Friday, July 10, 2015

Religious Convictions, Public Behavior, and the Mythical Quest for Purity

In the wake of the US Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage across the country, a number of quite-predictable rearguard actions have sprung up. Many of these revolve around "religious conviction" exceptions, based on the argument that no one (public employee or otherwise) should be required by law to engage in behavior which violates their sincerely-held religious beliefs. As one lawmaker put it in North Carolina, "Just because someone takes a job with the government does not mean they give up their First Amendment rights." A cake baker has apparently also decided to take his case to court, lest he be sanctioned for discriminating against gay couples in the making of wedding cakes.

I find this argument deeply troubling on many fronts. It strikes me as a species of other arguments people make which use the trappings of commonly-held values (in this case, the language about rights and freedom) to advance the opposite. I'm not 100% sure that's what's happening here in all cases, so I'll leave that broader issue aside and focus on a number of more specific ones:

• While the Supreme Court was arguing the Obergefell case, a number of parallels were made to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision which struck down laws outlawing interracial marriage. Across American society today there is very little opposition (at least in public) to interracial marriage, and we tend to chalk the history of such opposition up to the blatant racism which once ruled much of white society. We forget, to our peril, that much of that racism had a very sincerely-held religious dimension to it:

In this counter-protest photo from the civil rights era, in between the "race mixing is Communism" signs is one equating "race mixing" with the "march of the Antichrist". It's a pretty safe bet that for folks making that argument, this was a sincerely held religious belief. Were public and private individuals excused from following the law in the wake of the Loving decision? Was racism OK because it was cloaked in theology?

• There are a great many other legal parallels related to the broader argument. The core of that argument is that it would violate someone's First Amendment rights to religious liberty to pressure or force them by law to participate in some activity of which they personally disapprove on religious or theological grounds. This was part of the argument behind the recent Hobby Lobby decision, although that decision also created the somewhat novel conclusion that corporations have religious beliefs.

During the Civil Rights era, we had a very different view. At the time many businesses (restaurants, hotels, and all manner of other places) routinely discriminated against blacks. Many of those businesses' owners undoubtedly held strong religious convictions about the "mixing of races". And yet, none were allowed to use those convictions as a shield against the law. The legal doctrine of "public accommodations" meant that, if you serve the public you have to serve the whole public - not just those folks you feel like serving. That's what anti-discrimination laws are about.

There's a broader issue here - the extension of the First Amendment into what might be termed a Quest for Purity. What people seem to be asking for is that they be allowed to completely disassociate themselves from anything that violates their religious principles. But where is that line? Does making a cake morally involve the baker in the wedding? Does processing paperwork in a courthouse indicate individual moral approval?

The fact is that we are all involved in many transactions each day that bring us into contact with things to which we might well have religious objections. My tax dollars go to support wars overseas which I find fundamentally immoral, and certainly indefensible within my theological view. But I don't get to withdraw that support selectively. The government can't draft me to fight in such a war - there's an example of a religious exception - but I can't escape being connected to it.

Legally and culturally, what these folks are asking for is a morass. If every individual, regardless of job or responsibility, gets to pick and choose whom they will or will not engage in transactions with, things could go sideways quickly. Over the medium term, I would expect to see even more Balkanization or "voting with one's feet" than we already see - people retreating into enclaves (neighborhood, school, church, business networks, etc.) of people who are only like themselves.

When that withdrawal is complete - as it largely is with the Amish community - that's OK, especially when it's a small minority that doesn't mind being cut off from the rest of society. And even the Amish don't refuse to do business with the rest of us, even though in their eyes most of us are sinners. But the people who are making these "religious conscience" claims want to have it both ways - they want to engage in society and participate in its wealth and power, but they want to be selective about it. That way lies madness, I fear.

• As much as the debate will focus on law - what individual judges or cake bakers are or not permitted to do without legal sanction - the legal side of this case is less interesting to me. Just as the theology of racial segregation largely vanished from mainstream institutions within a generation or two (though it still exists in dark corners, as Dylann Roof demonstrated), I expect that religious views on homosexual relations will also evolve. Indeed, they already are:

- Jimmy Carter (possibly the nation's most famous Southern Baptist) has publicly broken with the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue.

