The “Pastor Protection” bill just breezed through the Texas House and Senate with strong bipartisan support, and should soon be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. The purpose of the bill is to enshrine in law the ability of pastors to marry those couples whom their faith allows to be married, and to deny marriage to those whom their faith does not recognize as capable of true marriage.
In a recent piece for The Hill, Regina Nippert claims that the “Pastor Protection” bill protects pastors “from the law of the land.” She uses this as evidence for her main point—the politicization of Christianity is the cause of the decline in church membership.
What Nippert leaves unsaid is one of the main causes for the passage of the “Pastor Protection” bill. This past October, Mayor Annise Parker of Houston subpoenaed sermons from several pastors in the Houston area who opposed a city ordinance that would have allowed people to choose which bathroom—male or female—they could use in a public establishment. After a public “outcry,” the subpoenas were withdrawn.
As the Houston case shows, the encroachment of politics into faith—and not only the other way around—is a real danger. Pastors are not exempt from the law of the land, rather, the law of the land ought to protect them from the encroachment of lawmakers, such as Mayor Parker.
Nippert is correct that churches do not exist for the purpose of political mobilization. Neither should they be seen to endorse a specific candidate or party. Rather, churches are primarily for the spiritual health of their congregants and the building up of communities.
“Correlation is not cause,” Nippert says rightly, but she then proceeds to disregard this caution and simplistically identify the decline in organized religion with political activity. I don’t think Nippert would object to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. getting involved in political issues in the 1960’s. Nor would she object to the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce opposing the slave trade in England on the basis of his faith.
Christians can and indeed must be involved in the political sphere. Authentic religion reveals the truth about human nature and motivates believers to defend each human life and ensure that every person is protected and allowed to flourish. If the state is the source of man’s rights, then the state also has the power to rescind those rights. Instead, the “unalienable Rights” of each citizen were “endowed by the Creator” who will not rescind them, nor can the state rescind that which has been granted from above.
Nippert oversteps when she claims that political mobilization is the cause of falling church attendance. She also moves beyond organizations which advocate gay marriage, but do not have a problem with the “Pastor Protection” bill. But even if she were right, the religious person must defend the rights and responsibilities of his neighbor and himself. The result may not be an increase in popularity for the religious citizen and his church. But popularity is not the goal of religion. If Nippert is calling for Christians to keep their faith safely at home, then she is calling for the impossible.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.