Monday, November 9, 2015

Israel and the Church

Recently I posted a response to an article defending Christian Zionism. Some of you who read that article may have encountered terms that you had never seen before, and felt like you were walking into the middle of a very confusing conversation. So I wanted to take some time to define as simply as I can (hopefully without being unfair) the basic terms I discussed in that article.

While Zionism is a broad term, it refers to a set of movements that hold in common the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland in the ancient land of Israel. Religious versions of Zionism believe that this right is divine, and that the modern state of Israel is the inheritor of God’s promises of a homeland for Abraham’s offspring. Christian Zionists believe that God maintains a special commitment to ethnic Israel, as distinct and separate from the church.

Most Christian Zionists are adherents to a theological system known as dispensationalism. This doctrine derives its name from the belief that God has worked through very different ages or dispensations of history, sharply distinguished from one another. But the essence of dispensationalism is the belief that Scripture should always be interpreted literally. This means that when the Old Testament makes promises about the nation of Israel, those promises must be fulfilled literally in ethnic, fleshly Israel. Therefore, the age of Israel is to be sharply distinguished from the age of the church, and the promises made to Israel cannot apply to the church.

I appreciate the motivation behind the desire to interpret Scripture literally. Dispensationalism emerged in a time when theological liberalism sought to explain away the miracles of Jesus as nothing more than parables. By superimposing on the gospels a bias against the possibility of the supernatural,  liberalism distorted the clear historical claims of Christianity. Ironically, by superimposing its own grid of “literal” interpretation on the Bible, dispensationalism likewise distorts the clear teaching of the New Testament.

The issue is not whether God has made certain promises regarding Israel and the land. The issue is, how did God fulfill those promises? We could answer this question by assuming that the only possible way God could fulfill them was literally – with reference to ethnic Israel and the geographical entity called Palestine. But from a Christian point of view, we must let Jesus and the apostles explain to us how God fulfilled those promises. And what the New Testament consistently teaches is that God has redefined and expanded “Israel” to include all of those - whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles – who are in Christ. And, God has redefined and expanded the “the promised land” to include a whole new creation, “a new heaven and earth.”

With regard to “Israel,” Paul says that all of those who have faith like Abraham and are baptized into Christ become “Abraham’s offspring,” whether Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:26-29). For this reason, Peter takes an entire series of descriptions of Israel from the Old Testament – terms like “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation” – and applies them to Christians, regardless of ethnic identity (1 Peter 2:9-10). And this is precisely what Jesus envisioned, many coming “from east and west” to dine with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).

Christian Zionists disagree, and often describe the position I just laid out as “replacement theology,” the idea that the church has replaced Israel. Another term that is often used in theological circles is supersessionism, the notion that the church has superseded (supplanted) Israel. This terminology easily leads to caricatures, like the following claims from the article to which I replied:
  • ·     “the Incarnation was supposed to turn the focus away from Israel” 
  • ·      “no longer would God be concerned with the Jews”
  • ·      “Israel has been left behind”

But of course these statements are completely false. Jesus came in the flesh to save Israel (Matthew 1:21), and sent the disciples to teach the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). God is most certainly concerned with the Jews, as he is with all people (Romans 10:1), and God has not rejected ethnic Israel in blanket fashion (Romans 11:1). That is why many theologians who reject Zionism and dispensationalism nevertheless also reject the terms “replacement theology” or “supersessionism.” Those terms are easily misconstrued. I prefer the term expansionism.

Maybe all of these “isms” are still confusing! Here’s an illustration I hope will help. Dispensationalism says that God has constructed two houses: first he built Israel, and then he built the church along side of Israel. Supersessionism says that God built one house – Israel, tore it down, and replaced it with another house – the church. But expansionism says that God built one house – Israel, and then remodeled it. This “remodeling” involved the removal of some parts of the house, along with the addition of other rooms to the house. The result of this remodeling is still Israel, but Israel expanded – the church.

It seems to me that this exactly the picture Paul gives to us in his own illustration of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24. Israel is the olive tree. Some branches were broken off because of unbelief. Others, which he identifies as the Gentiles, were grafted in. And those who were broken off in unbelief may once again be grafted back in. ONE tree, pruned and augmented for sure, but still one tree. Other illustrations make the same point: there is one body (Ephesians 2:11-18), one temple (Ephesians 2:19-22), one offspring of Abraham (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 3:26-29).

