St. Augustine the Prophet

In one particular section from City of God (2:19-20), St. Augustine issues a savage takedown on Roman society and culture that could literally be written about the West in 2020:

Here, then, is this Roman republic, “which has changed little by little from the fair and virtuous city it was, and has become utterly wicked and dissolute.” It is not I who am the first to say this, but their own authors, from whom we learned it for a fee, and who wrote it long before the coming of Christ.

Augustine laments the moral chaos of the Roman world in the late 4th century. It’s a tale of virtue gone sour; of encroaching degeneracy that poisoned an empire – much like the One Ring infected the creature Gollum little by little.

You see how, before the coming of Christ, and after the destruction of Carthage, “the primitive manners, instead of undergoing insensible alteration, as hitherto they had done, were swept away as by a torrent; and how depraved by luxury and avarice the youth were.”

It was the youth who bothered Augustine.

Let them now, on their part, read to us any laws given by their gods to the Roman people, and directed against luxury and avarice. And would that they had only been silent on the subjects of chastity and modesty, and had not demanded from the people indecent and shameful practices, to which they lent a pernicious patronage by their so-called divinity. Let them read our commandments in the Prophets, Gospels, Acts of the Apostles or Epistles; let them peruse the large number of precepts against avarice and luxury which are everywhere read to the congregations that meet for this purpose, and which strike the ear, not with the uncertain sound of a philosophical discussion, but with the thunder of God’s own oracle pealing from the clouds.

There is great divide between these two worldviews. One trumpets and pleasure at any cost. The other offers moral guardrails as a revelation from the one true God.

And yet they do not impute to their gods the luxury and avarice, the cruel and dissolute manners, that had rendered the republic utterly wicked and corrupt, even before the coming of Christ; but whatever affliction their pride and effeminacy have exposed them to in these latter days, they furiously impute to our religion.

If the kings of the earth and all their subjects, if all princes and judges of the earth, if young men and maidens, old and young, every age, and both sexes; if they whom the Baptist addressed, the publicans and the soldiers, were all together to hearken to and observe the precepts of the Christian religion regarding a just and virtuous life, then should the republic adorn the whole earth with its own felicity, and attain in life everlasting to the pinnacle of kingly glory.

But because this man listens and that man scoffs, and most are enamored of the blandishments of vice rather than the wholesome severity of virtue, the people of Christ, whatever be their condition—whether they be kings, princes, judges, soldiers, or provincials, rich or poor, bond or free, male or female—are enjoined to endure this earthly republic, wicked and dissolute as it is, that so they may by this endurance win for themselves an eminent place in that most holy and august assembly of angels and republic of heaven, in which the will of God is the law.

He continues, and the parallels to the West in 2020 are stronger than ever here:

But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious.

Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us?

This is our concern:

that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes.

Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride.

Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure.

Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden.

Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects.

Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear.

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person.

If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him.

Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use.

Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate.

Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.

Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind.

What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive?

If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus.

History really does repeat itself. We see the West rotting from within, like an apple gone bad, and we see our own culture in Augustine’s lament.

Already Gone?

Roger Olson is a moderate evangelical Baptist scholar who teaches at Baylor. He recently wrote a sweet retrospective on how church was when he was a kid. Here are some excerpts, with a few comments.

They were conservative, evangelical, moderately Pentecostal, and strict. They were, like many American evangelical churches then, “high demand.” Members were expected to believe and live a certain way and that way was separated from all worldliness. That way also included placing church at the center of one’s life only after family. Or, to put it another way, church was one’s extended family—even more than one’s extended biological family. And placing church at the center of one’s life was the main way of placing God at the center of one’s life—a distinction but not much difference.

What a sweet description. Your congregation as your extended family! This warms my heart.

He continues:

We eschewed all “worldliness” which included anything and everything that was conceivably sexually arousing.

What great advice. This can always descend into legalism, and there are movements that have ended up here. But, isn’t the principle so … right? Speaking for myself, I have no problem watching Bruce Willis slowly picking off terrorists at Nakatomi Plaza, but I would never watch any film with sex in it. You could argue this is a big inconsistency, and you’re probably right. But, for me, I’m not tempted to grab a pistol and stalk terrorists through a skyscraper if I watch Die Hard. But I, and any other man, cannot say the same about watching a film with sex.

Olson went on:

We had televisions in our homes but what was watched was carefully monitored and at church, anyway, talk about secular television shows was rarely heard. The same went for sports; our people could participate in some sports (especially the church softball league) but talking about sports at church was frowned on. So what did we talk about at church? What God was doing in the world, on the mission field, among us, in our lives. Conversation centered around Jesus who was talked about as a personal but invisible presence in our homes, with us at school and work, and in the church.

