Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Obergefell v. Hodges





The United States Supreme Court has legalized abortion.  It has legalized same-sex marriage.  Both decisions have placed religious organizations in an awkward position.  What should the churches do?  Conform to the changing mores of society?  Or risk marginalization by clinging to the older standards of morality?

The question is not a new one, and Jesus made it clear that the conflict existed in the First Century.  The underlying question is this: what exactly determines morality?  The consensus of contemporary society?  Or some eternal, transcendent standard or moral law?  Are there such things as moral absolutes?  Jesus answered in the latter.

The Gospel of Luke records an incident in which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of His day.  At one point Jesus made the statement, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13; NKJV).  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means wealth or profit.  Here it is personified into a kind of pagan god.  The Pharisees, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (v. 14), not unlike certain religious leaders today, and when the Pharisees heard Jesus’ statement “they derided Him.”

Jesus’ response was sharp and to the point.  He pointed out that “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15).  They has a high opinion of themselves based on their standing in society.  People looked up to them; they were honored and esteemed.  By all outward appearances they were successful.   But God knew better.  He looks on the heart, and knew what they were really like inside.  And the inward reality did not match the outward appearance.

Jesus then went on to make a telling statement: “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).  What He is saying here, in effect, is that there is a difference between a morality based on the standards of human society and one that is based on the will of God.

Every civilized human society has standards of human behavior that it expects the members of that society to meet.  But these standards are usually based on a pragmatic consideration: this is what we need to do to be able to work together to achieve a common goal.  It is a morality based on enlightened self-interest rather than any regard for the will of the Creator.  Aristotle could actually go so far as to say that ethics or morality is a branch of political science.  “Whosoever therefore would achieve anything in social or political life must be of good moral character; which indicates that the discussion of character not only belongs to social science, but is its very foundation or starting-point” (Magna Moralia, I.i).  It was only later that men began to ask the question, what ultimately makes a given human action right or wrong?  Is there any universal or transcendent standard of morality?  And even then philosophers could not admit that there was only one, infinite, eternal Creator-God to whom we as human beings are accountable; they had recourse instead to the concept of natural law.

But the Bible begins with the obvious question, how did we get here in the first place?  And the answer is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being who made us in His image and gave us rational and moral faculties.  Everything, then, is supposed to conform to His creative purpose; and that, in turn, determines the nature of morality.

So great, however, is the disparity between God’s standards and man’s that Jesus could say that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Human society admires success.  We look up to people who have education, wealth, good looks, athletic prowess, political standing.  We encourage ambition and gratify pride. But Jesus uses an exceptionally strong word to describe all of this: it is an “abomination” in the sight of God – literally something that is disgusting or detestable.  What God requires of us is that we love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves; not push and shove our way to the top and then pat ourselves on the back for our good success.

That, of course, places the individual human being in an awkward position.  When God’s law and man’s law conflict, what should he do?  Jesus went on to tell His listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (v. 17).  A “tittle” was the tiny little overhang or projection that would distinguish one letter of the Hebrew alphabet from another.  Legislatures, courts and monarchs may all have their ideas about what they might like to see happen in the world; they might seek to impose their will at the point of the bayonet; but in the end it will all come to naught.  In the end every human government passes from the stage of history.  But God’s throne is eternal; His rule over the universe is never-ending, and in the end He will be the final Judge.  His word is the only one that counts.  As human beings we dare not disobey Him, no matter what men may say.

In modern Western society Judaeo-Christian morality may seem old-fashioned.  We are accused of living in the past.  But we are really living in eternity, while the surrounding world is self-destructing.  The path of wisdom is obvious.



Thomas Jefferson

Today, of course, marks the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, in some ways, forms our national creed, and contains the ringing affirmation that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But how literally did Jefferson intend these lines to be taken? While Jefferson certainly was not what we would call a biblically orthodox evangelical Christian, he was not an atheist either. He did believe in the existence of God, and that God was the Creator.

Jefferson was a man of the 18th Century Enlightenment. He believed that reason was able to ascertain truth because he believed that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. The men of the 18th Century believed in “natural law.” The English philosopher John Locke could state that “the law of nature stands as an eternal rule on all men, legislators as well as others’ (Second Treatise of Civil Government, sec. 135). And Sir William Blackstone, the famous 18th Century jurist, said that “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is an entirely dependent being.” “These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all His dispensations conforms: and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions” (Commentaries, The Nature of Laws in General). And thus Jefferson could argue that American independence was something “to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”

Alas! How very different it is today! Just last week we were treated to a spectacle of raw judicial power by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Obergefell v. Hodges they presumed to rewrite not only the U.S. Constitution, but even morality itself. In the Court’s decision legalizing same sex marriage throughout the United States, Justice Anthony Kennedy resorted to a dubious constitutional doctrine known as “substantive due process.” The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, it will be recalled, simply states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” What the clause does not specify is what rights a person might possess. It simply states that due process must be followed before any of them can be restricted or taken away. Under the doctrine of “substantive due process,” however, the existence of certain fundamental rights is implied, and it is left to the Supreme Court to determine what they are. For Justice Kennedy this provides a golden opportunity to legislate from the bench. “The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution,” he writes (opinion, p. 10). Moreover the Court, he says, in “identifying these rights, is not necessarily bound by history and tradition.” According to him, as time goes on we gain “new insights” and see rights that escaped the notice of previous generations. And thus the Court is free discover new “rights” in the Constitution previously unknown.

