Anthony Kennedy was *Almost* Right: Post-Obergefell Thoughts on Where We Go Now

Anthony Kennedy was almost right. While his inventive reading of the Constitution in Obergefell vs. Hodges has been widely and panned by both liberals and conservatives, his transcendentalizing of marriage is precisely the kind of understanding to which defenders of traditional marriage can and should offer a hearty and enthusiastic ‘yes.’ When it comes to constitutional reasoning, Obergefell is a disaster. But when it comes to our nation’s culture of marriage, Obergefell provides traditional Christians the best opportunity we have had in fifty years to make a more persuasive case for why marriage still matters.

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“Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”  As Wesley Hill and others pointed out immediately after the ruling came down, such rhetoric makes it seem like those who opt not to marry are somehow missing out on a form of life that is essential to satisfy their needs and deepest desires. Such language doesn’t quite create a ‘dignitary wound’ toward those who are unmarried, since they are not in the precise sense denied marriage. But it certainly extends our current atmosphere where marriage is the only form of deep personal fulfillment we can imagine. Continue reading

The Inevitability of Same-Sex Marriage

There can be no meaning apart from roots. –Walter Brueggemann

For astute cultural observers, nothing about the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage should be surprising. Though there was widespread popular opposition to redefining marriage as recently as 10 years ago and though 30 states voted on and passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, there was still an inevitability to what happened in 2014. This was no triumph of big government or judicial activism going against the popular opinion of the people. As the Onion noted, the question wasn’t whether marriage would be redefined in the USA, but merely when.

In the aftermath of this decision conservatives should focus less on the question of same-sex marriage itself and more around the issue of how something considered a categorical impossibility for much of human history has come to seem not only possible, but an essential part of a just society for most of our peers. Continue reading

Special Feature: Why I am Opposed to Gay Marriage

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Preface

“I will always love you.”

Many of us don’t remember the first time we felt such a sentiment; some of us may have never felt it at all. If we first encountered it in our youth, as most do, we were probably advised not to consider it very closely. The first word the sixteen-year-old in love hears is that the emotions will not last, that love is a choice, that the heart is untrustworthy, that he really should give the whole business some time. It is the responsibility of adults to help the young direct their erotic impulses, but it is easier and safer to destroy them altogether. Love is intoxicating. And it should be, for it moves us to willingly take on obligations and commitments that help make us adults. Only the one thing the young lovers want in the midst of their rapture—for it to go on, always—is the one thing our society tells him will never happen.

The torrents of passion the sexual revolution released are now receding, leaving behind the ruins and rubble of broken lives and homes. We once thought we might have all the feelings of love without any of the boundaries; but by trying to set eros free, we instead shattered it. Once eros became a god, he laughingly absconded. It is in his nature to do so. Eros awakens us to mystery, and now that we have broken all the taboos, there is nothing left to enchant.

Except perhaps glittery vampires. The Greeks worshipped the deathless gods; Stephenie Meyer made teenagers love the benevolent undead. The intense longing and passions of eros depends upon the presence of an always and of boundaries, a combination that Twilight amplified and exploited.

Because there is nothing sacred left to profane, at least in matters of sex, amplifying love’s rules and costs is the only way to keep meaning alive. Unfettered sex might sound “fun,” but sexual pyrotechnics without sharp boundaries eventually lose their luster. We don’t have romantic comedies any more because there is no romance to lampoon. It is the absence of erotic desire that is now our grave social crisis, not its presence.

In our response to the great crisis of marriage, social conservatives have frequently objected to how emotional construals of love and romance have overwhelmed the institutional, covenantal, or procreative aspects of marriage. We have chastened against grounding the commitment of marriage in our feelings, have objected to ‘merely emotional’ unions, and have argued our society is besotted by ‘companionate models of marriage.’

Such critiques are aimed at showing how our changing intuitions around love and romance have stripped the power from the traditional view of marriage. They are meant to counterbalance and reframe the emotions of love, not to undermine them.

