As I record this, the state of Colorado, my state, is debating whether to enact a “civil unions” law. The bill has already passed the state senate and is awaiting consideration by the state assembly.
While Christians are right to be concerned about any attempt to create an alternative to traditional marriage, I’m not talking about the particulars of the bill. Instead, I want to draw your attention to something that one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Pat Steadman, had to say to the bill’s opponents.
In response to concerns about the bill’s potential impact on religious freedom, he replied, “This bill does not reach into anyone’s church or mosque or synagogue. You can have all the free exercise there that you want.” He then added, “Don’t claim religion as a reason the law should discriminate.”
From there, he stopped pulling punches altogether. Anyone wanting a religious exemption, he said, should “get thee to a nunnery. ... Go live a monastic life, away from modern society ... away from the people you can't see as equals to yourself. Away from the stream of commerce where you might have to serve them, or employ them, or rent banquet halls to them. Go some place and be as judgmental as you like. Go inside your church, establish separate water fountains, if you want. But don't claim that free exercise of religion requires the state of Colorado to establish separate water fountains for her citizens.”
By the way, in the same conversation, one of Steadman’s colleagues compared religious freedom advocates to the KKK, the Nazis, and the Taliban.
As Eric Metaxas recently told BreakPoint listeners, this kind of calumny is part of being a “sign of contradiction.”
Steadman’s comments represent, albeit in an extreme way, the kind of criticisms to which we must respond calmly and winsomely. The goal is not tit-for-tat, but instead, to clarify the record.
Steadman’s analogy of “separate water fountains,” which we too often hear from our critics, directly compares our position with the architects and enforcers of Jim Crow. It’s absurd, and should trouble anyone who cares about American history, despite what they think about the traditional family.
Jim Crow was an attempt to impose legislatively what had been lost at Appomattox. Its goal was to subjugate newly freed African-Americans and reduce them to a state of permanent legal, economic, and social inferiority. Separate water fountains were merely the symbol of a system of control that rendered the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, toothless.
Obviously nothing remotely comparable is happening in Colorado, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Besides being ahistorical, Steadman’s rhetoric is deeply ironic. If Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had followed his advice to confine their faith within the walls of their churches, we might still have “separate water fountains” and the rest of Jim Crow.
At this point, we shouldn’t have to remind people that the civil rights movement was led by Christian ministers, organized in churches, and was, in almost every respect, an explicit rejection of the idea that religion is purely a private matter.
Just listen to King’s speeches or the songs of the Freedom Marchers and you’ll hear the kind of explicitly religious language that is unthinkable today. When King on numerous occasions said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he wasn’t quoting Jefferson or Madison; he was quoting the prophet Amos.
His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” quoted the likes of Augustine and Aquinas in its rejection of the kind of quietism Steadman and others would have us embrace. Come to BreakPoint.org, and we’ll link you to it.
Now as then, our mission involves raising questions that the larger society would rather ignore. Now as then, we can expect opposition. How we respond is up to us.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: March 13, 2013