Religious Liberty and the Ruling on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Prop 8's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. No surprise there. The real question is what will happen at the U.S. Supreme Court, and what the implications will be for religious liberty.

Some observations:

1. It is not clear how the Roberts Court will rule on Prop 8. The outcome will likely depend on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who remains the swing vote on many issues. I will be surprised if the court renders a sweeping decision on the gay marriage question. Look for a narrow one.

This is a weak position for traditional marriage supporters. A narrow ruling against Prop 8 has the effect of institutionalizing gay marriage in the U.S., where a narrow ruling in favor of Prop 8 merely keeps the issue in play.

2. Suppose the high court upholds the 9th Circuit's decision and gay marriage becomes the nation's new legal default. A church's liberty to sanction only marriages between a man and a woman comes into question, and the legal climate for this kind of liberty is very mixed.

In 2010, the high court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school could refuse to recognize a religious group that did not abide by the school's anti-discrimination standards. The fall-out from that decision is being felt by Christians at Vanderbilt, a private university. The vice chancellor recently told Christian groups that they have to allow non-Christians to be members and even leaders of their organizations if they want official recognition. He said in a public meeting, "We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision making on this campus."

A rare moment of candor from a PC mandarin, and a glimpse of what life will be like if tweed totalitarianism gains even more power. There's religious decision making, and then there's good decision making. We just want you to make good decisions. That's all.

There are examples of this pushiness elsewhere. New York City recently expelled churches from using public schools on Sundays. (The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge.) The Obama administration decided to force all organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception, even Catholic institutions. Though the administration has wavered in recent days, it has shown what it really thinks about religious liberties. Catholic adoption agencies in Illinois are closing rather than comply with the state's new non-discrimination policy. A New York Times article about the controversy makes clear that religious liberty claims are insensitive and tiresome.

Some progressives clearly have an appetite to purge religion from civic, legal, and academic life. Not all progressives. There are those who agree that churches should not be forced to allow gay marriages, or to support any of a host of other choices sanctified by the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt. Such honest progressives recognize the importance of conscience.

So there is some ballast against those who want a purge.

In addition, recent infringements on religious liberty have to be balanced against the Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month that anti-discrimination employment laws must respect a ministerial exemption. The decision is sweeping, and may be a game-changer for churches.

3. The practical threat to religious liberty will not come from the suave bigotry of vice chancellors, or from gay marriage laws like the one Governor Christine Gregoire signed in Washington State this week. The threat will not come from homosexuals as a group, or from progressives.

The most practical threat is from lawyered-up thugs. In their mania for a religion-free society, radical activists will use lawsuits as a shakedown tactic. They will not need friendly Supreme Court decisions. All they will need is money enough to sue -- and they have plenty. They will move  from suing cities over crosses and nativities and public prayers to suing churches for "discrimination."

I have spent years in ministry opposing the attempts of the religious right to turn churches into centers of political activism. Demagoguery and money do not impress me. And if I have not countenanced toxic activism from the right, even though I'm a political conservative, I certainly will not roll over for the cultural left, with which I have no sympathy whatsoever.

I fear we are headed for a new low in American discourse, in which public debate is abandoned in favor of lawsuits. If so, the civil society that has made America strong will splinter, and the conscience of every person will be at the mercy of the best financed pressure group.

Evangelical Wrath and God's Righteousness

by Matthew Raley Sometimes I slip statements into my posts to see who's paying attention to what. The award this week goes to my brother Chris, who spotted a matter of some importance in last week's post about the court decision on Prop 8.

What I said was,

Having entered the political fray with a fractured base — a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact — the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That’s elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.

So the enemies are homosexuals.

This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God.

Chris pulled out the last sentence: "That has a lot of implications. Like, to what extent do we do this to fellow Christians?"

My allusion was to James 1.19-21. In teaching how to endure temptation, James commands us to be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." He is warming up to say later that wrangling and fighting is demonic (3.13-13; 4.1-12).  But here, the basic reason he gives to resist anger is that "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires."

Rather, we must lay aside our own wickedness, and "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." The word of God implanted in the receptive heart-and-mind is the source of godly obedience. Our anger is not the source.

James would say that we do inflict our wrath on other believers to produce righteousness, and we must repent. Here are some specific ways that we do what James forbids:

1. We often rely on conformist instincts to uphold standards.

No one wants to provoke the community's anger and bring shame or rejection on themselves. It is a high cost to bear. So, much of the time, church-goers keep their heads down. They will avoid any public non-conformity to the church's explicit and implicit standards, hiding any behavior that might expose them to disapproval.

