Obergefell v. Hodges – An Analysis of the “Gay Marriage” Supreme Court Decision

courtOn Friday, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark ruling about same-sex marriage. Here is what it determined:

The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.[1]

What does the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution state? Here is Section 1, which is the portion relevant to this discussion:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.[2]

What exactly did this Supreme Court decision determine? What were the legal arguments both for and against the point at issue? This article will introduce these issues and present the legal arguments, from both sides, strictly from the court decision itself.

What was this case about?

This case was an amalgamation of several individual cases from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee – all States which define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The petitioners were 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners are deceased. The respondents were officials from the States in question. The petitioners claim the respondents (i.e. the respective States) violated the 14th Amendment by denying them the right to marry or by not recognizing their same-sex marriages which had been lawfully performed in another State.[3]

The petitioners argued they were being denied the right to “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and that they were being denied the “equal protection of the laws,” specifically with regard to the legal benefits traditional married couples enjoyed.

What questions did the court rule on?

Each District Court in each State denied the petitioner’s claims, and dismissed the cases. Each petitioner then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which promptly reversed the District Courts and consolidated all the cases together. The individual States appealed this decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments related to two critical questions. These questions are what the Supreme Court decided, and they are:[4]

  1. Does the 14th Amendment require a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
  2. Does the 14th Amendment require a State to recognize a same-sex marriage licensed and performed in a State which does grant that right?

The Supreme Court answered “Yes!” to both questions – a moral evolution so profound that President Obama remarked that it was “justice that arrive[d] like a thunderbolt!”[5] Each State in this country is now (1) required to license same-sex marriages, and (2) required to recognize same-sex marriages from other States.

The court on traditional marriage

There is a worldview issue here which cannot be ignored. Is there an objective definition of marriage to turn to, or are we left with social mores? The Christian turns to God’s revealed word. The secularist turns to the shifting winds of culture. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy revealed he has no concrete definition of marriage.[6] He acknowledges that supporters of traditional marriage will be horrified at the Court’s decision, but assures us that the respondents do not seek to demean the institution at all – indeed, they seek to honor it:

To the contrary, it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners’ contentions. This, they say, is their whole point. Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.[7]

Kennedy went on to state that “new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.”[8] It is obvious Kennedy views the widespread secular acceptance of same-sex marriage with satisfaction, a righteous reversal from a bygone era when homosexuals were not allowed to have “dignity in their own distinct identity” and “a truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken.”[9]

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts cut right to the heart of the matter; “The real question in these cases is what constitutes ‘marriage,’ or—more precisely—who decides what constitutes ‘marriage’”?[10] Roberts believed that it is certainly “no historical coincidence”[11] that human society, across millennia and across cultures, has always recognized marriage as being a union between one man and one woman. He appears genuinely befuddled by this moral revolution, observing “the premises supporting [the traditional] concept of marriage are so fundamental that they rarely require articulation.”[12] He tied marriage to procreation, and observed that it is a basic fact that:

  1. humans must procreate to survive,
  2. this procreation occurs when a male and female have sexual intercourse,
  3. children’s prospects are immeasurably strengthened when the parents form a lasting bond, and
  4. society has recognized that bond as “marriage.”[13]

Individual states, Roberts reminded us, always defined marriage in the traditional, biological way until about a dozen years ago.[14] He fired back at Kennedy’s statement that marriage is an institution of both “continuity and change” by observing that not one Court decision related to marriage in this country’s history has ever redefined the “core meaning” of the institution itself – until now.[15]

The court on its role in society

Is it the Supreme Court’s role to interpret the law as it currently is, or to determine what it ought to be? This was the basic question Chief Justice Roberts asked,[16] and it is really the crux of the matter between the two parties on the Court. What is the role of the Court? The democratic process has been thwarted, he warns: “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law.”[17] He believes the Court is confused about its role, and sees no legal grounds for the majority decision. The Court is not a legislative body which enacts policy.[18]

Roberts believes the Court dangerously overreached on this decision, and most of his ire is directed at this point. Indeed, his entire dissent is not about the validity of same-sex marriage per se; it is about what he believes is a very dangerous overreach of authority by the Court:

Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.[19]

The Court’s rationale for this “overreach” is chilling. Justice Kennedy acknowledged that “democracy is the appropriate process for change.”[20] However, “when the rights of persons are violated, ‘the Constitution requires redress by the courts,’ notwithstanding the more general value of democratic decision-making.”[21] It is the Court’s job, Kennedy believes, to take the fundamental issue of human dignity and rights out of the capricious hands of legislatures, elected officials and majorities, away from the “vicissitudes of political controversy” and establish them as legal precedent.[22] In effect, Kennedy believes in an activist Court. Apparently, so does the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This decision makes it clear the Court is deeply divided not only over issues of morality, but over its basic role in American society.

