Seventh-day Adventists occupy a unique spot in the American religio-political landscape. We are theologically conservative Christians, which makes us part of the Christian religious majority in the United States. However, our belief in keeping the Sabbath holy from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (especially to the extent of asking employers for time off to do so) also sets us apart as a religious minority.
When I was younger, there was a lot of talk about Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience. I grasped from an early age that it was BAD BAD BAD to have the government making laws about what we could and couldn’t do in church. Those were back in the days of godless Communism, of course, so there were always mission stories from around the world where believers were forbidden to meet freely and would risk their lives to read the Bible together. We praised God for the opportunity we had to live in a free country like America where we could worship as we saw fit.
We were very vigilant, too, about our religious liberty here in the United States -- at least in the churches I attended. We regularly heard stories of believers who had Sabbath work difficulties and how the organized church supported them legally to make sure their civil rights were honored in their workplace. We heard reports of attempts to legislate Sunday observance and sometimes were asked to participate in letter-writing campaigns or petition drives against them.
These pleas for activism often dovetailed with those of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. As part of its broader religious liberty campaigns, the Adventist church has supported believers of other faiths in being able to freely practice elements of their religion that we explicitly disagree with. Adventists do not believe in peyote smoking, and we do believe in prayer, but we have supported cases advocating for members of other religions to have the freedom to smoke peyote or decline to participate in public school prayer.
Because, my brothers and sisters, freedom of conscience for you and me means freedom of conscience for everyone. The reason we can ask for Sabbath off in our workplaces is because we live in a country where a Muslim woman can ask to wear her hijab as part of her work uniform. And if we want to continue having our rights as a religious minority respected, we will continue to fight for the rights of other minorities, even if we disagree with them.
The foundation of this freedom is found in the First Amendment to our Constitution. It prohibits Congress from passing laws which establish religion, and also laws which impede the free exercise of religion. Although the words are not found in the Constitution, this concept is sometimes known by Thomas Jefferson’s term “separation of church and state.” In essence, it is the concept that the church should look after people’s spiritual welfare, and the state should look after their temporal, legal, and civil welfare. The two should not mix.
Historically, we can see the devastating consequences of mixing church and state, especially in medieval Europe and Puritan America: inquisitions, witch hunts, persecution and fear and torture and death of many innocent and/or God-fearing people. If you’d like a detailed review, may I recommend dusting off your copy of The Great Controversy, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, or The Crucible?
Biblically, we see that God does not coerce or legislate people into a relationship with him; he offers it freely and just as freely offers everyone a chance to accept or decline.
Everybody with me so far? [CLIFF NOTES: Legislating religious belief or practice = BAD. Separation of church & state = GOOD.] Now, please take a deep breath. It’s important that we don’t lose this train of thought as we move to the next section.
Recently, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage equality. Immediately, a firestorm of uproar began about traditional marriage, immoral this and that. It is a topic that has inflamed the nation. But I believe that for us, as Adventists, this POLITICAL issue should be an easy one to decide.
The government only has a say over the CIVIL aspects of marriage: property rights, inheritance, tax code, etc. The issue of whose marriage can be approved and recognized by the church (that is to say, the SPIRITUAL aspects of marriage) are completely separate.
I understood the two separate parts of marriage much more clearly after spending a couple of years in Austria with the Adventist Colleges Abroad program. In Austria, all couples MUST be married in a civil setting called the Standesamt. This is the state-recognized portion of the marriage. Couples who wish to have a religious ceremony must have that separately. My friends who got married in Austria went off to the Standesamt on Friday for their civil ceremony, but didn’t have their church wedding until Sunday. They did not consider themselves married until after the ceremony on Sunday, for then they felt that they were married *before God.*
In America, we have conflated these ideas into one wedding ceremony. In a church setting, the civil AND religious elements of the marriage are combined into one. You know that little line where the pastor says “By the power vested in me by the state of XYZ?” That’s where it happens.
So President Obama’s declaration, and (if it should happen) even the eventual acknowledgement of same-sex marriage as a recognized legal arrangement has NO IMPACT WHATSOEVER on the church or on the SPIRITUAL aspect of marriage. Whether or not same-sex couples should be married in Adventist churches, by Adventist pastors STILL remains a topic for us to decide within our faith community. Our freedom of conscience is not impeded in any way, shape, or form.
In contrast, freedom of conscience for same-sex couples who feel they are called to a life of committed monogamy is enhanced. Now, please remember that freedom of conscience for you and me means freedom of conscience for everyone. And if we want to continue having our rights as a religious minority respected, we will continue to fight for the rights of other minorities. We don’t have to agree that Adam and Steve’s marriage is moral or right, but if they are two consenting adults, to deny them the right to marry under the civil laws of the United States is violating the separation of church and state. And that, my friends, is not okay with me.
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