Threats of the anger of man, in this case, produce lying rather than truth.

James teaches that God's righteousness is produced when someone responds directly to God's goodness (1.18). "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Conformity to other human beings is spiritually barren.

2. We often use guilt manipulation to motivate people to godliness.

Guilt manipulation, to define it broadly, is making people feel bad about what they've done. It is what one human being does when trying to control another human being's behavior. This comes in a range of language from "Burn in hell, you sinner" to "We're disappointed in you." We do this because we know that shame is a disabling emotion.

In this method we, the human beings, are supposed to police sin and arrest it.

The use of shame is a kind of vengeance -- which is to say, the satisfaction of anger. It does not produce righteousness because it is disabling, not redeeming. God nurtures a living, joyful righteousness.

Obviously, a church needs to confront sins. James is not teaching that we can shirk that duty, nor am I. Rather, confronting sin must be done with abundant listening and the tender maintenance of meekness. God is the one who convicts sin, not us. It is his implanted word that has the power to save, not our emotional appeals.

3. We fight to preserve a culture that reflects our standards, believing that this will save future generations.

The whole motivation behind the campaign against gay marriage is to preserve our society's reflection of particular biblical values. This and other such issues are labeled the culture wars. They are social battlegrounds. The scenes of anger.

What these battles have unleashed in the conversation of Christians around me is not the righteousness of God. They have unleashed jealousy, mocking, lying, brawling, gossip, slander, and condemnation. If we "win," I can say with some confidence that not one soul will gain eternal life as a result. As for the souls of our children, many are filled with revulsion.

And all this for a goal that is of dubious value. Jesus Christ does not redeem human cultures. He redeems souls. Those redeemed souls then alter the character of the cultures in which they live.

James would not have shrunk from declaring God's will for sexuality, nor will I. But let the focus of our speech be where James focused his, on maintaining the meekness of souls to receive the implanted word.

No souls will be saved any other way than by the new birth in Jesus Christ.

The California Court on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley There is only one issue that concerns me anymore.

I went through a conservative optimist phase in my not-so-distant youth, when I thought American society was salvageable by political means. I also went through a conservative pessimist phase, during which I groused about how days gone by were better than these.

I remain a conservative, but I follow the issues the way a sportsman follows athletes -- without a sense of personal investment. Today, I'm unimpressed with the teams of both right and left. Neither offers a coherent vision of what our culture should be.

The religious right is convinced that gay marriage is the tipping point for culture, where we shoot off the slippery slope into free-fall. So evangelicals across the country have poured resources into this battle appealing to the average American's supposed traditionalism.

Take that point of view apart.

1. The tipping point for our culture came decades ago. There was not a Christian campaign against no-fault divorce in California, the innovation that actually pushed the institution of marriage off its foundations. If evangelicals want state law to reflect marriage as God designed it, they should campaign for "One man, one woman, til death us do part."

Evangelicals won't be campaigning that way anytime soon because they've embraced the divorce culture. Statistically, as has been documented many times, there is no difference between the practice of evangelicals and other Americans. Anecdotally, I learned about divorce as a child by watching the splits of my parents' church friends.

Consider the consequences of so many broken evangelical families.

When the world says life is about personal fulfillment not personal holiness, we apparently agree. Christian counselors are sending couple after couple to the divorce courts on this basis -- and it's not as though this is a secret among evangelical church-goers. Our counseling center routinely helps couples who lost hope because of their Christian psychologists. In living this way, we have taught several generations of children that evangelical religion is about crying out to God on Sunday and being selfish during the week.

We have, indeed, manufactured the unbelieving majority in our country. The cynicism of young voters about traditional values was learned from church, not from Hollywood.

Gay marriage is not the tipping point. That point is long past.

2. Having entered the political fray with a fractured base -- a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact -- the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That's elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.

So the enemies are homosexuals.

This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God. And like all works of the Pharisees, it is doomed to ignominious failure.

Gays are not my enemies.

3. Appealing to the self-righteousness of the average American is anti-Gospel. The Bible teaches that the average American does not need a Savior from the sins of others, but from his own.

So much for the team on the right. The left has its own problems.

1. Not so long ago, the left was portraying the family as an oppressive institution. Academically, many analyzed family relationships in terms of economic power. Politically and culturally, many more worked to eliminate the legal and economic incentives to marry and stay married, to "educate" young people out from under sexual "repression," and to stigmatize the traditional family as a relic of 1950s conformism.

