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.

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  • http://servantsofgrace.org/ Dave Jenkins

    Fantastic piece Dan!

  • http://twitter.com/chrishorst Chris Horst

    Terrific thoughts, Dan. You artfully challenged and propelled me to balance courage, civility and compassion amidst these often contentious issues. I needed these words today.

  • Justin Hume

    What statistics? I could really use them, as I am discussing evangelical marriages with a materialist friend of mine and they say that the stats show Evangelical marriages are far worse than their Jewish and atheist counterparts. Of course, that doesn’t take nominal Christianity into account.

  • Joe_R6

    Quote: I think the argument, “heterosexuals have messed up marriage, therefore their case is not credible” has logical fallacies.

    True. But very few people live by logic alone.

    Christian heterosexuals have failed to honor the original definition of marriage. Like everyone else today they marry for sentimental/consumerist reasons. When the romantic love is exhausted or the married couple no longer share the same values (irreconcilable differences) they separate and seek out another partner. They have gone with the flow of the surrounding (humanistic) culture but snap back into Christian mode when the rest of society acknowledges that same-sex couples can do “marriage” if marriage means falling in love with someone and sharing a life together for as long as the love lasts.

    It is also worth noting that the first ‘out’ generation of gays in the 1960/70s didn’t demand “marriage equality”. At that time they recognised a significant difference between straight relationships and gay relationships – that straights married and stayed together because of children. That’s no longer the case – or there are so many (straight) exceptions to the rule that insisting the old definition stills holds sounds like mean-spirited pedantry. Gays can no longer accept that their reasons for forming or maintaining relationships are so different from straight couples to warrant excluding them from this modern day version of “marriage”. Lots of straight people now agree with them.

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    Appreciate the tension that you highlight between a Christian understanding of marriage and the American concept of “rights.” So often we talk of saving Christianity from the American Dream when we really have no idea what we’re facing. Suburbia isn’t the threat; it’s believing that Christ’s kingdom operates like the American government. Also, it is ironic to me that progressives routinely criticize American individualism while using it as their cornerstone argument for supporting gay marriage

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I agree with most of this, but I also agree with Joe that logic doesn’t win arguments like this.

    Also I do want to note that there are a good number of people that argue that we should stop funding anti-poverty programs because there are still poor people. Some of them are serious arguments about the way we fund anti-poverty programs, but many of them are just arguing what you say no one will argue. And virtually all of them are conservatives that are also against gay marriage.

    I think your fourth point needs more development. The fact that Sarah Palin and Trump are on the platform at all doesn’t mean that they are bad people or shouldn’t be spokespeople. But the type of arguments that they make against health care reform or supporting birtherism says something about the party as a whole. You cannot complain about their types of arguments in one area and ignore those same types of arguments in another area. I am not saying that Democrats are not doing the same thing in other areas. But ridiculous arguments exists and should be addressed internally.