- Tony Campolo, one of the most prominent public evangelicals in the US, has come out in support of gay marriage after years of opposing it on religious grounds.

Granted, both of these guys have leaned left over their careers and have been to some degree left behind by the rightward drive of their own churches. Both have received plenty of pushback for the statements they've made, some of it pretty harsh. But that's to be expected. I suspect that, in a generation or two, our children and grandchildren will look back and wonder what all the hullabaloo was about.

• What's really interesting to me is not what the law says. It's the "religious conviction" arguments that people are making and the religious understanding behind them. The vast majority of folks seeking religious freedom exemptions in these cases are doing so from a Christian standpoint. And while I can understand (although I don't agree with) Christians who regard homosexual marriage as theologically inappropriate, I don't understand their desire to disassociate themselves from it to such an extreme degree.

Many Christians, even today, find divorce morally problematic. Given the passages in Matthew 19 this is understandable, even though others may interpret those passages differently. Given this, are there county clerks who refuse to issue marriage certificates to people previously divorced? Are there bakers who ask if either of the couple has been married previously before baking a cake? My guess is, probably not.

In Christian theology there are many sins - that is, many things which can separate a person from God. In some Christian views, no sin is worse than another - all have the same effect of sundering the relationship between humans and the divine. In other views there is something of a hierarchy - the Catholic church, for example, has famously raised up seven "Cardinal" sins in particular as the most dangerous. Yet in none of these views is homosexuality given a unique position in the pantheon of sin, as being worse than all others. On those grounds, therefore, it's hard to see why one would religiously discriminate against homosexuals but not, for example, against greedy or violent people.

Even the repeated assertion that "the traditional Biblical view of marriage is between one man and one woman" is challenged by the numerous references (some of them quite favorable) to polygamy in the Old Testament. Politicians who have recently argued that the Obergefell decision will lead to the sin of polygamy next should perhaps read their Bibles a little more closely...

The truth is that views of marriage and relationships have always been cultural, and have always been changing. A couple of centuries ago we still considered wives as property, and marriage was structured as such. Adherents to that view embedded it in their theology, and there were plenty of "sincerely held religious beliefs" supporting legal and social structures that we would find abhorrent today. Despite claims by some that "God never changes", our understanding of God and God's will have changed a LOT over the centuries. Somehow, we always manage to "discover" a theology that fits with our current cultural views and norms.

This is not to say that religious beliefs aren't sincere, or that the search for truth about God isn't important. I don't advocate throwing up our hands and retreating into some kind of radical relativism. What I do think this suggests is the need for humility. People in the past have been wrong - not just wrong by the standards of our day, but wrong. We didn't abolish slavery because we changed our minds and now things are different - we came to view the ownership of any human being by another as contrary to the will of God for humanity as it always had been.

So how best to wrestle with these issues? I think the warning about the speck in your neighbor's eye in Matthew 7 is instructive. We are called to look to ourselves first and foremost, rather than trying to control the behavior of others. Some have suggested that these "religious exemption" arguments for county clerks are a way of making sure that no gay weddings take place in certain communities - that is, a back-door way of trying to control other's behavior. I'm sure there's some truth to that.

But the gospel doesn't call us to control the behavior of our neighbors or to make sure that they don't commit what we think are sins. It also doesn't call us to remove ourselves from the world and refrain from contact with any sinful thing - although that's not what these "exceptionalists" want anyway, since they're not trying to disassociate themselves from any other sins. The only clear direction I can see: love one another. Try as I might, I can't find any qualifiers on that - it's not "love only the people you approve of" or "love only the people who are behaving the way you think they should". Matthew 5 is pretty clear on that subject, it seems to me.

So in a certain sense, I would welcome more religious discussion in this context. If you want to express your faith through your action in the world, great. Just make sure - in all humility - that it's the faith you really claim, and (ideally) that it's a faith that pulls people in and builds them up, rather than tearing them down. I see nothing "Christian" about this wave of rejectionism. Eventually, I hope they see it the same way.

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