Category Archives: Culture

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Everett’s primary objective was to learn the Pirahās language—one of the most complicated ones known to man—and produce a successful translation of the Bible. So at the age of 26, Everett made his first journey to the Pirahās. He and his family would spend large portions of the next 30 years working among these unique people deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett was well-suited for this specific mission as he had shown himself to be an exemplary student of language during his undergraduate and graduate education. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, but he also would earn his masters in linguistics and a doctorate at UNICAMP (a large Brazilian university). In more recent years he has held positions at many universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Manchester.

Everett’s Significant Contribution

This book is significant for several reasons. First, as Christians deeply committed to global evangelism, we can appreciate someone devoting most of their life to an obscure, extremely dangerous place (hence the book’s title), doing the hard work of learning and translation in order to put God’s Word in the tongue of a people. Moreover, though there had been a few previous missionaries to this tribe, none had been successful. Everett notes at the time of his book’s publication that there had never been a known conversion at any period in the history of their tribe! (269).

A second reason the book is significant is because it is more about language and culture than it is the spiritual task of missions. The book interweaves the Everett family’s story with reflections on different theories about linguistics, and how various theories had sought to explain the phenomenon of language. How can Darwinism account for the unique complexities of human language? This question, the subject of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, also pervades academic discussions of language. Since this is also a community Everett had been part of for years, his book discusses this issue in great detail.

Everett contends that the language of the Pirahās actually undermines the dominant thesis of modern linguistic theory, promoted by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, now 88, is the most influential figure in the field of linguistics not only in America, but perhaps the world. Chomsky is famous for his notion of Universal Grammar. In essence, this theory asserts that language is primarily genetic in origins, not primarily cultural (as many others believe, including Everett). Grammar, or how language works/fits together, arises from a set of structures innate to human beings. While languages across the world are very diverse, there are some common elements that show language to be inherent to the human genetic make-up.

Because Everett has been able to document how the Pirahās language does not fit the paradigm advanced by Chomsky and others in the field, his research has caused quite a bit of a stir in academic linguistics.

What’s Theology Got to Do With It?

From a theological perspective, it may be tempting to simply say we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and leave it at that. However, there are numerous ways we could deepen our study of what the Bible says about humanity and consider how this might intersect with what we believe about language.

Some have suggested that language is one entailment of being made in God’s image. Others have suggested it is the central meaning of being in His image. Even Wolfe makes several mentions of this particular doctrine in his book and how it relates to this larger discussion of what humans are like.

One thing is for sure: linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists of all kinds are likely to arrive at different conclusions about language if they operate out of an evolutionary framework.

Intellectuals working from such a framework are forced to try and explain all human phenomena in either cultural or biological terms, or both. Yet in the end they will either simply double-down on the conclusion that human beings are nothing special, just highly-evolved primates. Or they will try to preserve a sense of human uniqueness among all other species, but lack the metaphysical grounding for this belief.

There is much more to Everett’s book that merits discussion here, but I’ll conclude with one final observation. A rather sad reason why the book is significant (SPOILER ALERT) is that in the end Everett tells of his departure from Christianity. This will likely be the only “missionary biography” one ever reads with this conclusion.

As difficult as it was for me to read the conclusion of the book, I think the reasoning he gives is a sobering cautionary tale. I’ll leave it to others who read to glean lessons from this. To me, it is a tale of how increasingly gradually bracketing out theology and communion with God from anthropological and linguistic research can make a person intellectually vulnerable to the already-present spiritual vulnerabilities of life in the world, especially on the mission field.

Simply put, if Christian doctrine is always revised in light of the latest scientific consensus on a particular question, and if one does not carefully guard their walk with the Lord, they will find that the complexities of life will gradually erode the commitments of their soul. Everett was confronted for years with the hardships of life in the jungle, the contentment of a lost tribe to continue rejecting Jesus, and trying to untangle the mysteries of language and culture. This is a tall order for anyone.

Although most of us will continue to dwell in a familiar Western world, we should recognize that there are many complex burdens in serving God and understanding His world. Therefore, we must maintain spiritual vigilance in the fulfillment of our ministries, regardless of where they take us.

 

An Episode in Cross-Cultural Theological Instruction

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I had the honor of serving as a visiting professor at the Los Cedros de Líbano Seminario (the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary) in Pinar del Río, Cuba. This is the seminary of the Cuban National Association of Free Will Baptists. Incidently, their national association will be holding its 75th national convention later this week.

