Cultural Tumult, New Imperatives
The Obergefell ruling has reinforced for me what I had already sensed before: I can no longer take base assumptions for granted. For a while it seemed safe for me to assume that kids coming into college from Christian homes and cultures were cognizant of the shifting tides. Again, this assumption was entirely on my end and should in no way be taken as an indictment on anyone else. After Obergefell, my courses related to political and cultural engagement changed. Before I would help the students work through the reasoning behind same-sex marriage, why it was problematic, and where we can provide a response that is cogent and humble, but honoring to God’s design for marriage. While that discussion continues, I’ve added additional sections on the importance of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and even constitutional interpretative schemes. We read—slowly—Obergefell’s majority reasoning together. We ask questions along the way, look for assumptions behind the majority opinion’s reasoning, ask questions about what effects this may take if extrapolated to other cultural issues. And so on. I don’t want students walking out of my classroom without a requisite framework to be able to work through difficult cultural and political issues. This is not an exercise in activating Socratic dialogue, but rather it’s pressing them to think deeper than the blogpost or podcast about key issues that will shape their future (American) ministry contexts.
It’s important for them to be cognizant that a potential decline of religious liberty affects not merely the culture at large, but their future ministry opportunities. This is not a scare tactic, but rather an honest assessment of what’s at stake in these areas. They need to wrestle with questions like: How will the future of tax exemption status affect their ministries? How has the redefinition of marriage along the lines of emotional attachment affected the culture before Obergefell? In what ways is this ruling a confirmation of that conception? Have evangelicals sacrificed their witness and been complicit in the rise of this new definition? How? These interrogatives, and more, are important for students to have answers for, but they also embody an intellectual honesty. It’s hard to admit that evangelicals have contributed to a decline in marriage culture, but it’s necessary. Same-sex couples may have pressed for the legal change of marriage, but we’ve not always championed the traditional definition and practice in a way that prizes it’s importance for human flourishing.
In short, the effects of Obergefell for me have been to ensure that I am shaping future leaders, teachers, and ministers on how their ministry context will likely look different. In some ways this is not a bad thing. Politics and evangelicalism have not always worked well together, and the former can easily overshadow the distinctiveness of the latter. But that is not the same thing as saying that the latter should not be concerned with the former. Rather, it will hopefully have a clearer, more prophetic, minority voice than in recent decades. This, I think, serves evangelicalism better.
It’s been a year since Obergefell v. Hodges secured the right of same-sex couples to marry. We’ve had a year of national and international tragedies and tumultuous elections. We’ve seen an old-guard moral majority, desperate to make up lost cultural ground, grasp at their last remaining chance for influence, and it is pathetic. A post-Obergefell emphasis on religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the necessity of evangelicals speaking truth to power—no matter if there is an (R) or (D) by the name—is a welcomed change.
Silverlining: How Obergefell Could Result in Stronger Christian Institutions
During the Obergefell oral argument, the United States Government’s lawyer acknowledged that religious colleges’ tax-exempt status and housing policies might be in jeopardy if the Court re-defined marriage. Other challenges loom on the horizon as a result of the Court’s re-definition of marriage, as well as the expansion of some state and local nondiscrimination laws to protect gender identity and sexual orientation.
But by providing the impetus for religious institutions to review their policies and practices, the Obergefell decision may have the unintended effect of strengthening religious institutions’ ability to defend their religious liberty. For example, in response to Obergefell, the Christian Legal Society (“CLS”) prepared three webinars and sample policies for churches, schools, colleges, and other religious ministries to use to review their policies and practices in light of new legal challenges. These webinars and materials are available at www.religiouslibertyguidance.org or through the CLS website at https://clsnet.org/religious- liberty-webinars.
To reinforce its religious liberty defenses, a religious institution should consider taking six practical steps:
1. Adopt theological statements that thoughtfully detail the institution’s basic religious beliefs concerning:
a. The institution’s core theological beliefs regarding marriage, human sexuality (including all sexual conduct outside of marriage between one man and one woman), and gender identity;
b. Where spiritual authority resides within the institution regarding theological questions that may arise — specifying the person, board, or other entity within the institution that ultimately determines the institution’s doctrines and application of those doctrines in various contexts, such as personnel issues, student conduct, housing, and facilities use;
c. Christian dispute resolution, if the institution believes that Christians should not take one another to court — explaining the religious basis for its belief in alternative dispute resolution and identifying the process to be used for dispute resolution; and
d. Explaining the Christian concepts of sin, grace, repentance, and restoration, which increasingly are foreign concepts to judges and juries, who may therefore mistake the extension of grace to an employee or student in one instance, but not in another, as evidence of discrimination.
In short, the more the religious institution defines its own theological beliefs, the less likely a judge will mistakenly attribute beliefs to the institution that it does not hold or find seemingly inconsistent applications of doctrine to be evidence of discrimination.
2. Embed these doctrinal statements throughout the institution’s organizational documents. A religious school should weave its biblical philosophy of Christian education throughout every policy it adopts and every subject it teaches. A religious charity should explain how its biblical philosophy affects every aspect of its ministry. A church should clearly articulate how its religious beliefs determine which marriage ceremonies it performs, and which it does not.
3. Train staff and volunteers to apply policies consistently. Staff and volunteers should be trained in the institution’s theological doctrines and how those doctrines underpin its policies. They should understand the proper application of the institution’s policies and know who has the authority to determine how those policies apply in particular contexts.
4. Apply policies consistently. Each specific application of a policy should be documented in writing and note whether a particular application involved the extension of grace or acknowledgement of repentance.
5. Consult legal counsel. Because state and local laws vary widely, good legal counsel, who is familiar with the laws of the state and locality in which the institution operates, is a necessary investment.
6. Cultivate a positive public image. Because our culture no longer comprehends the great good that religious institutions routinely perform in their local communities, as well as nationally and internationally, a religious institution should collect and publicize stories of its ministry to others.