It’s been an interesting week for the name ‘Houston’.
The subpoenas demanded that the pastors hand over all sermons ‘prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession‘ on matters that included, not only the mayor of Houston, but homosexuality and gender identity.
It’s one of those stories that makes you think: there must be some mistake: this can’t really be happening.
But it did happen.
And it’s still very much happening (and more of it in a moment).
The second use of the name ‘Houston’ involved Pastor Brian Houston, senior pastor of the Hillsong global Megachurch.
Interestingly enough, this story also had to do with sexuality. And it had to do with the fact that when asked publicly about his church’s stance on homosexuality, he was less than clear as to where the church actually stood.
This caused some commentary and conversation over social media, as people were trying to work out whether Houston and his church really had changed their stance on this issue, or whether perhaps he was genuinely trying his best to answer a tough question, but was unable to do it clearly enough in the heat of the moment.
Anyway, the ‘Houston’ I’ll be focusing on in this post is the city of Houston, in Texas, USA.
The story is quite bewildering, and would be quite expected in parts of the world that don’t enjoy political or religious freedom.
But it happened in the USA: a nation that was founded (in part) on the notion of religious liberty.
And it happened in a ‘bible belt’ state, in what is often called the ‘buckle’ of the bible belt.
So what exactly happened? Here’s an extended summary:
1) In May of this year, the City of Houston, under Mayor Mary Annise Parker, passed the ‘Houston Equal Rights Ordinance’ (HERO).
This legislation bans anti-gay discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing, and in city employment and city contracting. In one of the most controversial parts of the ordinance, transgender people barred access to a toilet would be able to file a discrimination complaint.
2) The Transgender bathroom part of the ordinance led to a public outcry, and a petition was put together, calling for this part of the ordinance to be put to a public vote. The petition was handed over to the Mayor’s office.
3) The people who put the petition together claimed that they had received enough signatures (50,000) to qualify for a ballot (i.e. a public vote on the transgender bathroom legislation).
4) However, the attorney of the city of Houston claimed that they had not gathered enough signatures together for a vote on the issue (17,269 was the minimum number required).
5) Thus a group of Christians sued the city, claiming that the city attorney was acting unjustly.
6) In response to this lawsuit, the city attorneys issued the aforementioned subpoenas to five local pastors, even though the pastors were not connected to the Christian group that was suing the city of Houston.
7) Janice Evans, chief policy officer to the Houston mayor, stated that ‘The subpoenas were issued to pastors who have been involved in the political campaign to organize a repeal of Houston’s new equal rights ordinance. It is part of the discovery process in a lawsuit brought by opponents of the ordinance, a group that is tied to the pastors who have received the subpoenas’.
So there you have it.
A law was put forward by the city of Houston, which included the right of transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with (i.e. not the gender that matches their biological sex).
Many people (including Christians) were quite concerned about such a law.
A petition was organised, and handed to the city council. The petition was rejected by the city council. A lawsuit was therefore launched against the city.
And the city launched the subpoenas against the 5 pastors (even though they weren’t party to the lawsuit).
So what are we to make of this? Here are some reflections:
1) The subpoenas are a serious (and unprecedented) legal over-reach.
Make no mistake: the 5 pastors have not been accused of doing anything wrong.
They haven’t been accused of plotting to kidnap a random transgender person off the streets of Houston and behead them.
They haven’t been accused of stirring up hate or violence toward transgender people.
Indeed, they weren’t even party to the lawsuit against the city!
So why on earth would the state require them to hand over all sermons ‘prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession‘?
Is it because the city attorneys are keen to study up on the finer points of Christian doctrine?
That’s unlikely, to say the least.
This is nothing less than an act of intimidation, and political thuggery.
It’s the Mayor of Houston letting it be known to her political opponents, that if they want to go against her laws, then this is what will happen to them.
Whether or not such an action is legal is beside the point: simply putting the subpoenas out there is enough to intimidate most people: who wants to go against the city of Houston, if this is what could happen to me?
