by Kendra Perry
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
First of all, I’d like to thank everybody very much for reading and sharing and commenting on my previous column. I got an AMAZING amount of feedback about it, and I’m very glad for all the conversations that have been started. In the responses that came to me, both on the AToday website and in other venues such as Facebook, I’ve several different themes arising. I’ve decided to address a few of them in follow-up columns.
This first follow-up has to do with the separation of church and state. I’m also working on another one that will address issues of gays and the church. Look for it soon!
Under the realm of church and state, there were several sub-themes that arose. I’ll address them by the common questions or objections that I got and then attempt to answer them.
1. Don’t Christians have an obligation to vote to keep or make the country moral? Or Didn’t the Framers of the Constitution intend for this to be a Christian country?
The Framers of the Constitution ingeniously put two balancing phrases into the first amendment. One prevents Congress from ESTABLISHING a national religion. This means that the government cannot tell us what to believe or how to worship. The second phrase prevents Congress from IMPEDING the practice of our sincerely held religious beliefs. This means that we can keep the Sabbath, wear religious symbols, or bow our heads in public to pray before we eat our lunch. BOTH of these are essential to preserving religious liberty.
In countries where the government is not prevented from IMPEDING the practice of religion, persecution of Christians and often other religions follows. Historical examples include the ancient Christian persecutions under the Emperor Nero, which occurred because he was trying to eradicate Christianity. Nazi Germany looked with disfavor on most religions. Communist governments are typically restrictive or hostile toward religion since it is viewed as “the opiate of the masses.” Modern France pursues a secularist agenda in which public expression of religious affiliation is limited. Christians’ interest in opposing these restrictions on religious practice seems clear. Our right to FREE EXERCISE of our religion must be protected so that we can serve God according to our conscience.
The question of ESTABLISHMENT is a bit trickier. If we as Christians believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, and that his word shows us the best way to live, wouldn’t we want to help others live that way so they also can be blessed? We can do so through the law, and then our nation can flourish because of both the natural consequences of right, moral living AND the blessing that God will bestow on us for following his will. Seems like a great idea, right?
But there are a few problems with this.
First, even if we want to go about running (or ESTABLISHING) the United States as a Christian nation, we run into the immediate problem of which brand of Christianity to choose. While all Christians believe that Jesus is their Savior, beyond that it gets a bit murky. Should worshiping in church be mandatory? If so, on which day? Should divorce be outlawed? Not all denominations agree on the circumstances (if any) under which divorce should be allowed.
Pretty soon, we are right back to the religious wars that destroyed a good chunk of Europe during the Reformation — those good old days when you lived in fear for your life if you prayed directly to God without the assistance of a priest, had a Bible in your native language, or wanted to be baptized by immersion. That is, until the church controlling the government changed, and then you had to fear for your life if you wanted a priest to hear your confession, preferred your Scriptures in Latin, or wanted to have your child baptized by sprinkling.
ALL these beliefs and practices were once punishable by death in places without separation of church and state. All this infighting, besides decimating the population, is not exactly the best way to make disciples of all nations. And so the Framers of the Constitution realized that, while the nation should indeed be moral (because rules notoriously don’t work well for corrupt people), it should be up to individuals to decide on the BRAND of morality they would follow.
So, as a Christian, if you want to continue to practice YOUR variety of Christianity freely (and have the liberty to change your mind if and when God brings something new to your attention in your Quiet Time), it is in your own best interest to make it possible for OTHERS to be able to practice their religion freely according to the dictates of their conscience. Yes, up to and including Paganism, Atheism, Satanism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
If respected, this separation of church and state allows the moral republic to flourish with each citizen following his or her sincerely held religious beliefs. The morals will be MORE meaningful and MORE authentic because they come from within, rather than because they are enforced by external motivation.
Seventh-day Adventists have traditionally been strong proponents of religious liberty. We have a clear understanding of the damage caused by its absence in the past, and our understanding of Revelation 13 leads us to anticipate a day when church and government will again unite to compel worship. Because of this, it seems in keeping with historical precedent for the Adventist church to oppose legal decisions made on the basis of sectarian reasoning.
2. If we legalize same-sex marriage, what about polygamy and marrying children and incest and bestiality?
Same-sex marriage occurs between two consenting adults. They must both be adults and able to give consent. They would be able to marry someone of the opposite sex if they wanted to.
Marrying a child involves a minor child who cannot legally give consent. There’s clear infringement on the rights of the child. The state has a clear interest in preventing this apart from any religious or moral obligation to do so.
Bestiality involves an animal, which is incapable of giving consent; therefore the state could not possibly recognize such a union.
Marriage between close relatives is prohibited (as far as I know) on the grounds of preventing harmful genetic mutations in their descendants. This is not a moral or religious reason and therefore would still be maintained by the state.
Polygamy (assuming all participants are consenting adults) differs from traditional marriage and same-sex marriage only in the number of participants. Objections to this do seem to be largely values-based as well. If same-sex marriage were to be legalized, polygamists might be able to argue for their right to marry as well. Unlike same-sex marriage, this form of marriage does have some historical and even biblical precedent.
3. I believe in separation of church and state, but gay marriage is not a freedom of conscience issue.
People who express this thought usually go on to say that “it’s a civil rights issue” or “it’s a redefinition issue.” I think it’s true that same-sex marriage can be framed in all of these ways, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it ISN’T also the other.
