The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads this way: “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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
We commonly refer to this amendment as “separation of church and state” or “separation of church from state.” Either way, the intent is clear: the US shall not have a required church where all citizens must maintain membership. We are astoundingly free to practice our religion the way we want.
Which is why I don’t understand the conservative church outrage over the June 26, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. That decision granted to all adults the right for two people to marry, to commit themselves to one another in the challenges and privileges that come with marriage. This is the correct next step in the radical experiment of democracy in which we live.
Nonetheless, a huge outcry insisting that God is abandoning our country rose from countless pulpits and blogs last weekend.
Although some of the shapers of our government were adherents of Christianity, from the beginning we’ve been a nation of pluralities, of multiple religions, and of the unique freedom not to be religious but still have all rights of citizenship. Well, people had the rights unless one happened to be a native American, female, or owned by another as a slave and thus classified as less than fully human.
Slowly, we have expanded our definition of humanity to include the formerly excluded.
It’s been a messy process. Every time one more group demanded to be recognized, vicious opposition voices worked to shout those interlopers down. As a rule, opponents cited the Bible as their authority to support their places of privilege while denying rights to others.
But, thanks be to God, there really is separation of church and state here. Our elected representatives and our judicatory are not representatives or servants of some restricted religious body. They are under no obligation to follow religious restrictions. They are, however, under the obligation to follow the dictates of the laws that govern this country.
Which is exactly what happened.
I was out of town celebrating my birthday when the decision was announced. When I later checked news and messages, the amount of hate and entitlement spewing from certain religious voices stunned me.
After arriving home, I watched recorded messages from prominent pastors and read multiple articles and blog posts.
One preacher, probably representative of many on the conservative end, insisted that America is some grand idea, a new order founded by God. He also stated that the SCOTUS decision represented greater treachery to this country than either Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Others called the wrath of God down upon those who call for a more open, more just society. I saw much conflation of church and state. America is to be worshiped alongside God who no longer transcends political and national boundaries.
Preachers have the freedom to say those things precisely because they won’t be persecuted.
They can be as loving or as hateful, as inclusive or exclusive, as they wish.
They can interpret the Bible to say that God hates certain people and chooses just a select few for eternal bliss or that God loves the creation in its entirely and suffers with us in our joint and individual agonies, pains and betrayals.
They can be the most holy and humble of servants or the most lavishly paid of the prosperity gospel money machines.
They can condemn others with abandon or preach universal salvation even for the worst among us.
No matter what, no government official can come after them for the free expression of their religious beliefs.
They are not employees of the state. They can perform marriages or they can decline to perform marriages. They can open their doors to certain people, or they can slam the doors in the faces of those they don’t want in their oh-so-pure enclaves.
They are unbelievably privileged.
That’s what it means to live in a free society.
If preachers want to dictate the religious views of the country, I would suggest they spend some time in an ISIS dominated society. After all, the leaders of ISIS declare that their religion dictates their murders and rapes.
This weekend we celebrate the unique freedoms we enjoy because of the separation of church and state. Go to church–or don’t go to church. Let others in or keep others out. You get to decide. That’s the power of the US experiment.
But I will say this about myself: If my credentialing as a United Methodist clergywomen had allowed it and if I had been in town, I, too, would have been on the courthouse steps offering my services with great joy to any who might want a wedding by a Christian pastor.
That’s my freedom. I’m grateful for it.
[Note: a version of this blog post is scheduled to run in the Friday, July 3, 2015 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]