November 2014 Church & State | Viewpoint

By The Rev. Rollin Russell

America’s noisy evangelicals must not have taken Christian Ethics 101. In response to Presi­dent Barack Obama’s recent executive order banning discrimination against LGBT persons by any organization that has a federal government contract, they are hyper-ventilating in their victim mode. 

They believe they should be able to discriminate if they want to and if it offends their religious convictions not to do so. They even have an Evangelical Association of Government Contractors to plead their case, and of course the National Association of Evangelicals is in high dudgeon over the order. The obvious alternative seems never to have occurred to them: Do not enter into government contracts.

Congress and the last two administrations have been bullied into creating an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The Bush administration used it as an apparent payoff for evangelical electoral support, and the Obama administration furthers it in the hopes of keeping those folks at bay.

The Faith-Based Initiative awards government grants to churches to carry on their benevolent ministries with very few strings attached. A 2002 Bush directive allowed recipients to hire workers whose faith was consistent with their own, stated in terms that are very vague. These church bodies now seem to feel entitled to discriminate without interference from the government at whose table they are fed. The new executive order simply requires government agencies and contractors to abide by the spirit and the letter of anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT employees.

In Christian Ethics 101 it was and still should be emphasized that there are two dangers for religious bodies in a free society. The first is sectarian withdrawal from culture, the stance of the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Mennonites and others who decline to serve in the military, salute the flag, pledge allegiance, etc.

The second danger is entanglement, becoming so involved with partisan politics or in government programs, including putting a hand in the government’s pocket, that the government can, in turn, hold the church accountable in ways that it feels might impinge on its freedom.

Evangelical churches with government contracts are experiencing the downside of entanglement: take the money, accept the terms. Whether or not they have the paper-thin legal basis for their demands, they clearly have no ethical basis for taking public funds and then disregarding anti-discrimination laws.

Their claim of the right to discriminate on religious grounds may carry some validity as it pertains to their personal lives, but the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly does not say that institutionalized establishments of religion must be exempt from the laws of the land. The First Amendment specifically requires the separation of government from any establishment of religion, and overly broad exemptions from our laws would clearly show government favor to particular religious establishments.

Strangely, up until the mid-1950s, many of these religious groups had been borderline sectarians, eschewing participation in politics and trying hard to ignore the government. Then they decided to get involved through the so-called Moral Majority and other religiously based political groups. Now they are on the gravy train and still want their religious prerogatives honored.

The United States is a secular society that honors all religious traditions by giving them freedom to worship, teach and propagate their re­s­pective faiths.  Tax-exempt status for churches and non-profit organizations is predicated on their continuing benevolent work and refraining from partisan political activity. This arrangement preserves the churches’ independence and allows them to participate freely in public discourse. If they push the envelope by taking government grants, they should be willing to abide by its regulations.

Never mind that the regulations in question – non-discrimination against American citizens who have as much right to their opinions and lifestyles as do evangelicals – are a matter of equal justice. And, never mind that justice for LGBT Americans is catching on in the law, after many decades of discrimination. The real heart of the matter for evangelicals should be that equal justice is a much stronger imperative in the scriptures of the Christian faith than is discrimination against LGBT people or anyone else. 

So, be more concerned about your ethics than about your finances and get disentangled – or stop protesting the attached strings.


The Rev. Rollin Russell is president of the Orange-Durham (N.C.) Chapter of Am­eri­cans United.