Religious freedom in the United States is in peril, or so I have been led to believe. Over the past few weeks, we have seen three flash points in the so-called “culture wars”, events that have caused conservative Christians and/or just plain conservatives to once again sound the alarm about the growing persecution they face in this country.
First, there was the short-lived controversy surrounding the non-profit international aid group World Vision, a favorite charity of many evangelical Christians (and others), who in turn for paying about a dollar a day receive a picture of a child in an impoverished country and the feeling that they are making a positive difference in the world. (I should stress that I am not anti-World Vision and have been participating in their child sponsorship program for about a decade.)
Within a day of World Vision announcing that, due to the beliefs of several Christian denominations with which they work, they were not going to discriminate against Christians working for their organization who were married to same-sex partners, the evangelical Christian world was in a frenzy, with some people cancelling their donations to the organization.
It only took two days for World Vision to make an abrupt change of course, assuring donors that they had no idea what had come over them and they absolutely supported the one man/one woman model of wedded bliss. One cheeky blogger had particular fun with the incident, penning a mock letter to their sponsored child in which they pledged that one day the starving youngster would understand why the rich American had to stop sending them money in order to make a doctrinal point.
Next, there was the Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby, in which the crafts and decor megastore’s leadership charged that their constitutional rights are being violated because they are being forced to equip their employees with Obamacare-compliant health care policies that provide users with access to free contraceptives, including what is popularly known as the “morning after pill”. (Some of Hobby Lobby’s opponents have charged the organization with hypocrisy because its employees’ retirement plans have some of their money invested in companies that manufacture such drugs. I will let the reader decide if that charge has merit.)
Catholic organizations had already been having a similar fight with the Obama administration for a few years, and several Republican candidates seized on the issue as proof that religious freedom was under siege during the 2012 election cycle (perhaps sincerely, or perhaps cynically hoping to motivate Catholic voters to get to the polls). The problem, as I have noted elsewhere, is that most American Catholics disagree with their church’s teaching regarding contraceptives, but that is a separate discussion.
As I was saying, Hobby Lobby is charging that it is their God-given right (and, more importantly in this case, their Founding Father-given right) to refuse any health coverage to their employees that violates their religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby might have a harder time making this argument stick than the Catholics did, because they are actually a for-profit business and not a religious institution. (Well, I guess the Catholic Church historically has been too, but we’re talking about legal definitions here…) Personally, I will keep shopping at Hobby Lobby, but not in solidarity with their anti-contraception stance. Rather, I am adhering to that most treasured of all Christian values: not paying any more for something than I absolutely have to.
Finally, we have the unfortunate tale of Brendan Eich, who had recently become the chief executive of Mozilla, the company that makes the popular Firefox internet browser. (But let’s face it: It’s not as popular as Google Chrome.) As it turns out, internet users are a pretty savage group, ready to pounce on anyone who does not share their opinion. Ok, we all knew that already, but we saw it happen again when Eich became head of Mozilla and the company faced a subsequent firestorm. Eich’s mistake was donating $1,000 (a relatively small sum in the world of political donations) to a group that supported Proposition 8, the ballot initiative in California a few years back that sought to make gay marriage illegal.
In this case, Brendan Eich seems to have been actually keeping his views to himself for the most part. Mozilla’s company policy is to provide health care to all the same-sex couples in its organization, regardless of whether or not their own states even recognize gay marriages. In a blog post on March 26, Eich apologized and noted his “sorrow at having caused pain”, but it was not enough to save his job. He has now resigned and his company has thrown him under the bus, metaphorically speaking.
Now, I know some people are going to say that Mr. Eich is just another victim in the ever increasing assault on free speech, but I think we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he was simply targeted because his last name is only one letter off from “reich”, or one man off from “Eichmann”. Everyone knows that someone with a name that close to someone (or something) involved in mass murder can’t be an effective chief executive of anything. I mean, Obama hasn’t exactly been Mt. Rushmore worthy, if you know what I mean…but I digress.