To a great extent, the left has succeeded in blasting away the living culture of marriage. But now that the oppressive structure has been overthrown, it seems to have an Arcadian mythic elegance. I sometimes wonder if same-sex marriage is leftism, wistful for bourgeois tenderness, bringing a picnic to the evocative ruins.

2. Last fall the response of some to Prop 8's victory was to search out its supporters and harass them. This was condemned by many gay marriage supporters for what it was, thuggery. But there is still an unwillingness, most recently expressed by the New Hampshire legislature, to codify religious protections into law with regard to this issue, as if those who oppose gay marriage, as I do, should be compelled to endorse it.

This elevation of gay marriage over the health of civil society will inflame, not persuade.

The maneuvering of left and right leaves me cold because it obscures the one issue I care about.

Marriage is an expression of Jesus Christ's redeeming love for his church. I care that his power to transform and nurture is exhibited deeply in my relationship with my wife and sons. I care that his power is exhibited in the congregation I serve. I care that his power should reach people who at this moment may be antagonized by his name.

I'm grateful to the homosexuals who have come to the church, and those who've admitted me into their lives as a friend. In a time of rancor, I appreciate the chance to show respect and care even in the face of profound disagreement. I am confident that Christ can and will show himself in this way.

The California Supreme Court's decision yesterday contributes nothing to this overriding project.

Prop 8 and Evangelical Goals

Sermon audio (11-9-08): The Blind Man Finally Sees The ongoing furor over Proposition 8 -- the successful California initiative banning same-sex marriage -- heats up the question of how churches should relate to society in general and governments in particular. The intensified hostility against evangelicals, pointedly expressed on picket lines and in court rooms, is focusing believers' minds up and down the state.

In our church, we have just finished studying the man born blind in John 9, the beggar who stood alone against the rulers. What are the potential applications of his example in today's California? Will Christians face persecution because of their stand on marriage? More broadly, how does the New Testament portray the relationship between 1st century Christians and the societies in which they lived?

Some not entirely random observations, starting with the broadest issue:

1. The culture portrayed in the New Testament was diverse, and idolatry and sexual immorality were mainstream, institutionalized fixtures.

Roman society had many gods, with cultic practices that varied from city to city. The idolatry permeated civic and social interactions, and no Christian could escape direct contact with it (1 Corinthians 8-10). Places such as Corinth and Ephesus were notorious, but not unusual, for their public sexuality. In 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt with the impact of this immorality on the church, issues like which sexual relationships were legal and illegal, and the common use of temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 6:12-20).

The New Testament commands Christians to look after their own purity in sex and worship. It nowhere commands them to legislate Jesus Christ as the official God of their cities, or to pass laws that reflect biblical standards. Cultural and economic upheaval is anticipated as more people follow Christ, but only as a secondary consequence of Christ's power, not as a result of direct agitation by Christians (Acts 19:21-41).

2. Christianity in the New Testament was an urban phenomenon. The apostles went from city to city, and the gospel thrived in the hustle of commerce and the competition among new ideas. Indeed, the fact that ethnic and religious identities were softened by so much cultural interaction was a major opening for the news that a Jew had died for the whole world.

3. We are living in the decaying civilization called Christendom, an accumulation of habits, institutions, and modes of thought rooted in Athens and Jerusalem. This era of decay is a monumental time in Western civilization, at the end of which a new collection of cultures will emerge with ethics, religions, and polities that are not entirely foreseeable now. In the sweep of human history, this process is normal. The Bible records many such shifts.

California is not at the leading edge of this transition. Europe is.

4. The end of Christendom is not something to celebrate.

The decay of old habits and institutions is destabilizing and even corrupting. The cynicism and decadence that we find everywhere now are signs of selfish and purposeless living, not signs of intellectual vitality. When a simple virtue like gratitude for our cultural inheritance is held up to scorn, we can be assured that other personal disciplines like courage, integrity, and fidelity have long since passed.

Declining to throw a party over the end of Christendom is not a sign of cultural arrogance. It is simple realism. All cultural decay, at all times, and in all places leads to moral confusion.

5. The fight to preserve Christendom is misguided.

Same-sex marriage is not the tipping point in the demise of Christendom. That point was passed long, long ago. (World War I might be a good candidate.) As much as we may mourn at the grave of our heritage, it is not a sign of health to try and dig up the corpse.

