Unholy Union: Why The Government Must Never Promote Theology

A government that presumes the power to determine which religion is 'right' tramples human liberty.

Voters in three states – Maine, Maryland and Washington – approved marriage equality at the ballot box last month. Speculation now holds that Illinois may soon join the growing list of jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage.

The Illinois legislature is scheduled to take up the matter next year. In preparation for the debate, more than 250 members of the clergy recently issued an open letter endorsing marriage equality.

“There can be no justification,” the letter asserts, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

If you read the list of signers, you will note that they tend to come from the more moderate/liberal wings of American religious life. Endorsers include clergy from the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopalian Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church and others. Clergy from independent churches signed on, along with several rabbis.

Not surprisingly, the state’s leading Religious Right group is not impressed.

Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute, a group that is so strident in its anti-gay rhetoric that it has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, asserted that the letter “is signed quite obviously by faith leaders who have adopted radical, ahistorical, heretical theological views.”

Without even realizing it, Higgins, in that single comment, provided one of the most powerful reasons why the government should not base public policy on marriage equality (or any other matter) on religious views.

The faiths that Higgins sees as “radical, ahistorical [and] heretical” are cherished by millions of people in Illinois as genuine and meaningful. Many of these people would likely look at the extremely conservative faith of Higgins and it consider it narrow, unfulfilling and perhaps even hateful. They certainly wouldn’t see it as an expression of God’s love.

Higgins and her allies would have the government operate as a type of theological referee, a body empowered to examine the various expressions of Christianity in America and determine which one is right, true and in accordance with the wishes of God. Not surprisingly, Higgins and her supporters are confident that the views of God just happen to perfectly align with their own. (How convenient!)

No thanks. We’ve been down this road before – many times. It’s a dangerous place to be. A government that presumes the power to determine which religion is “right” tramples human liberty. Government should always be neutral on questions of theology.

To the Religious Right, of course, neutrality equals hostility. To many supporters of this theocratic movement, a state that does not actively endorse their religion must be opposed to it.

Not so. Under the doctrine of church-state separation, government seeks a reasonable balance: Believe what you like and worship as you please – but don’t expect the government to help you impose your views on others. Don’t be so foolish as to believe that the government can be an instrument for building a “Godly society.” In a country of thousands of faiths (as well as a growing number of non-believers) there can be no consensus on what that term means.

If Illinois approves marriage equality, no house of worship will be required to recognize same-sex unions or perform them. No member of the clergy will be fined or sanctioned for criticizing gays from the pulpit. No individual fundamentalist will be compelled to change what he or she believes.

The only thing that will change is that the state of Illinois will have made it clear that it has no power to base public policy on theology. The only thing remarkable about this is that it’s almost the year 2013, and some people still find the notion controversial.