U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) saw fit to hold an impromptu inquisition on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Gohmert and his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice were supposed to be discussing the state of religious liberty in America. But Gohmert, a staunch Religious Right ally who has said that his faith guides his political activities, used his allotted five minutes to grill Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn on his personal theological views.
“I’m curious, in your Christian beliefs, do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to hell, consistent with the Christian belief?” Gohmert asked.
Lynn responded: “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or why one gets there.”
Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, was invited by subcommittee Democrats. He spoke on behalf of religious minorities and non-believers who are so often oppressed by fundamentalist Christians in this country.
And yet he was attacked on a personal level by Gohmert, who decided an official hearing was an appropriate place to drag Lynn into the theological weeds.
Gohmert continued to press Lynn: “So, you don’t believe somebody would go to hell if they do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth, the life?”
Lynn explained that someone’s failure to embrace “a specific set of ideas in Christianity” did not guarantee a ticket to hell. Gohmert didn’t much care for that answer, so he pushed on with his surprising line of questioning.
“No, not a set of ideas,” he said. “Either you believe as a Christian that Jesus is the way, the truth, or life or you don’t.”
Unfortunately Gohmert’s antagonism was one of several unusual exchanges during the 90-minute hearing.
Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), another Religious Right ally, got things off to a bad start when he declared that church-state separation doesn’t exist.
“Often times, religious freedom is suppressed because of ‘a strict wall of separation between church and state,’” he said. “Now while that phrase did appear prominently in the Soviet Constitution, it appears nowhere in the United States Constitution.”
Then there was Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver, who testified along with Lynn, the Christian Legal Society’s Kim Colby and Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Greg Baylor. Staver was asked by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) if he had ever supported Russia’s anti-gay laws. He denied that he had, but that was not exactly true.
“What Nigeria has done by reaffirming marriage as between one man and one woman is what a number of countries are doing around the world,” Staver said in January. “They’re reaffirming marriage as one man and one woman. Russia is one of those countries recently that did that. Latin American countries have reaffirmed marriage as one man and one woman. Then other countries around the world are reaffirming marriage as one man and one woman and rejecting this radicalized homosexual agenda.”
Although the hearing was designed primarily by Republicans to give right-wing Christians an opportunity to ask for more special treatment from the government, some Democrats on the subcommittee were able to raise a few good points.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) expressed skepticism that corporations are people with religious freedom rights, an issue the U.S. Supreme Court will soon weigh in on in the Hobby Lobby case.
Lynn testified at a nearly identical hearing in 2011, which also did little to resolve the deep divide between the Religious Right and the rest of the United States. Lynn and Gohmert, however, may soon sit down to hammer out their differences. After the hearing, the two talked about the possibility of getting together to discuss theology sometime. Lynn said he’s up for it.
Whether or not that discussion ever takes place, Gohmert has already proved why church and state must remain separate. Lynn and Gohmert’s disagreement over what hell is and how one ends up there is one of many, many ideological divides that exist within Christianity. Other groups have similar disagreements, be they believers or non-believers.
As such, the U.S. government could never accommodate all faiths and belief systems through policies that favor religion. Who would be accommodated? Who would decide? It would be an absolute mess that would surely result in oppression.
That’s why church-state separation is best for everyone – even Gohmert.