This was the second time I have visited our island nation neighbor to the south, a land which has for many decades been dubbed “the land of Castro.” Certainly much has changed in relations between the United States and Cuba in recent years. Only time will tell the full implications of those changes. Of course, more changes are likely to come as international commerce, the Internet, and other elements are increasingly introduced. Above all else, the flow of American money into any country carries with it a dynamic that is hard to entirely assess.

But I came to Cuba not as a tourist or businessman, but as a brother and servant, at least I hope that is how it was perceived. The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary has done a tremendous job training countless Christian men and women for service to Christ’s church throughout the island and the world. Its graduates are pastors, missionaries, youth ministry leaders, women’s ministry leaders, and more. That some of their American brothers have been welcomed to lend a hand in their theological instruction is a great privilege that I hope is not underestimated.

Teaching theology is itself a peculiar task. Once we move beyond some of the misconceptions about what theology or doctrine is (no small feat), there is the challenge of determining how to convey ideas—often complex ones—to a particular audience. As Cuba is a foreign country with a unique history, language, economy, customs, and socio-political arrangement, these factors must be taken into account in theological instruction.

The topic of my course was theological anthropology. Essentially, my task was to instruct 1st thru 4th-year seminary students on what the Bible teaches about man.[1] Some of the specific areas we covered were the doctrine of the image of God, man and woman as a gendered beings, and the total personality approach to humanity. Most of the instruction was done with the help of translators, for whom I am so grateful. Though my own understanding of the Spanish language facilitated my teaching and preaching at times, without translators I would have been useless to these students.

As a student of language, as well as someone who stands in front of people each week attempting to communicate God’s truth, I cannot help but marvel at what a unique thing language is.

I think far too often we take language for granted. We assume that the challenge of learning and teaching is bound up largely in our ability as teachers and preachers to understand for ourselves. And indeed, you cannot effectively teach what you do not adequately understand! Yet there is a personal, intellectual, and symbolic world we quickly move into as we open our mouths to speak understanding into the ears, minds, and hearts of our students. We must master our subject, or something close to it, but then we must master our audience as much as we can.

Approaching the Challenge

Mastery of cross-cultural instruction is difficult for any number of reasons. First, we have to do the hard work of learning something about that unique audience. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they presently believe? What do they love? What do they fear? Certainly the Bible gives us a foundation for knowing the answers to such questions among any audience of human beings.

However, answers to these basic questions take on slightly different nuances in different times and places in human history. I’m increasingly convinced that even the most seasoned pastor probably needs two to three years in the pulpit at a new church before truly knowing how to speak to that specific group of people in an optimal way. Thankfully, the clarity of Scripture and the power of the Gospel is such that God can still use His servants to accomplish something even in new settings.

A second challenge is understanding the words, images, idioms, and concepts of that target audience if we are to introduce something new, or reform an understanding something already present. This is especially important when one is teaching through a translator. The translator is certainly as immersed in the linguistic-intellectual challenge as the teacher himself. It becomes especially important to read the faces of students as the words are said for the second time.

I have spoken with many folks who have preached with the help of a translator before. The one observation that always emerges quickly is just how problematic our American idioms and metaphors are, even when heard by skilled translators. I’ve heard more than one humorous tale of a preacher growing increasingly frustrated and stammering as he tried to explain an idiom to a translator, bringing the already-plodding sermon to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, the hard, but crucial work of communication requires that we focus on the core biblical metaphors in order to make cross-cultural instruction most beneficial. If we increasingly grasp the everyday idioms and metaphors of the target audience, then those can also be employed in the teaching task.

But the beautiful thing that I was reminded of is that in Christ, even a teacher and student of different origins still have a common language: the Scriptures. They have a common goal: Christlikeness. They have a common law: the way of love.

Accordingly, I have great confidence—in principle and from experience—that the Great Commission works. Ours is only to find our place in that work and do it.

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[1] There were also some pastors who sat in on the classes who were on campus for a pastors’ conference. Additionally, a few other professors were present at times during the week.

 

Millennials: They’re So Hard to Figure Out

by Matt Pinson

“We do face a danger, of course, when attempting to group individuals in a certain generation using sweeping generalizations. We risk missing the beautiful diversity of each generation, and the beautiful uniqueness of each person.”  —Jon Nielson

Recently I read a short article on the Gospel Coalition website by Jon Nielson, a 33-year-old campus ministry leader at Princeton University. It reminded me how difficult it is to “peg” the millennial generation, despite how much some people attempt to do so. One of the things the article tries to get its readers to do is to “stop trying to define millennials,” as a recent Huffington Post article urged.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry every time I hear someone in our denomination repeat this old, tired slogan: “The reason Free Will Baptists are losing our young people is because our churches are not cool enough.” The reason I don’t know whether to laugh or cry is that I know all the latest research from serious sociologists like Christian Smith and others belies this well-worn maxim of many in the FWB Baby Boomer set.

