For much of our history, American Christians have enjoyed the luxury of theorizing at leisure about their relationship with institutions of common culture. The pace of current events, driven by societal attitudes regarding marriage, family, and sexuality, means that what was once an abstract debate has increasingly tangible implications. Many Christians and churches will face decisions that would have been inconceivable just a generation ago. Thinking together about how to live wisely in the world has taken on fresh urgency today.
The pressing issue of whether religious liberty can be preserved in a culture that has idealized sexual self-expression is now fully before us. In the opening lines of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision invalidating laws confining marriage to persons of the opposite sex, Justice Kennedy wrote, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” The “Constitutional right” to same-sex marriage has thus been grounded in the same abstraction that the Court used to reaffirm the abortion license in its 1992 Casey opinion, in which we were instructed that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The legal landscape for those who dissent from this understanding is increasingly difficult. Traditional checks against governmental power to coerce conduct inimical to religious belief have been undermined by court opinions and societal attitudes that view free exercise of religion as operative only at the level of individual belief.
This ascendant view of what is meant by religious liberty is not easily squared with the opinion of men like James Madison, who wrote, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage only as he believes to be acceptable to Him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Under this increasingly disfavored understanding, religious liberty warrants protection precisely because it speaks to an area of life where men and women of good will are compelled by their deepest understanding of their duty before God to refrain from, or engage in, conduct that has unavoidable social consequences.
The practical implications of all of this are being played out across the United States. For example, in Illinois, the Evangelical Child and Family Agency was forced to stop providing foster care placement services. In Iowa, a devout Mennonite couple was fined $5,000 and ultimately forced to close down their business after declining to host same-sex wedding ceremonies. The fire chief of Atlanta was fired for publishing a book expressing traditional views about marriage and sexuality.
Added to this are the more than hypothetical concern about loss of accreditation for Christian educational institutions, loss of tax-exempt status for churches and other religious nonprofits, and threats to the professional licenses of Christian doctors, lawyers, nurses, and others.
More concerning than governmental actions directed against religiously motivated conduct, are the societal attitudes that undergird them. These are perhaps best reflected in the aggressive stance taken by major corporations opposing efforts to safeguard religious liberty against the kind of encroachments discussed above. It is not merely our written Constitution that has been transformed, but our “unwritten constitution”—those shared values and presuppositions that undergird our life together in the common realm. To a large percentage of Americans, traditional religious teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality appear foreign, irrational, and even dangerous. In a society where the public is disinclined to see religion as a public good, appeals to religious liberty are viewed as little more than archaic special pleading by those who wish to shield their “irrational animus” from the legal and social approbation it deserves.
For Christians pondering these realities, two distinct questions must be considered. First, as citizens of the United States, how can we best seek the welfare of the earthly community that God has placed us in? Here complex principles of temporal justice, prudence, and political sagacity all come into play.
Secondly, Christians are obligated to consider the even more complex question of how they, as citizens of the kingdom of God, are to bear witness to the truth, as those wedded together as the body of Christ. While the kingdom of God is eschatological in ultimate form, it is a reality now in the life of the visible church, where religion as abstract idea gives way to the tangible reality of a living community. Here especially, we do not stand strictly on our rights, but practice an ethic of self-denial.
God’s rule of both his temporal and his heavenly kingdom is not in doubt. But the nature and form of that rule is nonetheless distinct in the two realms. The former is grounded in the common grace principles of preservation and restraint, and the latter finds its focal point in Christ’s redemptive office. One implication of this distinction is that the church is freed to live out an ethic that is peculiarly its own. One part of this ethic entails a willing submission to the “suffering then glory” pattern reflected in the life of our Savior.
This does not mean that the church never appeals for redress to the civil magistrate. But it does mean that it avoids all entanglements that distract from its spiritual mission. A church preoccupied with political activism and litigation strategies will send a message to both its congregants and the world, that word and sacrament observed in community are insufficient to sustain us in our journey as sojourners and exiles.
For Christians, the sexual ethic of Scripture is not optional. From adultery to divorce to same-sex marriage, our understanding is formed in strict submission to the eternal moral will of God. Whatever societal disfavor comes as a result of these views must be endured without compromise. The church must teach and practice what God has commanded. But this is different from organizing itself to facilitate effective political action that obscures its spiritual mission.
Likewise, a healthy society promotes a principled pluralism in which even those who hold to minority religious views are protected as full participants in the civil life of the nation. This inherently requires a degree of line drawing, as no one contends that every type of conduct, no mater how inimical to social order, must be allowed in the name of religious freedom. And it is perhaps especially here, at the point of such line drawing, that Christians, both individually and institutionally, must consider the scope of their involvement in that task. Moreover, the question of how to respond when we believe the line has been drawn improperly must be confronted.
In this regard, speaking hypothetically, it is one thing for an appointed county clerk to quietly seek a religious exemption under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act when confronted with the responsibility to issue same-sex marriage licenses. It is quite another to see it as part of the mission of the church to make common cause with those who would use the clerk’s circumstance in a partisan political battle.
Our hypothetical clerk has every right to use his status as a citizen in the common realm to peaceably pursue lawful redress of his grievance. Providing accommodation to those who, as a matter of conscience, object even to some aspect of their job, has deep roots in our legal system. This approach has the added benefit of not seeking a winner-take-all outcome, but is instead a practical way to foster the kind of principled pluralism referenced above. In short, seeking lawful accommodations is not only appropriate as a matter of right, but may also serve as a wise means by which to promote the good of society as a whole.
However, when, after reasonable effort, an exemption is not granted, it may be more salutary for the clerk who feels bound by conscience not to issue same-sex marriage licenses to resign and for the church to provide financial support in his transition, than to press that claim in a contentious legal or political battle that will be used by men of ill will to obscure the mission and teaching of the church. Only the application of wisdom to the specific facts of a given case can determine when this is the better path.
In all of this, the church must be both more and less strident than the clerk. The church can never under any circumstance “resign” its spiritual mission in the name of social peace. On the other hand, the church may wisely choose to forgo its civil privileges so as to more clearly bear witness to its unique ethic of self-denial as expressed in Matthew 5:38–42 and elsewhere.
As the Augustinian political philosopher Robert P. Kraynak aptly put it, “We must learn to manage the enduring tensions of the heavenly city while seeking the best possible arrangements of the earthly city and recognize that the two orders will not be reconciled until the end of time. Living with the tensions of dual citizenship is a more difficult task than assuming an inevitable convergence of Christian faith and modern democratic life, but it is the only honest course for the pilgrims of the earthly city.”
The author (PCA), after ten years in the Kansas House of Representatives, works for a religious liberties advocacy group. New Horizons, March 2016.