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Here’s an idea. Roman Catholic priests might, as a matter of “principled resistance,” refuse the role of marriage registrars for the civil government.

This was the suggestion of His Eminence, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, delivered at the Erasmus Lecture in New York last Monday evening. This, he indicated, would be in response to the daunting prospect that clergy may eventually be required by the state to conduct same-sex marriage rites.

I do hate to crow, but I already said this a year ago:

The non-Gnostic churches should stage a strategic retreat from a disenchanted public square and voluntarily return many of secular society’s gifts to Christendom. Stop being registrars for state marriages, surrender property tax exemptions, give up the double-dip tax privilege that grants clergy a non-taxable housing allowance while letting them also claim a mortgage deduction, drop military ranks for chaplains in the armed forces.

I suppose I should unpack that term, “Non-Gnostic.” These are churches that refuse to lurch around the secular landscape seeking the next big thing progressive Christianity might pluck from the culture or invent on its own. The Gnostic churches have been the first to consent to the social redefinition of marriage and family. They have consented to more than that (like clergy medical plans treating abortion as a reimbursable expense), but marriage and family is pretty much an end game. Among the new Gnostics, the confession of faith might go “We like Jesus and he lets us do anything we like.” (The codicil might read, “And you are a bigot if you disagree.”)

During my sabbatical at First Things in 2009, I suggested during one editorial meeting that Christians may have to take a step or two back from the public square, specifically citing the use of clergy as state marriage registrars. I wanted to know what that might look like if it happened, and if anyone would notice afterward if it did.

The ghost of Neuhaus, I was warned, would at last have reason to come slap me upside the head (he’s done that recently, but that’s another story for another time). Point being, the churches must never concede even a square inch of the public square, ever.

Okay. But what if—as Archbishop Chaput suggests—the public square begins dismantling the social and moral architecture of Christendom (distinguished, understand, from Christianity) that Protestant America carefully erected?

I’m not much in favor of American Christendom. I’ve always found the mix of civic patriotism and civic religion confusing. But at least the secular favors granted to the Protestant establishment came to fall more and more equally to the Catholics and everyone else, as well. If it weren’t for the Protestant establishment, Catholics wouldn’t have gotten anything, I’m convinced. Yet Gnostic Protestants increasingly accede to and even advocate for secular demands for marriage equality. In that context, the archbishop’s assertion of “principled resistance” makes sense.

In the denomination to which I once belonged, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), more traditional pastors are beginning to wake up to the fact that, even if the civil government does exercise some restraint in compelling pastors to act against conscience, it is hardly the case that their denomination itself will. Within a decade—I may be too optimistic to suggest as long as a decade—denominations like the ELCA will declare a normative standard that their pastors must perform same-sex marriages.

Generalizations are always too general, but even now one hears drifting reports that traditional pastors serving more progressive parishes are being pressured to yield on the matter, or face dismissal by the congregation. It happens. Pastors caught in a fix like that know that to get along, they eventually will have to go along—a dismal prospect.

The “strategic retreat” I advocate does not mean that non-Gnostic churches should ever fail to raise their voices in critique of the culture surrounding them. Even in retreat vigorous voices will be required. That challenge may fall uniquely to Roman Catholics, in company with Jews, Evangelicals, and other faith allies, so long as it is remembered that there is still much to admire in American life. We all must, to quote Nostra Aetate in another sense, “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found” where we live.

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published last July by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.

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