When Did the United States Become Our Church?

I grew up in a conservative evangelical Republican context. I now consider myself a left-wing progressive liberation theology Christian who votes Democrat but really prefers the Green Party. I have mixed allegiances. I am a citizen of the United States, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, and a citizen of the Kingdom of God as defined by Jesus.

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My Facebook profile pic: I’m supporting USA at the Women’s World Cup, with my god-daughter, while wearing a Cherokee Nation shirt.

I support gay marriage as a legal right of United States citizens. I also have no problem with each church, temple, synagogue, and mosque defining marriage as they see fit; that is their right. The secular government has a different mission than the church.

The United States is a pluralistic society, including people of many different religious and cultural backgrounds. The Constitution is supposed to protect minorities from “the tyranny of the majority” and to protect basic rights and the principle of equality. While marriage may be primarily a religious and cultural construct, the regulations of the United States, for better or worse, are deeply enmeshed in it. According to previous arguments before the US Supreme Court, there are over 1,200 laws that consider marital status. To that end, any pluralistic society that incorporates one’s marital status into their laws must, to be fair, incorporate a wide definition of marriage, so as not to discriminate. It’s a matter of basic fairness.

It’s also a matter of basic respect and dignity for the LGBTQ community. Without the right to marry, they are cast not only into legal quagmires involving taxes, child custody, hospital visitation, inheritance, and many other important issues, but they are tarnished with an official rejection of their basic humanness, that somehow their love and commitment to each other is not equal to that of heterosexuals (which itself is somewhat tarnished by a high divorce rate). It’s a stigma, and a very serious one. Further, like the Confederate Flag or countless symbols against Native Americans, it gives license to discrimination and acts of violence against them.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion focused on the discrimination that same-sex couples face in the social realm as well as the legal realm, saying, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.”

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The White House lit up with rainbow lights. To underscore how fickle government can be, note that Obama did not support same sex marriage at the start of his presidency.

Liberals rejoiced. Many friends have said they were moved to tears by the acceptance that this official recognition provides. Perhaps it is hard to fully comprehend the level of discrimination, persecution, and rejection they felt until it is suddenly lifted. Facebook has been overrun with rainbow-themed profile pics (26 million at last count) and congratulations and celebrations have even poured in from around the world.

Conservatives opposed to the ruling have reacted in dismay. This was best captured by a Facebook post by Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He wrote:

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled today that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. With all due respect to the court, it did not define marriage, and therefore is not entitled to re-define it.

Long before our government came into existence, marriage was created by the One who created man and woman—Almighty God—and His decisions are not subject to review or revision by any manmade court. God is clear about the definition of marriage in His Holy Word: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

I pray God will spare America from His judgment, though, by our actions as a nation, we give Him less and less reason to do so.

The post has received almost 500,000 likes.

Graham is confusing the United States government with the church. He seeks the policy he wants for his church for an entire pluralistic nation. Other Christians, even evangelicals, have said this defeat will enable them to give up on this mistaken cause and instead focus on issues such as justice and compassion for the poor and oppressed.

We can easily question Graham’s selective choice of issues. When it comes to the Old Testament, he is certainly picking and choosing. There are very few passages that explicitly mention homosexuality – less than five, and most of those are subject to debate. Far more attention is given to oppression of the poor and reliance upon military strength rather than God’s provision. These are favorite topics of the Old Testament prophets, who have filled the Bible with their diatribes against the Jewish theocracy on these issues. Yet, even while these matters involve victims and matters of social justice (and not just personal morality), Graham does not echo the prophets’ call for a Jubilee every fifty years (which involves the forgiveness of all debt and massive redistribution of wealth; essentially a “re-setting” of the economy). It was Jesus’ first request, “I come to announce the Year of the Lord’s Favor” (Luke 4:18). Current demands for Third World debt forgiveness take the Jubilee law of the Old Testament as their inspiration; Graham ignores it. Graham also does not echo the Old Testament requirement that young men with new families (i.e. most young men) be restricted from military service. Both Graham and the Old Testament prophets have much to say about immigration and the treatment of foreigners; suffice it to say they do not say the same things.

Graham says he is concerned about God’s judgement on America. (Is he concerned about God’s judgement regarding the various policies of the 200 or so other nations?) It is commonly supposed that God rained hellfire upon Sodom and Gomorrah for their acts of homosexuality. Graham seems to be falling into this same revisionist history. The prophet Ezekial tells the story a different way. He says the people of Sodom “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me” (Ezekial 16:48-50). If Graham is worried about God’s judgement of the United States, it seems there is much more to worry about than same-sex relationships based on love and commitment. Perhaps Graham can focus on the word “overfed” and make obesity and the American food industry his new issue.

Graham’s biggest mistake is simply treating the United States as if it was his church. Liberals are not exempt from the same mistake. In fact, since the dawn of radio and television, Americans have increasingly looked to their president to use the “bully pulpit” of the executive branch to spiritually guide the nation. We look to the president as we would our pastor. We evaluate his speeches as we would a sermon (and they invariably end with “God bless America”). Yes, Obama’s speech at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, where he led the congregation in an impassioned singing of Amazing Grace, was inspirational. But for Christians, whose primary allegiance should be to the Kingdom of God, common ground with the policies of the United States is a nice thing (and can at times produce meaningful benefits), but it is not our ultimate goal.

We should appeal to secular governments to protect the rights of the oppressed, to provide basic public services, to address market failures and to regulate our economy, and, more often than not, to do no harm. Advocacy has its place in Christian mission, but the government is at best an unreliable friend. In the Book of Revelation, at the end of time, the “kings of the earth”, presumably referring to the governments of the world, are a fickle bunch, problematic from the start, and only come around to see the Light at the very very end. Yes, let’s advocate for justice, for fairness, for equality, but let us not rely on the government to define our spiritual world, nor count on the United States to be our church nor on the president to be our pastor.

The church is the church and the state is the state. The United States, because it has over 1,000 laws and regulations that refer to marital status, and because it is the government of a pluralistic society and not a church, is obligated to define marriage to be inclusive. Religious institutions are still free to define marriage as they please. It is possible to coexist with multiple definitions. I hope we can all celebrate that the government has removed an indignity and an inequality that made life very difficult for so many.  May it last, and may violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community come to an end, not just in the United States, but around the world as well.

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