Roberts’ arguments are both laudable and depressing. They’re laudable in the sense that he points out the absurdity of this wholesale re-definition of a sacred institution:

[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?[23]

Yet, Roberts’ dissent is also depressing because it betrays the bankruptcy of secular morality, even “traditional” morality. His entire argument is from history, from the “way things have always been.” He has no positive argument to make beyond the issue of procreation. Like Kennedy, Roberts has no objective standard to turn to. Socially-constructed mores function by inertia; they may endure for a long time, but when the brakes are removed nothing can stop it from moving. It may teeter and wobble a bit in its original position for a time, but it will topple sooner or later.

In this country, the God-given definition of marriage has toppled, and conservatives like Roberts who have no objective foundation for morality are left befuddled, frustrated and speechless. Ultimately, Roberts has no answers. All he has is a secular, allegedly “outdated” cultural construct of morality that America in 2015 has left behind.

The court’s legal justification for this ruling

The Court justified its ruling requiring States to both license and recognize same-sex unions on four pillars. They are:[24]

  1. individual autonomy
  2. a two-person union is important to individuals
  3. it safeguards children and families
  4. it safeguards social order

These arguments, and the dissenting opinion, are analyzed below.

Pillar #1 – individual autonomy and liberty

Justice Kennedy’s argument on this point is remarkable because it is not a legal argument at all; he simply made blanket statements as though they were brute facts. “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”[25] His entire argument here, which quite literally consists of three short paragraphs, is that people must be allowed to do what makes them happy. He makes it a point to use the word “freedom,” possibly to establish a subtle link to the concept of “liberty” from the text of the 14th Amendment:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.[26]

The question is – who gets to determine whether a given construct of “happiness” is socially acceptable? Kennedy anticipates this objection and has no answer. He merely states, “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”[27] The Court has decreed that homosexual relationships are dignified, therefore they are. Kennedy does not explain why this is a dignified pursuit and provides no legal rationale for supposing it is one. As Chief Justice Roberts observed, the Court’s decision is a more of a policy statement than a legal document.

Roberts tore into this “freewheeling notion of individual autonomy.”[28] The Court’s position on this is smoke and mirrors, a rhetorical gloss with no legal substance. The Court’s decision is nothing more than a statement of moral philosophy, a naked quest for policy preferences. He marveled that “nobody could rightly accuse the majority of taking a careful approach.”[29]

The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to.[30]

Roberts’ issue is that no legal argument was actually presented for the redefinition of marriage. No “right to marry” case ever heard before the Court, whether it concerned inter-racial couples, individuals with child-support debts, or incarcerated prisoners,[31] has ever re-defined the institution itself. Every “right to marry” case presupposed the traditional definition of marriage. To Roberts, this is the death blow to the Court’s majority opinion. “None of the laws at issue in those cases purported to change the core definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”[32]

Thus, there is simply no legal precedent for the sweeping claim to personal autonomy championed by the Court. The personal accounts of the homosexual petitioners were “compelling,” Roberts admitted. “As a matter of constitutional law, however, the sincerity of petitioners’ wishes is not relevant.”[33] There is simply no legal basis for a constitutional right to redefine the entire institution of marriage in the name of individual autonomy. “None exists, and that is enough to foreclose their claim.”[34]

 Pillar #2 – a two-person union is “important” to people

Kennedy continues his quest for individual autonomy; “this Court’s jurisprudence is that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.”[35] In essence, Kennedy’s argument here is as follows:

  1. Homosexual marriage is important to the petitioners,
  2. to deny what is important to the petitioners infringes upon liberty and autonomy,
  3. to infringe upon personal liberty and autonomy violates the “due-process” clause of the 14th Amendment,
  4. therefore homosexual marriage must be sanctioned

Couples wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other, and homosexual couples are entitled to the “right to marry” because this is how they define reality.

Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.[36]

It is not enough to merely de-criminalize homosexual acts, as the Court did in the case of Lawrence v. Texas; Kennedy believes homosexual couples are entitled to the “full promise of liberty.”[37] That full promise means legally sanctioned marriage, because it’s what makes them happy.

