In the wake of the Supreme Court refusing to hear a case challenging the Washington, DC law recognizing gay marriages, DC pastor Anthony Evans has declared a “civil war between the church and the gay community“:
“[W]hat the Supreme Court has set up is the greatest civil war between the church and the gay community,” Evans said. “And let me just state for the record, we don’t want that fight. We love our gay brothers and sisters. But if the Supreme Court is not going to acknowledge the fact that we have a right as religious people to have a say-so in the framework of religious ethics for our culture and society, then we reject the Supreme Court on this issue.”
Wow. There’s so much wrong here it’s hard to know where to start. Evans complains that the Supreme court had denied “religious people” the right “to have a say so in the framework of religious ethics,” but that’s not what’s under discussion at all. On the contrary, the court decision concerns the question of secular legality, not religious ethics. That is to say, morality and legality in a secular society are two different domains, though there is certainly overlap (chainsaw murder, for example). But the Supreme Court had nothing whatsoever to say about Evans’ (or anyone else’s) right to declare an action immoral within a given framework of religious ethics.
This conflation of political and religious spheres has become an increasingly visible problem in the political arena over the past thirty years (tracing at least to the beginning of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and the rise of “dominion theology,” which I’ll address later), a conflation that rests on a misunderstanding both of the foundations of US government and early Christian theology. (It has also caused much hand wringing from the secular Left, which worries that fundamentalist Christians are seeking to impose a Taliban-style theocratic system in the USA, a concern that both grossly overestimates and misunderstands its opposition. But that’s a subject for another time.) In this post, I’ll address the first misunderstanding (that of the foundations of US government), before turning to Christian theological issues in Part Two and finally the specific question of a “civil war between the church and the gay community” in Part Three. (After all this, I then attempt to explore the question of how the church can appropriately interact with the state in this post.) To briefly sum up my conclusion from the start: the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, leaving “marriage” to be defined by religious (and para-religious) institutions, while the church should differentiate between marriage and any state-sanctioned civil recognition of a union.
American Exceptionalism: One (the only) Nation Under God?
First, part of the problem is a frequently-perpetuated myth of American exceptionalism—that is, the notion that the United States was somehow established and put in place by (the Christian) God as his own specific nation, “[the] one nation under God,” different from all the other nations in the world, set apart as God’s special Christian land. This myth has a long and distinguished list, dating back to the early Puritans who settled in the USA, seeking a new land in which they could practice their Christianity as they saw fit. Though not especially notable at the time, John Winthrop’s famous 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity (better known as the “City on a Hill Sermon”), which proclaimed that God had made a special covenant with the Puritans coming to the New World wherein they would be his own holy community, has continued to influence political rhetoric to this day, with such 20th century giants as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan utilizing that speech to proclaim the “uniqueness” of the USA as God’s chosen instrument to lead the world. This sentiment provided the foundation for “Manifest Destiny,” justified massacres of Native Americans, and has continued to undergird notions of American superiority up to the present.
It should be recalled, however, that these sentiments arose from Puritan notions of the unity of church and state—Puritans believed that the state should enforce “true religion” (that is, their own beliefs), and when their beliefs weren’t supported by the governments in England, many Puritans sailed for the USA, where they could establish their own communities. They saw this as God-ordained and interpreted numerous Israel- and church-directed passages as though they referred specifically to their own community, effectively reinterpreting the biblical covenants as though they referred in some way to these new communities which they were setting up. God had chosen them (the Puritans) as his own people, and now they were to establish a new community in a new Promised Land—like Israel in the Old Testament, they were to seize this new land and establish the law of God on earth. (This, of course, turned out to be very, very bad news for many of the “inhabitants of the land,” who became the victims of a new genocidal campaign, justified by the newcomers’ conviction that they were doing God’s will.)
From those days until now, many practitioners of “American Christianity” have continued to interpret biblical passages about “God’s people” as though they referred to the United States (oddly, Canada and Mexico don’t get these special honors). Promises to Israel (or the church) are thus translated to the USA, with whom God has (presumably) covenanted, promising to prosper them so long as they are obedient to him. This myth continues to further propagated among many by school curricula like A Beka Book, which looks back to the Pilgrims as the true founders of the USA, inculcating a notion of the USA as God’s special nation.
Such a narrative, however, uncritically overlooks important differences between the early Pilgrim settlements and the foundations of the United States, which was established nearly 150 years later. Winthrop, for example, was an ardent opponent of the sort of government ultimately established after the Revolutionary War (instead in favor of a strong church-led aristocracy), stating:
If we should change from a mixed aristocracy to mere democracy, first we should have no warrant in scripture for it: for there was no such government in Israel … A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government. [To allow it would be] a manifest breach of the 5th Commandment. [Note the assumption that the new world should be reckoned as a sort of "new Israel."]
In contrast, the Framers of the US Constitution had very different ideas (after all, they did establish a democratic republic), as the following quotes from Thomas Jefferson make clear:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination. [Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom]
They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion. [Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800]
Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. [Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814]
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. [Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814]
More relevant perhaps to the present issue, Jefferson also comments:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. [Notes on the State of Virginia]
The founding fathers, terrified of religion’s capacity to produce horrible abuses of power when having governmental power, sought to limit religion’s sphere of influence, keeping it from having impact in matters of state as much as possible. Recall that the whole system of checks and balances set up in the Constitution reflect the framers’ concerns with giving anything too much power, and few entities have more potential rhetorical power than religion, which can claim God is on its side. This was done in an effort to protect religion just as much as protect from religion, since this would theoretically prevent any one religion from officially persecuting another. (And we shouldn’t forget that although many Christians in America fought slavery, were were on the front lines in the Civil Rights movement, etc., many American Christians have also historically used scripture to perpetrate injustice, fighting in favor of slavery, for example.)
Evans’ comments thus rely upon an all-too-common misunderstanding of the foundations US government. But perhaps even more significantly (at least for Christians), the underlying commitment to “American Christianity” fundamentally distorts Christianity by collapsing the distinction between America (the USA) and the church. That will be the subject of Part Two.