April 29, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, April 29, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A new twist on legal challenges to constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage has now appeared from the state of North Carolina, and this one does come with a very interesting new twist. As it happens, this particular protest to North Carolina’s so-called Amendment 1, overwhelmingly adopted by the voters of that state just two years ago, comes from the United Church of Christ, a very liberal Protestant denomination. And the United Church of Christ has officially filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina on the ground that Amendment 1 is an unconstitutional abridgment and infringement of the religious liberties of United Church of Christ clergy. As Michael Paulson of The New York Times reports:
In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.
Now what makes this lawsuit innovative is that most of the previous lawsuits brought against similar state laws and amendments were argued on the basis of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection before the law. This is a direct assault on those amendments that constitute barriers to same-sex marriage, but the argument is now grounded in the First Amendment, that is, the free exercise of religion. And, as this story enfolds, it’s going to be only more interesting as the arguments continue.
But as Michael Paulson continues in his report, the United Church of Christ has filed the lawsuit in Federal District Court and it is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination, challenging a state’s marriage laws. Previously, the challenges have come from same-sex couples. The denomination (this is the United Church of Christ) claims nearly one million members nationwide. It has supported same-sex marriage since 2005, and it is so liberal on the far-left wing of American Protestantism that it actually ordained an openly gay man back in 1972; decades before other liberal denominations generally moved in the same direction. Donald C. Clark, Jr., general counsel for the United Church of Christ, said, “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.” As Paulson reports, the denomination argues that a North Carolina law that criminalizes the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. The next few words of his report are particularly crucial. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgment.”
Now I must tell you that I find the inclusion of this kind of language in a law or a constitutional amendment rather troubling, and I say that as one who is stalwartly opposed to same-sex marriage and stalwartly opposed to the normalization of homosexual behavior and relationships. And, of course, we’re looking here at another realization that sometimes there is more to a situation than first meets the eye. In this case, Amendment One, as it is known and passed by North Carolina voters and passed overwhelmingly two years ago, was clearly stated as a constitutional amendment, an amendment to the North Carolina state constitution, that would identify marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman. And, furthermore, that amendment went on to state very clearly that the state of North Carolina would not recognize any same-sex marriage performed in the state and, furthermore, that it would not allow officials of the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But this amendment went on—and let me remind you of the words of the amendment itself—to state that clergypersons cannot perform “religious blessings and marriage rites for same-sex couples” and it warned “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they’re subject to prosecution and civil judgments.” Now the inclusion of that kind of language directly addressing ministers and members of the clergy appears to me to be both odd and ill-advised. As Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry (that’s a gay rights organization that supports same-sex marriage), said, “In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they professed to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views.” He went on and said, “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”
Now we need to look at this situation rather dispassionately. I am certainly in favor of any state law or constitutional amendment that identifies marriage as recognized within the state as exclusively the union of a man and a woman. I believe that that is not only that which comports with the definition and the support of marriage, but it also is that which will lead to the maximum human flourishing and will avoid institutionalizing behavior that will be injurious not only to human health, but to the moral fabric of the society at large. I think it is within not only the society’s right, but its absolute responsibility to protect marriage in every way imaginable—marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman.
But when the North Carolina amendment goes on to make specific address to the behavior and the speech of members of the clergy, of pastors and ministers, we seem to have a big problem, and it appears that those who have brought this lawsuit may well have a very convincing argument. And, furthermore, it puts all of us who wish to advocate for and to protect religious liberty in a significantly sensitive and difficult place because even those of us who believe that the main thrust of the amendment is not only right, but necessary, have to wonder if the particular language in the North Carolina amendment does not actually pose a threat to the religious liberty not only to the clergy of the United Church of Christ who want to perform same-sex marriages, but also of the ministers of any other faith, including evangelical Christianity, who at some point and in some places where same-sex marriage is legal might be addressed with exactly the opposite mandate. If this constitutional amendment can address the ministers of North Carolina, stating that they may not take certain actions within their churches, how long might it be before in a state that has legal same-sex marriage there is a similar and opposite effort to try to instruct ministers that they must perform same-sex marriages? This appears to be a very dangerous position and a very unsustainable legal situation not only in the state of North Carolina, but, by inference, to others states as well. It would seem that the state of North Carolina could well have accomplished its purposes in defining for the state in its law the requirement that marriage must be recognized as only and exclusively the union of a man and a woman, and it seems like the proper persons to be addressed by that constitutional amendment would be officers of the state—everyone from those who work at the county and local level all the way up to those who administer the highest levels of law and justice within the state of North Carolina. Why did they choose specifically in a constitutional amendment to address ministers? That is a huge question and it is a question that should trouble evangelicals who could just as easily if not even more inevitably find themselves on the wrong side of the equal and opposite argument.
