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.

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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

What We Talk about When We Talk about Marriage: A Guest Post by Daniel Darling

This is a guest post by Daniel Darling, who is a pastor and author in the Chicago area. You can check out his blog here and follow him on Twitter.  

So we are here at a place where gay marriage is becoming inevitable. In less than a decade, the roles have reversed and it is traditional marriage that is on the defensive and gay marriage that is considered, even by some evangelicals, to be common sense.

How did we get here and what should conservative evangelicals think on these things? I am by no means the last word, but I offer five thoughts:

Gay marriage is hard to oppose in a country built on rights. Conservatives often champion the Judeo-Christian heritage that guided the Founders. And yet the overwhelming sentiment that led to the American Revolution was the idea of freedom and liberty. The idea that “all men are created equal” has served as the basis of our country’s most pitched battles. Advocates have always appealed to this charter to fight for the rights of those they consider marginalized. For conservatives, the Declaration is often a starting point for arguing that the unborn has the God-given right to life.

We are a nation that prizes our rights. And so when conservative Christians make the argument that homosexuals have no right to marry, they butt up against a very powerful force. I would argue that morality and Christian conscience are necessary to preserve freedom and that the family unit is essential to a robust democracy, but these are clumsier arguments to make in the public square.  All people hear is that we want to take away the rights of people who love each other. In America, the freedom argument typically wins. Ironically, it will now be conservatives who must adopt the language of liberty to defend the right of conscience.

The image of marriage has been shattered by the practice of heterosexuals. I think the argument, “heterosexuals have messed up marriage, therefore their case is not credible” has logical fallacies. Our inability to hold up a better vision of one man-one woman union does not mean the idea is wrong; it simply means we’ve imperfectly modeled it. Imagine if we said this about fighting poverty. We’ve been trying to feed the hungry for decades now. Maybe we should just give up on that. You can imagine the outrage.

That said, evangelicals are at best clumsy messengers of the marriage model. We’ve said that traditional marriage is the best institution for human flourishing and yet we’ve often acted as if we really don’t believe this. Statistically, evangelicals have better, happier marriages, but we could do better. We’re often guilty of condemning the different sins of others (homosexuality) while condoning our own (adultery, divorce).

Now that we’re headed toward a culture that no longer affirms traditional marriage, I think the best defense of the institution may be to invest our best resources into affirming and modeling the beautiful, biblical vision of marriage. The church is to be a called out community, a glimpse of an alternative kingdom whose values are attractive to the larger culture.

The conservative movement has often confused courage with civility. There are robust, intellectual, substantive arguments to made in defense of the institution of marriage. Unfortunately, the conservative movement today seems dominated by the unserious and outrageous. When CPAC invites candidates such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump rather than serious intellectuals, it reflects a wider problem among Christian conservative activism: that we’re more reliant on the cheap shot, the one-liner, the search for a conspiracy than we are on theological and intellectual arguments. I consider myself a conservative and yet I find myself cringing at much of the stuff that passes for conservatism these days. We have convinced ourselves that courage and civility cannot coexist. We defend absolute truth and yet pass along every invalid rumor about our political opponents.

There is a valid argument to be made in defense of marriage and the family and there exist worthy institutions such as First Things and The City and our very own Mere Orthodoxy.  To regain it’s voice, conservatism needs to feature clear-thinking voices like Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Thomas Sowell, Andrew Walker, Eric Teetsel, and others. Even as we push back against a rising cultural tide against traditional marriage, we need to speak clearly and with compassion and civility. We need to remember that we’re not just talking abstract policies, but about the lives of real people. And a little humility wouldn’t be bad, either.

Evangelicals are often obsessed with their image. To live out the gospel takes courage and the willingness to die to our desire to be well liked. This, for many evangelicals, is a bridge too far. We should seek the favor of the culture, but it should not be the overarching core value. It’s easy to attach ourselves to causes for which there is no significant cultural objection, but the test of our faith is our willingness to hold to truth even when it is unpopular and may cause us social persecution. In our race to defend the Christian “brand”, to identify as “not one of those kinds of Christians,” we must make sure we are not actually give up Christ himself. Let’s remember that Jesus played everything perfectly and they killed him. This is not an argument for incivility or unnecessary provocation. It’s an argument for courage, for the willingness to speak light into darkness, to take the hits that come from being a follower of Jesus. We can do this and still demonstrate love for those with whom we disagree. This tension is evident throughout the New Testament.

