J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist news journal.
Georgia Baptists and countless people of faith across Georgia have been hoping and praying that a religious liberty bill similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act would be passed by the Georgia Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal. Gov. Deal voted in favor of the national RFRA bill as a freshman U.S. congressman in 1993.
However, Governor Deal has vowed to reject any legislation that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith.” Then he suggested that anyone who disagrees with him should take a deep breath and “recognize that the world is changing around us.”
Well, I have taken a deep breath as the Governor suggested and have come to some interesting and decisive conclusions. First of all, I agree with the Governor that the world is changing around us. It is for certain that things are changing in Georgia, but not all things are changing for the better.
Let me give one example. In recent years Atlanta, as well as the entire state, has become known nationwide for its sex trafficking and more recently for child prostitution. Jane O. Hansen, reporting for Atlanta based CNN, recently wrote, “Unlike adult women, these children (some as young as 10 years old) rarely come into the criminal justice system charged with prostitution. Rather they come in under a host of other charges, such as running away. Juvenile judges were often the first to identify them as sexually exploited minors who were working as prostitutes. And according to our survey, their numbers were growing.
“Almost one in three of the juvenile judges surveyed said they had seen an increase in the past five years in the number of child prostitutes coming into their courtrooms.”
That is an illustration of our “changing world.” So, are we to embrace child prostitution as acceptable just because it is a growing trend?
The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “This we know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” (II Timothy 3: 1-5).
Paul articulated the trend of a changing world in the last days. Are we supposed to set our sails to go with the flow and acquiesce to a world that is devolving into immorality and chaos? Are there no longer any moral absolutes? Will we be content to twist the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution to suit our fancies and whims, our relativistic philosophy of life?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “Amid a growing outcry from powerful corporations over Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ proposal, Gov. Nathan Deal issued his strongest warning yet to lawmakers who are debating controversial legislation seen as a conservative answer to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling.
Whatever happened to being your own man and standing up to “powerful corporations”? Whatever happened to being true to the faith of your forefathers and to the faith of your youth?
Is standing up for religious liberty, traditional marriage and family values really going to keep corporations from coming to Georgia and cause Georgia businesses to relocate elsewhere? I seriously doubt it.
Alana Semuels wrote in The Atlantic on Jan. 2, 2015, “Georgia was named the best state to do business in both 2014 and 2013 by Site Selection Magazine.” So, is rejecting a state RFRA bill or passing some nebulous piece of legislation that really doesn’t address the genuine issues of religious liberties going to drive potential businesses away from Georgia? I believe if we do what is right in the sight of God we will get more businesses than we would ever lose.
When the Governor stated that he would reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith” he was perhaps unknowingly aligning himself against a majority of his constituents. But even if he has found a majority of people who share his position he is leaving a legacy that will ultimately define his otherwise distinguished career in public service.
Governor Deal then attempted to use the Bible to justify his stand on any kind of discrimination in a religious liberty bill. He explained, “What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world … We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”
The governor continued, “What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”
Governor Deal is a member of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville where the pastor, Bill Coates recently wrote, “I had a deeply spiritual and Godly professor who taught me my greatest lesson in seminary: ‘We are all going to err in life either on the side of grace or on the side of law. Since we are going to err anyway, always go with grace.’ That perspective is the one I have chosen to live by. It is also the one churches should choose.
“Each church will have to decide how to walk through this marriage equality debate. I think we should respect those who choose to allow their ministers not to perform same-sex weddings out of their own deep convictions, and I think we should respect churches that choose to allow their ministers that right, for they make their choice out of deep convictions, too… . I say this: I do not always know what the truth is, but I can always tell what love is.”
I want to be known for a gentle, loving attitude; and I would assume the Governor would as well, but while he is extolling the virtue of love and forgiveness, there is a Biblical balance he is sorely missing. Although God’s love is unconditional, and He loved us while we were yet sinners, His love must be balanced with His justice.
Jesus didn’t sound very loving when he engaged in some name-calling in Matthew 23 when he called the religious leaders of his day hypocrites, blind guides, fools, serpents and a generation of vipers. It sounds like what people would call “hate speech” today.
But in our society there are many good, well-meaning people whose characterization of God’s love is a love that only exhorts but never exposes, restores but never rebukes, comforts but never confronts, consoles but never corrects. It is a love that has no foundation in truth, justice and righteousness. In order to truly love God, you must also hate sin, wickedness and unrighteousness. True love cannot function without hate.
I have a respect for the Governor’s office and want to honor his position of leadership, but he is dead wrong to stand in the way of a strong religious liberty bill (House Bill 757 as amended by the Senate) that will insure freedom for all people of faith.
Maybe it is time for the Governor to step back and take a deep breath.