was thrown from the horse, believed the gospel mid-air, hit the ground, and went into a coma for some weeks. And when he woke up out of the coma as a Christian, his family was really shocked about this. And they all said, “If you had died, we would have assumed that you were in hell.”

This preacher said “You know, if the thief on the cross had any God-fearing relatives, they probably assumed that he was under the Judgment of God. They probably were the most surprised people imaginable when in Paradise they find themselves in communion with this murderous thief that they had given up on a long time ago. Well, that’s always a possibility. Don’t count on it, if you’re an unbeliever right now listening to this, it’s a very, very dangerous thing to say, “Well, I’ll just come to faith in Christ in those last seconds on my deathbed.” That’s a very dangerous thing. First of all, you don’t know how much time you have. You don’t know whether or not your death is going to be lingering or sudden. And you also need the grace of God in order to even recognize the truth of the gospel and the presence of Christ. So don’t presume upon that grace. Repent and believe.

But, as we’re thinking about other people, there’s always the possibility that in those last few seconds or moments that the message that has been given, that the seed that has been planted, may have come to fruition. So let’s hold that at least as a possibility when we’re thinking about unbelievers. Which means we weep, we grieve, we don’t pronounce though definitively that this person is in Hell. And I think what that also means though is that we proclaim the gospel. Now you don’t have to get up and say,  “Uncle Ronnie’s in heaven” or “Aunt Flossie’s in hell.” You don’t have to do that.

What you have to do is to stand up and say, “We’ve gathered here today because of death. The death of this person that we knew, this person that many of us loved. We’re all going to face death. Death is an enemy that’s coming for us all, and you can’t outlast death. You can’t fight death with money, or with health, or with anything else. You’re going to ultimately face death. How do you face death? You face death as a sinner who’s in need of forgiveness and you face death as someone who receives the life that comes through the shed blood, broken body and resurrected life of Jesus Christ.

So preach the gospel. You don’t have to narrate and adjudicate every aspect of this unbeliever’s life in order to say to people, “There is hope for you no matter what it is that you’ve done. You can find salvation and today is the day of salvation.” I think that’s the way to handle an unbeliever’s funeral.

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Does Jeremiah 29:11 Apply to You?

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

These words are the John 3:16 of American cultural Christianity. Watch how often they show up on the Bible verse plaques sold in Bible Belt mall kiosks or posted on Facebook walls, even on tattoos. Whether as home decor or on social media posts, I see this passage claimed fervently by people I know haven’t been in a church service since the first Bush Administration. Naturally, this love for this verse has often led to more theologically-oriented Christians lamenting the out-of-context use of Jeremiah 29:11. So much so that a young Christian asked me recently, “Does Jeremiah 29:11 apply to me, or not?”

My answer: kind of.

Let me take that back. Yes, it does apply to you, but not in the way many “claim” the passage.

Many understand the text to be about God’s favor on one’s life and on one’s plans. If I just have confidence and follow my heart, someone following this line might think, God will bless me. That’s not the prophet Jeremiah; that’s Deepak Chopra. Anyone who could find that kind of moral therapeutic deism in the Book of Jeremiah hasn’t read any verse of Jeremiah above or behind this verse.

The Book of Jeremiah is all about God disrupting his people’s plans and upending his people’s dreams. This verse comes in the context of a shocking message from the prophet. Those “left behind” in Jerusalem—anchored around the temple and the throne—assume that their relative fortune is a sign that God is for them, while those carted off in captivity to Babylon are seen to be under God’s curse. It’s not just those in Jerusalem who are tempted to think this way; those in Babylon are tempted to think it too. Israel’s God seems distant to them, and they seem as though they’ve been raptured away from the promises to Abraham. Jeremiah says, though, that God’s judgment will fall on Jerusalem, and that God’s purposes will come to being through the exiles.

This isn’t actually good news for any of the hearers. The Jerusalem establishment chafes at this message, and finds prophets who will say that peace is just around the corner. For the exiles, the message isn’t a cheery one either, at least in the short-term. In Jeremiah’s letter to them, they are told that their return from exile won’t happen anytime in their generation, so they should create new lives in Babylon.