In The New York Times coverage of the situation, Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, is quoted. She’s quoted as saying that this particular legal action is just “the lawsuit of the week, filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on the North Carolina.” Well it certainly might appear that way, but her next statement is profoundly true. She said:
It is both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy, who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage, would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs. These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.
I agree with every single word of her statement and with every single inference of her meaning. She is exactly right. The United Church of Christ has left the Christian faith, in terms of any normal standard of Christian Orthodoxy. It is also now operating in open rebellion to God’s law and to the very clear moral teachings of Scripture. But as is always the case, a denomination like this doesn’t start its liberal actions on something like same-sex marriage. Long before same-sex marriage was even imaginable, much less debated, the United Church of Christ was already headed in a very clear liberal direction, departing from the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith. They abandoned such affirmations as the inerrancy and authority of Scripture long before. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that United Church of Christ, often known as the UCC, is on the wrong side of the same-sex argument, actually arguing against the clear teachings of Scripture.
But whether or not the constitutional amendment that was passed two years ago in North Carolina should have addressed members of the ministry—that’s a very different question. It seems to be both a dubious and a dangerous proposition that any law or constitutional amendment on any issue should address itself specifically to ministers. This is a case we’re going to have to watch very closely and it puts those of us who advocate both for marriage as the union of a man and a woman and for religious liberty, including the liberty of Christians to hold fast to a Christian and biblical understanding of marriage, in a very difficult position. Evangelical Christians must both understand and affirm our understanding that religious liberty for us means religious liberty for all and that means that even as we advocate for religious liberty, we have to understand that the guarantee of religious liberty means the freedom of heretics to teach heresy. If we deny religious liberty for others, very soon others will deny religious liberty to us. That’s fair warning and this case bears close attention.
Speaking of The New York Times, on the Sunday after Easter, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an article entitled, “Religion for $1,000, Alex.” It’s a clear reference to Jeopardy and the point of Nicholas Kristof is biblical illiteracy. He points out that many Americans, perhaps even most Americans, even as they affirm that the Bible is the Word of God and say that the solutions to most of life’s problems are found in the Scriptures, actually don’t know much of what’s actually in the Bible or, as this article makes clear, they imagine that many things are in the Bible that aren’t there at all.
As he wrote on Sunday, “Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.” He quotes Stephen Prothero of Boston University in his book, Religious Literacy:
Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
Though writing sometimes rather knowledgably about theological and religious subjects, Nicholas Kristof belongs to the secular opinion class in America. He’s made that abundantly clear in many of his previous columns. And it appears that he is shocked—indeed, newly shocked—by the biblical illiteracy of the American people, and it appears that that’s why he quoted Stephen Prothero in his statement that Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. But one of Protheros’s statements actually explains the situation implicitly. He said, and you’ll recall, that most Americans, even as they affirm the Bible, don’t really know what they’re affirming. As he said, “Here faith is almost entirely devoid of content.” This is an affirmation of what we call and must identify as cultural Christianity. Cultural Christianity is actually fast disappearing in America. That’s a part of the great cultural transformation that we are now experiencing, and that cultural Christianity is being replaced by some form of secularism: either the hard secularism of the New Atheists or the softer secularism of the so-called religious nones (that’s n-o-n-e-s), those who increasingly say they have no religious preference. But when he says that American faith is nearly devoid of content, he’s describing that cultural Christianity.