Pillar #3 – it safeguards children and families

This is the pillar which will probably surprise Christians. What basis does the Court have to rule that legalizing same-sex marriages actually safeguards children and families? Kennedy offers a handful of reasons:

  1. By granting official recognition and legal standing to homosexual parents, their children can now “understand the integrity and closeness” of their family.[38]
  2. This recognition offers “permanency and stability important to children’s best interests.”[39]
  3. If their homosexual “parents” are not allowed to marry, “their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”[40]
  4. Likewise, such children will suffer “significant material costs” because of a “difficult and uncertain family life.”[41]

Kennedy hangs his hat on a quote from Zablocki v. Redhail , which stated, “[T]he right to ‘marry, establish a home and bring up children’ is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.”[42] Kennedy chose a particularly flimsy hook to hang his judicial hat on. Here is the argument:[43]

  1. Homosexual couples exist
  2. They already establish homes
  3. They already adopt and raise children
  4. Because the right to marry, establish a home, and bring up children have each been considered as a “unified whole,”[44] the Court therefore has precedent to extend the “right to marry” to homosexual couples.

This weak and vacuous argument goes far beyond special pleading. Kennedy betrays a pitiful willingness to grasp at any straw, any legal precedent – not matter how tenuous the link is. The Court actually advanced the argument that (1) because homosexual couples already establish homes, and (2) already adopt and raise children, that (3) they should be granted the “right to marry” because these three privileges have been interpreted as being part of a “unified whole” in previous “right to marry” court decisions! The Court missed Roberts’ entire point – no “right to marry” case has ever sought to re-define the institution itself!

Again, the reader is left with the impression that this is not a legal document; it is a poor man’s attempt at moral philosophy. In that light, Roberts’ warnings about judicial overreach are particularly relevant:

Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.[45]

Pillar #4 – marriage maintains social order

If a society does not pledge to both protect and support married couples, then a critical “building block of our national community”[46] is threatened. If American society withholds formal legal status from same-sex couples, they are “denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.”[47] Basically, society harms homosexual couples by withholding that right from them. By harming them, society thereby damages itself.

Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.[48]

The Court is well aware of Roberts’ objection – no previous “right to marry” case ever sought to re-define the meaning of the institution itself. That, Kennedy argued, is missing the point. The question is not, “Do they have the right to marry?” The question is, “Why don’t they have the right to marry?”[49] This brings us full circle to the historical argument for traditional marriage, which Kennedy brushes aside with breath-taking arrogance. Definitions change, society changes, and “rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”[50]

In the end, Kennedy is a good secularist who believes that morality is a shifting target. He personally feels homosexual couples are being denied a fundamental right and “it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”[51] On that note, Chief Justice Roberts warns us, “allowing unelected federal judges to select which un enumerated rights rank as ‘fundamental’—and to strike down state laws on the basis of that determination—raises obvious concerns about the judicial role.”[52]

These four pillars are the sum of the Court’s legal opinion. Kennedy summarized as follows:

It is now clear that the challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and it must be further acknowledged that they abridge central precepts of equality . . . The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.[53]

Conclusion – moral revolution?

The Court’s decision on 26JUN15 has only raised more questions.

An activist court

There is no doubt that the Court has bought into a purely secular view of morality, which fueled its activist stance in this case. The Court acted out of what it perceived to be a moral duty, one that could not afford to wait for the democratic process. Chief Justice Roberts was horrified at the Court’s activist stance in this case, especially the cavalier way it simply brushed aside the definition of marriage a millennia in the making. While Kennedy points to referenda, legislative debates, grassroots campaigns, studies, papers, books, and “more than 100 amici[54] as proof that this issue has been debated long enough, Roberts couldn’t disagree more about the Court’s “extravagant conception of judicial supremacy.”[55]

The fact is that five lawyers on the Court personally believed that homosexual marriage is a fundamental right, and ruled accordingly. It was their duty to rule the way they did – justice demanded it. “Of course, the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.”[56]

What other activist decision can the American people expect, on the basis of some perceived “moral imperative” from a few lawyers in Washington D.C.? As Roberts observed, “there is indeed a process due the people on issues of this sort—the democratic process.”[57]

The legal “slippery slope”

Many observers have warned about the “slippery-slope” the Court’s decision has opened up. What about plural marriages? What about polyamory? The Court has slipped badly here, jettisoning all vestiges of tradition and history, “preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now.”[58] Chief Justice Roberts recognized this, and warned:

If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one . . . It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.[59]

The petitioner’s counsel betrayed his own moral bankruptcy when he was asked, during oral arguments, whether his position opened the door to plural marriages. Counsel dismissed the idea out of hand by stating that no State had such an institution. Roberts then observed that this was precisely his point – no State at issue in this case had an institution of same sex marriage either, and yet the Petitioner was arguing to force them to adopt one![60]

Tax-exempt status for churches and para-church organizations

Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”[61] This is quite true, and it is rather horrifying to see how little thought or care the Solicitor General had given to this potential landmine at the time of oral arguments. I will let the following exchange from the oral arguments speak for itself:[62]

JUSTICE ALITO: “Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­sex marriage?”