In contrast to dispensationalism and supersessionism, there is both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. There is discontinuity in the sense that ethnic heritage is no longer the defining point of entry into God’s “Israel” – faith in Christ is. But there is continuity in the sense that it is still Abraham’s family.

This same concept of redefinition and expansion is true of the “promised land.” The New Testament takes the promises of a new land and temple and applies them to the glorious eternal dwelling of God with his people in the “new heavens and earth” in Revelation 21-22. While this may run counter to the “literal” matrix of interpretation, we must ultimately yield to the way the inspired writers of the New Testament inform us of how God intends to keep his promises.

In Ephesians 5 Paul uses the relationship of marriage as a model of that of Christ and the church. He calls this a “mystery,” which earlier in Ephesians he says describes the relationship of Jews and Gentiles together in one body through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). By insisting on special privileges for ethnic Israel, Christian Zionism pulls apart this unity that Christ achieved in making Gentiles fellow heirs with Israel. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Impassibility of God - a Review of Thomas Weinandy's Does God Suffer?

By Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap. (Notre Dame: 2000).

The classical view of God defended for most of church history by
thinkers such as the early church fathers, later theologians like Aquinas, and reformers like Calvin and Arminius, was that God is impassible. This means that God does not experience changes of emotional states. But in recent times, this doctrine has come under sharp criticism by theologians of varied backgrounds.

Catholic theologian Thomas G. Weinandy’s book, Does God Suffer?, is a robust defense of the classical doctrine of impassibility. As he explains in the preface, his desire is to refute erroneous arguments made against the doctrine, and to present a positive view of God in light of this teaching. I think he succeeds on both counts.

In this review I will survey each chapter of Weinandy’s book and summarize his arguments. But before I do that, since the concept of impassibility may be foreign to many readers, I want to take just a moment to clarify what exactly this teaching means. But first, we need to understand some more basic ideas about God and language.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Samaritan, The Problem of Evil, and Love

At the church where I minister we have just experienced an incredible season of grief. Two members in the span of a week passed away after multi-year battles with cancer. As you can imagine, the issue of suffering, what philosophers sometimes call “the problem of evil,” has been on my mind a lot, lately. The Bible says that when we suffer, we are experiencing the “discipline” or “training” of God (Hebrews 12:7). And it further says that this training is designed to train us to “share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10), to become like God. How does suffering mold our character into conformity with God’s? To provide a partial answer to that question, I would like to offer some thoughts about Jesus’ most famous parable.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those stories everybody knows. A man was traveling on a route that was notoriously dangerous in Jesus' day - from the holy city of Jerusalem down into the Jordan River Valley to Jericho. He fell among robbers who were not content simply to steal from him. They beat him - so severely that Jesus says they left him “half dead.” 

Three people came upon this dying man. Two of them were part of the special religious class of workers in the temple back in Jerusalem, a priest and a Levite. And both infamously passed him by. Jesus doesn't explain why - we can imagine a backstory for them that would make them reluctant to touch a dead body, since that would lead to defilement under the purification rules of the Law of Moses and preclude them from service in the temple.

The third person who came upon this man was not part of the temple personnel. He wasn't even Jewish. In fact, to the shock of the people who first heard Jesus tell this story, he was a Samaritan. Although related to the Jews by blood, the Samaritans were not  of pure Hebrew stock, and they had many serious differences with the Jews about the right way to worship God. The Jews therefore despised the Samaritans as those who had racially and religiously contaminated the pure practice of the Law.

But when the Samaritan saw the victim of this brutal assault, he did not see things in terms of Jew vs Samaritan. He saw a fellow human being who needed urgent help, and Jesus says, "when he saw him, he felt compassion." This compassion was more than just an emotional reaction. It led him to care for the man immediately and tangibly. He "bound up his wounds,” which - given the fact Jesus says the man was left for dead - must have been severe. Giving aid to a man that grievously injured would have been messy business. No wonder the priest and Levite didn't want to help. But the Samaritan did. And you know the rest. He put the man on his own animal, took him to an inn, and personally cared for him - a total stranger. And when he had to leave, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper money to cover any further expenses.  

As Jesus told this story, He described a world in which bad things happen. The backdrop of this parable is the presence of evil. One form this evil takes is the wicked choices people make that cause harm to others, like what the thieves did to the man from Jerusalem. Another form of evil is the sort of suffering that compromises physical health, like infection and illness. In the parable, Jesus says that the Samaritan anointed the wounded man with oil and wine - oil to soften the wound, and wine to cleanse the wound. That's our world - people sometimes do terrible things, and fragile bodies are subject to injury, disease, and death.

