Alabama and Florida have new Governors who are actively catering to the Christians in their states. Alabama’s Robert Bentley explicitly appealed to his fellow “brothers and sisters” in Christ, unaware that this could be taken badly by anyone who is not in the family. He was subsequently informed that Alabama does, in fact, have a smattering of non Southern Baptists, and did his best to apologize for any hurt feelings.
Governor Rick Scott in Florida is using his government position to further Christianity in the more traditional way – behind the scenes. His new Secretary of the Department of Children and Families is David Wilkins, who also serves as Finance Chairman for Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, which describes itself as an “organization dedicated to providing Christ-centered services to children and families. . .” That’s hardly surprising for a Baptist organization. Wilkins test will come when he has to deal with citizens who are not seeking Christ-centered services.
This certainly doesn’t bode well for same-sex couples in Florida. Gov. Scott has said that adoption should be limited to married couples, using the traditional formulation to exclude homosexuals without saying so. This goes against a state appellate court ruling, which overturned Florida’s unique-in-the-nation rule prohibiting adoption (but not foster parenting) by anyone who is homosexual, and against simple arithmetic, with the number of children needing adoption, on one side of the equation, and the number of married couples willing to adopt, on the other.
These new governors will be pushing the limits of the distinction between Christians and “Christianists,” the term Andrew Sullivan coined to describe Christians who go beyond believing in and acting on their faith, and attempt to impose it on believers and nonbelievers alike through civil law.
They may want to exercise some caution. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects religion from state coercion, but it does something else as well: it protects religions from one another. That’s not necessarily a constitutional matter, but it’s at least as important. You don’t have to search very hard to come up with examples of religions that hold government power in various nations and leverage their power to disadvantage people of other religions.
But that’s nothing compared to the leverage religious believers have over different sects of their own religion. Just because Shiites and Sunnis are both Islamic doesn’t mean they have the same view of religion, or of the state. In fact, divisions within religions may be more intractable and emotionally held than broader religious differences. Henry VIII didn’t fight Rome in order to start a Jewish sect; he felt he was every bit as much a Christian as the corrupt boys on the continent, possibly more so.
Religion can be a special case of epistemic closure. Belief is so personal and interior that it’s easy to lose perspective, or fail to appreciate that others believe very, very different things at their very core, not only about obvious politicized issues, but about God’s grace, itself, and God’s own identity.
And that’s not just true across religions, but within individual sects. Governor Bentley’s Southern Baptist brothers and sisters belong to one of many dozens of Baptist denominations that aren’t always in complete harmony. There are enough Presbyterian denominations that Wikipedia has to alphabetize them.
And individual believers are even more varied. It’s easy to forget that Al Sharpton is a Baptist minister, and that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Warren Beatty are all Baptists as well. Catholics are fairly unique in having a single, institutional voice to guide them – one which is widely ignored by actual, practicing Catholics in so many particulars, high among them gay marriage.
The First Amendment is a reminder that a government which can not command religious belief has to be cautious of religious reasoning, itself, which inevitably leads to so many different, but firmly held conclusions. Gov. Bentley’s religious belief is clearly not something he holds lightly, but even in Alabama, it shouldn’t be surprising that in the civil arena, its assertion by the state’s leading political figure is viewed in political terms. Gov. Scott can certainly rely on a large cohort of religious believers who oppose any legal recognition of same-sex couples, but he is not the Minister of Florida, he is its governor.
And homosexual citizens are among his constituents. Religions have the power to deny membership to anyone they wish, but states are different. Christianist governors (and other powerful religious politicians) can’t ignore or exclude lesbians and gay men from the society; they can only use power to rig their rights. And as the non-religious reasons for doing so collapse under ordinary scrutiny, the religious motivations are exposed not only to secular review, but examination by other competing religions and religious thinkers as well.
Those religious debates have both enlightened and inflamed centuries of human progress. But they have not combined well with secular government. The First Amendment has stood as an excellent guardrail between our nation and a noxious religious nihilism. Its wisdom is still evident.