GENERAL VERRILLI: “You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I ­­… I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is … ­ it is going to be an issue.”

Going forward, the Court’s ruling has created an atmosphere of immense uncertainty among Bible-believing Christians in the United States. It will take the next several years, and likely decades, to appreciate the full impact of this decision. It also brings to mind the old arguments over what the local church’s role is in political life. Is it legitimate to attempt to “impose” Christian values on a secular state? Should Christians continue to try to have a voice in the political arena, or should local churches simply preach the Bible, keep their heads down and “mind their own business”?

None of these questions are new, but the Court’s decision has given them a new impetus. All these questions will be debated now, and for years to come because of this decision.

Notes

[1] “Syllabus,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/urIhon. 26JUN15. Pg. 1.

[2] “Constitution of the United States – Amendments 11-27,” from archives.gov. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/BST2fT. 27JUN15.

[3] “Opinion of the Court,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges, 2.

[4] “Opinion of the Court,” 2-3.

[5] The White House, “Remarks by the President on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality.” Retrieved from https://goo.gl/K6CDO0. 27JUN15.

[6] “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 6).

[7] “Opinion of the Court,” 4.

[8] “Opinion of the Court,” 7.

[9] “Opinion of the Court,” 7.

[10] “Dissenting Opinion,” in Obergefell et al v. Hodges, 4.

[11] “Dissenting Opinion,” 4.

[12] “Dissenting Opinion,” 5.

[13] “Dissenting Opinion,” 5.

[14] “Dissenting Opinion,” 6.

[15] “Dissenting Opinion,” 8.

[16] “But this Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be,” (“Dissenting Opinion,” 2).

[17] “Dissenting Opinion,” 2.

[18] “Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not,” (“Dissenting Opinion,” 2).

[19] “Dissenting Opinion,” 3.

[20] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[21] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[22]  “The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 24).

[23] “Dissenting Opinion,” 3.

[24] “Opinion of the Court,” 12-17.

[25] “Opinion of the Court,” 12.

[26] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[27] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[28] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[29] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[30] “Dissenting Opinion,” 19.

[31] These cases are, respectively, Loving v. Virginia, Zablocki v. Redhail and Turner v. Safley.

[32] “Dissenting Opinion,” 16.

[33] “Dissenting Opinion,” 15.

[34] “Dissenting Opinion,” 17.

[35] “Opinion of the Court,” 13.

[36] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[37] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[38] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[39] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[40] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[41] “Opinion of the Court,” 15.

[42] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[43] It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s legal argument is so vague and badly written that he never actually defends it. He simply states it in an off-hand way in one single sentence before waxing eloquent about the harm being done to children of same-sex couples. His entire legal argument for this pillar is here: “A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education. See Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U. S. 510 (1925); Meyer, 262 U. S., at 399. The Court has recognized these connections by describing the varied rights as a unified whole: “[T]he right to ‘marry, establish a home and bring up children’ is a central part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause,” (“Opinion of the Court, 14).

[44] “Opinion of the Court,” 14.

[45] “Dissenting Opinion,” 10.

[46] “Opinion of the Court,” 16. “For that reason, just as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union.”

[47] “Opinion of the Court,” 17.

[48] “Opinion of the Court,” 17.

[49] “Rather, each case inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right,” (“Opinion of the Court,” 18).

[50] “Opinion of the Court,” 18-19.

[51] “Opinion of the Court,” 19.

[52] “Dissenting Opinion,” 11.

[53] “Opinion of the Court,” 27.

[54] “Opinion of the Court,” 23.

[55] “Dissenting Opinion,” 25.

[56] “Opinion of the Court,” 24.

[57] “Dissenting Opinion, 22.

[58] “Dissenting Opinion,” 22.

[59] “Dissenting Opinion,” 20.

[60] “Dissenting Opinion,” 21.

[61] “Dissenting Opinion,” 28.

[62] Oral Transcript of 14-556, Question #1, pg. 38. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/PPtV1U. 27JUN15.