So evil and suffering were the backdrop of the story of the Good Samaritan, just as they are undeniably present in our story. But that's not the main point of the parable. Do you remember why Jesus told this story in the first place? Here's what Luke 10:25-30 says:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers….”

You see why Jesus told this story? The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story about the meaning of love. Love like God's love. Free, unconditional, and sacrificial.

Scripture says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that God’s love is universal - “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). Further, Jesus called His followers to imitate this wide love of God, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). But this is difficult. We are much more prone to love only those we like, or those who reciprocate. To love like “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” rather than God (Matthew 5:46-47). 

That’s why the story of the Samaritan is so significant. He loved generously and unconditionally - and it was the existence of suffering that provided the avenue through which he could demonstrate this. The Samaritan knew nothing about the man he helped. Most likely he was Jewish - an ancient adversary. And he certainly had no reason to think the man could ever do anything in return for him. But he tended to him personally and provided for him generously with no other motive than the desire to do good for this man. And it was the presence of evil that afforded the Samaritan the opportunity to love someone in this selfless, God-imitating way, and - ironically - it was the same evil that granted the anonymous victim the gift of the extravagant and undeserved love from the Samaritan.

Because it is so easy for us to have ulterior motives when we love others, the existence of evil and suffering provide us the training ground through which we learn to love others with pure motives and sincerity of heart. In other words, to share in God’s character. It is one way the Father trains us to be like Him.

What I am suggesting is that one reason God permits evil and suffering in our world is that such a world allows us to learn and experience His love. I am not proposing that - as the Beatles might say - “love is all you need” to understand the problem of suffering. But I have seen many Christians emulate the Samaritan-esque love Jesus described in this story through selflessly caring for others in great suffering, and by doing so, bearing unmistakable family resemblance to their Father. And I have seen Christians receive such love - like the precious sisters we just lost in our church - and experience on a human scale a glimpse of God’s infinitely beautiful love and care. This was only possible because of the reality of suffering.

As Paul reflected on the sufferings Christians faced in the first century, he wrote this:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

We have hope in the midst of our suffering because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” When the Samaritan anointed the wounded man with oil and wine, he was pouring the love of God into the man’s heart, and learning to be like his Father in the process. And this gives us hope that in the midst of the ugliness of evil, it is possible to experience even more beautiful love. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Faith Isn't So Easy

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (Hebrews 10:35).

Sometimes I see and hear comments by unbelievers accusing people of faith of being wishful thinkers. In their eyes, faith is a crutch, an escapist fantasy, an illusory coping mechanism. Rather than face the cruel realities of the world with cold logic, Christians prefer the dreamy never-never-land of heaven. So the story goes from the viewpoint of some cynical skeptics.

I am sure that some Christians do indeed believe for very shallow reasons – just as I am sure that some atheists disbelieve for very shallow reasons. One atheist philosopher has candidly admitted that he doesn't want to believe in God because it’s against his wishes. “It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, p. 130).

For my part, I can only confess that I have a deeply skeptical mind. I am the world’s worst second-guesser (wait – maybe someone else is worse!). So I have fought some pretty intense internal intellectual wrestling matches over the credibility of Christianity. And I must say that after the most intense period of doubt I have ever gone through, I have concluded – on rational grounds – that atheism is intellectually incoherent and that Christianity is true. But I still struggle with faith – for exactly the opposite reasons my more cynically-minded unbelieving friends may imagine. I don’t find faith to be emotionally easy at all. I find it to be extremely difficult.

Let me put this in context by describing what my last seven days have been like. On Tuesday of last week I went to visit a young lady in the hospital who has a brain tumor. Over several months we have watched her lose one function after another as the tumor has invaded more and more of her brain. While she slept I shared tears with her mother and brother who were staying with her in order to give her husband and two daughters a break to go home. I left from there to attend the funeral of a friend of mine who succumbed to melanoma after almost five years of fighting it. And on the way from the hospital to the funeral, I received word that another lady in our church passed away. A precious sister in the Lord who also battled cancer for five years. The last six months I visited her and her husband multiple times every week, and watched her body slowly yield ground, inch by inch, to this vicious disease. That was Tuesday.