The social science research shows that evangelical churches across the board are losing their young people at the same rate—contemporary and traditional, urban and rural and suburban, large and small and mega, liturgical and charismatic—there’s no significant difference in the percentage of young people being lost or gained. Yet we continue to hear the attractional, “only-way-to-reach-Millennials” line over and over again. (For more on this, read another brief article by Nielson entitled “Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up.”)

But I’m kind of like Jon Nielson in the article below: Millennials are a lot harder to figure out than Boomers and Gen-Xers. I work with them everyday, and just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they surprise me.

Millennials want more depth and transcendence and beauty from their religion than many Boomers and Gen-Xers. They’re more interested in theology than just pragmatic “what works” methods—they want methods that actually grow out of theology. This of course doesn’t apply to all Millennials, but that’s my whole point—it’s hard to reduce them to a one-size-fits-all approach, either educationally or religiously.

This was illustrated when I received an article from a Millennial youth pastor friend of mine recently about church architecture. It was a Barna Research survey commissioned by a large church architecture firm. The firm wanted to know what Millennials like in church architecture. They showed pictures of three types of church sanctuaries—(1) the dimly lit “stage set” one (2) the center-pulpit, brightly lit “Baptist-Presbyterian” one, and (3) the formal-liturgical one.

Two-thirds of the Millennials liked the traditional sanctuaries and disliked the modern one. They showed three types of church exteriors that corresponded to the sanctuaries mentioned above. Again, two-thirds of the Millennials preferred the traditional buildings and disliked the modern one.

Now, my point here is not to make an argument about the “correct” type of church architecture. My point is that a lot of our caricatures of the Millennial generation are just that—caricatures. Millennials just aren’t leaving, or joining, churches for the reasons we often hear cited.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this brief but very insightful article by Jon Nielson.

Our Fears Betray Us

by W. Jackson Watts

(this essay first appeared on the Helwys Society Forum on November 16; It has been republished here with permission)

In the days following the election of Donald Trump, thousands of opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers, periodicals, and online news outlets. Such pieces range from the jubilant and finger-wagging to the angry and finger-pointing. Some are analyzing the data gleaned from exit polling, while others are scrutinizing the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump.

However, one sentiment that has emerged since around the midnight to 1am hour (CST) on Wednesday is fear. Such fearful disbelief was seen on the faces of disheartened young volunteers at Clinton headquarters, in celebrities’ tweets, and in pundits’ commentary. Fear is certainly not all that is on display; anger is, too. The anti-Trump protests certainly reflect deep anger toward the president-elect, those who elected him, and the campaign that swept him into office. Fear and anger often go hand-in-hand.

But the fears concerning Mr. Trump are most troubling from the standpoint of our republic, and certainly from a deeper religious perspective. Fear often betrays deeply held beliefs, emotions, and commitments, which may hinder our thriving as human beings and as a nation. Here I’ll focus on two problems that our current fears reveal.[1]

(1) Our Vision of the Presidency

Ever since the Progressive era (circa late 1800s to 1940), a vision of the Constitution arose that viewed it and its signatories as being out of touch with the demands of modern times. Underlying this vision were several beliefs, among them being an evolutionary view of human thought and history. The thought goes something like this: “The founders couldn’t have envisioned the complexity of modern civilization, or intended that the Constitution not occasionally undergo revision or reinterpretation.”

Fast-forward to our present day, and we find ourselves living in the wake of several progressive presidencies (some democratic, some republican), which did much to expand the executive powers beyond their constitutional limits. Our system was designed with a separation of powers, distinguishing the executive branch from the legislative branch, the legislative branch from the judicial branch, and the judicial branch from the executive branch; equal, but separate. Such an arrangement was intended to provide checks and balances against any one branch or leader assuming power that wasn’t properly granted to them— an important reminder Matthew Bracey alludes to in his recent essay.

Why, then, is such fear present not only among ordinary citizens, but also among elites in the media, entertainment, and sports? Certainly wealth insulates some from many of the vulnerabilities typical of middle-to-low income Americans. This fear must be rooted in something besides party affiliation: Many believe we’re about to have a dangerous president.

This fear should first cause some anti-Trump persons to give pause, and remember the manner in which they ridiculed and dismissed the fears of anti-Obama persons over the last eight years. Obama advocates assured their fellow citizens that they were being unreasonable, unfair, and just plain wrong. So there seems to be some inconsistency here. As one journalist recently put it, separation of powers is suddenly en vogue again!