But it is with eros that I want to begin, with all the sentiments and the yearnings and the hopes and dreams that make it easy to roll our eyes at googly-eyed teenagers.

For it is in marriage—and marriage alone—that eros finds its consummation and discovers resources for its ongoing renewal. Eros can destabilize us and make us go topsy, but it also helps us see why marriage matters. There is only an adventure if we accept its dangers. And marriage is a good great enough to justify its demands. Continue reading

The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

Continue reading

The Questions of Gay Marriage: How serious a concern is homosexuality?

This is the third part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  You can read the second part here. I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

How important does Scripture seem to think homosexuality is?  It’s common these days to minimize the concern about this particular question before addressing it on grounds that Scripture says very little that is explicit about the subject, even if the now infamous six explicit verses are all negative.

That’s the claim that Richard Hays makes in his massively influential Moral Vision of the New Testament, at any rate.  He suggests there that “In terms of emphasis, [homosexual behavior] is a minor concern—in contrast, for example, to economic injustice.”

Hays goes on to argue for a traditional view of the question; but it seems this is a point where his methodology betrays him into misconstruing the text.  It may be the case that the importance of a respective issue could be determined by counting up the number of verses where it is mentioned explicitly.  But for someone with an otherwise incredibly sophisticated way of reading Scripture, that approach seems far too blunt.  That humans are created in the “image of God” is not a claim that fills many verses in the Bible; its importance for Christian theological reflection far exceeds its frequency.

What sort of background we compare those six verses to will determine what sort of distortion our inquiry into the subject will suffer from.  It is probably true that conservatives have overemphasized those six verses.  But the most problematic distortion is not simply that they have not talked enough about money, but that they have not properly located those six verses within the more fundamental moments of Scripture’s teaching about humanity:  creation and redemption.  Without that backdrop, any sort of moral proclamation about homosexual behavior takes on an exclusively negative character and fails both to offer the word of hope within the moral analysis and to lay bare the reasons beneath such a prohibition.

But if that is right, it may turn out that gay or lesbian behavior is much more than a “minor concern.”  If those six negative judgments—if they are negative judgments on today’s practices—are the exegetical tips of a theological iceberg, then the authors of Scripture may have few reasons to keep stacking such judgments on top of themselves, as the logic of the entire text would move against it.  A community steeped in that logic might need stronger denunciations of certain practices around money, as money is a universal phenomenon that pervades a community.  But while homosexuality is obviously of incredible importance to those who experience same-sex attraction, it does not draw everyone within a community into its orbit the way financial practices do.  But if this is right, then Scripture’s lack of explicit attention to the phenomenon might be an indication that it emerges into the open when the narrative of Scripture has lost its grip on a community.

It’s not clear that a community would have to be strictly a religious community for that to be the case:  it’s indisputable that the Bible has had a pervasive impact on Western society, and the decline in biblical literacy culturally has coincided with the rise in the public sanctioning of same-sex sexual activity and gay rights.  Is it anything more than a correlation?  The causal links may become intelligible if we could grasp the deeper connection between the logic of Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality and its purported negative judgments about homosexuality.

I put this forward by way of an exploratory hypothesis: the above may not hold up upon reconsideration of the texts themselves.  But it is worth bearing in mind, as it highlights the ways in which our exegetical starting points have a considerable influence on how we frame this particular moral question.

Where ought we begin, then, in considering the questions of gay marriage?  My own inclination is to follow the path that Jesus points toward in Matthew 19, and that Paul follows in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:  the Genesis account.  This pathway has the advantage of being uncompromisingly Biblical and, if you like drawing sharp lines between Jesus and Paul, of being sanctioned by the “red letters” too.  But it also takes us straight to the heart of the matter in such a way that orients our attention away from the negative proposition about same-sex sexual relations toward the particular goodness of heterosexual sexual relations.  Whether that good is exclusively limited to heterosexual unions is a separate question, as is whether discerning it would definitively answer the question of gay marriage.  But neither of those can properly be answered until we first get a grasp on why marriage matters within Genesis to begin with.