On Thursday, my wife had to go into the hospital for an infection in her leg. The reason she needed to be admitted is because she is also dealing with cancer, and her immune system is compromised, making any infection potentially dangerous. Over three years – from the original diagnosis, and then the radiation and chemo, and the surgeries, and the recurrence and metastasis, and the countless side effects – I have watched her struggle bravely as her body has endured so much.

This afternoon we will bury our great friend who died last week. And tonight, Lord willing, I am flying to Nashville, where I will spend a little bit of time with one of my best friends (the man who performed mine and Kristi’s wedding ceremony), who learned two weeks ago that he has advanced lymphoma, and is now receiving chemo.

As I have watched with my own eyes these loved one struggle and suffer, it has been very difficult to maintain my trust in God at times. Not my intellectual belief in His existence. But my trust. My commitment to believe that in contrast to the very real pain and anguish I can see with my own eyes, that there is going to be a great reward for those who maintain their confidence in Him.

Christians don’t escape the harsh realities of life. We are called to roll up our sleeves and plunge into them to serve and minister to others. To bind up wounds like the Good Samaritan. To bear burdens and fulfill the law of Christ. To weep with those who weep. And when we are confronted with suffering this immediately and tangibly, it hurts.

And so I just want to say that – for me at least – faith isn’t so easy. And it apparently wasn’t for the people to whom the Book of Hebrews was written. Their faith was wavering. And the writer of that book called them to persevere (a term that would be meaningless, or at least unnecessary, if faith was so easy).

What I need to do in these times when I feel my faith faltering, staggering under the weight of so much suffering and pain, is what the writer encouraged these people to do: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1b-3, NIV).

Jesus suffered and struggled – with “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). But He kept His eyes on the “joy set before Him,” God’s promise to exalt Him to His right hand, and in that commitment, He scornfully disregarded the world’s attempt to shame Him on the cross, and endured. Jesus endured unimaginable suffering by entrusting Himself to God – and God was true to His promise. He will be true to us.

And so, don’t grow weary and lose heart.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Religious Freedom and Same Sex Marriage

Religious Freedom and Same Sex Marriage

(Before you read this post you may want to read the following:
-My argument against legal recognition of same-sex marriage
-My take on why the same-sex marriage issue is not parallel to interracial marriage
-My understanding of why the Obergefell decision was a really bad decision on the basis of the Constitution)

Rowan (pronounced like NOW-an) County Kentucky is just 45 minutes east of my hometown of Winchester. I once read that there are two Kentuckys – one west of Winchester, and one east of Winchester. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but the further east and south you go from where I was raised, the more you are leaving the rolling hills of horse country and entering the mountains of Appalachia. Rowan County is also home to Morehead State University (alma mater of Phil Simms for all of you NFL fans), so within this very rural and traditional environment there is also an active liberal community. And thus Rowan County is the perfect place for a conflict to emerge between deeply held traditional values and eagerly pursued progressive values.

That is exactly what happened when the Supreme Court issued its decision on same sex marriage. Shortly afterward, two men (one of them an employee of the university) went to the county clerk’s office to obtain a marriage license, and the county clerk, Kim Davis, refused to grant one on the basis of her religious beliefs. Soon, she decided to stop issuing marriage licenses to everyone in the county, lawsuits were filed, and suddenly a small county of less than thirty thousand people and its clerk were an international news story. 

To some people, Kim Davis is a hero, a new Rosa Parks, valiantly standing up against an unjust law on the basis of her conscience. To others she is a fanatic, a new George Wallace, a hate-filled bigot denying Americans their civil rights under the guise of “religious freedom.” Is she a martyr to be revered, a homophobe to be reviled, or just a religious nut who refuses to do her job?

This particular story has in turn raised many larger questions:
-What is the nature of religious freedom as it relates to employment? If a person has a religious scruple about something at work, should they just find another job?
-What is the proper balance in a civil society between the legalization of same sex marriage and the consciences of those who believe in marriage as it has been traditionally defined?
-Is there a way to accommodate civil officials like Kim Davis while at the same time honoring the legal standing of same sex marriage? 

I want to look at each of these issues.

A Good Kind of Exercise
From the inception of the Constitution the founders were intent on insuring the freedom of religion. And so the very first item in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, explicitly protects the free exercise of religion.

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.

“The free exercise thereof” protected by the Constitution does not simply include the freedom to go to synagogue, mosque, or church each week. It is much broader than that, and offers protection for religious beliefs and practices woven throughout the course of every day life – including maintaining those beliefs and practices on the job. For this reason, America has a rich history of providing accommodation to religious adherents of various faiths in the private sector and in the public sector.