The fact is that same-sex couples feel called to make lifelong monogamous commitments to each other. They feel led to become life partners. Some of them are even Christians (belonging to theologically liberal denominations) and feel called to make those commitments before God. These same-sex couples are not being allowed to marry or to make that commitment in any way that is recognized by the state. If that’s not an issue of conscience, I really don’t know what is.
A frequent follow-up to this is, “Well, why can’t they just make those commitments privately and live together? Why do they have to make everybody else recognize their commitment?”
In legal terms, when two people get married, the state recognizes a change of how those people now relate to their families of origin. When I was single, my nearest relatives were considered to be my mother, father, and sister. Now that I am married, my nearest relative is considered to be my husband. When the state is making decisions about me, they will consider my husband’s wishes before my other family.
This can impact everything from who may visit me in the hospital to whose medical insurance provides benefit for me, to whose tax form I may appear on. Those of us in heterosexual marriages probably never even consider the many small ways our marriage LEGALLY changed our lives.
But same-sex couples must either do without these legal recognitions of their commitment or attempt to reconstruct them piece by piece through contracts, power of attorney documents, etc. There are significant differences to “living together” versus having a legally recognized lifelong commitment.
4. There are plenty of non-religious reasons for the state to prevent same-sex marriage.
A number of people have said this to me, but no one has yet shown me what those reasons might be. There is vague talk of “research,” but of course one has to disregard the “biased research” conducted by those who want to promote same-sex marriage (I think they may be saying the same thing about your research, but don’t tell anybody).
In any case, even if there is research, now we are back again to the government making decisions based on competing authorities which may change when the majority changes. It’s not religious authority, but it can have a similar effect. The government’s attempts to legislate education policy with reading programs based on “research” were notoriously problematic in this way.
I think this type of approach opens the door to dangerous social engineering. It may seem innocent to say, “A two-parent household is best for raising children.” But China’s ideal family consists of one woman, one man, and one child. Even that level of social engineering is wreaking havoc.
5. It IS a redefinition issue. The word “marriage” has historically always meant an agreement between one man and one woman.
Yes, we would be redefining the word marriage. This doesn’t upset me, for some reason (probably because I tend to be a descriptive linguist rather than a prescriptive one), but it definitely bothers a lot of people.
If this is the deal breaker for most folks, then there would need to be a separate word for what the state does. I happen to think that “civil union” is fine, but it could be anything. In essence, the term needs to describe the state’s role in recognizing the legal union between two individuals. I would apply this term to ALL state-sanctioned unions (same-sex and opposite-sex). The term “marriage” would then be reserved for religious use.
6. The majority of the country thinks that same-sex marriage is wrong, so shouldn’t their understanding of right and wrong take precedence over a minority view?
Only approximately 4% of the American population is estimated to be gay or lesbian. The number actively pursuing same-sex marriage is even smaller. But remember that our country has checks and balances among the various branches of government in order to protect minorities. This is why the judicial branch can overturn laws passed by a majority of a legislature or even popular vote if they are found to be unconstitutional.
Although the Founding Fathers had not lived through World War II, they were wise enough to realize that the majority might not always have the best altruistic interest of their brothers and sisters at heart. Just because the majority of Germans believed that the world would be a better place without Jews in it DOESN’T MEAN THEY WERE RIGHT.
So let’s put the rights of the GLBT minority in a perspective that hits a little closer to home. According to my calculations, the Adventist population of North America (about 1 million) makes up around 0.3% of the population of the United States (the US Census Bureau puts it at 313,525,963 as of this writing). That makes the GLBT population of the US a much LARGER minority than the Adventist population.
The overwhelming majority of Americans could very easily decide that my sincerely held belief in keeping the Sabbath holy from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is a frivolous "preference" that I don’t really need. And they might vote overwhelmingly to deny me the right to observe Sabbath and keep my job.
Now, suppose the only job I could find required me to work on Sabbath, and so I subsequently had to choose between keeping Sabbath and feeding my family. I would want someone from the majority to support me, even if they didn't understand my reason for keeping Sabbath or perhaps flatly disagreed with it. Would you?
If that is how you would want to be treated as a minority, then I am suggesting that the Golden Rule encourages you to support the rights of other minorities to follow their conscience, even if you don’t understand their reason for believing what they believe or even perhaps disagree with their choice.
P.S. Thanks to commenter Vini Marques for this very concise and elegant summary of the legal concept at hand (I’ve reworded very slightly):
1) If marriage is a religious institution defined by biblical principles, then the government has no authority to establish marriage as the only legally recognized civil union. ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" – 1st Amendment).
2) If the government is going to define marriage and thus the benefits thereof, such as tax rates, healthcare, survivor benefits, etc, then it cannot restrict those privileges to certain citizens. ("No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" – 14th Amendment).
So, the government is bound by the Constitution to either:
1) Get out of the marriage business entirely. Legally recognize the civil union of any two consenting adults and relegate marriage to a religious institution that individuals can enter into if they so choose. And religious groups, as is their freedom, can define marriage and restrict it to whomever they choose.
2) Lift the restrictions on marriage.
Special note from author;
Let me be clear: we aren't here to persuade each other.
We are here to LISTEN and to grow in understanding.
If we understand each other, we all win.
Please listen respectfully and honor each person's experience, even if you disagree.
Perhaps thank them for daring to share this sliver of their soul on this corner of the Internet?
Asking honest, respectful questions is always a good thing.
These are ways we can make love visible. Right here, right now.