Sinking Sand – Living in a World Without Objective Morality

flowerThe Western world is in a curious position. In centuries past, countries in the West generally relied on a set of shared Judeo-Christian moral values to underpin criminal laws, and enforce public decency and freedom of conscience. You see, everybody has a moral foundation, whether we admit it or not.

Why is it bad to kill somebody, beat up old ladies, or listen to Brittany Spears? Why does virtually every society, in any corner of the world, agree on these three issues (and more)? Does it have something to do with evolution? Are these just generally agreed-upon values, with no objective moral weight? Is there no concrete standard to appeal to?

The law written on our hearts

Christians have always believed men and women are made in the image of God. Among other things, this means God designed, created and fashioned us to be in relationship with Him. This means we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of right and wrong. To be sure, as a result of Adam and Eve’s willful rebellion, we’ve all been ruined by sin, and this isn’t the perfect world God created way back when, in the beginning. But, we all have some residual glimmerings which betray our true Creator, Maker and Sustainer.

This law, which the Bible tells us has been written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), tells each one of us what is right and wrong. This is why everybody knows it’s wrong to cheat on your wife, molest little children, or “like” Michael Bolton on your Pandora app.

The problem

So, who cares? Well, in our new “enlightened” age, it’s not “appropriate” to acknowledge our debt to this God-given law. We must pretend it doesn’t exist because, as you know, God and His law have no rightful place in the global public square anymore.

How do courts make laws, when they don’t have an objective moral standard to appeal to, any longer? How do legislatures legislate, when they can’t appeal to any concrete foundation as the basis for the moral principles which undergird laws? Without an objective standard, all you’re left with are the shifting winds of cultural subjectivism. And we how that turns out …

In short, Western society is like a cut flower. We’ve cut ourselves off from the only real moral standard and benchmark there is, and we have no meaningful ability to legislate or interpret laws in a sane matter any longer. We saw this in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving homosexual marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges. And, as I’ll discuss later this week, we’ll likely see in another case before the Supreme Court; Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Os Guinness, in his book The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity, made some profound remarks along this line:

The willful neglect of this foundational freedom is a serious problem, and unless it is addressed, it will prove consequential to the future of free and open societies. But it has been compounded by an even deeper problem. The Western world, which has been the pioneer and champion of the human rights revolution, is experiencing a grand moral and philosophical confusion over how human rights are to be grounded and justified at all.

At first glance it would seem that human rights need no grounding. Cited on all sides and on a thousand occasions, they are today’s self-evident truths to many people—as obvious and logical as two plus two makes four, as powerful as belief in God in the great ages of faith, and the instinctive resort of all who face injustice or feel hard done by. Indeed, the human rights revolution has become for many a religion in itself. But that blind belief is naive.

Human rights can no more be taken for granted today than belief in God in a senior common room in a modern university. Take the three core notions that many modern people still consider self-evident and unassailable: human dignity, liberty and equality. Along with a whole range of beliefs in the modern world, there is confusion as to how they are to be understood and a yawning chasm as to how they are to be grounded.

Originally pioneered in the West and grounded in Jewish and Christian beliefs, human dignity, liberty and equality are now often left hanging without agreement over their definition and their foundation. There is a cold logic to the present quandary. If the original Jewish and Christian foundations of human dignity, liberty and equality are to be rejected, the ideas themselves need to be transposed to a new key or eventually they will wither. The Western world now stands as a cut-flower civilization, and such once-vital convictions have a seriously shortened life (pg. 65).

Indeed. 

Christless Christianity?

hortonI believe a troubling proportion of what passes as “Christianity” in contemporary American evangelicalism is at best sub-biblical, and at worst completely un-Christian. This isn’t necessarily true of the smaller churches scattered hither and yon throughout our fair land, amongst the amber waves of grain, in the shadow of purple mountain majesties. But, I believe it is generally true of the evangelical industrial complex in general, and celebrity ministers in particular.

To be sure, much of this pseudo-Christianity retains the same words, liturgies, creeds, confessions and outward form of orthodox Christianity. But, internally, it bears little resemblance to the true faith. Does this mean most pastors are wicked men, out to lead their flock to the flames of hell? Not necessarily; but make no mistake – such men do exist. I think this situation is more the result of a series of compounding problems:

  1. A drive to become “relevant” to the secular world will result in a subtle, then increasingly deliberate “softening” of the Christian message to avoid “offense.” Thus, the Gospel is increasingly buried under an avalanche of “love.” See my description of evangelism and “the church that’s ashamed of the gospel,” here.
  2. Our cultural climate is producing men in ministry who are timid. Such men are well-intentioned and quite pleasant people. But, they’re often weak, vacillating, hesitant, indecisive, and afraid.
  3. Our society is totally consumer-oriented, and this has filtered down to the churches. Many Christians shop for a church out of convenience and with a mercenary sense of entitlement. They view church like Wal-Mart, and they’ll hit the road or the Safeway down the street if you make them mad. This influences weak pastors to further round the rough edges off their ministries and Gospel presentations.