It’s also important to note that this sort of exegetical strategy doesn’t stem from any sort of “embarrassment” about the prohibitions in Leviticus because of what we might call the “reductio ad slavery”:  Leviticus prohibits same-sex relationships, but slavery gets endorsed, which means Scripture clearly can’t be trusted.  Sometimes “shellfish” get tossed about, too, since Leviticus ostensibly doesn’t allow them.  But following Jesus behind Leviticus to the norms of human sexuality within Genesis shows just how empty that argument is.

The reasoning is relatively straightforward.  On the traditional reading of the Genesis account—which we will have reason to question—male-female relationships are revealed as normative.  Yet the aforementioned notion that humans are made in the “image of God” makes an appearance as well. What that means is a contest of its own. But the most dominant readings in the Christian tradition start with a shared and equal responsibility before God for all who share that image.  In light of such a fundamental equality, slavery begins to look like the sinful perversion that it is.  There may have been certain compromises to it as an institution within Leviticus, for a variety of reasons and qualified in important ways.  But as Jesus points out in Matthew 19, Moses made compromises on divorce law, too.  Does such a compromise undermine the norm of permanence for traditional Christians’ account of marriage?   Clearly not.  In fact, it is only recognizable as a compromise when people have grasped the norm in such a way that they are able to see the disparity.

But reaching back into Genesis may also have the effect of calling into question the importance of the distinctions between gay and lesbian practices then and now.  The most popular way around those prohibitions has been to say that the New Testament knows nothing of permanent, stable, monogamous gay or lesbian relationships and that its prohibitions don’t apply.  Whatever we make of that argument, it doesn’t matter much for a theological stance toward homosexuality that takes its cues from the account in creation.  If the prohibitionary norms (do not [x]) are themselves tied to and derived from the goods that Scripture purportedly presents as marking off heterosexual relationships, then the quality of those gay or lesbian relationships doesn’t determine their licitness according to Scripture.

That last point, though, needs clarification:  the appeal to Genesis is a doctrinal appeal that isn’t itself derived from anyone’s experiences.  The norms are instead implicit within and grasped within that particular story, that construal of how the world is.  That story establishes the norms for everyone’s relationships; it is the backdrop against which evaluation of our own choices, affections, and thoughts happen.

Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience” (broadly construed at the moment so as to include both personal anecdotes and social scientific evidence) might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.  But the logic of any appeal to Genesis for norms at least initially pushes people’s experiences to the margins, for it is an appeal to a form of relationship that exists before sin enters the world and hence a form of relationship that is necessarily unlike our own.

Such are the limits of appealing to Genesis, though, limits which mean that our understanding of its meaning for today is necessarily incomplete unless we also reflect upon the other pole of Christian theology, the redemptive work of Jesus.  These two loci are not competing:  they are mutually complementary, such that neither can be properly grasped without the other.  Creation is the context wherein the meaning of redemption is grasped; redemption clarifies, restores, and deepens the goodness of the original creation.  Without any integrating both poles of reflection, any account of human sexuality will necessarily be stunted.

Of course, none of this gets us to the actual question of what Genesis 1-3 says about the goods and norms of human sexual relationships.  Instead, it only argues for why we should choose this as a starting point and its limitations.  I’ll turn to that substantive question next time.

The Questions of Gay Marriage: An Inquiring Essay, Part One

What should we make of marriage?  Or should we perhaps frame the question differently?  Should we instead take up what marriage makes of us, and so consider ourselves as fundamentally responsive to it rather than creative?  Why does a particular form of relationship deserve the special treatment we afford it?  In what way does the structure of marriage inform a particular life and its prospects?

These questions are perennially interesting and they entangle us all.  Gay, straight, single, married, the childless and parents—even those who permanently deny themselves marriage are, through their negation, shaped by it.  As an institution, marriage provides a unique point of access into the structure of reality.  And of all the subjects we might possibly take up in this world, few bring together the cluster of personal desires, society, law, tradition, history, theology the way this one does (along with many other strands, no doubt).  The sheer collision of the complexity of the issues and their fundamental importance makes the subject an endlessly fertile source for inquiry and understanding.