So how does this passage apply to you? Well, Jeremiah 29:11 must be read in the context of the whole Book of Jeremiah, and the Book of Jeremiah must be read in the context of Israel’s story. But all of Jeremiah and Israel’s entire story must be read in the context of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. All the promises of God “find their yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).  If we are in Christ, then all of the horrors of judgment warned about in the prophets have fallen on us, in the cross, where we were united to Christ as he bore the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13). And, if we are in Christ, then all of the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring are now ours, since we are united to the heir of all those promises (Gal. 3:14-29).

Through Jeremiah, God told the exiles that their scattering isn’t accidental. God has plans for them, plans that include even what seems chaotic and random. Moreover, these plans mean that the exile isn’t permanent. That isn’t because of their faithfulness but because of God’s promise to Abraham—a promise that was itself looking forward to Abraham’s son, the Lord Jesus (Rom. 4). And indeed, the exiles didn’t stay scattered. God restored them to their home. Why? He brought them home because through them “according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5).

Moreover, God tells us that since we are in Christ, we are strangers and exiles in this time between the times (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11). We suffer, we bleed, we die—and through all that we are tempted to think that this means that God has abandoned us. We conclude that we are “as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36). Not so, the gospel word tells us.

God has a plan for us, in Christ. That plan is not for our destruction but for our well-being. We are being conformed into the image of Christ—by sharing in his suffering—and our ultimate end is not as victims but as victors, as joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:12-39).

How do we know this? We know it the way the exiles of old did: not by observing our present condition but by the word of God, his oath and his covenant. That means that our plans may evaporate. Our dreams may be crushed. Our lives might be snuffed out. But the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us up with him.

Does Jeremiah 29:11 apply to you? If you are in Christ, you can count on it. The passage doesn’t promise you the kind of future American culture prizes, and maybe even promises a future you would tremble at it if you saw it in a crystal ball. Short-term, you may suffer. But, long-term, your future is co-signed with Christ. That’s a future for your welfare, and not for evil, a future of hope, not of despair.

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Why Trinity Lutheran Matters

The Supreme Court just handed down a decision in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources. In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that the state cannot restrict a program of distributing recycled tire parts for playground surfaces from a church simply because it is a church. You probably are not spending your summer wishing for old tire parts for your church daycare, so you may ask why this obscure-sounding case matters at all.

The case matters because the Court here recognizes the difference between a government establishing a religion and a government choosing not to penalize a religion. I am a Baptist—a real Baptist who believes our confessions of faith, all the way back to our beginnings. This means I hate, and I mean hate, a state-established religion. A state-established religion is, at best, a theologically-generic, spiritually-dead civic body. A state-established religion is, at worst, a violent persecutor turning the sword on those who don’t adhere to its teachings. In either case, a state-established religion is a political move masquerading as a religion. Such does not point people to the gospel of Christ or to the kingdom of God.

But this case is not about a state establishing a religion. Missouri wasn’t contemplating privileging Lutherans for this program, with a consubstantiation clause. Rather, the state offered a neutral program for groups—public or private—that cared for children and owned a playground. The law shut out Trinity Lutheran not because they didn’t meet the criteria for the program but simply because they are religious.

No reasonable person would conclude that offloading excess tire fragments to a church or a synagogue or a mosque would constitute government recognition of that house of worship or its beliefs. Instead, the state has an interest in making sure children are safe, and wants to get the playground surfaces to where the children are. In this sense, the program is similar to the G.I. Bill of the post-World War II generation. A veteran who takes his education benefit to Brigham Young or Notre Dame or Baylor is not carrying with him a government blessing of Mormonism or Catholicism or Texas Baptist Christianity.

For some time, we have seen pressures in American life not simply to make a distinction between church and state (which I am all for; again, a Baptist) but to use the levers of government to secularize our civic spaces. That’s not what the First Amendment is for.

This ruling is a win for religious freedom, and for limits on the power of the state. Not only religious people, but, with us, all Americans should celebrate that. We don’t want a state empowered to referee between theologies and to privilege some religious ideologies over others, even if that ideology is secularism.



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