I would be chief among those who would name President-elect Trump’s flaws in terms of character, views, and preparedness to lead our country. However, our political system was designed precisely to protect citizens from flawed leaders. If there was ever evidence in recent history that our vision of the presidency has been compromised, it is the widespread fear. Our views of the executive branch and its power have grown to unhealthy and dangerous proportions. Conservatives have warned of this for years, though in truth, some were less troubled by it when purported conservative presidents were in office.

In 2014, columnist George Will explained the phenomenon of progressive presidential leadership in an excellent PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. He explained that the presidency is like a warm, leather glove. Each president who’s been elected has put that glove on. However, each successive president (at least every few anyway) has a larger hand, and thus stretches the glove just a bit larger.

Most conservatives would agree with these observations. However, Christians in particular should recognize that some who are fearful genuinely don’t know how to process the fact that the newly-elected president has sounded at times like a racist, misogynist, and/or any number of other despicable things. When we encounter such feelings, we should reassure fellow citizens that we’re just as committed to protecting their legitimate constitutional rights as we are our own.

Even assuming that the worst is true of Mr. Trump’s character and intentions, that one man could singlehandedly provoke, antagonize, or do legal harm to citizens belonging to any other nationality or religious group says something much worse than we know. It tells us that the executive branch—and the presidency specifically—has departed from its proper place, that it’s not a co-equal branch of government, that it doesn’t have checks and balances.

Christians have something significant to say to these concerns. We not only should reaffirm the constitutional separation of powers, but we must point to the larger metaphysical claim upon which this arrangement is based: there is such a thing as human nature, and it isn’t good. No doubt the founders’ beliefs differed about some of the specifics of human nature. It’s fair to say that though they weren’t all Reformed, they understood that too much power given to any one individual or institution could and would lead to lawlessness and tyranny. Believers can refine this insight with verses like Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, not even one.”

A strong doctrine of sin is critical to preserving the integrity of limiting mechanisms within our social, civil, and political institutions. These mechanisms ensure that one bad man or woman cannot, in fact, take what is not theirs to take, or give what is not theirs to give (cf. Mk. 12:17).

The Bible has much to say about sin and its attendant components—guilt and depravity. Where we have sometimes failed is by stressing the individual dimensions of sin at the expense of the institutional or structural manifestations of sin, a point that mainline theologians have more often stressed. Biblically, sin is explained as an individual and corporate reality, but the discerning person recognizes that individual and corporate wickedness also manifests itself in the institutions humans create. In fact, such a claim may help explain why many suddenly find themselves so fearful about the presidency: we’ve turned a noble, limited office into a scary, unlimited office.

(2) Our Faith in Men

A second issue surrounding present fears is where the dangerous expansion of presidential power takes us. If we believe the office itself has the symbolic, political, and legal power to do such great harm, it becomes critically important that we have complete faith in the person elected, as well as the populace which does the electing. As many are learning now, hell hath no fury like a Clinton-voter scorn. But it isn’t the usual type of frustration. It is a sense of betrayal: “How could you put America in the hands of this person?”

Voters bear some responsibility for allowing and sometimes encouraging presidents to attempt to fix things that either they cannot fix, or should not attempt to fix. Good intentions or not, the blurring of proper boundaries sets dangerous precedents. That we allow this reveals beliefs we have about people that never serve us well in the end. Whenever one has an unrealistic and unhealthy (not to mention unconstitutional) view of presidential power, it fosters and then reveals a misplaced confidence in political leaders. This is true whenever we weep for joy when our candidate is elected, or weep fearfully when another chosen. We feel vulnerable to the whims of the elected, and the electorate.

Christians are warned of this type of false confidence, notably in two psalms. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Then again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4).

 In both passages, the psalmists warn about the folly of trusting in earthly rulers. These serve as cautions for those Christians who may have unwavering confidence that President-elect Trump will make good on all his promises they liked. If this isn’t enough of a caution, it may be healthy to revisit some of the fearmongering among evangelical Christians prior to the election. One would have thought that Mrs. Clinton’s status as the antichrist (or next to it) rose to the level of biblical revelation for some.

Conclusion

No doubt this was an important election, in ways still unknown at this point. For this reason, Christians still have responsibilities beyond the voting booth. Yet the fears of our current national moment are instructive about human nature, the lessons of history, the problem of double-standards, and the need to trust the one who sits on heaven’s throne, not who occupies the Oval Office.