But my interest in such questions is unremittingly personal as well.  I was not always the happily married man I am today, and my path into this status was anything but smooth.  My adult life began with a romance that ended  badly.  I found myself not so unlike Dante in the opening of his Infernolost in a wood, “the right road was wholly lost and gone.”  Like many young evangelicals, I had known that I was supposed to be headed toward marriage.  I simply did not know why or how to get there.  It was only through the exploration and inquiry that the crisis precipitated that I slowly found out the “marriage” to which I had been headed was not much of a thing at all.

I have not lost that original interest in understanding the meaning of marriage or its peculiar goodness, even while our society has been beset by a sharp controversy over its legal and political dimensions. Over the past decade, the gay marriage controversy has intensified into a social conflict between two warring factions, who have taken their arguments everywhere from the Supreme Court to Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A.  The concurrent rise of social media has made the conflict feel even more totalizing, as it became harder to avoid seeing friends and neighbours locked in interminable discussions about it.

All this has had a considerable effect on younger evangelicals, even if the transformations may have been more subtle than the blunt instruments of “yes or no” polls might allow.  Many younger evangelicals with conservative theological positions no longer support the state’s recognition of traditional marriage.  The percentage who does is still disproportionately large, but even so the atmosphere has shifted.  Institutional bellweathers of young evangelical opinion like Relevant and Q have barely even addressed the subject the past five years. Many prominent young evangelical writers seem to have adopted the Louie Giglio model of never speaking of the subject at all, so as to not unnecessarily offend their audience base and embroil themselves in controversies that are not their “core issues.”  Others seem to have adopted a “strategic ambiguity” about the question, routinely chastening conservatives for approaching the subject badly without necessarily taking up the task of finding substantive remedies themselves.

The broader cultural shift is not only having its effect on young evangelicals’ political positions, though.  Many young evangelicals are losing confidence in traditionally Christian statements about sexual ethics, including those pertaining to homosexuality and masturbation.  Continue reading

Don’t Try the Same Marriage Debate Again

If at first you don’t succeed, you should change your approach. Despite how the Supreme Court rules on Windsor, marriage advocates have been losing cultural headway, particularly among “Millennials,” since 2004. While a legal fight defending religious freedom and liberty of conscience in a post Windsor world is necessary, marriage advocates need to do more than fight rearguard actions. The question is how?

Marriage advocacy must advance in a way that influences culture directly. Influencing culture is more than a matter of rational argument and policy discussion. Better arguments from natural law, while essential and helpful, are unlikely to turn the tide of opinion because people are not convinced rationally in the first place (despite what marriage revisionists may suggest with a “bring it on” posture, begging conservatives to give them “one rational” argument to defend what they believe). Television, songs, friends, and personal experience shape what people believe about love and marriage far more than intellectual argumentation. In short, unconscious influences shape culture in the form of social and personal narratives and emotion. Defending marriage in the long-run is less about winning a debate than changing people’s aspirations.

Same Sex Marriage

Marriage revisionists understand this all too well, and are reaping the benefits of having spent years building up emotional and rhetorical advantages on the issue.

Yet some conservatives seem to operate with rationalist expectations for how people process emotionally charged issues like redefining marriage. The problem is not: “How can we marshal more facts, tighter logic, and make more sense than the other side?” The common sense definition of marriage as a heterosexual union that Christians and other marriage advocates relied on just a generation ago has been transformed. The problem is: “How do we transform common sense?”

The John Jay Institute published You’ve Been Framed: A New Primer for the Marriage Debate last week. The document applies research from cognitive science and narrative theory to equip marriage advocates with the frameworks and tools to transform common sense and counter the messages of marriage revisionists. Transforming common sense requires understanding emotion to invoke narratives and tell stories with new metaphors and memes that take root in people’s minds, slowly changing what inspires them, changing what they aspire to, and transforming what they value.

