My brother Ray is my hero. What makes him heroic is his commitment to continuous spiritual growth. But that evolution has not been without its trials. When he and I were in our late twenties, I noticed that Ray was drifting away from me. It was a strange feeling. We had always been best pals, going one-on-one under the backyard basketball hoop in what was always “the match of the century.” But a few years out of college, I sensed a shrouded reservation. Something was wrong. I could not pinpoint the source, but I could feel the heat.
I finally kindled enough courage to confront him. “Ray, what’s going on?” I asked. “What has separated you and me?”
Then he said the words that broke my heart. “Don’t you know? The Bible teaches us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers.”
I was speechless. In fact, we both were speechless — for thirty years.
Then, after the death of our parents, Ray had an awakening. “Allen, I’m sorry,” he said in hushed tones. “I have not been a good brother to you. Can we try again?”
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” I said. “But I have one condition. Can we both be nonjudgmental?”
“I think I can do that.”
“I think I can too.”
Today, my brother and I meet each Saturday morning for breakfast. I would not relinquish that time together for the world. I soon discovered that Ray had grown exponentially during those long, silent years. He had learned about tolerance, reconciliation and unconditional love. Most of all, he had learned how to embrace his renegade brother.
Ray tore down the wall of exclusivity and judgment — embracing Saint Paul’s definition of love as that which “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves.” That’s why I call him heroic. He broke the chains of legalism and replaced them with gossamer strands of brotherly love.
With that model of tolerance in mind, there is another wall to consider — not one to tear down, but one to buttress.
On the first day of 1802, Thomas Jefferson quoted the First Amendment in a one-page letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. He declared:
“Religion is a matter which lies between Man and his God” and that the “legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
That wall of separation is a sacred tenet of our American history. In 1962, the Supreme Court heard the case of Engle v. Vitale and determined in a six-to-one decision that it was unconstitutional for state officials to require the recitation of an official prayer in public schools — that it was a breach of “the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State.”
In the 1968 case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that the State of Arkansas violated the Constitution by forbidding the teaching of evolution in any public school. The court decreed that “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.”
Some American believers may argue that God’s law trumps man’s law. That may be true in the private domain of believers, where religious doctrines do not conflict with social laws. But in the public domain — the domain of the state and constitutional law — it is another story. As the Supreme Court has ruled, the state has no obligation to protect the church from distasteful views. Conversely, the church has no authority in matters outside its domain. Religion might rule the heart, but it does not rule the state.
To his credit, Saint Paul astutely resolved all controversy by proclaiming that state law and God’s law are one.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2. RSV.)
Both august authorities — the authorities of the state (in the voices of Jefferson and the Supreme Court) and the authority of the church (in the voice of Saint Paul) — are in agreement. They have commanded their citizens to obey the law of the state.
What does this mean in today’s American society? It means it is time for all citizens — believers and nonbelievers — to acquiesce to the law of the land. And yet acquiescence is not always the first choice for recalcitrant Americans.
For example, on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. And yet, despite the affirmations from Jefferson to Saint Paul, believers have rallied to protest and even seek to reverse the decision in whatever way possible. Missouri’s Dent County commissioners voted to lower the courthouse flag “below half-staff” one day a month for a year out of mourning over the Supreme Court’s decision. Most 2016 Republican presidential candidates have voiced their disapproval, some couching their displeasure in Christian language and pledging to reverse the decision through a constitutional amendment.
Perhaps those politicians have ignored or do not fully understand the tenet of “the wall of separation.” Or maybe they are unfamiliar with Romans 13 — especially with Paul’s admonition in verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So here is my sacred pledge: To honor the wall of separation of church and state, yes, but to crush the wall of judgment and declare with clarion conviction, “I may not believe as you — Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, believer, nonbeliever — but that disparity will never diminish my love for you.”
My brother has proven to me that even the most devout believers can come to love an earnest nonbeliever. Can Americans build on that kind of private victory and extend it to a public victory — to expand their love for a brother to the love of all humankind?
That model of democratic love is reflected in the closing paragraph of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. Despite his affinity for deism over traditional Christianity, the president wrote these words of inclusiveness: “[I] tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.”
Isn’t it time for Americans to hold others — apostles and apostates — equal in “respect and esteem?”
Allen Johnson is a columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of Pardon My French and The Awakening. His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.