The end result of these (and other) problems is that you eventually end up with a “faith” that isn’t even Christian at all. God is somebody who just wants to bless. Jesus is the cosmic butler who lives to serve. The Spirit is there to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The church exists to fill your needs.

Nearly a decade ago, a sociologist named Christian Smith observed five defining factors which summed up the defacto “creed” of modern “religious” teenagers in the United States, from many different faiths:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Basically, young people would take these propositions, and fit them into whichever faith system they happened to be associated with. The result, of course, is a syncretic stew of blasphemy which has no objective content whatsoever.

If you know somebody who is “religious,” and they’re not grounded and schooled in a very conservative version of their faith tradition, then I’m betting you right now that they’d sum up their religious outlook with some or all of these five propositions. You know somebody who is “religious,” but doesn’t take it seriously. You’re thinking of her right now, aren’t you? You know exactly who you can ask. Try it. You’ll see . . .

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, of course. The Israelites perfected this technique, and repeatedly gave God lip-service with empty cultic rituals, while worshipping pagan gods. They viewed Yahweh as a spiritual 911 operator; somebody they had in their back pocket for a rainy day, but didn’t want to chat with otherwise. For example, consider this (Jeremiah 2:26-28):

As a thief is shamed when caught,
so the house of Israel shall be shamed:
they, their kings, their princes,
their priests, and their prophets,
who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’
and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
For they have turned their back to me,
and not their face.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
‘Arise and save us!’
But where are your gods
that you made for yourself?
Let them arise, if they can save you,
in your time of trouble;
for as many as your cities
are your gods, O Judah.

 

I suggest you read the book Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. It’s about, well . . . a “Christianity” which has taken Christ off the cross and made Him a cosmic butler. He writes:[1]

My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for “relevant” quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped, and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be.

As this new gospel becomes more obviously American than Christian, we all have to take a step back and ask ourselves whether evangelicalism is increasingly a cultural and political movement with a sentimental attachment to the image of Jesus more than a witness to “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We have not shown in recent decades that we have much stomach for this message that the apostle Paul called “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense,” “folly to Gentiles” (Rom. 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23).

Far from clashing with the culture of consumerism, American religion appears to be not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual legitimacy.

Harsh words. I think they’re warranted.

Notes

[1] This excerpt is from Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 19-20.

“Cultural Christianity” as Fakery

mooreRussell Moore explains:

We sang a lot in my home church about being strangers and exiles, longing for a home somewhere beyond the skies. But I never felt like a stranger or an outsider until I tried to earn my Boy Scout “God and Country” badge.

Our troop was made up, as our community was, mostly of Baptist and Catholic children, and we would gather each week at St. Mary’s to talk about what it meant to be morally straight. To work on earning this badge, though, we were shuttled over to the United Methodist church for sessions on what it meant to do our part for Christian America. Afterward, we had an open question and answer session with the pastor. And that’s when I discovered I was embarrassing the preacher, my troop leader, and maybe even my country. I wanted to talk theology.

My pastor was warm and welcoming, but I rarely had the opportunity to sit and ask whatever I wanted, and what was on my mind was the devil. A classmate of mine at the elementary school had watched some horror film on demonic possession, and he told me all about it, eerie voices, heads that turned all the way around, the whole thing. It shook me up. So I asked, “Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or are we protected from that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?”

The Methodist minister had been ebullient to that point, in the way a county supervisor cutting a ribbon at a storefront might be. But now he seemed uncomfortable, shifting in his chair and laughing stiltedly. He hemmed and hawed about pre-modern conceptions of mental illness and about the personification of social structures, with lots of throat clearing between every clause. I had no idea what he was talking about, and there was too much at stake to let him off the hook this easily. I didn’t want to risk projectile vomiting demonic ooze.

My grandmother was Catholic, but could I spare the time it would take to get to her house to round up a crucifix? I asked the question again. This time he was abrupt, and clear: “There’s no such thing as demons.”