Moral judgment is more than a dispassionate assessment of rights, harms, and justice. Continue reading

Think Like Progressives: Marriage and the Pro-Life Movement

Faced with declining social and political support for traditional marriage, conservative evangelicals have started wrestling with the possibility that the time has come to let go of their opposition to gay marriage.  It’s forever-ago in internet time, but I was asked to address the question last year at the evangelical Leadership JournalSomewhat more recently, the brilliant Tim Dalyrmple took up the question in his pointedly titled post “Is it time for evangelicals to stop opposing gay marriage?”  The discussion has only picked up steam since then.

For politically conservative Christians, it’s somewhat dispiriting that the question is even being asked. This isn’t the healthy, robust self-criticism of a flourishing movement. The question is oriented toward negotiating the terms of “surrender,” so to speak, on grounds that it will be the only way to keep a “seat at the table” long term.  If anything, that so many people are seriously considering such a strategy means that the evangelical pro-marriage movement is already over and now we’re all circling to preserve what scraps we can.

I understand the impulse, of course, to take up the inquiry. The demographic case for the future of marriage looks bleak.  Even while many people are still willing to tell a pollster they’ll support traditional marriage and even pull the lever in a voting booth for it, young people are clearly moving in a different direction.  Anxieties about marriage’s future are not groundless.

Cover of "The Case for Marriage: Why Marr...

Cover via Amazon

Even so, the question is one that I have no opinion on other than that it is the wrong question altogether. The way conservative evangelicals frame this moment will determine not only how we proceed in the future, but is determined by what we have done in the past.  And in that sense, the question of whether we should continue to defend traditional marriage signifies a fundamental weakness in the evangelical attitude about marriage and culture.

The Wrong Messages from the Right Parallel

Over the past few years, evangelical conservatives engaged in the public debate about marriage have pointed to the pro-life’s success in shifting attitudes for comfort. One of the best examples of this was my friends Andrew Walker and Ryan Anderson’s analysis at National Review.  Given that the public’s mindset has shifted on abortion, the argument goes, then we should learn its lessons and maintain a similar sort of optimistic resolve.

There is something to the point. Christians are never to be taken by either fatalism or despair; the course of history never did run smooth.  It is possible that what is celebrated in one generation is laughed at by the next. The falseness of fatalism that stands beneath the “wrong side of history” claim stands beneath the temptation to despair as well.

But it is important to learn the right lessons from the pro-life movement and on this point I am not convinced that we have. The differences between the issues are considerable. For one, the pro-life movement has been helped by the advent of ultrasound technologies, while the steady decoupling of sex and procreation by techniques like sperm donation and IVF have weakened the link between heterosesual marriage and biological childbirth. What’s more, Hollywood has by and large demonstrated something of an aversion to presenting abortion in a positive light—there seems to be some intuitive appeal to the idea that a mother keeping a child is a noble sacrifice and a better story—but on homosexuality has clearly taken a different approach.  And the “harm argument” by pro-lifers has a good deal more persuasive force than the somewhat more nebulous, further removed case of the marriage movement. “Babies are killed in the womb” is an easier claim to defend than the institutional erosion argument that marriage advocates must make.

Perhaps more importantly, though, from a political and social standpoint the central difference between the two is that the pro-life case has gone forward within a progressive social temperament while evangelicals have largely framed their support of marriage in terms of “defense” and “conservatism”—which Jon Shields points out in his excellent book The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. The pro-life movement is not attempting to protect an institution so much as subvert and replace one. They have developed networks of care and support for pregnant mothers to provide alternative means of support for those in danger of choosing abortion. And as Shields notes, many of their most effective grassroots efforts to persuade others have emphasized tone and presentation beside the effectiveness of their arguments.  Even the energy around the legal strategy has had a progressive bent:  the sense of disenfranchisement created by Roe versus Wade motivated activists to overturn the fundamental injustices within our legal code, rather than more deeply inscribing the status quo.[1]

On marriage, though, evangelicals have mostly thought in conservative and defensive terms.  When the marriage movement started, the immediate cause was undermining the no-fault divorce regime. The first book I read on marriage policy, Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite’s influential The Case for Marriage, barely mentioned gay marriage. But when that question came to the forefront, the marriage movement seemed to lose its progressive edge.  Rather than replacing unjust laws, marriage advocates instead focused on further entrenching in American law the traditional definition of marriage while expanding the social benefits that go along with it. The law may be a tutor, but it is not strong enough to stitch back together a fraying social fabric.