Separation of Church and State
All of these examples are but the appetizer to the entrée I intend to provide for my readers. Current events have once again brought to the forefront questions about the interaction between church and state. Now, I ask you, what could be more fitting than an examination of the separation (or lack thereof) between church and state on a website titled Church & State? That’s a trick question, because nothing could be more appropriate. The name literally begs for the discussion.
Whenever we have controversies like the ones that have been swirling around recently, Christians living in the United States – and non-believers as well – start to wonder about the intersection between religion and politics. Here in the U.S., the principle of “separation of church and state” is typically considered to be a virtue, a genius move crafted by the Founding Fathers in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – U.S. Constitution, Amendment I
However, not everyone in the United States is so thrilled about our system wherein the secular and the sacred are meant to dwell happily side-by-side, one never overstepping the bounds of the other. There have certainly been Christians over the years who have felt that our government ought to be a lot more Christ-oriented (sometimes they use the term “Judeo-Christian” to sound less partisan), that our leaders should be God-fearing, that we should enact laws in line with the precepts of the Bible, that we should display the Ten Commandments in all courthouses year-round and have a manger outside at Christmas, etc.
It would be rare to hear someone actually say, “America needs to have a Christian government!”, but I think that many of the things that evangelical Christians often want the government to do, like banning gay marriage or reinstituting prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools, are motivated not so much by secular logic as by a belief that they are in line with a biblical worldview. I think it is safe to say that for many American Christians, especially those from the more evangelical wing of Christianity, the separation of church and state is seen as a negative rather than a positive development.
Personally, I’ve always felt that the separation of church and state is a necessary measure (and not in the sense of being a necessary evil) and that it is one of the things that makes this country great. But contrary to what many people focus on, I do not think this separation is just about protecting the government: I think it is at least as much, if not more, about protecting the church.
What convinces me of the accuracy of this statement beyond a shadow of a doubt is my time paying attention to British politics and society. As we all know, the United States started out as a collection of British colonies, and that influence has certainly worked its way into our legal system, our clear preference for capitalism, and even our religious landscape. Yet, from the very beginning, the United States of America’s insistence that it would not have an official state church nor discriminate against any religious minorities set it apart from the far more ancient European nations, which had been engaged in religious persecution and even religious wars for hundreds of years.
In one of those odd ironies of life, the present day United Kingdom is actually far less religious than the United States (almost four times as many Americans attend church services), yet it is the British who have an official state church headed by the Queen herself. I might venture to say that it is actually not a coincidence, but rather the natural result of a dynamic secular academia confronting a religious institution so heavily structured and weighed down by its political history that it has little ability to still inspire the masses. And now I shall tell you a little story that illustrates my point quite nicely…
Gay Marriage Across the Pond
Support for legalized same-sex marriage has grown substantially in the United States over the past decade, a fact that was pointed out by many last year when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act (commonly referred to by its acronym, “DOMA”) to be a violation of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” – U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section One
What is less commonly known is that this push in favor of same-sex marriage has not been limited to the United States. Also in 2013, the national legislatures of two major U.S. allies, France and the United Kingdom, both voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Given my interest in British politics, I have been paying attention to how this historic vote would impact the Church of England, also referred to as the Anglican Church.
Its cousin in the United States is the Episcopal Church, which somewhat controversially changed its policy to admit openly gay clergy members a few years back. However, the Church of England has not made such a change, and when Parliament began considering a bill to legally recognize gay marriages (rather than simply gay civil unions, which have been going on there since 2005), some Anglicans protested that such a move would hurt the church.
By voting to change the nation’s marriage policy, Britain’s political leaders created a rather interesting ecclesiastical conundrum. As the official state church, the Church of England is unlike other religious denominations or any sacred institution in the United States. It is at least symbolically led by the nation’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II. It receives taxpayer funding, and every person born in the U.K. technically belongs to one of its parishes, though only a small percentage are regular attendees.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ranking member of the clergy and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is actually selected and appointed by the Prime Minister in the name of the Queen, though he/she has to choose from a list provided by the Crown Nominations Commission. (This may have been one of the reasons former British Prime Minister Tony Blair waited until leaving office to convert to Catholicism.)
