The Baptismal Equality Act of 2040

The year is 2040 and the U. S. Congress, with the president’s signature, has just passed a law, the Baptismal Equality Act of 2040. It requires that no Christian church – Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox – may discriminate in terms of membership based on the nature of a prospective member’s baptism. So, for example, a Baptist congregation can no longer require rebaptism of a former Catholic or Presbyterian who had been baptized as an infant.

I imagine that you, like me, would find such a law outrageous. After all, baptism is, for most Christians, a sacrament of initiation that marks a person as a member of the community of believers.  So, essentially, with this law the state is requiring that the Church publicly assert what it believes to be false. It’s difficult to imagine a more egregious violation of religious liberty that does not involve outright suppression, imprisonment, torture, or martyrdom. So we can safely say that it is uncontroversial to claim that the Baptismal Equality Act (BEA) is seriously wrong.

Now suppose that instead of BEA, Congress passes the Baptismal Equality Labor Act (BELA). It turns out that in 2040 some businesses, owned by devout Christians, provide small stipends (5 percent of their salary) to their baptized employees so that these believers may have more money by which they can tithe to their respective communions.

What has happened, though, is that given the wide range of theological traditions represented by the ownerships of these businesses, not all alleged believers are covered by their employers. Some businesses owned by Baptists refuse to recognize employees who were baptized as infants. Other Christian employees – who have never been baptized – complain that they are being discriminated against because their churches don’t require baptism for salvation since it is merely “an ordinance.” Many non-Christian workers argue that they engage in practices that seem like baptism to them – e.g., circumcision – and thus should be recognized as baptisms.

These businesses are, of course, not state actors, and thus their baptismal income provisions are not violations of the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise and establishment clauses. Nevertheless, Congress has passed legislation in order to remedy what it believes to be an intolerable wrong.

BELA requires any business that offers baptismal stipends to count all their employees as baptized if they have been baptized by any church at all, are members of a church that does not require baptism, or have undergone a similar rite practiced in a non-Christian community. It also requires every local jurisdiction in America to provide for “civil” baptisms administered by agents of the state. So, even if someone does not fulfill any of the first three criteria, you can get a quickie baptism at city hall by paying a small fee.

It seems, however, BELA is no less outrageous than BEA. Although it may appear as if BELA deals only with “secular” businesses, while BEA concerns religious bodies, it is a distinction without a difference.  Religious bodies consist of believers. Serious believers are commanded by their respective faiths to live a multilayered, fully integrated existence, which means that they understand themselves to be believers in every facet of their lives, often thinking of their work as a vocation fully devoted to glorifying God.

          Marriage by the State (Oakland Tribune, June 25, 1933)

For Christians, this means embracing St. Paul’s command to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10: 5 NRSV) For God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:22-23 NRSV)

BELA, nevertheless, requires that believers assert by their actions that state-sponsored baptisms are real baptisms, even though they believe them to be fictions. This is no different than the state requiring them to act as if the Eucharist is mere bread (if they are Catholic) or that non-kosher food is permissible to eat (if they are Jewish) simply because the state says so.

If one were to replace “baptism” with “marriage,” the outrageousness of the state’s coercion would not diminish. Thus, for example, if the state coerces a Christian photographer to take pictures at a gay commitment ceremony, or requires that Catholic Charities get out of the adoption business unless it is willing to include gay couples as potential adoptive parents, this is no different than the state requiring that businesses owned by religious citizens accept the legitimacy of state-approved baptisms.

Of course, the state has been in the marriage business for quite some time.  But it no more invented the institution than it invented “baptism” in our future dystopia. So, if it’s wrong for the state to coerce believers to accept what they believe to be faux baptisms, it should be just as wrong for the state to coerce believers to accept what they believe to be faux marriages.

One may rebut this argument by suggesting that if we allow businesses and individual citizens to reject certain marriages as illegitimate, then what’s to prevent racists from appealing to their religious beliefs as justifying racial discrimination?

But this misdirection by false analogy can simply be turned around: if we allow the state to have a monopoly on what counts as the correct view of marriage, then what’s to prevent a racist state from appealing to its marriage monopoly to justify the prohibition of interracial marriage? The race card can be played in either hand.

The marriage debate, it turns out, is indeed about a fundamental freedom: religious liberty. It is about whether the government has the wisdom and authority to amend the catechisms of millions of religious believers and then to demand their obedience.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).