During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to assure Baptist ministers there that he was, in fact, committed to religious liberty and separation of church and state. The fear was that he, as a Roman Catholic, might not recognize those principles. He did. Turns out, the Houston ministers should’ve been less worried about the Vatican and more worried about, well, Houston.
Reports coming out of Houston today indicate that city attorneys have issued subpoenas to pastors who have been vocal in opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure which deals with gender identity and sexuality in public accommodations. The subpoenas, issued to several pastors, seek “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
I am simply stunned by the sheer audacity of this.
The preaching of sermons in the pulpits of churches is of no concern to any government bureaucrat at all. This country settled, a long time ago, with a First Amendment that the government would not supervise, license, or bully religious institutions. That right wasn’t handed out by the government, as a kind of temporary restraining order. It was recognition of a self-evident truth.
The churches, and pastors, of Houston ought to respond to this sort of government order with the same kind of defiance the Apostle Paul showed the magistrates in Philippi. After an earthquake, sent by God, upturned the prison where Paul and Silas were held, Luke tells us that the officials sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they could go. Paul replied. “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly. No! Let them come themselves and take us out” (Acts 16:37).
A government has no business using subpoena power to intimidate or bully the preaching and instruction of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship. The pastors of Houston should tell the government that they will not trample over consciences, over the First Amendment and over God-given natural rights.
The separation of church and state means that we will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and we will. But the preaching of the church of God does not belong to Caesar, and we will not hand it over to him. Not now. Not ever.
John Kennedy taught us, rightly, to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. The United States deserves the allegiance of its citizens. But no government can set itself up as the nation's god.
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of several books including Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway).
Visit his website: RussellMoore.com