Now as evangelical Christians who love the Bible must fully understand, cultural Christianity is not Christianity. It’s a false Christianity. It is a basic secularism that is disguised or camouflaged by a veneer of Christian commitment or of Christian identity or even a residual commitment to some form of Christian morality. But with the increasing pressures of a secular age, cultural Christianity is disappearing. We should note quite carefully and with our understanding that cultural Christians, those who are merely culturally Christian, should be expected to have a very low level of biblical literacy because, after all, if they had a higher level of biblical literacy, they would be unlikely to be merely culturally Christian. On the other hand, if they’re more than culturally Christian, it is certainly also true that they must be that way because they’ve been taught by the Scriptures. So in some sense, this is a chicken-and-egg question. As in most chicken-and-egg questions, the answer which came first, the cultural Christianity of the low-level of biblical illiteracy, is irrelevant. They tend to go together. Though there is certainly a loss in terms of the fact that these who are marked by cultural Christianity have so little knowledge of Scripture, the real scandal is that so many people who actually attend evangelical churches also have woefully low levels of biblical literacy and that’s something that we have to address in our families, in our churches, in our congregations, everywhere we have influence. It should be an absolute scandal that those who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ would have anything less than a growing faithful knowledge of Scripture. Biblical illiteracy in the culture? Well, that’s just a symptom of a secular age, but biblical illiteracy in the church? That’s the real scandal and that’s a scandal that comes with devastating consequences because Christians who do not know the Scripture and are not tied by the Scripture, will not live by the Scripture. They cannot and will not be faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a scandal the church has to consider; not one that’s likely to reach the pages of The New York Times. The more important question is this: Does this problem have the attention of your family and of your church?
Our continuing coverage of the controversy related to the Boy Scouts and the change announced last year in their policies so they now accept openly gay scouts, but not scout leaders takes us now to Louisville, Kentucky, where the Courier Journal, the local newspaper there in Louisville, announced over the weekend that the Louisville Metro Council (that’s the city council) can’t provide funding to the Boy Scouts because the organization’s ban on openly gay scout leaders violates the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, or at least this was the judgment of the county attorney. As Sebastian Kitchen for the Courier Journal reports, this blocks an attempt by one member of the Metro Council to use $640 in neighborhood development money to expand swimming for two hours on two nights at a city park for scouts pursuing their swimming badge.
But this continuing controversy just erupts now in Louisville. And as we’ve pointed out time and again, when the Boy Scouts adopted their new policy at the national level last year, reversing their long-standing policy, a policy they had defended as recently as months before and all the way previously to the United States Supreme Court, and were adopting a new policy that would accept openly gay scouts, but not openly gay scouting leaders, they put themselves in the position of pleasing no one. They would displease conservatives, who would hold to a biblical standard of morality, by accepting openly gay scouts, and, of course, the fallout on the right has been huge with a new alternative organization put together and many Christian churches dropping out of scouting and many Christian parents withdrawing their scouts from the program. But, as we reported last week, the decision by the Boy Scouts to actually enforce their policy prohibiting openly gay scouting leaders and thus removing a gay scoutmaster from a church-based scout troop near Seattle, Washington, has led to an uproar on the left and to the fact that there are now open calls for the Boy Scouts to have to take the necessary and automatic next step after having changed their position when it comes to the inclusion of openly gay scouts. They put themselves in a very weak moral position and probably in a very weak legal position by having a very different standard for scouting leaders, and now as the Boy Scouts are being prevented from receiving this benefit from the city of Louisville because they continue to discriminate on scouting leaders.
Going back to the situation in Seattle, an interesting report has now come out of that city indicating, as The Seattle Times reports, that at least four members of the congressional delegation from Washington State have petitioned the Boy Scouts to change their policy. As The Seattle Times reports:
Four Democratic members of Congress have expressed concern over Seattle Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to kick out a church for hosting a troop led by an openly gay scoutmaster.
The four congressmen who signed the letter were Adam Smith of Bellevue, Jim McDermott of Seattle, Rick Larson of Everett, and Susan DelBene of Medina. Employing language now familiar to us all, the representatives said that the decision and the policy there in Seattle “goes against Boy Scouts values of mutual respect and inclusion.” You can almost surely expect the Boy Scouts of America to cave on this issue and that will lead to further hemorrhaging of Boy Scouts from the right, from churches that will continue to drop out of the program and from parents who will continue, perhaps even in far larger numbers, to remove their boys from the Boy Scouts of America.
But from a Christian worldview perspective, perhaps what this demonstrates more than anything else is the untenability and unsustainability of a compromise of a moral nature. If you’re going to compromise on a moral principle of this importance and this clarity, you’ll find yourself in no-man’s land, and that’s exactly where the Boy Scouts now are. But the Boy Scouts are unlikely to remain alone in this situation. We should all remember this the next time we hear of an organization or a congregation, a denomination, or any kind of institution, or perhaps even a member of the government say, “What we need to do is to compromise on this moral principle.” On some principles, compromise is impossible.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. To call with you question in your voice, just call 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’m speaking to you today from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.