religious freedom

When it comes to Marriage Equality, right-wing Evangelicals don't just want religious freedom, they want freedom without consequences

As we have learned in the 35 years since the inquisitional iniquity of the evangelical community reared its ugly head in the persons of Jerry Falwell and Richard Viguerie, hell hath no fury like a white evangelical scorned -to cheerfully take the sexism out of a well-worn phrase.

White evangelicals certainly felt scorned by the Supreme Court decision in Obergefel v. Hodges, which guarantees same-sex couples nationwide the same protected right to marry as heterosexual couples have always enjoyed. And, per that fury like none that hell hath, my favorite purveyors of peace, grace, love and redemption did not disappoint.

In terms of pure yakkity-yak, such scorned literalist luminaries as Bryan Fischer (a dangerous, disgusting, mean-spirited little fellow around whose neck a leper’s bell needs to be hung), Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum (the most tedious, mewling piece of backwoods Americana on the political scene), Franklin Graham, Bobby Jindal and Tony Perkins unleashed a stream of fiery apocalyptic rhetoric that would relegate Dante’s Sixth Circle to nothing more than a walk in the park. Though completely lacking in edification, the entertainment value of their comments was off-the-chart.

But rabid yakkity-yak purposes only to refill a candidate’s ATM, so my Republican/Evangelical/Right-Wing activist buddies had to look for a ground game that could produce real, localized resistance to marriage equality. And, in so doing, they actually raised an issue worthy of a measure of conversation—they tied same-sex marriage to their new BPFBYCMIMAYW (Best Phrase Forever Because You Can Make It Mean Anything You Want), “religious freedom.”

They initially pushed the bogus notion that priests, ministers and the like would now be forced – at the cost of their “religious freedom” – to preside over same-sex nuptials or face legal/civil consequences.

The following Sunday featured a few evangelical preachers and preacher-types promising to bravely resist such federal coercion by committing themselves to martyrdom: “I would, like my Lord, rather be crucified than accede to the orders of Babylon!” 

My first thought, upon hearing that there were robed clergy volunteering for crucifixion, was, “When did church become so much fun?”

My second thought was that no one in his/her right mind actually believed that these pulpit-pounders literally meant what they literally said. Along with most fellow religious/preacher-types, I guessed that, at the sight of law enforcement personnel coming toward them with two big pieces of wood, a post-hole digger, four or five railroad spikes and a sledgehammer, these cats would be pulling out their Books of Worship – which contain the marriage liturgy – post-haste.

After all, convictions – especially, in our time, those of the religious variety – often dissolve like Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water when one is presented with the estimated cost of acting on them.

Getting no traction with threats of storm troopers crucifying clergy, evangelical/conservative activists thus shifted their “religious freedom” gaze to those on the second rung of the “What Do I Have To Do To Get Married?” ladder; i.e., county clerks and/or their occupational kinfolk.

Hence the sudden epidemic of county clerks from primarily southern, red, Bible-Belt states vowing not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples – in an instance or so, to any couple – because to do so would violate their “religious convictions.”

And I do not disagree with the sentiments of those county clerks and related ilk who sincerely believe that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples is violative of their “religious convictions.” I cannot vouch for the veracity of each and every one of these county clerks who claim it to be so. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a degree of internal theological logic behind the claim itself.

There is.

For an unconditional pacifist, working in a manufacturing plant that produces shell casings for howitzers is as compromising to his/her philosophical or religious convictions as actually firing the howitzer at a designated enemy.

One is complicit if he/she engages in an act that makes such violence/harm possible and, thus, working in that plant is violative of pacifist convictions. And that argument, of course, could be stretched out to whether a pacifist is complicit if he/she pays taxes, part of which go to fund the military.

Indeed, the decision in Hobby Lobby may have opened a Pandora’s Box, given that unconditional pacifists are already preparing cases – using Hobby Lobby as a solid precedent – that call into question whether they should, simply put, “have to fund activities that violate their faith.”

A Christian who opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds could, on the same basis, make the same general claim; i.e., one is enabling the eventuating marriage by issuing a document apart from which the marriage could not take place. Because issuing the license makes the marriage possible, the issuer is complicit and the act could, indeed, be considered violative of his/her religious convictions. As I said, the internal logic of that position is solid.

However, the Republican/Evangelical/Religious Right errs when, in this instance, it tries to join the issue of religious conviction with the issue of religious freedom.

Philosophically and theologically, freedom implies the availability of and capacity to make choices. Specific to our concern, religious freedom implies the availability of and capacity to make choices as to whether and how to give expression to one’s religious convictions.

Hence, while religious conviction concerns are pertinent to the conversation about county clerks issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, religious freedom concerns are not.

Why not?