_____________________

[1] My remarks on fear in this piece are not intended to apply to an otherwise biblical and prayerful concern that we might exhibit towards our nation and our times. Rather, my focus is more limited to the reaction of many to the outcome of the election and what it reveals.

Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage (Part V of V)

by Matthew Steven Bracey

In part IV, having looked at religious liberty in parts II and III, we considered the separation of powers, federalism, and the rule of law. Here in part V, we’ll conclude by reviewing the topics of democracy and liberty.

Democracy and Liberty

We should also remember the importance of democracy and liberty. The founders sought to achieve the best balance between a democracy and a republic. So they established America as a democratic republic. Authority is exercised by representatives of the people.

The Constitution begins, “We the people.” Although America isn’t a direct democracy, it’s a representative democracy. And we have an important role to play. By protecting democracy, we preserve liberty. On the other hand, when democracy is attacked, liberty for all suffers.

As with previous topics, though, democracy is falling on hard times. We see this when government leaders assume control over some issue that properly belongs to the citizens. This is what happened, for example, with the Obergefell majority.

Chief Justice Roberts points out, “The Court’s accumulation of power does[n’t] occur in a vacuum. It comes at the expense of the people. And they know it.”[1] Or as Justice Scalia put it, “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”[2]

As with democracy, so goes liberty. Justice Scalia explained: “This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.”[3]

So, just as the Court’s majority didn’t actually appeal to law, it also didn’t actually appeal to liberty. It just said it did.

What should we think about liberty? What did it mean for the American founders? At the founding, liberty didn’t amount simply to a right for people to do as they please. Yet this is how it’s often interpreted today.

Instead, liberty had a nobler meaning. Founder James Wilson said this, “Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”[4]

This is an important statement. To understand what liberty is, we must understand it in relation to law. For many today, liberty is the freedom to pursue licentiousness, or immorality.

For Wilson and the founders though, true liberty is contrasted from immorality, which is bad for a well-ordered society. Liberty without law to temper it, or the freedom to pursue immorality in the name of liberty, isn’t actually liberty.

As Wilson put it, it’s just “licentiousness.” Instead, law protects liberty from becoming immorality. Liberty needs law to be truly liberty. On the other hand, law without any liberty is just oppression.

This is a much higher view of liberty, and it’s one we need to reclaim. As we find ourselves talking with others, mentoring people, and voting, let’s remember this:

Don’t let people guilt you, in the name of “liberty,” into believing that you have to let people live however they want. As if you can’t support laws and policies that makes immorality illegal.

Don’t feel bad about believing that abortion, marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, and other topics should be illegal.

To believe that certain actions should be illegal doesn’t mean you don’t believe in liberty. It means you’re trying to keep liberty from becoming licentiousness. True liberty needs law to protect it from itself.

Conclusion

No, America isn’t perfect, nor is its government flawless. Yet it represents some of the best ideas of political theology and political philosophy from world history.

These are the very principles we’ve considered. We must not take these principles for granted. We need to recognize and reassert their importance for well-ordered societies.

We live in difficult times. Our culture chips away at this heritage to society’s own destruction. What do we do? We don’t regret the age we live in. We recognize that God has put us here for a reason. We don’t “hunker down” and wait for the storm to pass.

We go forth as light to a dark world, extending the influence of Christ in our spheres of influence (Matthew 5:16), including society. This means thinking about law and politics at the local, state, and national levels. It means recognizing the importance of the principles we’ve considered in this presentation. And it means thinking about what candidates and nominees believe about the role of these principles in government and society.

We regret the direction that certain cultural developments steer us in. But we take seriously our vocation as citizens. We commit ourselves to doing our part to contribute positively to American culture, society, and government. And we look to God ultimately for our identity and mission as He guides us for such a time as this.

Helpful Books

Bruce Ashford, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville: B&H, 2015).

Hunter Baker, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

Wayne A. Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015).

Matthew Pinson, Matthew Steven Bracey, Matthew McAffee, and Michael A. Oliver, Sexuality, Gender, and the Church: A Christian Response in the New Cultural Landscape (Nashville: Welch College Press, 2016).

Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester: Crossway, 1981).

Helpful Websites

 Acton Institute: For the Study of Religion and Liberty, http://www.acton.org/

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, http://www.erlc.com/

The Colson Center for Christian Worldview, http://www.colsoncenter.org/wfp-home/

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[1] Obergefell, 576 U.S ___ (Roberts, dissenting), at 26.

[2] Obergefell, 576 U.S ___ (Scalia, dissenting), at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Ibid.