For instance, some believers have religious scruples against taking up arms in combat, but are drafted into the armed services. Our nation has not always been kind to conscientious objectors, but several pacifists served with distinction as medics in World War II, even receiving the Medal of Honor. They were not compelled to take up arms and violate their beliefs. They were given an assignment that allowed them to serve their country and exercise their religion at the same time. 

This sort of accommodation takes place all the time on a much less dramatic scale. It is done for Orthodox Jewish believers who do not wish to be scheduled to work on the Sabbath, Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not wish to raise and lower the U.S. flag, Muslim truck drivers who do not wish to transport alcohol, and multiplied other cases. This is done not merely because of the First Amendment, but because it is the law of the land – the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The section of the law that deals with religious discrimination, called Title VII, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and defines “religion” as “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 

The key issue here is reasonable accommodation.  There are some circumstances in which such accommodation would be impossible. For example, let’s say that I had a job at one of the legal brothels out in Nevada. One day I decide to visit a church, and I hear the gospel and decide to become a Christian. Would it be reasonable to return to work the next day and demand that my boss give me a job that doesn't have any connection with prostitution since I am now a Christian? No. That is inherent in the nature of the place of employment. On the other hand, let’s say that I worked at Wendy’s. Would it be reasonable – in view of my newfound faith – to ask for my schedule to change so that I can go to worship on Sundays, and to offer to work other shifts to make this happen? Of course. As the EEOC website explains, “A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. Flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, lateral transfers, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules are examples of accommodating an employee's religious beliefs.” 

So far what I have set forth shouldn’t be controversial. It is the law of the land, and it has been the common sense way people in civil society have worked to get along with each other here in America. However, I must say that as I read many Facebook status updates throughout the course of the Kim Davis controversy, one refrain that kept coming up was, “If your religious beliefs get in the way of doing your job, you should get another job” (or something similar). That mindset is a radical departure from American civil tradition, allowing for no effort at accommodation and compromise. Even worse, it stands in direct defiance of the law of the land, and represents a callous disregard for the explicitly protected right to free exercise of religion.

Have Your Cake and Edith Too
Now I would like to bring to bear the issue of religious liberty on the job as it relates to SSM. How can we balance the right to SSM established by the recent Supreme Court decision on the one hand with the religious liberty guaranteed by the Constitution and codified by laws such as the Civil Rights Act on the other?

Before the Kim Davis story, the paradigmatic example for this clash of interests was the Sweet Cakes by Melissa case in Oregon. Aaron and Melissa Klein owned and operated a bakery in Gresham, OR. A lesbian couple (Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer) had met the Kleins and used their bakery while planning the wedding of Rachel’s mother a few year earlier. When they decided to get married, they came back to Sweet Cakes to order a wedding cake, and Aaron informed them that they did not make cakes for same-sex weddings.

Not long afterwards, the Kleins were notified that they were being investigated by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries for possible violation of Oregon’s Equality Act of 2007, which prohibits denying service to customers on account of sexual orientation. The BLI eventually found the Kleins guilty and ordered them to pay a fine of $135,000 to the couple for damages caused by emotional and mental suffering. The Kleins were forced to close their bakery, although they still operate out of their home.

Leaving aside certain specifics of the case, is a baker (or florist or photographer) bound by law to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding even if such a ceremony is contrary to her religious convictions?  Is refusal to provide services for a same-sex wedding a form of anti-gay discrimination? 

By their own admission, the lesbian couple in question had done business with the Kleins before, so the refusal on the part of the Kleins to provide a cake for their wedding was not a denial of service to homosexuals as such. It was a refusal to provide a service in connection with a particular ceremony – in this case – a same-sex wedding. “What’s the difference?” you may ask.

Consider the previously mentioned legal brothel in Nevada. Suppose I was a baker (which if you know me, you know would be a horrible financial mistake!) living in Las Vegas, and a prostitute from one of those brothels came in to my bakery. Would I sell her a cupcake – even though I am a Christian? Absolutely. In fact, I would sell her as many as I could. Now let’s say the owner of the brothel decides to throw a big party to celebrate ten years in business, and that same prostitute drops by to ask me to decorate a cake for the anniversary celebration.  Could I do that as a Christian? I would have to respectfully decline, because now she has asked me to use my talents to provide a service in connection with an event that is celebrating something to which I am morally opposed on the basis of my faith. The same is true with how I would look at a same-sex wedding. 