Now, I was really confused. “Oh, but there are,” I said. “Look, right here in the Gospel of Mark, it says . . .” The pastor interrupted me to tell me he was quite familiar with Mark, and with Matthew, and with Q, whatever that was. He knew they believed in the devil, but he didn’t. In this day and age, the literal existence of angels and demons wasn’t tenable. This was the first time I’d ever encountered anyone, in person, who knew what the Bible said but just disagreed with it. And he was the preacher. Moreover, I picked up in the nonverbal cues there that he didn’t just find the idea of angels and demons incredible; he found it embarrassing.

That was just the setup. Here is the point:

The “God and Country” badge wasn’t really about conforming us to the gospel, or to the Bible, to any confessional Christian tradition, or even, for that matter, to the “mere Christianity” of the ancient creeds and councils. This project didn’t want to immerse us (or even sprinkle us) into the strange world of the Bible, with its fiery spirits and burning bushes and empty tombs. We were here for the right kind of Christianity, the sort that was a means to an end. We were to have enough Christianity to fight the Communists and save the Republic, as long as we didn’t take it all too seriously.

We weren’t there to carry a cross; we were there to earn a badge. We weren’t to be about Christ and kingdom, just God and country. This notion of Christian America stood in the backdrop of the culture wars of the last generation. If we are to engage in a new context, we must understand what we, perhaps unwittingly, embraced, and how to navigate beyond it.

This “cultural Christianity” that Moore describes is not Christianity; it is a false civic religion that has led, and is still leading, many people straight to hell. This looks to be a great book.

Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 11-12.

The Nashville Statement

nashvilleThis past week, a group of conservative evangelical Christian leaders released The Nashville Statement. This is a short document which lays out a series of 14 affirmations and denials about the Bible’s position on human sexuality and gender.

This is the critical issue of our day. The secular world is becoming increasingly unhinged and confused about what it means to be “male” and “female,” and whether human sexuality is a subjective individual choice, or an objective fact assigned before birth. And compromising Christians and liberal apostates have become increasingly shrill about their “inclusive” stance on these issues. I’ll write more on this soon.

For now, you need to carefully read this statement and consider what it means. It reflects God’s position on these issues, from the Biblical text. Here is an excerpt from the preamble:

As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

Indeed. Now, read the statement here.

Consider the affirmations and denials. Think about them. Think about our society, our culture. What has happened? Has the Western world gone mad?

Also, realize that the only solution for the cultural madness we see is for people to realize this world is not the way God made it, that we ruined it by our rebellion, but that God offers everyone forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement for sin, a citizenship in His coming Kingdom, and a home in His adopted family – if they repent of their sin and believe in the Good News that Jesus brought to the world.

I signed the statement. Perhaps you should, too?

The Ghost of Presbyterians Past

On a regular basis, an allegedly “Christian” leader engages in some form of theological and moral blasphemy. The result is always predictable, and follows a well-known pattern:

  1. Conservatives murmur about theological betrayal in tense, anxious tones, with nervous glances over their shoulders – fearful of an avalanche of leftist outrage,
  2. A “progressive Christian” from an apostate mainline denomination or seminary is trotted out, issues vague platitudes about unconditional love and forgiveness, provides an out of context quote from Jesus, and exits stage right.

Of course, this is not a matter of “conservative Christians” vs. “liberal” or “progressive Christians.” It is a matter of Christianity vs. paganism. It is a matter of two entirely different religions, which just happen to share the same vocabulary.

This is where J. Gresham Machen comes in. In 1923, he published his little book Christianity and Liberalism. It is a powerful book, and so little has changed since his day. Harken to this faithful Presbyterian who, though being dead, yet speaketh:

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.[1]

Notes

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York, NY: Loiseaux Bros., 1923; reprint, CrossReach Publications, n.d.; Kindle ed.), KL 1030-1032.

 

Empty Suits and Unholy Rage – ISIS vs. the Secular West (Part 1)

I originally published this short series on SharperIron.org, and it is reprinted here with permission.

chairThe Problem

Recently, a French political scientist was interviewed on National Public Radio. The terrorist attack in Nice had just taken place. France had been on heightened security alert since November 2015, when 130 people were slaughtered in a series of coordinated attacks involving suicide bombers, assault weapons and hostage taking. Now, just this month, a Tunisian madman who had lived in France for 11 years deliberately ran a 19-ton cargo truck into a crowd along the Nice waterfront on Bastille Day. 84 people died. The 31-yr old terrorist, a man who by all accounts was a drug addict, alcoholic, and all-around petty villain, was surrounded by police and shot dead in the cab of his truck. The media was engaged in the usual post-mortem analysis. What can be done? What should be done? What isn’t working? What would drive somebody to do such a thing? This was the context for Myriam Benraad’s interview with NPR. What should France be doing differently? Her answer was remarkable:

In France, I think there’s a real malaise. There’s a crisis of our political and social model for a number of reasons which I cannot enumerate fully during this interview. But we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.[1]

How do you persuade angry young men, many of them immigrants from abroad, some even EU citizens, that it isn’t a good idea to butcher many people in the name of Allah? What must be done to counteract this propaganda? Benraad recognizes that there is a problem. She also realizes that France (and its coalition partners) have not yet found the solution. She is not alone.

