The New American Religion

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.


8 thoughts on “The New American Religion

  1. Some of this is outside my familiarity, so I apologize if I’ve overlooked something obvious.

    On what basis should a state govern to ensure equality among its citizens? The line between tangible and abstract principles is blurry. It is clear all citizens deserve not to be murdered and raped. Fortunately not many religious practices encourage these behaviors and we don’t run into a religion-state conflict here. But when individual ethics do collide, what basis does the state use to protect citizens? You’re right that all humans exercise beliefs, but when these beliefs are organized, and carry a predictable set of behaviors, one whose basis is a fixed source (e.g. Bible or other doctrine), the state’s ruling can seem to make a direct attack on it. Instead, the state is dynamic, attempting to vet between two conflicting beliefs. Let’s take two steps back and forget the labels of each side. One side (set of beliefs) is exercising a (newly) state-permitted right of marrying. The other is in effect saying that such rights are incompatible with their own, attempting to deny services in the name of those rights. The latter has enjoyed rights of this nature (fortunately compatible with their own) for a very long time, and are in this belief a supreme majority. On no basis other than this, I applaud the state for coming to the aid of the underdog, even if bounds were slightly overstepped or when taken to logical extremes (which the state has not done yet). You are right, the behavior of the state (specific court ruling) taken to the extreme (religious sanctioning) is incompatible with its basis (constitution). But let it be known quite clearly, that the state has declared a right of same sex, and in a legal sense, certain Christian practices are publicly incompatible with this ruling. This is not the fault of the state, nor the religion but it is the state of affairs. Where did the law come from? Did the people vote?

    • I think there is a clear, universal basis for the foundation of elementary laws in government, such as prohibitions against and murder. We have records of these stretching back a very long time. There will always be general consent on some basic principles. There will then always be a shared foundation of morals upon which the rest of society is built. The problem is that this deals with a very peculiar set of ethics regarding the rites (not yet rights) of a very small subset of the population, and we thus move into nebulous granularity. What must be done on this level is ensure that the law follows as closely to the original principles as possible. To the plurality of our democracy, marriage a religious rite, and it follows that such a view is protected by the First Amendment. One should not be forced to act contrary to those beliefs, as the New Mexico court has decided we must. I have not argued that there should be no same-sex marriage. Rather, the point is that private citizens should not be forced to participate in the ceremony if they disagree with it.

      What has actually happened in this case is that the court has enabled a minority to terrorize a majority. A person now has the power to enter a private business and demand that they either attend a ceremony that violates their believes or be shut down. That is not freedom. That is tyranny.

      Were I to walk into a Muslim butcher shop and demand pork, should I be able to go to the state and have them shut down when they refuse to furnish me the meat? I think not.

      • From what I understand of the ruling, subscribing/registering one’s business as ‘public’ and offering public services is not mandated of businesses, and indeed offers access to a public that assumes you are a service for the public. I think you and I might generally disagree on the liberties of faith in the public sector. Pork may not be a service that butcher provides, because the butcher’s handling of the meat is a purposeful act against his faith. My opinion is that as a photographer offering a professional service, snapping pictures during a ceremony is not the same as what we usually consider participating (the Catholic church for example often draws the participation line at ‘receiving communion’). Answer this honestly: is the photographer actively marketing her “participation” in services, or is she marketing photography? It’s a secular based service that is often rendered in religious settings, but it itself hold zero ritualistic function. I think there would be something subtly but crucially different if the photographer was instead a cantor for the service. No one is asking the photographer to bow her head during prayer and in that way, I think there is no religious harm in the request for a service. Really, does it burn the skin to be around another faith’s rituals? If the government you live under asks you to do it, and isn’t asking you to actively renounce your God, and you admit, it is your preference to maintain a professional, secular service, then I think there isn’t grave harm. If, however you start a company called Christian Photography, and you market yourself as solely interested and able to provide Christian services (for a non-discriminatory reason, such as, “registered and endorsed by XYZ pastors” or something) maybe that’s something different. But as the judge was saying, these are minor costs of living in a society (and especially insisting your sustenance involves interacting with it).

      • I see no reason why photography, a culturally recognized discipline of art, must be secular, particularly if the photographer sees photography as their religious calling- and this is very much a common understanding of vocations for Christians. Why should a business be forced to perform a service they find to be against their beliefs? There is also the fundamental issue wherein a portion of the people have decided that religion is a thing found only on private property, and therefore all adherents of religion obey this peculiar form of practice. There is no division between public and private for the person of faith. That is an illusion.

      • Honestly, if I were picking my battles as a Christian this wouldn’t be one of them. Nobody is asking Elane Photography to support same-sex marriages. And if she wants to have the right to photograph only the services she endorses, then I hope she’s proactively advertising as a Christian service, or even more honestly, advertising only within church forums. But if in any way she feels her Christian calling is to serve all people on God’s planet, then she should know what that entails. Or from a legal standpoint- if she is on any secular platform, I think she’s doing something unfair to a patron who calls upon her professional services only to be told those services are not *quite* public, despite utilizing public media (this part is in the court summary). Let’s go to your logical conclusion: ought it be on every Christian merchant’s conscience what the secular client morally does with their merchandise once it’s purchased? Draw the line somewhere, and I think Elane is still safe to perform within her Christian conscience. Elane Photography is in the business of capturing light in a box, optimizing the image and providing that documentation to the client, but is playing no role in the explicit rite (i.e. it surely would go on with or without her pictures). Frankly, when Elane photography is involved in Christian weddings she isn’t playing a role; the pastor doesn’t sanction the Christian photographer at the outset of the wedding, nor ask the photographer to play a role in the ceremony. To your broader point, however, I can respect that we would return to an issue of public vs. private rights. P.S. I enjoyed your intro to epistemology.

      • The defendants said that they believe that photographing the wedding would be the same as being a celebrant. To them, it is exactly supporting same-sex marriage.
        There is an issue here of telling others how they should construe their own beliefs. Should the state tell the photographers that they have wrongly interpreted their own beliefs? Should we tell the photographers that they have wrongly interpreted what their faith tells them about serving others? I think not. They believe that by taking and producing photos of the ceremony that they would be making a statement that affirms same-sex marriage. The New Mexico Human Rights Act contains a clause that should protect against violations of the First Amendment, but the Court declared that their refusal to photograph the ceremony on religious ground was not a protected religious freedom.

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