Perhaps your religious beliefs lead you to think that prostitution is wrong but same-sex marriage is ok. Maybe your religious beliefs approve of both. Or maybe you don’t have any religious beliefs at all and you think they are both ok. That’s fine – that’s what freedom of religion is all about. What I want you to see is that there is a distinction between doing business with a person and providing services for an event. When a conservative minded Jewish, Muslim, or Christian baker/florist/photographer declines to provide services to a same-sex wedding on the basis of deeply held religious beliefs, that is not anti-gay discrimination. That is the free exercise of religion. And whether you are straight or gay, the very idea that civil governments at the state level are using coercive power to attempt to compel citizens to violate their religious beliefs should be alarming. 

The case of the Kleins is not unique. And it not limited to private citizens, either. Over the last several years as various states have voted to legalize SSM, many religious organizations have been adversely affected by this sort of imposition against religious liberty. For instance, Catholic Charities of Boston, San Francisco, the Archdiocese of Washington, and affiliates in Illinois, have all been forced to shut down adoption services, all because those agencies were committed (in keeping with Catholic teaching) to placing children in families where they would have a mother and a father who were married. 

And with the Supreme Court’s decision this summer, the prospects for religious liberty only look bleaker. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy tried to reassure those concerned with the decision for religious reasons: 

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.

But of course, the First Amendment does not promise the right to “advocate,” but the right to “exercise.” Rather than soothing concerns regarding religious liberty, Kennedy’s ominous narrowing of the explicit language of the Constitution only intensified those concerns. As Justice Roberts responded, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

These sorts of conflicts – bakers vs. same-sex couples, or state governments vs. religious charities – are completely unnecessary. No Christian couple should be coerced to decorate a wedding cake to a same-sex wedding, just as no gay person should be denied a cupcake at a bakery just because they are gay. Religious charities should be permitted to place children for adoption in homes consistent with their articles of faith, just as non-religious adoption agencies should be permitted to function according to their values. There is no reason that tolerance and good will cannot prevail as we seek to work together in light of the Court’s ruling.

On the other hand, if this current trajectory continues, it is difficult not to see a grim future in which individual business owners, private schools and charities, and perhaps even churches, that maintain belief in traditional marriage on the basis of religious convictions will be deliberately targeted and subjected to coercive state power if they do not yield to the zeitgeistand compromise their convictions. In some instances, it may be fines levied at the state level, as in the case of the Kleins. In others, it may be the stripping away of tax-exempt status at the federal level. During the oral arguments before the Court, the Solicitor General conceded that private schools that opposed same-sex marriage might face this very penalty. “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I—I don’t deny that.”  And shortly after the Court’s decision, one gay-rights supporter called for the end of tax-exempt status for churches  that oppose same-sex marriage. 

I am not suggesting that I think the feds are about to come and lock me up because of what I preach. Political candidates may try to feed that frenzy (“Who will be next? Pastors?”), but I am not so alarmist. And quite frankly, many churches have in fact become nothing but big businesses, and it is hard for me to see how they can seriously claim “non-profit” status (may they should claim “non-prophet” status!). But here is the key point. If the federal government targets churches that do not agree with its policies and punishes them by removing their tax-exempt status, it will be demolishing the very “wall of separation” protecting churches from state interference the First Amendment was designed to create. And that should alarm all Americans.

And About That Kim Davis Person
What about the particular case that ignited most of the recent controversy? One reason that it has taken me so long to write this post is that I have tried to go back and read several articles from local news coverage of the case back home in Kentucky to get a better feel for how this situation unfolded, along with various national articles. Here’s what I have pieced together. [As an aside, I must say that the most helpful analysis of the entire case from a legal point of view has been that of Washington Post columnist (and UCLA Law Professor) Eugene Volokh.]

First, let’s look at the law regarding civil servants. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act offers protection to employees from religious discrimination, it specifically exempts “any person elected to public office in any State or political subdivision of any State by the qualified voters thereof.” So Title VII does not provide an exemption to a county clerk like Kim Davis. This was news to me. However, like 19 other states, Kentucky has a “religious freedom act,” and that law does come into play in this case since it does not exempt elected officials. That law states, “The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.”

