Same-Sex Marriage and the Doctrine of the Lower Magistrate

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An October 17 news article out of Rockingham County, North Carolina, reported that Magistrate John Kallam Jr. chose to step down from his duties because he felt that conducting a same-sex wedding would conflict with his religious beliefs. It is important to bear in mind that Magistrate Kallam was appointed to his post prior to the recent federal court’s decision to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in North Carolina. As one would expect, his decision to step down led to an outcry from conservative opponents who perceive the state’s lifting of the ban on same-sex weddings as wrong. One person said that the “homosexualization [sic] of marriage is an attack upon the core of our civilization,” while others warned that “if our elected officials will not stand up for the Christian principles on which this country was founded, then we, the voters, need to elect those who will.”

One particular comment from Rev. Matt Trewhella stuck in my mind: “All good people should rally to this magistrate and defend him with both public and private actions.” Although I somehow doubt that Rev. Trewhella would agree with me, I defend Kallam’s decision to step down, though it saddens me that he is doing so over the equal rights of LGBTQ families. It is my opinion that he has made an honorable decision of conscience and integrity. Not only has Kallam realized that his particular interpretation of religious teachings has come into conflict with his responsibilities as a magistrate, he has chosen to remove himself from the situation so as to not succumb to subjective bias in his judicial decisions.

I am certain that Trewhella would completely disagree with the reasons for my defense of Kallam’s decision. The reverend’s “doctrine of the lesser magistrate” makes no qualms that “when a magistrate, who is lower in authority than another higher authority, opposes and/or resists the unjust orders or laws of the higher authority, he is justified in doing so and his actions are morally right, proper, and legitimate.” Trewhella explained that the theologian John Calvin spoke of this doctrine in his work The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) and that Calvin did not appeal to the Christian Bible for authority, but rather to “pagan historical examples.” This is an important point for Trewhella to make, because had Calvin appealed to the Bible, he would have had to explain his interpretation of Romans 13:1-2: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”

Calvin also plays a significant role in the history of Western freethought in the experience of the seventeenth-century Dutch humanistic thinker, Huig de Groot (known as Hugo Grotius, in English). In the early 1600s Grotius felt the sting of theological matters turned into civil law when he and other supporters of religious tolerance were imprisoned and some even executed when their theologically “heretical” views were condemned as “illegal” (check out the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618). Grotius wrote that “just as every right of the magistrate comes to him from the state, so has the same right come to the state from private individuals; and similarly, the power of the state is the result of collective agreement.”

With Grotius’s ideas in mind, my concern is that Trewhella appears to advocate a form of legally-led anarchy when he states: “In our nation today, the State has declared good to be evil and evil to be good. The lesser-magistrate has a duty before God to uphold the good regardless of the new definitions created by the State.” In stark contrast to Trewhella’s position, the Humanist Manifesto III encourages working with others in our communities “to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process.” This very democratic process that we celebrate and enjoy in the United States is connected to people that we hold in high esteem such as Thomas Jefferson, whose philosophies and writings were influenced by Grotius.

Although we accept that it is impossible for a person to completely divorce themselves from bias, when it comes to making decisions that affect our communities it is important to stress that decision-makers must exercise objectivity and impartiality. The outcomes will impact all who live in, contribute to, and benefit from our democracy.