The Empty Secular Solution

On September 29, 2015, an article appeared in The New York Times which stated, “President Obama called upon a conclave of world leaders on Tuesday to fight violent extremism not just with weapons but with ideas, jobs and good governance, a strategy he has long advocated. There are few signs that it is succeeding.”[2] President Obama announced this was an ideological war, not a strictly military conflict. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns,” he exclaimed. “They are defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and compelling vision.”[3]

What is this “compelling vision” the Western world offers angry young men that ISIS cannot? What “better ideas” was President Obama referring to? This strategy was probably driving the now-infamous statement by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that ISIS could be defeated if only their fighters had access to jobs. “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”[4]

The State Department has admitted “the coalition does not communicate well.”[5] An official lamented that the West was always reacting to ISIS online propaganda, instead of advancing its own narrative. The counter-propaganda effort was a failure, a disaster. The Western world was being defeated in social media by the junior varsity team.[6] ISIS was “expanding like Starbucks franchises.”[7] Something must be done. A solution was nigh at hand – a “full-time coalition communications hub.”[8]

Thus, we now have something called the “Global Engagement Center.” The director of the center explained that his counter-propaganda mission was to expose the awful truth that ISIS “is indeed a vicious awful organization that is rife with hypocrisy and everything else . . . it’s about revealing their true nature so people understand they aren’t what they say they are,’ he said. ‘They’re not paying their fighters what they claim to be paying them, and nor is the quality of life what they’re advocating.”[9] So, for example, the GEC’s Twitter account has graphics of people standing in line for food, with the text, “Under Daesh, the lines of the hungry grow longer.” Another post shows a laptop computer illuminated by the miserable, flickering glow of a tea light candle. “Daesh can’t provide basic services for its people,” the picture warns solemnly.

This is the same approach which Myriam Benraad advocated. Young immigrant men in France are disenchanted. They’re cynical and soured on the life they’ve found in the West. This is why she suggested, “we need to re-enchant our model, whether we’re speaking about the social contract that we’re supposed to embody, the openness and the tolerance and all of these things that have been really helped, I believe, in the last decade.”

Her comments are not remarkable because of their insight. They are remarkable because they betray how shallow and impotent a secular approach to this conflict is. The same could be said about the entire counter-propaganda message being pushed by the Obama administration and its various coalition partners. As Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has observed, “What we are looking at here is a vast collision of worldviews, and one that secular leaders in Europe and in the United States, starting in the White House, seem to be incapable of understanding. At its base, we’re talking about a worldview conflict between Islam and Modernity.”[10] Mohler later remarked that France, because of its unashamed commitment to secularism, is “almost singularly incompetent to know how to respond. There is amongst the French intellectuals now a virtual inability to understand anyone who might operate in terms of worldview from any kind of theological motivation and basic structure.”[11]


Notes

[1] National Public Radio. “French Men Attracted To ‘Anti-System Utopia’ In Drive To Join ISIS,” on All Things Considered. 19JUL16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Vr37KO.

[2] Gardiner Harris and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Call at U.N. to Fight ISIS With Ideas Is Largely Seen as Futile,” in The New York Times. 29SEP15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Ru4yKS.

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. Beckett Adams, “State Department spokeswoman claims jobs are key to defeating ISIS,” in Washington Examiner. 17FEB15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/3WXpDk.

[5] The New York Times. “State Department Memo on the Islamic State Group.” 12JUN15. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/ipNTiK.

[6] See the discussion by Glenn Kessler, “Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team,” in The Washington Post. 03SEP14. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/yw2eRg.

[7] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[8] New York Times. “State Department Memo,” 2.

[9] Kristina Wong, “How the US is working to defeat ISIS online,” in The Hill. 25JUN16. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/bWktxW.

[10] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 12-7-15. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/07/the-briefing-12-07-15/.

[11] Albert Mohler. The Briefing. 8-1-16. Retrieved from http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/01/briefing-08-01-16/.