What is striking about the Court’s decision is the complete absence of any moral point of reference. Thus Justice Kennedy could say that the liberties presumably protected by the Due Process Clause “extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” Whereas Blackstone could say that “man . . . must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator,” Justice Kennedy sees autonomous individuals choosing their own identities and beliefs. We detect here a kind of Post-Modern sensibility that rejects the very idea of universal truth. Thus Justice Kennedy has rejected not just Christianity, but the Enlightenment as well. Any though of natural law, or of any other kind of transcendent divine law, has completely vanished. We exist as autonomous beings in an essentially amoral universe.

At first glance we might be tempted to celebrate our newly discovered freedom.

“It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”   (Henley)

But then enters a disconcerting thought. If we live in an amoral universe, where do rights come from? Jefferson had said that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But if there is no Creator, what makes a right “unalienable”? A 5-4 decision on a human court? The same Court that once said that black people have no rights that white people were bound to respect? The same Court that has reversed itself on more than one occasion?

But more to the point, how can human society function if there is no universally binding moral code? When “justice” depends on whoever happens to be in power at the time? When ultimately there is no “right” or “wrong”? When might makes right, and it all comes down to what you can get away with? Is this the kind of society the Founding Fathers sought to create?

But what if God actually exists?


          Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its long awaited decision on same-sex marriage. And, as expected, it legalized homosexual unions in all fifty states. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority, with Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito all writing dissenting opinions. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, relied heavily on the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution to make his case, while the dissenters complained bitterly of judicial overreach, and suggested that the matter should have been left to the political process to resolve.

The decision changes nothing, and it changes everything. It changes nothing in the sense that it basically ratifies the tremendous changes that have taken place in public morality over the past fifty years. The fact of the matter is that the only reason that same-sex marriage is even conceivable today is because we have largely reduced marriage to a legal technicality. If one does not need to be married in order to have sex, if marriage does not entail specific gender roles, and if one does not need to stay married if one does not wish to, then what is the point of marriage? The best answer that the Court could produce is that it provides certain government benefits, and in some vague way leads to happiness and fulfillment. Today we have accepted as normal single parent families and absentee fathers. Thus all that the Supreme Court is to encase the modern dysfunctional family model in cement and make it virtually impossible to return to the stable, two-parent family structure that we knew and expected in the ‘50’s and 60’s. What you see is what you get.

In another sense, though, the Supreme Court’s decision changes everything. It is a radical break with the past. We have now formally severed our connection with Judeo-Christian morality and 2,000 years of Western culture. Justice Kennedy, in his opinion for the majority, put it like this: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (opinion, p. 12). What is implied here is a distinctly non-theistic worldview in which we exist as autonomous entities. We are not accountable to any supreme authority outside of ourselves. As a result we are free to choose our own identity. The nearest that Justice Kennedy comes to acknowledging any system of morality is when he says that there are “those who adhere to religious doctrines” who “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned” (opinion, p. 27). Thus morality is reduced to a matter of personal opinion and has no bearing on constitutional law. There are no absolute moral principles that are binding on all. It appears that we are now sailing through uncharted waters, and know not wither we go.

What are the consequences for society? It is impossible to know. As Justice Alito said, quoting his previous dissent in the DOMA case, “At present, no one – including social scientists, philosophers, and historians – can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be” (Alito, p. 6). But at least some of the Founding Fathers saw a connection between morality and public order. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, made the observation that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” It is hard to see how democracy can survive if the public can never rise above narrow self-interest. When morality is gone, all that is left is the law of the jungle – might makes right.

But what does the Supreme Court decision mean for the religious community? Several of the dissenting Justices raised the specter of religious persecution. The problem is this: if you ask, what harm to gay couples suffer if they are denied marriage licenses, Justice Kennedy would reply that at least part of the answer is that it “demeans or stigmatizes” (opinion, p. 19), “. . . it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood,” (ibid.), and it “serves to disrespect and subordinate them” (p. 22). But if that were the case, would not opposition to homosexuality in the religious community amount to the same thing?   Logically, wouldn’t the government have to stifle opposition to same-sex marriage in the churches? Justice Kennedy sought to reassure religious conservatives that they would be given “proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths” (opinion, p.27). But, as Justice Thomas pointed out in his dissent, “In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples” (Thomas, p. 15). And Chief Justice Roberts noted that, “Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage” (Roberts, p. 28). He went on to say, “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before the Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

During the next couple of years churches, denominations and religious institutions will have to decide how to respond to this ruling. There will inevitable come a parting of the ways between those who wish to be socially acceptable and those who wish to be biblically orthodox. We are bound to see a major realignment in the religious scene as people’s loyalties become clear.

In the meantime we will have to give up the fiction that America is somehow a “Christian nation.” It is a nation at war with God. And as we learned from our experience with Roe v. Wade, it is virtually impossible to reverse a Supreme Court. It took the Civil War to reverse the Dread Scott decision of 1857. America is beyond redemption at this point. It is no longer possible to sing patriotic hymns like “My country, ‘tis of thee” and “America the Beautiful.” We have just entered the New Age.