We need to reject fear and present a beautiful vision. Christian conservatives have not always been the most joyful lot. We tend to gin up apocalyptic fear at every juncture, whether or not the incident is worthy of our outrage. My inbox is full, daily, of some new white-hot motivation for dread. Fear causes people to write checks and “get involved,” but over time, a steady stream of fake terror chisels away at our resolve. The mind has only so much bandwidth for fear.

But the narrative of Scripture is not one of fear, but of hope. Christians should be joyful. Christ’s resurrection promises the renewal of all things. Let’s be happy warriors, pointing the way to a better city. Let’s love our communities in a way that brings a glimpse of Heaven to earth.

Why C.S. Lewis is Wrong on Marriage

You won’t find a more apt example of an excerpt that is contradictory to an author’s broader writings than this bit from C.S. Lewis’ 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.

This argument provoked a strong response from Lewis’ friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien drafted a response to Lewis sometime in 1943 but never sent it. After Tolkien died, the letter was found folded up inside his copy of Lewis’ “Christian Behavior.” (Which, of course, would be republished as part of Mere Christianity.) The bold parts are my emphasis.

Mere Christianity

Mere Christianity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My dear L.,

I have been reading your booklet ‘Christian Behavior.” I have never felt happy about your view of Christian “policy” with regard to divorce. …

[Y]ou observe that you are really committed (with the Christian Church as a whole) to the view that Christian marriage - monogamous, permanent, rigidly “faithful” – is in fact the truth about sexual behavior for all humanity: this is the only road of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women. That it is dissonant with men’s present sex-psychology does not disprove this, as you see: “I think it is the instinct that has gone wrong,” you say. Indeed if this were not so, it would be an intolerable injustice to impose permanent monogamy even on Christians. If Christian marriage were in the last analysis “unnatural” (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special “chastity-order” of the Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is valid only for Christians…. I do not think you can possibly support your “policy,” by this argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is that this is the correct way of “running the human machine.” Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines.*

The horror of the Christians with whom you disagree (the great majority of all practicing Christians) at legal divorce is in the ultimate analysis precisely that: horror at seeing good machines ruined by misuse. I could that, if you ever get a chance of alterations, you would make the point clear. Toleration of divorce – if a Christian does tolerate it – is toleration of a human abuse, which it requires special local and temporary circumstances to justify (as does the toleration of usury) – if indeed either divorce or genuine usury should be tolerated at all, as a matter of expedient policy.

Under your limitations of space you have not, of course, had opportunity to elaborate your “policy” – toleration of abuse…. A Christian of your view is, as we have seen, committed to the belief that all people who practice “divorce” – certainly divorce as it is now legalized – are misusing the human machine (whatever philosophical defense they may put up), as certainly as men who get drunk (doubtless with a philosophic defense also). They are injuring themselves, other people, and society, by their behavior. And wrong behavior (if it is really wrong on universal principles) is progressive, always: it never stops at being “not very good,” “second best” – it either reforms, or goes on to third-rate, bad, abominable.

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.

Tolkien understood the stakes. The debate strikes at the heart of what it means to confess that the Christian faith is “true.” As Tolkien wrote, no article of Christian morality is intended exclusively for Christians. Rather, the faith teaches us that submitting to the laws of our creator is the surest way to live reconciled lives with his creation. This is what we ought to mean when we say Christianity is true. We don’t simply mean that it provides factually accurate information about the world or that it offers an authentic path to spiritual fulfillment for those who choose to follow it. We mean that Christianity gives an accurate accounting of the world in its fullness and that it instructs us in how we ought to relate to the world. Continue reading

Marriage & My Common Good

“The greatest political storm flutters only a fringe of humanity. But an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children literally alter the destiny of nations.” –G. K. Chesterton

I’ve recently returned from celebrating my wife’s grandparent’s 6oth wedding anniversary. Their marriage has been a picture of permanence, exclusivity, and joy.

My Granny and Gramps have three children, of which two are married. In total, they have four grandchildren. Three of the four grandchildren are now married. Two of the grandchildren have children of their own, thus making Granny and Gramps great-grandparents. From two persons, their marriage has resulted in no less than five marriages. The marriage of Granny and Gramps has, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “altered the destiny of nations” because theirs is a union that results in a good that will outlast the marital relationship itself. The “good” I speak of, of course, is the stabilization and continuation of civil society. Society is little more than the mass aggregate that results from two persons duplicating conjugal relationships over and over.