Because county clerks are free to choose whether to issue or refuse to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. They are in no way forced to issue or not issue such a license and thus in no way forced to either violate—or, for that matter, follow–their religious convictions.

They have choices.

Issuing the license means the clerk has freely chosen to follow the dictates of the law and uphold the oath he/she took upon assuming office. It may also mean that the clerk has freely chosen to violate his/her religious convictions. But that choice was freely-made by the clerk. It was not forced. It was not coerced.

Refusing to issue the license means the clerk has freely chosen to keep inviolate his/her religious convictions. It may—and, indeed, should—also mean the clerk will receive a pink slip for freely-choosing to violate his/her oath to follow the law of the land. But that choice was made by the clerk. It was not forced. It was not coerced.

Given the obvious, why, then, is the Republican/Evangelical/Religious right still casting this issue in terms of religious freedom?

Because what they want is not just freedom, but freedom without consequences. Or, in a religio-political re-fashioning of the term, they are interested in cheap grace as opposed to costly discipleship.

Kim Davis is a county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky who has refused to issue any marriage licenses—in order that she not be accused of discrimination—since Obergefell became settled law. She opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds and believes issuing licenses under her name would be violative of her religious convictions.

Unwilling to live up to her oath of office but equally unwilling to resign that office, she now faces a class-action lawsuit brought against her by two same-sex couples and two straight couples.

Her attorney argues that the case “is not about these plaintiffs’ desire to get married [but about] the plaintiffs’ desire to force Kim Davis to approve and authorize their marriages in violation of her constitutionally protected religious beliefs.”

Her attorney is demonstrably wrong, knowingly dishonest and the lead counsel for a defense that has no legs.

No one can “force” Kim Davis to “approve and authorize their marriages” and no one can force Kim Davis to violate her “religious beliefs.” She is quite free to keep her “religious beliefs” by neither approving nor authorizing the plaintiffs’ marriages – by not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

So, let’s be honest. The real issue for Ms. Davis is not “religious freedom.” Her “religious freedom” is not being compromised.

The real issue for Ms. Davis – who has held her position for 27 years – is that she doesn’t want to bear the consequences that, in this instance, come with the free expression of her religious convictions; i.e., she doesn’t want to lose or leave her well-paying job with its nice package of benefits.

Unfortunately for her (and her lawyer), the Constitution guarantees and protects one’s religious convictions and the freedom to express or act on them but in no way does it guarantee that one will be protected from or immune to the consequences of doing so.

Simply put, she can’t have it both ways. She must choose between freely expressing her religious convictions and keeping her job.

Cheap grace, in Ms. Davis’ context, references an expectation that she can freely express and act on her religious convictions without concern that such expression/action might come with a price tag. Indeed, she and her supporters seem to suggest that those victimized or discriminated against by her free religious expression should rightly be those who bear the consequences that ensue from her action. To which one can only reply in amazement, “Huh?”

Costly discipleship, on the other hand, clearly understands that the choice to act on one’s religious convictions can be very pricey. It recognizes that Christians have no inherent civil or religious entitlement to an exemption from such consequences. It takes seriously the fact that one is rightly held responsible and must bear the responsibility for that which ensues from his/her free religious expression.

Furthermore, costly discipleship, when presented with the bill for freely acting on one’s religious convictions, does not whimper and whine about being unfairly treated, does not bark about being wrongly persecuted and does not lie about freedom being denied.

The guy on the Cross personifies costly discipleship. He was nobody’s victim, refusing the role of martyr and manifesting disinterest in questions of “who was to blame.” The freest of men, he walked headlong into his destiny, understanding and accepting the price one must sometimes pay for the free exercise of his/her religious beliefs.

Kim Davis, unfortunately, personifies what Christendom has come to – she wants to “follow Jesus” but bypass Gethsemane and Golgotha on the way to the glories of Sunday morning. She wants to be resurrected but she doesn’t want to have to go through the messiness of Thursday night, Friday morning and Friday afternoon.

In other words, she’s interested not in costly discipleship, but cheap grace.

Christendom is slowly but surely sliding to the margins of western culture. This in no small way goes to the fact that we live in a time when the loudest Christian voices are those that bespeak values so strident, judgmental, divisive, ignorant and unloving as to scarcely be recognized as Christian. But we might do well to also remember that the world gives little credibility to and has even less respect for people who yakkity-yak about the Cross of Jesus but have no intention of ever picking up their own.

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A native of Columbia, South Carolina, I returned home when I retired and now live with my two hounds on the west bank of the Congaree River, right across from downtown Columbia. My son, now 31, lives and works in Charlotte while my mother, brother, sister-in-law and assorted nieces and nephews live in my mother’s hometown of Charleston.

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