Thus, the question became, what happens when the Queen’s government passes a law that conflicts with the avowed doctrine of the Queen’s church? If the law of the land is that same-sex couples can marry, then would the official state church have no choice but to perform and recognize such ceremonies? Would it have to allow clergy members to be married to same-sex partners?
Although politicians pledged that religious organizations would not be required to perform same sex weddings, these Anglicans predicted that human rights cases could be brought against them under European Union laws prohibiting discrimination. The bill’s opponents within the Church of England also complained that the change would mean that Anglican parishioners could no longer perform marriage ceremonies for anyone in the country, limiting their role as the nation’s church. (Supporters of the bill pointed out flaws in both arguments since the Church already refuses to perform many second marriages for divorced persons.)
As the time for a vote on the bill grew near, figures within the Church of England were forced to accept that the parliamentary majority was against them, and that they would have to fight to improve the bill rather than block it entirely. The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said in a statement, “If this bill is to become law, it is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.”
By February 2014, as the time for the new policy to take effect approached, the Church of England released a statement reading in part, “We are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged….It will continue not to be legally possible for two persons of the same sex to marry according to the rites of the Church of England.” The Church also insisted that its vicars would not be allowed to marry same sex partners. However, it did say that special prayers could be offered for same sex couples following their marriages.
Well, the Church of England’s primary leadership may be maintaining a united front on this issue for the time being, but there is trouble within the ranks. Some more conservative, evangelical denominations throughout Britain are threatening to leave the Anglican Church if it moves to bless civil partnerships as a compromise position. Meanwhile, some members of the clergy announced their intentions to marry their same sex partners and others said they had no problem performing gay marriages. Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, said Church opposition to same sex marriages was “sheer cruelty” and encouraged gay clergy members to “come out”.
There is also some pressure from politicians. Even as the Church encouraged its clergy to support congregants in same sex marriages, MP Ben Bradshaw, who sits on the parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee, challenged the Church to state clearly if it would defrock a vicar who entered into such a marriage. He accused the Church of trying to “have its cake and eat it too” by presenting such a double standard, and added that it would be “extreme” to kick out members of the clergy in same sex marriages.
What Next for Religious Freedom?
What lies in store for the Church of England? My sense is that it will continue in this kind of in-between land for a few years, trying hard to appear accepting of congregants and yet drawing the line at gay marriage within the clergy. Eventually, the pro-gay marriage contingent will probably grow more powerful and force a change in church policy. This will cause more conservative congregations to break away and become independent, which will move the Anglican Church in a “liberal” direction for good.
No, I have not seen all of this in a crystal ball, and I do not know for sure what twists and turns this story may take, but I think it is clear that the lack of separation between church and state in this case is putting a lot of pressure on the Church of England to at least accept, if not fully embrace, the government’s position. One wonders how “free” churches can really be when they are not fully independent from the politicians.
That brings us back to America. The push for gay marriage in this country has certainly presented an interesting dilemma for many denominations and churchgoers. Some or even all will have to accept that they live in a state and/or nation that acknowledges same sex marriages on the same level as heterosexual ones.
Those who work in the secular realm, such as the photographer in New Mexico who refused to photograph a gay commitment ceremony, may well find that their religious views do not exempt them from rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Fundamentally religious organizations, on the other hand, ought to continue to have the freedom to hire who they want, bless what they want, and fund what they want on the basis of their own beliefs.
This level of freedom that still exists for churches and other religious institutions is a direct result of the separation between church and state, the very thing that many Christians have chafed at over the years. So if you value the right of your religious organization to make its own decisions independent of government policy, take a moment to appreciate the gift given to you by people like Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest defenders of the separation of church and state in early America and the favorite Founding Father of atheists. For a long time, the laws he championed have protected people who disagreed with you…but now you may find that they are protecting you.
Please note: The purpose of this article is not to argue whether or not the U.S. federal government (or any other government) should legally recognize gay marriages. That is a complicated issue that must be decided based on careful consideration of the U.S. Constitution, and I have no desire to weigh into it at this time.