Like many of you, I’ve been spending much of July fuming over how to properly vent my frustration with the disturbing implications of SCOTUS’s Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College rulings. Not being a lawyer or politician, I’m inspired by the creative responses, most of which require an actual Hobby Lobby outlet: making protest IUDs out of pipe cleaners; “womb-bombing” the store with knitted uteruses (uteri?); handing out condoms at the door. Closer to my NYC home, there’s Mary Valle’s musical interpretation and Rachel Riederer’s satirical speech celebrating corporate personhood’s “Freedom Summer.”
I found an opening in scholar Winifred Fallers Sullivan’s otherwise terrifying analysis of the verdicts at The Immanent Frame. She noted the radical disconnect between the court’s conventional, “churchy” definitions of religion as applied in the Hobby Lobby case, such as “prayer, worship, and the taking of sacraments,” and the much broader, DIY religion that actually happens in America:
“Americans have always been incredibly varied, creative, and entrepreneurial in living out what they take to be their religious obligations….they find their religious community and their religious fields of action in places other than churches—including the marketplace.”
Sullivan is referring to evangelical, non-denominational Christians, but she could just as well be describing another often-neglected area of religious entrepreneurism: Internet ordination. What’s less denominational, less tied to institutions, than the vast marketplace of religions that offer individuals, for free or a small fee, the chance to officiate weddings and funerals for their loved ones?
My husband and I got married last year in Maine. We both had religiously mixed heritages, with no institutional affiliations and, in my husband’s case, atheist tendencies. So we chose a friend to officiate; he got himself ordained in the Church of Spiritual Humanism, and married us in a dashiki accessorized with a wreath of Maine bachelor buttons. It may sound slightly ridiculous, but I can tell you: the emotions involved were no less sincere. (It wasn’t anything-goes: the Church of Spiritual Humanism is very firm in not allowing its ordain-ees to perform any exorcisms, circumcision, or animal sacrifice.)
What might first appear to be a novelty has become an important resource in an increasingly de-centralized religious landscape. The Church of Universal Life, which has the same legal standing as any religious institution, has been offering this service since 1959. We don’t want to be part of mainline Protestant churches anymore, but we still need rituals and people to conduct them.
At the time, it was a point of pride for me that the State of Maine was legally not allowed to distinguish between a friend ordained by the Church of Spiritual Humanism and, say, a Catholic priest. Because that would be government deciding what is a religion and what is not, and they can’t do that, right?
Right. In fact, online ordination has already long been subject to legal wrangling over its authenticity; states, and sometimes even counties, vary widely in their acceptance of these unconventional churches. While it may seem cringe-worthy to invoke the rights of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude or of The Flying Spaghetti Monster in this much more serious battle, they were a canary in the mine-shaft of legal challenges to actual religious liberty.
Recently, my brother and his fiancé asked my husband and me to both get ordained and officiate their Maine wedding next year. We are, of course, honored to do so. And even more honored now that I’ve realized getting ordained online could rile up the religious right. I say we all do it. The broader we make that spectrum of DIY religion, the more we make clear that all religion…and I mean ALL religion…should be legally equal, and none of it should infringe on the rights of others, the more we let freedom of religion ring.