Second, from a common sense point of view, it is possible to find accommodative solutions to protect the religious sensitivities of civil magistrates in the execution of the law. Just because the law of the land now assures the right of SSM, this does not necessarily mean that every government official must be required to personally validate a SSM license. If one clerk has a conscientious objection, another official could easily be deputized to do the appropriate paperwork. In this way, the conscience of the particular civil servant could be protected, and the legal right of the couple receiving the certificate for SSM could also be protected. This very solution has been used in other settings for unelected government employees (such as pacifist postal workers who did not want to process selective service forms). And it could work for elected officials and their deputies as well. This summer, legislators in North Carolina passed a religious conscience law that made exactly this allowance. 

As a matter of fact, Kentucky’s governor, Steve Beshear, has shown a tremendous willingness in the past to accommodate public officials who have conscientious problems regarding SSM law. Just last year, when gay rights activists sued the Commonwealth of Kentucky because its state constitution included an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Kentucky’s own state attorney general, Jack Conway, refused to defend the state constitution as a matter of conscience, believing it to violate the US Constitution. Governor Beshear did not force him to resign, even though Conway refused to do his job. Instead, he hired an outside law firm, at the cost of $195,000, to defend the state. 

Now, on to the specifics of the Kim Davis matter. 

Back in January of this year, as newly elected county clerks took office in Kentucky, it was pretty clear that the Supreme Court was most likely going to rule in favor of SSM. In view of this likelihood, Davis began contacting state legislators, asking them to put together a bill to protect county clerks who would have religious objections to issuing licenses.  And once the Court’s decision came down, sixty county clerks in Kentucky (that’s half of the total counties in the state) petitioned the governor to call a special session of the legislature to provide a solution to exempt clerks who have religious objections. Nothing was done.

At this point, according to Davis’s testimony in court, she felt like she was caught in a dilemma. She could not issue SSM licenses with her name and title on the certificate in good conscience because of her religious beliefs. But, "I didn't want to discriminate against anyone.And so she decided that the only thing she could do is stop issuing marriage licenses altogether.

Through the course of the legal proceedings, Davis’s attorneys offered several solutions in a motion they filed with the court, such as:
  • Deputizing a neighboring county clerk (or some other person) to issue Kentucky marriage licenses in Rowan County.
  • Modifying the prescribed Kentucky marriage license form to remove the multiple references to Davis’ name
  • Distributing Kentucky marriage licenses at the state-level through an online or other state-wide licensing scheme, such as through the Department of Vital Statistics.
  • Deeming Davis “absent” for purposes of issuing SSM licenses, based upon her moral and religious inability to issue them, and allowing those licenses to be issued.

The reason I am going into such detail here is to make a point about Kim Davis’s motives. In many respects, Davis is not the ideal candidate to represent the public face of the cause of religious liberty. I saw several memes on Facebook that ridiculed her appearance, her rural background, her checkered marriage history. That’s the world we live in, and I get it. But it is grossly unfair to accuse this woman of hate. Whatever you may think of her appearance, her culture, and her morals, there is no evidence in any of her public statements or actions that she hates anyone. Yes, she has certain religious beliefs that lead her to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that that is what the law should recognize. In other words, she believes exactly the same thing President Obama did until just three years ago. And I don’t recall anyone accusing the President of hate or homophobia. Further, the fact that she and her legal team have repeatedly offered solutions to find a way for same-sex couples to receive licenses (without her having to violate her conscience) shows that she is not trying to thwart gay marriage, or persecute homosexuals, or otherwise express hatred toward them.

“But she should just follow the law and do her job!” Of course. But the “law” not only includes SSM now, but for citizens of Kentucky, it also includes a protection of religious freedom that prevents a person from being burdened by the government to violate her conscience. And here is what Washington Post columnist Eugene Volokh concludes in his examination of that statute in light of her situation: 

So if Kim Davis does indeed go through the state courts, and ask for a modest exemption under the state RFRA — simply to allow her to issue marriage licenses (opposite-sex or same-sex) without her name on them — she might indeed prevail. Rightly or wrongly, under the logic of Title VII’s religious accommodation regime and the RFRA religious accommodation regime, she probably should prevail.

Conclusion (cue: "America the Beautiful")
Freedom does not have to be a zero sum game. There will always be extremists who seek out issues to drive wedges between people and cultivate power through division. It happens on both side of the political spectrum. But I deeply believe that people of good will can find a way to work together. My home state’s motto is, United We Stand – Divided We Fall. My prayer is for people of charitable spirit to stand united on the common ground of the rule of law and the right of conscience.