The New Mexico Supreme Court recently decided that a photography business violated state law when the owners refused to shoot a wedding for a same-sex couple, despite the fact that New Mexico does not actually recognize same-sex marriage. The photographers’ defense was that photographing the wedding would constitute a celebration of the event, which would go against what they believe as Christians. The state forcing them to photograph the wedding would therefore violate their religion freedom. The Court disagreed:
The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.
The movement for same-sex marriage rights has put many Christian private citizens and business owners in legal jeopardy for refusing to contribute their personal resources to the state-sanctioned ceremonies. Bakeries, photographers, and wedding shops have been targeted for their religious views on a religious function. Increasingly, it seems to many Christians that the state (or even a private citizen) has gained the power to close a business simply for having and living out religious convictions.
I think we’re looking at it from the wrong angle.
The Truth about Belief
It has been observed by apologists like Tim Keller that unbelief requires every ounce as much faith as does belief; it is entirely impossible to definitively declare that God exists or does not exist based purely on scientific evidence, which is the latest fashionable excuse for disinterest in the metaphysical. Personally, I have yet to see a device like the P.K.E. in the film Ghostbusters that might detect the substance and presence of the Holy Ghost. Neither have I seen a measuring stick built to ascertain the height of God. There is no tool, no experiment that can be made to experiment on the extraordinary being that centuries upon centuries of brilliant thinkers, philosophers, and scientists have come to know as God. In that sense, skeptics must, at the very least, remain agnostic.
In order to measure or detect something, one must know what they’re looking for and thereby tailor the device or equipment to gauge it. If a man were to devise an experiment to detect God, he would in fact be committing a very funny act of faith in one sense and pagan idolatry in another. Because the atheist man has no experience with the supernatural that he recognizes, he must do the next best thing: draw his own conclusions about the likely form of a supernatural entity that he would be able to detect with his experiment. He must imagine this deity, build it in his imagination, and then declare it to be the God on whom he is experimenting. The skeptic who argues that science denies God in fact builds his own God, one unrecognizable to persons of faith. It is unsurprising when the idol crumbles in his hands.
How would that scientific experiment proceed? Hypothesis 1: “If God exists, then I will see him with my telescope during the night time on a clear evening.” The skeptic has invented a god that lives just beyond the atmosphere and can be spotted by simple equipment. There is no deity such as this described in scripture. Hypothesis 2: “If God exists, he would answer my prayer in X manner at Y time.” This too is a created God not found in scripture. Hypothesis 3: “If God exists, evil event Z would not occur.” Another idol found only in the imagination of men.
The point of all this is to illustrate the fact that all men, whether believer or skeptic, have very particular thoughts about the nature of God. For some, God is eternal. For others, he is so delicate and ephemeral he withers under the light of the microscope. We are all adherents of one faith or another, because by our nature we must believe things about the unseen- that otherness which cannot be tested by expected means. When the mind takes hold of an idea so large as the idea of God, it must decide one way the other about him. The real point that separates us from one another is how we bother to think of that massive conception.
As the Iranian writer Ali Shariati might say, America is not in a debate of religion against non-religion. It is in a debate of religion against religion.
When the mind arrives at a conclusion about God, it must, one way or the other, decide then what to do about such a tremendous idea. What men popularly call “religion” is one choice, the function of turning towards God and discovering what he’s all about. What men call “atheism” is another, and it is the act of turning away from the supernatural and then arguing that one never actually made a movement in the first place. The believing man walks toward the light of the mysterium tremendum. The atheist man walks away, saying that he sees nothing that a man should walk toward. The liberal atheist believes that the believing man is free to walk where he wants, so long as the believing man does not force the atheist come along on his idiotic trip into nothingness. The dogmatic atheist requires that the believing man hides all his movements, and if he cannot hide them then to cease them entirely, as movements towards God are contrary to the atheist religion.
Today, Christians in the United States continue to tread that path towards God, and they do it as best as they’ve been taught how. That includes respecting a certain construction of the union of two persons. For us, marriage is a fundamentally religious ceremony. Apart from God, it does not exist as an institution. Marriage is a celebration of the union of a man and a woman, of Christ and his Bride the Church, a living metaphor to be cherished and revered and lived dutifully. We don’t define marriage this way out of spite, bigotry, or hatred. We do it out of intense love and gratitude, out of reverence for the divine. The fact that we cherish something in light of God is anathema to the atheists, as we cannot divorce marriage from religion anymore than we could divorce Christ from his Bride.
