An Open Letter to the Hon. John Roberts
Dear Mr. Chief Justice,
In your dissenting opinion to the Obergefell v. Hodges case establishing marriage equality last week, you made sure to note that, “people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they received from the majority today.” With all due respect to your office and to your opinions regarding religious liberty, I am writing to make it plain that as a person of faith, and as an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, you do not speak for me. I take great solace in the knowledge that I am not alone.
There is a certain arrogance that permeates the dissenting opinions as a whole and yours in particular. You write:
The court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the states and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs… Just who do we think we are?
The question that begs asking is, just who do you think you are, Mr. Chief Justice? Who are you to act as spokesperson for all people of faith in this country? For that matter, who do you think you are to speak for the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians, the Kalahari Bushmen and the Aztecs?
The paternalism that undergirds your assertions is quite simply out of step with reality — the reality of the lived experience of those peoples you chose to cite, and the reality of religious life in our beloved country. If you were to inquire below the surface of your primary assumptions about religion and culture, you might begin to discover just how deeply flawed they are. The Washington Post has already done the legwork in showing just how flawed your understanding of the four tribal and ethnic peoples, past and present, really is.
The diversity of contemporary American religious life is too rich and bewildering for me to explore in this space. Suffice it to say that I would not presume to speak for all Episcopalians, let alone for my Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Jain or Hindu sisters and brothers who call this country home. Frankly, I find it disturbing that you seem not to hesitate in making such presumptions.
There is one specific example, however, that I would like for you to consider. The benediction at the second inauguration of President Reagan was offered by the Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes, Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Four years later, he preached at the inaugural of President George H.W. Bush. At these celebrations, Prof. Gomes offered words of moral guidance and encouragement, invoking the blessing of God, at the outset of administrations you served on the way to becoming Chief Justice.
There was something that the country did not know as Prof. Gomes invoked God’s blessing upon your work — he was a gay man. It was not until 1991 that he walked out onto the steps of Memorial Church, which he had led for 17 years, to make public his sexual orientation.
On that November day, he told the crowd that had assembled in Harvard Yard:
Gay people are victims not of the Bible, not of religion, and not of the church, but of people who use religion as a way to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert… These realities, which are unreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God, a living Savior, a moving, breathing, healthy Holy Spirit whom I know intimately and who knows me.
While making himself vulnerable at a time when it was not at all safe to be “a Christian who happens, as well, to be gay,” as he put it that day, he was humble in acknowledging that he could not speak for all Christians.
It saddens me that Prof. Gomes did not live to witness the announcement of the majority opinion last Friday. I am especially saddened that were deprived of his voice in the pulpit on the first Sunday on which marriage exists as a right to all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation.
I do not presume to know what he would have said had he lived to preach that sermon. However, I know the good news of Jesus that he taught to me and to countless others as a professor, preacher and author. When a fellow student of Prof. Gomes once asked him to describe the good news of the Gospel, he replied that the whole of the Gospel could be condensed into two simple statements: God’s love only gets bigger. And the story, our human story in relationship to God, is not over yet.
It was not Prof. Gomes’ assertion that God’s love necessarily gets bigger, but that our human understanding of God’s radical and unconditional love only gets bigger. Last Friday, we witnessed a milestone demonstrating that we as a people have come to a wider understanding of the scope of God’s love. Across the news media and social media the proclamation rang out, “Love wins!” If we take seriously the words of 1 John that “God is love,” then we can proclaim with confidence that God won on Friday as love was uplifted in the eyes of our country, and validated in our laws.
People of faith across our country took great comfort in celebrating the victory of God’s love expressed through the majority opinion. Those people recognized it as a moment in which our country was freed to live into the good news we had been taught by prophets like the Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes and countless others who taught from countless traditions that call the United States of America home.
The good news for our country is that our story is not over yet. We can continue to right the historic injustices that persist towards African Americans, people of color, women, immigrants and the poor.
The story is not over for you either, Mr. Chief Justice. There is still time for you to engage in the sacred practice of humility as you serve the remainder of your term leading our highest court of justice. I pray for your sake, and for the sake of our country, that you avail yourself of this good news.
The Rev. Nathaniel P. Katz