Yes, yes and yes. This could seem idealic and a bit utopian. But, it doesn’t have to be.

But, and here is a difference from similar churches today (if there are any), we did NOT celebrate America except for freedom of worship. We were not nationalists. In fact, when I was a child we were pacifists, but the Korean War was changing that. There was no talk of politics in the church. Sometimes my parents talked about politics at home, but mostly with regard to which parties and which candidates would protect our freedom of worship.

This is a distinction all evangelical churches in America should think about. Partisan politics is a poison, and it doesn’t belong in the pews. I have written reviews on two books recently that touch on this issue, and I’ll likely post them here in the near future.

So, what I want to know is this. What ever happened to that form of religious life? It seems to be gone forever—except in Latin America, Africa and Asia! My students from those continents and regions describe their churches as much like the ones I grew up in as a child and youth. Intense. Supernatural. Passionate about Jesus. The church as their extended family. Church discipline. Separation from worldliness. Where does that exist in America today outside of “Amish country?”

These are good questions. I’m not yet sure if the whole package Olson describes is (1) a model for a healthy church, or (2) a nostalgic yearning for a slice of mid-century Christian Americana that will never come back. Probably both.

But, you can’t deny that there are so many good things in Olson’s article. So many healthy things. So much that ought to warm our souls and make us look to our own congregations with a kind-hearted, reforming gaze. So much to inspire us, not with a hyper-critical eye, but with a vision of how to perhaps make a good thing better.

You should read Olson’s entire piece. It’s good stuff.

The Curious Case of the Christian Cake Baker

cake
Jack Philipps, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop

This article is a short summary of the oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd.  v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 5, 2017. For those who’ve been following the news, this is the “Christian cake baker case.” Oral arguments are an opportunity for both sides to defend their legal positions in person, and answer any questions the Justices have. The Supreme Court will rule on this case sometime in 2018.

In the article, I provide a few bits of commentary. But, this is primarily a summary.[1] Hopefully, it can spur each of on to consider the issue of soul liberty in the public square in these troubled times.

Baker’s Response (Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom)

Philipps’ objection is not with the people who want the cake, his attorney argued. Instead, the objection is the message it communicates. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that their violate religious convictions,” (4:12-19). The back and forth centered on this point. What is “speech?” How do you separate the identity of the customer from the message the product communicates?

Ginsburg opened by asking about off the shelf products; would Philipps provide these to a same-sex couple (4:21-5:4; 10:9-19)? Absolutely, Waggoner said, a pre-made item wasn’t compelled speech (5:5-8). The crux of the issue is intent. When Phillips puts a pre-made product on display “in the stream of commerce in a public accommodation setting, his speech has been completed,” (6:1-4). However, when you consider custom designed cakes, it’s a whole new ballgame (6:7-10). Thus it is with Phillips; “we are drawing the line prior to the compulsion — there can be no compulsion of speech,” (6:4-6). And, this is about more than putting “words and symbols” onto the cake – it’s the act of custom making the product itself (8:8-19).

So, where is the line? Who can claim an artistic exemption on the basis of compelled speech? The justices hammered away on this line. Can a florist (11:9-13)? Yes, Wagonner said (11:14-17). What about a wedding invitation designer (11:18-21)? Of course (11:22). What about hair stylists (12:8) or makeup artists (12:17)?

  • “Absolutely not,” Waggoner says (12:9).
  • Justice Kagan is aghast; “Why is there no speech in — in creating a wonderful hairdo,” (12:12-13)?

Waggoner provided a legal answer, but not a particularly logical one. A tailor, a chef, a hairstylist and a makeup artist don’t produce “speech” because they (1) aren’t communicating a message with their product, and (2) their product isn’t analogous to other forms of protected speech (12:9-11; 12:23-13:5; 14:16-21).

This prompted Justice Sotomayor to ask how the Court could protect Phillips’ cake as a medium for public expression, when its primary purpose is to be eaten (15:21-25)!? Simple, Waggoner replied.

“[I]in the wedding context, Mr. Phillips is painting on a blank canvas. He is creating a painting on that canvas that expresses messages, and including words and symbols in those messages,” (16:9-14).

Well, what about sandwich artists (16:24-17:3)? The difference, Waggoner says, is the message being conveyed:

… when we have someone that is sketching and sculpting and hand designing something, that is creating a temporary sculpture that serves as the centerpiece of what they believe to be a religious wedding celebration, that cake expresses a message (17:4-10).

