By The Rev. Chrisy Thomas
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
We commonly refer to this provision as “separation of church and state” or “separation of church from state.” Either way, the intent is clear: the United States shall not have a required church where all citizens must maintain membership. We are astoundingly free to practice our religion the way we want.
Which is why I don’t understand the conservative church outrage over the recent Supreme Court decision that granted same-sex couples the right to commit themselves to one another in the challenges and privileges that come with marriage. This is the correct next step in the radical experiment of democracy in which we live.
Nonetheless, a huge outcry insisting that God is abandoning our country rose from countless pulpits and blogs.
Although some of the shapers of our government were adherents of Christianity, from the beginning we’ve been a nation of pluralities, of multiple religions and of the unique freedom not to be religious but still have all rights of citizenship.
It has been a messy process. Every time one more group demanded to be recognized, vicious opposition voices worked to shout those interlopers down. As a rule, opponents cited the Bible as their authority to support their places of privilege while denying rights to others.
But, thanks be to God, there really is separation of church and state here. Our elected representatives and our judicatory are not representatives or servants of some restricted religious body. They are under no obligation to follow religious restrictions. They are, however, under the obligation to follow the dictates of the laws that govern this country.
Which is exactly what happened.
I was out of town celebrating my birthday when the decision was announced. When I later checked the news, the amount of hate and entitlement spewing from certain religious voices stunned me.
One preacher, probably representative of many on the conservative end, insisted that America is some grand idea, a new order founded by God. He also stated that the Supreme Court decision represented greater treachery to this country than either Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Others called the wrath of God down upon those who call for a more open, more just society. I saw much conflation of church and state. America is to be worshiped alongside God, who no longer transcends political and national boundaries.
Some gleefully predicted God’s wrath to soon fall and cause quick decline of the nation. Their fear of persecution permeated the messages with the surety they are going to be forced to join in marriage those whom they find repugnant or unacceptable. Some call for a massive uprising of civil disobedience, citing Martin Luther King as their model against such injustice.
Preachers have the freedom to say those things precisely because they won’t be persecuted.
They can be as loving or as hateful, as inclusive or exclusive, as they wish.
They can interpret the Bible to say that God hates certain people and chooses just a select few for eternal bliss or that God loves the creation in its entirely and suffers with us in our joint and individual agonies, pains and betrayals.
They can be the most holy and humble of servants or the most lavishly paid of the prosperity gospel money machines.
They can condemn others with abandon or preach universal salvation even for the worst among us.
No matter what, no government official can come after them for the free expression of their religious beliefs.
They are not employees of the state. They can perform marriages, or they can decline to perform marriages. They can open their doors to certain people, or they can slam the doors in the faces of those they don’t want in their oh-so-pure enclaves.
They are unbelievably privileged.
That’s what it means to live in a free society.
If preachers want to dictate the religious views of the country, I would suggest they spend some time in an ISIS-dominated society. After all, the leaders of ISIS declare that their religion dictates their murders and rapes.
We enjoy unique freedoms because of the separation of church and state. Go to church – or don’t go to church. Let others in, or keep others out. You get to decide. That’s the power of the U.S. experiment.
But I will say this about myself: If my credentialing as a United Methodist clergywoman had allowed it and if I had been in town, I, too, would have been on the courthouse steps offering my services with great joy to any who might want a wedding by a Christian pastor.
That’s my freedom. I’m grateful for it.
Christy Thomas is a United Methodist pastor who lives in Texas. This post originally appeared on her blog “The Thoughtful Pastor,” which can be found at www.christythomas.com.