As we sat around for a time of family worship on Sunday evening, it struck me that what I was witnessing was not merely a time of worship, but also a manifestation of the “common good.” I looked around and saw not only a group of atomized individuals, but a large family, and smaller groupings of separate families. One initial family spawned more families. And so on. It’s in this “common good” that I find the greatest apologetic for traditional marriage: The stability offered by the marriage of Granny and Gramps has resulted in marriages that, because of the model presented to their children during childhood, are themselves stable and mirroring the ideals of permanence, exclusivity, and the production of children. Stable marriages produce, typically, stable children. Stable children grow to participate in more stable societies. This is what we call human flourishing. It’s neither abstract nor difficult to embody. It’s as simple as what results from two individuals who loved each other and understood that the well being of their children mattered more than self-fulfillment.

So what’s the point?

Government has a compelling interest in promoting, protecting, incentivizing and validating relationships like that of Granny and Gramp’s because relationships like theirs secures the continuation and well being of the body politic. The United States government is dependent upon Granny and Gramps, not the other way around. 

If individuals reproduced asexually, marriage as an institution would not exist. People could collaborate, but there would be no innate incentive to restrict relationships around the concepts of permanence and exclusivity since the relationship lacks any form of permanent attachment or produced “good” between the two peoples. Marriage exists because the sexual union between two persons can (and often does) produce children. Children need protected and the resultant child forms a necessary attachment between the individuals involved in a conjugal act.

Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned same-sex marriage, and I regret that I have to. I tire of the debate. You could have read this without same-sex marriage ever crossing through your frontal lobes. But I must mention it because the attempt to redefine the essence of marriage is a subtle, yet pernicious distortion about reality. My goal has been, instead, to highlight the essence of marriage that cannot be mimicked apart from sexual complementarity: The production and rearing of children.

The marriage debates often take on highly philosophical arguments. It doesn’t have to be so. On  a Sunday evening in mid-June, an act of marriage demonstrated a societal good. Thirteen people, I realized, owed either their lives or their marital bond to an act that occurred sixty years ago and which continues to occur up to present day. Same-sex couples cannot—by their very essence—recreate what I encountered on Sunday night. Same-sex couples can practice permanence and exclusivity, but they cannot by any biological act produce children. Same-sex couples are by definition childless. If marriage is a societal act that promises the continuation of society, any arrangement or sexual relationship that is childless cannot be societal in a foundational way.

I don’t want to devolve this essay into why same-sex unions are inferior to traditional marriage. It’s not, I’d argue, that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples in feelings or devotion. It’s that government has no compelling interest to oversee or protect relationships that do not outlast the relationship itself. Same-sex couples exist in a relational vacuum that cannot, by definition, perpetuate its existence. None of this is written to suggest that same-sex couples ought not to have the right to be together nor live together, nor be happy. It’s to suggest that the same-sex relationship cannot ever be an actual marriage. For if Chesterton is right, same-sex relationships produce no nations to alter.

A Word of Caution on the Same-Sex Marriage Debates

Oliver O’Donovan:

The old conservative aspiration to recover the jewel of minimal government out of the ashes of conflagration is 'Religious tolerance and acceptance' photo (c) 2011, Quinn Dombrowski - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/delusive. A government will find agreement wherever it can, and will enforce it by all such measures as it can summon to the aid of social stability.

I am not among those who twit liberals with being tolerant of everything except dissent from liberal principles, as though that were some kind of inconsistency. Some intolerance is an essential condition of a liberal society, as of any society. Very few societies, in fact, achieve any great measure of tolerance.

If a liberal society has made up its mind to tolerate certain disagreements that have not been tolerated hitherto, it will be involved in a huge moral outlay simply to reach that position, and it will need to balance the budget—by the ruthless persecution of those who dissent from the terms on which toleration has been achieved. Social stability is enforced the more relentlessly the more endangered it appears.

O’Donovan doesn’t make the point in the context of marriage, gay or otherwise, but it seems like a wise caution for everyone involved in the discussion.  Among the many questions within the same-sex marriage debates, that of the terms on which the social changes are sought–and argued against–are among the most important.

It is possible to argue for a social good on terms that are themselves problematic.  Whether both sides have done that is an open question, but an open question that deserves serious consideration.