When it comes to guns, religion and the display of hateful symbols on public property, we hear much talk of “rights” and “freedom.” The arguments amount to blindly sentimental patriotism at best, and toxic entitlement at worst.
At the same time—and from many of the same quarters—equal rights for LGBT folks are met with language of “values” and “tradition” and “what God and/or our forefathers intended for all people.” This marks a tragic disconnect among those who embrace the Bible with one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other… From this double-fisted stance, they can call up one when it suits them, while hiding the other behind their back.
Listen, America is not perfect, but for my own moment of blindly sentimental patriotism, the Red White and Blue gets a lot of things right. The separation of church and state is one of them. It may be a recent development that conservative politics and fundamentalist ideologies so often stroll hand in hand… But it just does not compute when America-loving Christians demand that their personal religious beliefs be written into the constitution.
You can love the gospel, and you can honor the Constitution. But if you truly value both, you will not abuse one in the name of the other. They are two different things. And believe me, we want it that way.
Arguments about freedom of religion do not hold up. Pastors do not HAVE to marry anybody. Ever. If I decide that the couple sitting in my office is too young and stupid to get married, I have the right to say, “nope, I’m not having any part of this train wreck, but y’all have fun in Cancun.” Same with a pastor who believes marriage is between a man and a woman. He still has the right to turn them away.
The circuit court, however—a government entity—does NOT, any longer, have that right. Even though I’m sure some of those government employees will cite religious beliefs as their reason for denying the paper work… When it comes to marriage, there’s a difference between what happens at the church, what happens at the court house. And that’s well as it should be.
There are PLENTY of things in scripture that are not in the Constitution. Because the Bible is this whole big thing, and the constitution is a few pages under glass at the National Archives Building. For all the ways the Constitution is not the Bible, the world does not seem to be going up in flames about the abomination of eating shellfish, or the wearing of inappropriate blends of fabric. (Although, if Tim Gunn gets his way, banning polyester is definitely part of the “gay agenda.”)
Nobody, even on the farthest of the far right, calls on the biblical law that women should be made to marry their rapists (although, give Ted Cruz enough rope…)
We could go on for days about all the parts of scripture that literalists don’t take literally. But there are some particular ways that the bible and the constitution are directly counter to each other. For instance.
- Sabbath vs. Free Enterprise. Exodus 31 states that a person can be put to death for working on the Sabbath. The U.S. Constitution, however, establishes a free market economy as law of the land. Which lays the foundation for free enterprise. Which means that if you want to open your store, or harvest your fields, or call your employees to work on a Sunday, nobody can stop you. And you will definitely not go to jail. Or be stoned, or whatever. Score one for America.
- Swords into Plowshares vs. WE HEART GUNS. The prophet Isaiah famously called for a day when the people would “beat their swords into ploughshares” and all would be at peace. But we only talk about that at Christmas time. Also, Jesus said more than a few things about non-violence and the evils of retribution. But we don’t talk about that much, either. What we DO hold as gospel is the 2nd Amendment. No matter what “The Bible Clearly Says” about that.
- Giving to poor vs. whatever Sam Brownback is doing today. Jesus says to give whatever you have to the poor and come follow him. The constitution does not suggest any such thing. Furthermore, the gospels and the epistles advocate for feeding the hungry and caring for the least of these; while the Constitution ensures that you can hold onto as much of your stuff as possible.
- Free speech vs. taming the tongue. Just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should.
- On the Borrowing of money. Romans 13 states that believers should “Owe no one anything, except to love each other” (MANY OTHER similar passages, in old and New Test alike). Sec. 8. of the Constitution, however, establishes that Congress has authority “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.”
- Slavery: Abraham Lincoln vs. The Other Abraham. Bible = Slavery ok. Constitution = slavery not ok.
- Women’s Rights in the Bible are–shall we say, grim. Women could not own property. Women were often held as property. Women could not escape abusers. Women had little political authority. We could go on… Women in America could not own property either, until they could. After that, they could VOTE even. We’ve come a ways…
So, which do we want? A government that reflects the letter of the biblical law? Or a faith that bows to government in all regards?
There are many ways in which we gladly evolve from archaic tribal codes. There are other ways that many of us wish our contemporary world could better reflect the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.
Either way—it is totally OK that these two ‘sacred’ documents do not jive in every way. Because they are not for the same purpose. The Constitution is in place to protect the rights and freedom of ALL people; and people of faith cannot expect that certain carefully selected parts of their creed should bind their neighbors who don’t share their belief.
If we want to be authentic believers, OR authentic patriots, we must approach all of our binding documents with a measure of human concern, an appreciation of free will, and a mindfulness of how society evolves over time. Neither the Bible, nor the Constitution, was meant to control or manipulate human behavior; but rather, to allow for some fundamental rights that would make life on earth more peaceable and just for all. But both were crafted for a particular group of people, in a fixed time and place. The more we expect them to reflect each other—or to remain unchanged by time— the more we limit the very freedoms they were designed to ensure.
I’m willing to live with a little tension and ambiguity, in order to keep our faith and our freedom as separate entities.
Come to think of it— that separation is right there in print. In scripture AND the Constitution. In fact, keeping this particular boundary in place is one of the few things they agree on.
Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
If we mean to honor both scripture and legislation, maybe we should pay attention on that rare occasion when they echo each other…
Because there is a time for everything… A time for faith, and a time for patriotism. A time to cite scripture, and a time to cite the law. Discernment is the spiritual and deeply human work of knowing when is the right time for each, and to what end, and for what season.