Recently Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’ Reilly Factor on Fox News, irritated some conservative radio show hosts and thousands of Christians when he opined that those who favor so-called gay marriage have a compelling civil rights argument while “the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.” The “other side” is, of course, Christians. Rush Limbaugh responded by declaring the O’Reilly had “marginalized” many Christians who are regular Fox News viewers. In a contentious discussion with talk-show host Laura Ingraham, O’Reilly denied that he had insulted anyone and that the term “thumping the Bible” was simply an accurate description of reality and that “You don’t win a policy debate doing that.” He also said that those who support traditional marriage must make the argument “outside the Bible.”
O’Reilly, like so many others in America today, wants a clear separation of private beliefs and public policy. In other words, there is no room in the public square for religious points of view. No matter what the subject is, Christians must say nothing about their private beliefs if they are formed by Biblical principles. The debate must always be secularized. For a Christian to proclaim that marriage must be between a man and a woman “because God’s word is clear on the subject” is anathema and not to be tolerated.
How history has changed. The ban on Biblical references did not exist when Dr. Martin Luther King was fighting for civil rights. Only a rare few blinked an eye when he often referenced the people and the words of Scripture or great religious thinkers to make his point regarding the plight of blacks in America. Private beliefs and public policy were inextricably linked. To prove the point, let’s examine King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, written to fellow clergymen in 1963.
Early in the letter, King responded to the question of why he is in Birmingham jail to begin with:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Later, after reciting a litany of abuses that blacks have endured for two centuries as a cause for his willingness to break the law, King wrote:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
King then explained the difference between a just and an unjust law:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
To further justify his use of civil disobedience, King refered to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their refusal to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar and the many Christians who faced martyrdom rather than submit to the unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
Responding to the accusation that King’s actions were precipitating violence, he wrote, “Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?” He elaborates, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers [sic] with God . . .”
When King’s critics accused him of being extreme, he gave the following examples of “extremism”:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “ I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”
To those ministers who challenged King by declaring that the civil rights movement was a social issue that had no connection with the gospel, King wrote, “ . . . I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
Finally, King made this prophetic criticism of the Christian churches:
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose it’s authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Of course, it would be helpful if supporters of traditional marriage are capable of debating from a secular point of view, but no one should be condemned for using the word of God to support one’s position on the matter. Dr. King saw the church and the Gospel as having not only a right to be heard in the public square but a duty to proclaim the truth from within the public square. Like St. Paul, he was not ashamed of the Gospel. Woe to those who are ashamed, for it is these timid souls who allow evil to triumph.