2) These subpoenas compromise both religious freedom, and freedom of speech.
One of the key differences between a totalitarian regime, and a free society, is that in a totalitarian regime, people are punished for merely holding to, or expressing their beliefs.
In a totalitarian regime, people are penalised for saying things that are considered to be politically incorrect.
In a totalitarian regime, people are penalised for merely holding to beliefs that are politically incorrect.
In a totalitarian regime, the state has the ability to (legally) harass you for your beliefs.
And that is what is happening to these 5 pastors.
It’s hard to see these subpoenas as anything less than the state harassing them for their speech, and for their beliefs.
3) Political freedom is very closely linked to religious freedom.
I realise that many secular minded people might be quite unconcerned about any perceived violation(s) of religious liberty.
After all, if you disagree with religious people over an issue such as transgender rights, why care if the state ‘pulls the religious people into line’, even with such legal tactics as subpoenas?
The problem with ignoring religious liberty is that it’s the canary in the coalmine: history has shown us that when religious liberty goes, political liberty follows soon after.
After all, if the state is quite happy to penalise people with religious views that they happen to disagree with, what makes you think the state won’t penalise people with political views that they happen to disagree with?
If the state is quite happy to remove freedom of speech from one class of people (and demonise them etc), what would stop it from doing this to any other class of people, that it deems is opposed to its rule?
In fact, in quite an ominous statement, the Houston city attorney David Feldman, speaking about the subpoenas, recently told reporters:
‘If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected’. [Emphasis added]
If you compromise religious liberty, political liberty is sure to follow.
4) In a democracy, we are in part responsible for the actions of our government.
I know some Christians might argue that standing up for religious liberty is not an important thing to do, or even not a Christian thing to do.
After all, didn’t Jesus tell his disciples to expect opposition, and even persecution?
Isn’t opposition/persecution the expected norm for the Christian life?
Whilst it is true that Christians shouldn’t expect religious liberty to be normal (historically speaking, it’s pretty abnormal!), the fact of the matter is that in a democracy, we share responsibility for the laws that are put in place.
And thus, if unjust laws are put in place, we (partly) bear responsibility for them.
Theologian Russell Moore puts it well when he writes:
In our system of government [i.e. democracy], the ultimate “king” is the people. As citizens, we bear responsibility for electing officials, for speaking to laws that are made in our name, and for setting precedents by our actions. Shrugging this off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands, so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set.
5) If the state is able to use coercive power in this broad way, it will inevitably harm the most vulnerable.
It’s one thing for the state to issue subpoenas to 5 white (I’m assuming!) pastors, who are well connected and well known: that’s bad enough.
But what if these subpoenas were issued to pastors in poor black/immigrant neighbourhoods, who don’t have the same connections, or support?
Again, Russell Moore:
The subpoena is not a request but rather a use of coercive state power. The compliance with this sets in motion a potential continuation of such unjust power that will harm those, again, with the least power to counteract such things. Imagine such subpoena power being used against impoverished recent immigrants to America, with little knowledge of the language and with few social and political connections?
If we’re wealthy and well-educated, we might feel OK about living in a society where freedom of speech and religion are gradually being eroded.
But we shouldn’t just think about ourselves: we should think about the ones that would be least able to stand up against such state over-reach.
And thus, we need to be on guard against such oppressive laws.
6) Liberty is fragile. And so we need to constantly guard it.
In issues such as this, we need to be careful to avoid hysteria.
Houston hasn’t become Nazi Germany.
It hasn’t become Soviet Russia.
People are not being imprisoned, or deported, for their beliefs.
However, if we care about liberty, then we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and assume that this issue is not a big deal.
Because liberty is fragile.
As Albert Mohler, a prominent Christian commentator, writes:
Liberties die by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet or risk trouble.
Liberty dies when people don’t push back against the state, or against the prevailing culture.