This distinction is the heart of the issue, according to Waggoner. If the very nature of the product is communicative, then you have “speech,” and this speech cannot be compelled. For example, this is why architecture is not “speech,” because “buildings are functional, not communicative,” (17:20-23).

Justice Breyer weighed in:

So, in other words, Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected when he creates the Laurentian steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding? Now, that — that really does baffle me, I have to say (18:4-10).

So, where on earth is the line (19:1-11)? What should we do? The answer, Waggoner says, is simple: “Is the individual who’s being compelled to speak objecting to the message that’s contained in that speech or the person? And that’s usually a very obvious inquiry,” (20:7-11). This is why Waggoner believes the issue of public accommodation laws related to race are completely different; “we know that that objection would be based to who the person is, rather than what the message is,” (23:3-6).

Here is the dividing line, and it isn’t something a secular Court can decide. Is sexual identity a legitimate category at all, from a Christian perspective? You can’t set theology aside here, because it informs how you answer the question. Everybody has a foundation for his worldview, and the Christian worldview (based on the Scriptures) proclaims that all sexual thoughts, intents and actions outside a monogamous, male and female sexual relationship in the context of a marriage covenant is deviant. To the Christian, “sexual identity” is not a legitimate category, because it isn’t part of the original, “good” created order. Race is, sexual identity is not.[2]

Waggoner, of course, didn’t go there. She simply continued to push the distinction between the racial public accommodation laws (which were about who the person is) and the Phillips case which, she insisted, is about the message, not the people. It’s unclear whether she (and her client) actually believe this, or if it’s merely a convenient legal peg to hang their case on.

How can the State fairly decide whether this message vs. identity distinction isn’t just a smokescreen? This was Justice Gorsuch’s question (24:18-21), and he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer.

Solicitor General’s Response on Behalf of Baker (from Noel Francisco)

Francisco insisted there must be “breathing space” for free speech protections for business owners, so they aren’t compelled to engage in “speech” for an event they disagree with (26:1-8). Dignity interests cut both ways, he argued (28:1-8).

What about a situation in a rural context, where only very limited services are available (28:10-29:11)? Leave that to the individual states, Francisco said (29:12-17).

Where is “the line?” You figure that out, he answered, by applying a two-fold test:

  1. can the “art” in question be analogized to traditional art in a legitimate way, and
  2. “is it predominantly art or predominantly utilitarian,” (41:1-3)?

In Phillips’ case, Francisco observed, “people pay very high prices for these highly sculpted cakes, not because they taste good, but because of their artistic qualities,” (41:3-6).

The goal is the intent of the purchaser. Is it merely a cake to be eaten? Why not go to Safeway? No, they clearly sought out Phillips so he could create, sculpt and fashion a special cake which is analogous to a traditional sculpture “except for the medium used,” (40:18-20). Is the creation’s purpose and effect intended to be (1) artistic, or (2) utilitarian? That is the key to answering the question (42:2-24).

In Phillips’ case, they sought him out for artistic purposes, to create an artistic and aesthetic effect on the wedding guests. Thus, they asked him to “speak” through the medium of the cake, and his “speech” must be protected. Francisco closed with a “slippery-slope” argument:

… if you were to disagree with our basic principle, putting aside the line about whether a cake falls on speech or non-speech side of the line, you really are envisioning a situation in which you could force, for example, a gay opera singer to perform at the Westboro Baptist Church just because that opera singer would be willing to perform at the National Cathedral (46:13-21).

State of Colorado (from Frederick Yarger)

Colorado’s position is simple (47:12-22):

  1. if you are a retail establishment, then
  2. you’re subject to anti-discrimination laws, and
  3. “you cannot turn away from your storefront if you’re a retail store,” (65:21-23).

It really is that simple and, if you’re a retail establishment, the State can require you to serve a customer (50:11-19).

What about, say, a same-sex couple who went to Catholic Legal Services and demanded to be given legal service related to their marriage? Would Colorado force them to provide service (50:21-51:23)? Yes, Yarger says, if Catholic Legal Services were operating in a retail context, “then Colorado would have the ability to regulate them,” (52:3).

Justice Kennedy brought up an interesting point. Colorado’s opinion read, in part, that “freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric,” (52:14-16). Why shouldn’t the Court assume Colorado is prejudiced against religion, and act accordingly? Kennedy asked Yarger three times if he disavowed the statement, and Yarger tap-danced mightily to avoid answering (52:17-53:15). If there were a bias on Colorado’s part, he claimed, of course there would be the problem (54:12-16). But, such was not the case (55:15-23).