The New American Religion
Here we arrive at the legal dilemma. The Constitution declares that
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
This is commonly understood to mean that the government (not merely the legislature) will not establish or enforce an official religion. Yet, in their erroneous opinion of what constitutes religion, this is precisely what the New Mexico Supreme Court has done. Again:
The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead.
As we have established, all views on God, owing to in the insufficiency of natural physics to account for metaphysics, must be defined as a sort of faith. Though we call men who walk towards God religious, in truth all men who walk one way or the other must be religious. We simply call those who walk the other direction “atheist,” though in reality they simply deny the god they devised on their own. In short, what we want to call absence of religion is only another form of it. Christians believe they are to walk towards God. Atheists turn their back on the matter and believe there is nothing to walk towards. Dogmatic atheists believe that Christians should not be walking where they can be seen. These unbelievers, these non-atheists, must practice in secret.
The justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court have adopted the position of the dogmatic atheists in their legal decision, and in doing so they have declared it to be the state’s official religion. Men and women who would be so base as to practice that other kind of religion (that is, the movement towards God) must hide themselves from sight, even when their religion requires them to walk where they can be seen by others. The justices have called this a sacrifice for the sake of civic order. It is really a sacrifice on the altar of atheism. In the modern attempt to remove religion from men, men have only succeeded in removing their understanding from religion. What is worse, those men are now on a crusade to abrogate the rights of others who believe in a different sort of God- one that cannot be measured or contained.
Men and women with religious views of marriage are now forced by the new American religion, the state religion, to disregard those views and participate in ceremonies they would rather avoid. In its attempts to establish a neutral law, the New Mexico Supreme Court has very much grabbed the pendulum and pulled it in a particular direction. It remains to be seen just how far it will go.
Christians, a word
We as Christians are increasingly required by law to participate in religious rites that we find dishonorable to our Lord. Yet for our attempts to show honor to our God we have been called bigots and ignorant by our neighbors, and it seems as if our very beliefs are being criminalized. This may seem like our world is ending. This is actually how our world began.
Let it be remembered that Roman emperors, dwelling on their own concept of the numinous, also asked Christians to sacrifice at state altars for the sake of civic order. Early Christians were actually maligned as atheists. They were believed to be cannibals and to have secret, incestuous orgies. They were criminals, enemies of the state, or even dreadful monsters. Yet they did not fight back with physical swords and shields but with brilliant apologetics and loving actions produced by sharp minds and ferocious hearts, all strengthened by that mysterious, unfathomable martyred God. If today the state requires us to sacrifice at these altars, that is, to participate in their religious ceremonies that defy what we believe is the will of our God, then we must continue the ancient and holy tradition and reject the state’s demands. Several model Christians have already shut their business doors rather than practice the state religion.
Roman authorities spilled Christian life blood for the sake of civic order. We are fortunate in that our authorities have only asked us to spill our livelihoods. Some may ask, “Shouldn’t the government serve us?” It is true that Roman citizenship served the apostle Paul in spreading the Gospel. It is also true that Rome took Paul’s head. Rome gained a Christian emperor, but only just before her collapse. The lesson here is that the state governed by men can be beneficial and it can be harmful, but in the end it is just a thing. It is another name for a coalition of human beings in a position of authority. The state devised by men is not the state devised by God. We must therefore continue to build up the real kingdom as we’re taught by our King- we must love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and love our neighbors as ourselves, until and ever after his return.
Finally, let’s get a little practical. Don’t believe in baking a cake for a same-sex wedding? Don’t do it. You may lose money, but you’ll be storing up treasure in heaven. Feel like angrily shouting Bible verses at the same-sex couple who asked for it? Don’t do that, either. You may miss your chance to vent some steam, but you’ll also be storing up treasure in heaven. Remember what it looks like to have Christ living within.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV).
As the Teacher says, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” The state dictating how Christians should worship is not a new enemy, but an old one. Our role is follow the tradition of the victorious Christians who labored through the ages not with anger and violence, but with the love, bravery, and wisdom of Christ. The problem has been around for a very long time. So has the solution.