Walls can be very hard to ignore. There’s a wall in China, they call it the Great Wall, that stretches 5,500 miles across a nation that today holds more than four times the population of the United States. That’s a mighty long wall—long enough to cross the continental United States twice. Actually, if some people here had their way, we’d be building those two walls today, but that’s another story. The Chinese built their wall over a long period, from 700 B.C. to 200 B.C., in an effort to keep the nomadic and barbarian tribes out of the middle kingdom. Nowadays it’s perhaps their biggest tourist draw! But the wall stands. We know what those ancient emperors intended. No ambiguity.
The rulers of China lived behind protective walls right up to our present day. In Beijing last century the walls of the former Forbidden City loomed over an increasingly restive populace. Their society had been plundered by Mao’s ill-advised Cultural Revolution that ended in the mid-70s, and the results were both a rejection of all past norms and a growing restlessness. For decades people had read the Communist party line from newspapers pasted onto the wall out front of the Forbidden City. Then in 1978-79 they began to post their own material—complaints and protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. They called it the Democracy Wall.
That wall came to my mind one early May afternoon in Washington, D.C. I was there to visit the Canadian embassy in advance of our Religious Liberty Dinner to be held there later that month. Parking a little in from the Pennsylvania Avenue embassy, I angled through the lunch-time crowds on my walk. And there, out front of a recently relocated Newseum, I came upon a high-tech version of the Democracy Wall. Stretching almost a city block were front-page facsimiles of the day’s newspapers from all over the nation. All of them had the same story: President Obama had come out in favor of gay marriage!
The United States has indeed undergone its own cultural revolution of late. The reasons for this are manifold. Maybe Hollywood played Mao to our cultural dislocation. Or maybe it was the easy availability of rice and paper money. But it has had an effect just as destabilizing as in the Orient.
It’s hard to believe that it was only 2003 when the Lawrence v. Texas case in effect legalized same-sex sexual activity and even linked the right to the fourteenth Amendment. Before that, “sodomy” (in the now-quaint legal term borrowed from a biblical story) was illegal and condemned by society. In those nine years since, gay rights have been affirmed and advanced to the point that they seem to compete with religious rights in the minds of many.
Now, in discussing gay marriage and religious rights, it is very important to keep the wall of separation between church and state in good repair.
It is impossible to read the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—and find anything other than the clearest censure of homosexual behavior. It is forbidden for the believer; and for the unbeliever is one of several behaviors that show a denial of God’s moral framework. While “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” a believer is called not only to show charity to the unbeliever but is under obligation to communicate God’s ideals and call unbelievers to His ways. To act this way is not only a religious obligation, but something which must be protected in a free society.
But, in a democratic, free society, which has a separation of church and state and respect for the inherent rights and dignity of the individual, even something as historically radical and religiously unacceptable as homosexual behavior can be protected by law. It is actually the civic obligation of the Christian to recognize this law, even as we decry the moral state so represented. That is how Christians were able to exist in any number of pagan centers; Athens and Rome, for example. The conflict came when Rome demanded they worship the emperor or modify their patterns of worship—it was not caused by the pagan lifestyle per se. In reality much of the initial skirmishing over gay marriage in the United States is because too many Christians see the state as sort of a Theocratic Godfather. The separation of church and state must allow continued Christian witness but will not empower the imposition of religious particulars by law—and , of course, will spare Christians the persecution by a state that might otherwise restrict their faith practice because it is at odds with a secular morality.
It is in regard to the wall of separation that I must take issue with President Obama’s recent conversion to gay marriage. He is a politician, not a religious leader, and is doubtless responding to what he sees as a constituency and a political advantage. (That judgment could be questioned, though, if one reflects on the fact that while some surveys show the public favorable, every state referendum has turned down gay marriage). But I take issue with his using a biblical logic to justify his most unbiblical position.
We should be crying foul on this approach. It is not biblical charity to uphold what the Bible has condemned. It is not the right of the president or any other civil leader to parse out theology as a basis for public policy. It may be that the president’s biblical knowledge is superficial enough to allow him to dismiss the moral imprecations against the particular sin by invoking a golden rule charity that owes more to Poor Richard than Deity. It may be that he has been confused by the growing debate on gay ordination in biblically forgetful churches. It may even be that he remembers the biblical morality of Martin Luther King, Jr. in arguing for civil rights and has, along with the rather forgetful NAACP, come to see gay rights as an equivalent model—logic that is by no means as clear as one might suppose.
I know that in the buildup to a presidential election, partisans will either applaud or condemn any critique of the president or any main challenger. But we must not hold back, because it is at these times that the damage is more easily inflicted on liberty. It is scant consolation to note that in the past Governor Romney, in a letter to Log Cabin Republicans, wrote about “seek[ing] to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens.” Those voters with religious sensibilities will need to watch very closely as both parties speak to this issue. There is indeed a moral shift in society, and it knows no party line, in spite of the rhetoric.
My point here is not to argue a theocratic line against gay rights. Civil society is sorting out the issue, and no doubt the aggregate of voter opinion will work its will. My point is the separation of church and state. Let’s not allow the state to appropriate theological arguments. Let’s not give the state the right to define a sacrament. If a civil society gives “marriage” rights to anyone, do not confuse it with the solemnity of a church-officiated ceremony. Let’s not stoop to pejorative attacks on gays or anyone else living apart from biblical injunctions. We have an obligation from God and the freedom under civil law to preach and live in a way that may draw others to join with us. And, yes, under a healthy civil democracy that still has a wall of separation, we must protest if these gay rights or any other civil agenda are used to restrict our faith and witness. After all, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” Sounds vaguely biblical, but it is the Max Ehrmann poem Desiderata. Remember that the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill used the logic of secular poets. Maybe to protect religion we need to protect the wall.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."