Unless the pro-marriage movement takes on a progressive mentality and orients itself around pursuing social and legal changes rather than reinscribing and holding on to a particular order, then the pro-life parallel simply will not hold. It is difficult these days to win support for a position simply on grounds that it is true. The truth must be made urgent and, it seems, made clear over and against a sense of fundamental injustices.

The Wrong Question

Should evangelicals continue to defend traditional marriage?  Continue reading

The Gay Marriage Debate: Tactical Withdrawal or a New Paradigm?

After two very lengthy overviews of the recent blogosphere debates on natural law and gay marriage (see here and here), I am at last going to offer some of my own thoughts and constructive proposals for the debate.  Of course, such postponement as I have here twice indulged in runs the risk of generating too much anticipation for the promised “constructive proposals.”  I fear that if you are expecting any brilliant new solutions to our current quandaries of cultural engagement, or a breakthrough synthesis on the subject of natural law, you will be sorely disappointed.  My aim in this post will remain quite modest, summarizing and developing what I take to be the most helpful proposals made by others and reiterating some points that are perhaps just good common sense.  I lay no claim to originality in what follows.

A Tactical Withdrawal?

In surveying the recent debate, I have suggested that one can dispute the “retreat to commitment” of those prepared to forfeit the claims of the natural law tradition while conceding that they are by and large correct in their diagnosis of its impotence as a contribution to contemporary political debate—on issues such as gay marriage, at any rate.  Does this mean that we ought, while not permanently surrendering the field, to contemplate a tactical withdrawal from the public debate?  After all, the handwriting is on the wall, isn’t it?  The gay marriage agenda, most of our commentators seem to concede, will win the day in the near future, and given that most of our arguments against it seem unintelligible to the wider society, perhaps we might as well conserve our political capital by quieting down on this question and living to fight another day.  I understand those who would reach such a conclusion, and although Christians are always responsible to bear witness against the sins of their societies, it does not follow that they need always be actively agitating on every issue of moral concern to them.  Conservative Christians in the far more secularized societies of Western Europe have learned the need to choose their battles carefully, and perhaps we have reached the point in America where evangelicals have spent so much of their political capital that we must be similarly judicious in the future.

Wedding ringsIndeed, there are several reasons to contemplate such a withdrawal.  For one, perhaps we need to get the log out of our own eye first.  Greg Forster rightly observes that within many evangelical churches today, the favorite accusation of “homophobia” often sticks.  For all our rhetoric of “hating the sin and loving the sinner,” many among us have trouble getting beyond an “Ick!” response to homosexuality, and many evangelical leaders persist in using “sodomy” as the only category for describing and understanding homosexuals.  The very concept of a “gay Christian” is often met with incredulity and contempt.  Until we in evangelical churches can learn to show authentic love and hospitality to those of homosexual orientation, we will be unable to convincingly rebut the charges of Pharisaism that our opponents in the gay marriage debate will throw at us.

For another, we often forget that the crafting of a pluralist and liberal political order was in large part the creation of Christian statesmanship.  Perhaps some of us will want to contest some of the moves in political theology that have been made in the past several centuries that have given us the current arrangement, but if we really want to challenge the liberal order, we’re going to have to be a lot more thoughtful and thoroughgoing than most of us are prepared to be; most of us remain quite happy to benefit from many of the fruits of pluralism.  That being the case, we should remember that our current political order often requires us to learn to co-exist with practices we find repugnant.  If same-sex marriage becomes established law, we will have to learn the exercise of the political virtue of toleration, so we may as well start learning now.  Coexistence, it bears emphasizing, does not require condonement; toleration does not require apathy.  Is is a painful and difficult discipline to hold together conviction and forbearance, but this is a tension we are increasingly called upon to navigate.  Such a posture requires patience, a sense of the penultimacy of the political and a confidence in the lordship of Christ that can accept the loss of a battle today in the knowledge that one is on what will finally be the winning side.

