On Monday, June 27th, a federal judge ruled that clerks in Mississippi may not cite their religious beliefs as justification for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’ ruling came just days before a new law, HB 1523, was set to take effect that protected such religious objections. The editorial board of the southern Mississippi newspaper, Sun Herald, immediately defended the decision: “U.S. Judge Carlton Reeves got it right. Circuit clerks shouldn’t let their religious beliefs get in the way of issuing a government license — in this case, the license to marry.”
However what both the court decision and its editorial defense overlook is that by defining and delineating the limits of religion in civil society, they are in fact engaged in their own forms of theologizing. Just as one cannot define, say, chemistry without recourse to some form of scientific reasoning, so one cannot define religion apart from religious reasoning. In this sense, anthropologist Talal Asad claims any state that maintains the basic conditions for the practice of religion in society is itself inescapably religious. Even in a self-proclaimed secular nation, law and religion are not completely separate; the boundary is porous at best, deceptive at worst.
And so the irony in all of this is that both Judge Reeves and his proponents are engaged in their own form of religious reasoning that is in fact imposed through the force of law on the wider population.
It might help to remember that what we call “religion” is actually a fabricated invention of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. By redefining religion as a matter of personal conscience rather than public obligation, the Enlightenment reimagined the human person as a sovereign individual, devoid of any divine obligation apart from that which he chose to impose upon himself. The public square was in turn re-envisioned as a place of political emancipation, where the secularized state would liberate individuals from traditional social structures and arrangements that impeded them from exercising social control over their own life circumstances.
Thus, a further irony in this is that “religion” has been redefined by the very institution that claims to protect its free exercise. The state has simply redefined religion in such a way that excludes itself from the redefinition. As a result, bureaucrats and jurists are free to impose their own religious reasonings and opinions on populations while denying that very prerogative to others.
And so, what the Mississippi ruling really means is this: the only religious opinions that are allowed to be imposed legally on others are from those who claim they are not religious.
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