Again, Christians who mourn the loss of what was good in our inheritance are not wrong. But, as they mourn, they need to do the day's work. The end of governments founded on broadly Christian notions is an opportunity to change what Christendom built in error -- specifically, we can now detach the spiritual from the political.

6. Christianity can thrive in California.

Our context is more like the first century than the nineteenth, more like the societies in which Christian faith exploded than those in which it was dying. The predictions of the death of the faith in California are foolish. There is nothing happening now that hasn't constituted an opportunity for believers in the past. The faith may indeed die out here, but if it does, it will not be the result of unstoppable external forces. It will die because Christians stop believing.

7. Christians can now thrive if they will think of themselves more like the beggar in John 9 than the rulers.

Evangelicals project a sense of ownership in American society, ownership that is at best debatable and probably specious. Their populist calls to arms are all based on the planted axiom that the rightful authorities have been usurped. This is the wrong posture. We face a confident and established culture of secular priorities. The unbelievers rule. Let's be the beggars.

The beggar's individual integrity is more powerful than collective activism. His first-hand testimony about Jesus Christ is more potent than arguments about the shape of social institutions. And the beggar's suffering is for one cause and one only: the name of Jesus Christ.

I'll put it differently. When each Christian in California has the simplicity and tenacity for Christ that the man born blind had, we won't worry any longer about the death of our traditions. We will be at the beginning of a Christian counterculture.

The Father Who Went to Jail

Sermon audio (10-26-08): Aggression Against Christ In You Last week, I received an email with a video claiming that a Massachusetts man went to jail for protesting pro-gay material that his son was given in public kindergarten. The video was produced by the Family Research Council (FRC), and was sent up and down California by the American Family Association (AFA). It interested me because of the defiant beggar we are studying at our church these days (audio above).

Let's score it.

First, I'll make a distinction. I am discussing the way this story is told by the video's producers, the FRC. The Parkers, the couple featured in the video, will have said many things in the process of making it, only a few of which the producers kept in the presentation. So I am focused on the decisions made by the producers, and by those who distributed the video.

Start with the email that went out from the AFA. The subject line was, "A father goes to jail to protect his son." That was written to be scary. The implicit claim is that if one father is arrested then others will be too. The explicit claim is that the father was arrested was "to protect his son." If those claims are true, then the subject line is scary for a good reason. If not ...

Move to the video's music. The sad and scary sound of the introductory music sets an ominous atmosphere for the story. It's a not very subtle technique that lowers the video's tone to that of a tabloid piece or a negative political ad.

The narration of the story is calm. For the beginning, the producers seem to have made the sensible decision to let the facts of what the Parkers' son encountered speak for themselves. He was given a book making a positive portrayal of a homosexual household. The producers show the Parkers expressing shock that they were not informed about this book in advance, but their point of view comes across without melodrama.

So far, while I am bothered by the tabloid gimmick telling me what to feel, the video lays out its case in a defensible way. It asserts that if same-sex marriage is legal then teaching about it will come in public schools, regardless of parents' views. This is a reasonable assertion, and the tone and content of the video up to this point are consistent with it.

But the story abruptly lurches toward a shocker ending, as the subject line of the email and the tabloid gimmick announced it would do. Mr. Parker demanded an assurance from a school administrator that he would be notified before any more teaching about homosexuality, adding that until he received such an assurance he would not leave the school.

The producers show Mr. Parker saying that he was arrested, and they juxtapose comments from Mr. and Mrs. Parker making the clear assertion that he was arrested for demanding his parental rights. The producers show Mr. Parker describing the small filthy cell, and they show him breaking down. Then they switch to a voice-over of Mr. Parker giving a call to arms.

The video, in other words, tips from a reasonable assertion to a shocking one, an assertion that totalitarians run Massachusetts. If indeed a school administrator had Mr. Parker arrested for demanding parental rights -- for using his rights to free speech -- then we have a clear case of tyranny.

So what about that claim?

Here is the Boston Globe story on the incident. "David Parker was arrested for trespassing ... when he refused to leave the building until school officials promised to give him prior notification of their use of books that include homosexual characters." Arrested for trespassing.

Contrast the story on WorldNetDaily. "The dispute grabbed headlines when Parker, on April 27, 2005, was arrested and thrown in jail by school officials over his insistence on being notified regarding his son in kindergarten being taught about homosexual relationships by adults." Thrown in jail because of the gay agenda.

You're the administrator. The guy in your office escalates a disagreement by saying that he will not leave the facility until you give him what he demands. At this moment, what's the issue? And what's your decision? In an era of random school violence that has been the subject of planning and training at all levels for at least a decade, your decision is open-and-shut. He does not have the right to make that threat.