Liberty dies when people say ‘It’s not such a big deal. I’ll speak up when it becomes a BIG issue, like when people are being sent to jail for their views’.
The problem with saying ‘I’ll speak up once it becomes a big problem’ is that once people are being sent to jail for their views, it’s much riskier to speak up: you’ve got a LOT more to lose by that point in time: after all, would you really put you and your family in danger by speaking up for the sake of that religious person (whom you disagree with anyway)?
The time to speak up and agitate for liberty is not once people are being sent to jail: by then, it’s probably too late.
The time to speak up is now, when people are ‘merely’ being handed subpoenas.
Now is the best time to speak up, not least because it’s a lot easier to push back against small(er) state encroachments on liberty, than against larger-scale state encroachments.
Or as a famous man once said:
‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.
7) The New Sexual Ethic is turning out to be incredibly intolerant of dissent.
In a previous post, I mentioned how sexual rights are being privileged over other rights, whenever a conflict arises between the two.
And this case is no different.
If you are perceived to be opposing the sexual rights of people, then expect to be penalised.
Although he was speaking about another issue, the 43rd President of the United States famously said:
‘You’re either with us, or against us’.
That’s the view of the New Sexual Ethic.
And (in Houston at the very least), the state is now turning it’s levers to support such an Ethic.
So how might we respond to this particular issue?
As a Christian, who was born in a totalitarian state, I’m very concerned about basic human freedoms.
And so when I hear about western countries doing things that hitherto were only found in countries such as the country of my birth, then I get quite nervous.
And so, my response to this issue, and issues like it, are as follows:
Interestingly enough, prayer is a political act:
1 Timothy 2:1-4 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
God is sovereign, and I pray that He would work through our elected officials to bring about laws that are just, and not oppressive.
This blog is a meager attempt at starting a conversation, and raising awareness, about these particular issues.
Because as someone has said, politics is downstream of culture.
And thus if we want Just laws, freedoms, and human rights, then we need a culture that values these things.
As a student of history, it fascinates me to think about why some societies were willing to give up their freedoms, without much (if any) struggle.
Sometimes, as in the case of the country of my birth, it was because of defeat in war.
But other times, it’s because the citizenry did not speak up, until it was too late.
As one Christian pastor put it, reflecting on his time in a totalitarian regime:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
You might not be a conservative religious person.
But would you speak up, if the rights and liberties of religious people were threatened?
If not, don’t be too surprised if one day you find your freedoms being curtailed and eroded.
3) Send in a sermon.
If the Mayor of Houston wants the sermons of the 5 pastors, then I’ll send mine in, too.
As the title of this blog post suggests, I’m doing something that Christian talk-show host and author Eric Metaxes suggests: namely, sending in a sermon to the Mayor of Houston.
Great sermons are meant to be shared. Ask your pastor to give you printed copies of two of his best sermons, and send them to Mayor Parker. The address is City Hall, 901 Bagby Street, Houston, TX 77002. Then begin praying daily for Mayor Parker and all public officials, following Paul’s guidelines in 1 Timothy 2:1-2.
I’m sending in one of mine. Feel free to do the same (or ask your pastor to do it).
It’s a symbolic gesture, for sure.
But one that will hopefully send a message, that this sort of thuggish behaviour is unacceptable in a civilised society.
Oh, and we should remember that what happens in America rarely stays in America: that’s another reason why I, an Aussie, am so concerned about this.
4) If you live in Australia, consider filling out the Rights and Responsibilities Survey of the Australia Human Rights Commission.
As the survey preamble states:
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, is conducting a national consultation about how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia. The consultation will focus on building understanding and improved protection of our fundamental human rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
It’s a good thing to be a part of, in order to help protect our vital freedoms on this side of the Pacific.
The New Sexual Ethic is rapidly challenging a number of rights and freedoms that previous generations of people in the west had taken for granted. Only God knows where it will all end up, but in the meantime, it’s important for us to think clearly, and act appropriately.
And the time to start to start thinking, and acting, is now.