Religious objections to civil laws have a curious history


The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday, July 2:

The “sincere religious beliefs” objections to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states are getting some traction, particularly in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana. By a not-so-amazing coincidence, these are among the 11 states where there is an unfortunate history of sincere religious objections to previous laws of the land.

The 13th Amendment for one, the one that abolished slavery.

It seems impossible to think now, but throughout the South, and from some pulpits in the North, before and after the Civil War, churches vigorously defended slavery as rooted in the Bible.

In “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War,” the historian George C. Rable of the University of Alabama writes:

“Preachers talked about a spiritual and cultural war between true Christianity and Yankee infidelity. Indeed, according to one Georgia Baptist editor, it was northern ‘opposition to plain Biblical teachings, which has dissolved our once glorious Union.’ And just as some northern ministers viewed the secession crisis as a millennial opportunity to proclaim liberty to the captives, so southern Christians maintained that the perfection of a slaveholding society would ultimately lead to what a Georgia woman called ‘the final and universal spread of a Gospel civilization.’ “

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal blasted the court’s decision, saying “Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that.”

He went on to predict “an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.”

Jindal calls himself an “evangelical Catholic,” but there are Catholics who disagree with him, just as there are innumerable interpretations of Christ’s teachings among Protestant faiths. Fundamentalist Muslims (and some fundamentalist Christians) have been known to commit terrible atrocities because of sincerely held religious beliefs.

The First Amendment prohibits religious beliefs, however well- or evil-intentioned, from governing the public sphere. Ministers don’t have to officiate at gay weddings, though some have and will. Judges and county clerks do.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a scholar who knew, and borrowed from, the sermons of the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker. In 1853, he preached:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

“Things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

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