Withdrawal from the current debate also appears attractive because of the unfortunate corner into which we seem to have backed ourselves.  Christians are increasingly seen as the “No” people, the killjoys, the people whose only contribution to public debate is to tell everyone what they can’t do.  This is often undeserved, the inevitable reacting that any normative standards will receive in a libertarian society, but sometimes we bring it upon ourselves.  Any critique of same-sex marriage belongs only in the context of  rich positive Christian vision of sexuality and marriage, and one might reasonably suggest that evangelicals need to take some time off from the political conflict in order to dedicate ourselves to developing such a positive vision.

 

Such a tactical withdrawal, however, cannot be quite as complete as all that.  Continue reading

The Late Great Natural Law Debate: Synopses and Reflections, Pt. 2

Last week, I sought to offer an extended summary, with a few reflections of my own, on the barrage of posts and counter-posts prompted by David Bentley Hart’s “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.”  Although Hart’s essay had addressed the problem of natural law’s persuasiveness generally, the particular context for it was of course the debates over gay marriage, and when Peter Leithart reflected at First Things on the gay marriage problem specifically, it touched off what could be considered a second round of the natural law debate.  I have reserved consideration of that second round to this installment, which Matt Anderson has graciously invited me to post here.

In Part I, I worked to distinguish the pragmatic and the principled arguments against natural law, which had been mixed together in some of the discussions.  The first, while not disputing the formal validity of natural law arguments, worried that they simply would not gain any traction in our current culture, and so should be set aside.  The second deduced from the present ineffectiveness of natural law that it was not formally valid in any time and place, and we must resort to specifically theological arguments.  However, as I arrived at the conclusion of Part I, I pointed out that the pragmatic and the principled are not quite so easy to separate.  For if, in point of fact, natural law is valid, but our culture cannot see it as such, that means our culture is willfully blind or irrational.  And if we are to say that, are we not left with a condition of incommensurable beliefs and resulting culture war, part of the problem that the turn to natural law among contemporary evangelicals was meant to address?  Instead of telling our opponents, “You couldn’t possibly understand because you don’t know God,” we’re reduced to telling them, “You couldn’t possibly understand because you’re irrational,” which is, if anything, even more insulting.  In either case, we’re left with no real means of rationally persuading the opposition, and with quite considerable challenges to living together peacefully in a pluralist society.  I promised at the end of that post to work to “explore and perhaps even address these questions” in this second installment.  Whether I get beyond “exploring” at all remains doubtful, but let’s begin by briefly considering Leithart’s First Things post that kicked all this off.

Leithart’s starting point was not the failure of natural law arguments against gay marriage, but of biblical arguments, as observed in a recent debate on the subject between Doug Wilson and Andrew Sullivan.  Wilson’s arguments, said Leithart, were predominantly pragmatic, attempting to demonstrate the negative consequences of gay marriage, or else Biblical.  Sullivan considered the former unconvincing, the latter frankly irrelevant.  To be sure, Wilson sought to emphasize not the negative prohibitions of Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, but its positive vision of the genders and marriage, and the rich Biblical typology surrounding these themes.  Nonetheless, “in order for that to carry any weight,” observed Leithart, “people have to be convinced that social institutions should participate in and reflect some sort of cosmic order. Who believes that these days? Wilson tells a cute story, many will say, but what does it have to do with public policy?”

To anyone familiar with the recent discussions, it might appear that Leithart is headed at this point toward an endorsement of more robust, natural-law arguments on the subject, but instead, he throws up his hands in resignation: “Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish.”  Our only hope, he concludes, lies in “a renaissance of Christian imagination.  Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.”

Writing at The Calvinist International, Alastair Roberts expressed incredulity over this “loss of nerve”: Continue reading