The score is: Boston Globe -- 1, FRC/AFA/WND -- 0. Whatever value the video might've had in warning Californians about the probable consequences of the failure of Prop 8 is undermined by the producers' fatal overreach. This was not a case of state aggression, but of civil disobedience. If you are a victim of state aggression, you get thrown in jail against your will. If you protest through civil disobedience, you have announced that going to jail is your intention.

Mr. Parker may make this clear when he speaks without producers editing his statements. (He comes close to doing so at one point in the video itself.) What dismays me about this video is the willingness of the producers and the activists to exploit such an incident for no other purpose than fear-mongering.

When did Christian leaders decide that propaganda was okay?

Being Christians in the Age of Obama

Sermon audio (10-19-08): Opposition to Christ in You Yeah, I know: it ain't over til the fat lady sings. Obama isn't elected yet. McCain could still pull an upset.

But nothing changes the fact that our country is headed for an acrimonious reckoning. The name Obama itself reflects the depth of the nation's divisions. About half the country is convinced he'll redeem America, and about half thinks he'll turn us into France. Americans are in the habit of getting pretty worked up over presidential candidates, but this year is special.

Consider a few flash-points.

Many Republicans are angry over the media's investigations of Joe the plumber. At National Review Online on Monday, Byron York reported from a McCain rally where the spectators were holding up signs like "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." The encounters between such people and reporters quickly escalated. One man said to reporters, "I support McCain, but I’ve come to face you guys because I’m disgusted with you guys." Many see themselves as persecuted.

On his Monday radio show, Sean Hannity interviewed a girl who was called a racist for wearing a McCain T-shirt to school. Her parents complained that the teachers and administrators had done nothing. More persecution.

Sarah Palin continues to divide not only the country in general but conservatives in particular. George Will, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan have earned the ire of the grassroots right for their rejection of her populism. The ire is expressed along class lines, that these are fake conservatives because they are intellectuals, members of the media elite who look down their noses at common folk. Persecution from turncoats.

In California, the portents of an Obama victory combined with a victory for gay marriage against Proposition 8 are giving many evangelicals nightmares about totalitarian judges taking away their religious freedom. Persecution from government bureaucrats.

This election is defined less along the lines of economics, philosophy, or even race than those of class and culture. From the grassroots conservative point of view, it's Walmart against Wall Street, blue collar against white, Western Pennsylvania against San Francisco. It's Obama against Palin.

Evangelicals have spent decades confusing political causes with the cause of Christ. I have written at length about their populism and resentment, characteristics that mix a particular American identity -- predominantly rural and suburban, middle class, and conservative -- with godliness and truth. This year, many evangelicals fervently hope that populist anger will carry McCain to victory.

I think evangelicals are at a watershed.

If they invest their passion into being Sam's Club Republicans, into retaining the consumer culture that "made America great," and if they continue to link their faith in Christ and their political views, then they will be deluded about this year's reckoning.

They will interpret a McCain victory as some divine approval of their way of life, and will ignore the role their own immorality has played in the nation's decline. Conversely, they will interpret an Obama victory as the beginning of the persecution of the common American, stoking the fires of their resentment even hotter.

Neither response will advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but merely intensify the acrimony.

But if evangelicals invest their passion into being Jesus' followers, into showing his grace and truth in their relationships, then they will see this year's election for what it is -- an opportunity. This is our chance to demonstrate that we care more about displaying Christ's glory than about displaying America's.

Many of the evangelicals I know are determined to make Christ the issue in their lives. They are taking steps to glorify him in their marriages, in the nurturing of their children, in their personal devotion to the scriptures and prayer, and in simple integrity. These believers understand how the sins of God's people are more significant causes of America's spiritual death than the sins of non-Christians. They also understand that their process of repentance will be full of suffering.

But they voice their sense of peace that Christ will turn them into unique expressions of his love, and that their individuality in him will become a clear, strong message of the gospel. They know that any opposition they get for displaying Christ is not opposition to their social status, or their political views, or their economic aspirations, but is the same opposition that Christ himself got when he was on earth. And they know that Christ can overcome that opposition.

To advance Christ's Kingdom, evangelicals must take one course or the other, the political or the spiritual. And the political course has demonstrably failed.

I am convinced that devotion to Jesus will help us avoid putting hope in a McCain administration, and that such devotion is the only way to face our more likely future, the age of Obama, without acrimony.