Colorado’s issue, Yarger said, is that Philipps’ actions were based on the identity of the customer. Phillips may claim the message is the problem but, Yarger argued, the message here is linked with the customer’s identity, so the argument lacks merit. “[T]he message in this case, Your Honor, depended entirely on the identity of the customer who was ordering the cake,” (62:15-18). So, if the baker chooses to refuse service, he is being discriminatory (63:16-21).

Justice Kennedy, once again, chimed in with some stern words (64:3-8):

Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.

Yarger disagreed, and his position hinges on granting the idea that “sexual identity” is a valid category, on par with race and sex (64:14-65:3). They’re protected by public accommodation laws, so “sexual identity” must be, too.

Attorney for Homosexual Couple (from David Cole)

Cole traveled over much of the same ground Yarger did. Beware the slippery slope; “to accept his argument leads to unacceptable consequences,” (74:20-21). Sexual identity is a valid category, along with race and sex (75:9-16).

Cole dismissed Francisco’s “artistic purpose and effect” argument. If a mom buys a cake for a child’s birthday party, “no one thinks that the baker is wishing happy birthday to the four-year-old. It’s the mom,” (78:1-3). The issue isn’t some alleged “message,” it’s the identity of the homosexual couple. “Because in this case, again, the only thing the baker knew about these customers was that they were gay. And, as a result, he refused to sell them any wedding cake,” (79:4-8).

For Colorado, if you’re in retail, your private beliefs do not allow you to discriminate against a protected class (92:6-10), and sexual identity is a protected class (87:13-19; 89:7-10). Justice Kennedy retorted, “your identity thing is just too facile,” (89:23-24).

Conclusion

The legal arguments hinge on whether the act of making a cake is “speech,” and whether that “speech” can be compelled by the State. Both sides presented valid “slippery-slope” arguments in support of their own positions. On balance, it is doubtful whether you can logically separate the identity of a homosexual couple from the message their wedding cake is meant to convey.

Aside from the legal arguments, there is a more profound question for the Christian – where is the dividing line between one’s right to soul liberty, and the opportunity to share the Gospel in all sorts of negative contexts? Could Philipps have baked the cake, and still made a positive opportunity out of this? Have his actions served to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12)?

Should we allow everyone do what they want, according to their own consciences? Is this the best solution? Os Guinness wrote a book advocating a sophisticated version of this approach, and remarked,

Soul freedom for all was once attacked as naive and utopian, and it is still resisted as subversive. Yet it is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity today and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. Truly it is the golden key to a troublesome situation in which the darker angels must not be allowed to dominate.”[3]

But, when it gets down to brass tacks, how do we actually do this? This case is about that question. How do you allow people to express their sincere beliefs, yet crack down on genuine bigotry and hatred? How do you carve out these exceptions, and where does it end?

Guinness remarked that, in the end, soul freedom depends on people thinking and acting like adults, and taking their civic responsibilities seriously. “Reciprocity, mutuality and universality are the key principles of this vision of a civil public square. In this sense a civil public square is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule.”[4] In this day and age, these are not virtues that totalitarians (on either side) are anxious to model. Instead, activists seek to force their views on the public by force of law, not by persuasion and discussion in the public square:

“The constant pursuit of rights through law alone rather than the habits of the heart has caught Americans in the toils of ever-spreading law. On the one hand, it has led to a strengthening of the law at the expense of the habits of the heart, of litigation at the expense of both civic education and the role of parents and schools, and of the lawyers and the lawyer class at the expense of other public servants.[5]

This case is the fruit of this particularly poisonous tree. The Court has been made the arbitrator of morality. How can the Court fulfill this mission? How can it draw the line this homosexual couple wants it to draw? In a moment of candor, Justice Breyer admitted, “I can’t think of a way to do it,” (59:11-12).

Notes

[1] I make no attempt to summarize or even reference the various briefs filed by the Petitioners or Respondents. Here is the question before the Supreme Court. If you’re interested, you can find them. Throughout this article, I’m referencing the official transcript of oral arguments. The citation format in the article is page number : line number.

[2] Of course, in the end, the only category distinctions which have eternal significance are (1) believer or (2) non-believer. Or, as the Didache puts it, “there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways,” (Didache 1:1).

[3] Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 14.

[4] Guinness (Global Public Square, 181).

[5] Guinness (Global Public Square, 149).

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.