John Schwenkler argues from a conservative Christian standpoint that resisting homosexual marriage does more harm than good:

What are the realities that make this so? They stem, I think, from the fact that in a society like ours, where the common understanding of marriage has been thoroughly contractualized and that of sexuality profaned, any political measures that treat some sorts of monogamously sexual relationships between consenting adults in different terms than they treat others are going to be perceived by a considerable portion of the population as – in e.g. the terms of the challenge that Helen was responding to – bigoted, and therefore will give rise to huge amounts of (both real and felt) hostility and resentment that make for the kind of societal division and unrest that should be avoided when possible. Much as some of the more “in-your-face” tactics of agitators for homosexual privileges have ultimately set back their cause by making other segments of society feel threatened in ways that they frankly are not, religious and traditional conservatives who persist in their refusal to recognize the civic legitimacy of same-sex marriage in this particular culture and at this particular time cannot but give rise to the (only sometimes accurate) perception that they are a group which does not only hate the sin, but despises the sinner as well. Even if – and I think this is quite a big “if” – this arrangement also has the outcome of contributing to the preservation of the traditional institution of marriage and/or discouraging immoral sexual conduct, the negative effects of the social discord it breeds seems to me easily to outweigh such benefits.

Put slightly differently and perhaps a bit more strongly, the point is that our public understandings of marriage, gender, sexuality, and the family already have changed in many of the ways Helen is worrying about (though the complementarity of gender has not gone away), and the proper conservative response to this should be to find a way to incorporate the growing public acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex unions within a set of cultural and political arrangements that recognize, and indeed “defend”, the particular goods of procreative marriage and traditional sexual mores. (Exactly what this would come to is a question for another day; suffice it to say that the rights of religious traditions to discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct should remain firmly intact.) That the state has an inescapable role to play in helping to form the moral attitudes of the citizenry and encourage certain ways of living at the expense of others seems undeniable; it cannot, however, do this effectively if it is perceived by crucial segments of the population as an alienating and unsympathetic force for repression. There are kinder, gentler ways to shape private opinion than preserving a bit of the legal code whose underlying rationale is frankly a thing of the past, and the hostilities that such laws engender should themselves be reason enough to aim for a middle way.

A critique: for one, Schwenkler fails to articulate any of the negative effects such social discord might cause, or even what makes them more undesirable than the goods of preserving traditional marriage.

Secondly, Schwenkler has, it seems, a low view of the homosexual community. Implicit in his argument is that homosexuals will inevitably be embittered against those who resist their “right” to marriage, regardless of the reason for their resistance. Hopefully, that won’t be the case: in a secular democracy, the rule of law is often shaped by the will of the people. If the only recourse of those who champion homosexual marriage is to drown out the opposition with cries of bigotry, then they have a shoddy intellectual foundation for governing indeed. I should think they can do and have done better than that.

Finally, I am skeptical that the bitterness toward Christian conservatives which exists because of our resistance to the “civic legitimacy of same-sex marriage in this particular culture and at this particular time” will cease once civic legitimacy is gained. If Schwenkler’s analysis of the homosexual community is right, and they fail to understand that bigotry is not the rationale for resisting homosexual marriage, then I do not see why they will cease to see us as bigoted once their marriages have gained civic legitimacy. The issue of sin and sinner will not go away, and while Christian conservatives have sadly (not to mention sinfully) often failed to distinguish the two, the grounds for viewing us as bigoted will remain. If resisting political homosexual marriage is bigoted and leads to social unrest, I fail to see how resisting private homosexual marriage (by not sanctioning it in our churches, youth groups, clubs, marriage counseling practices, etc.) will do any other. But the imperialist nature of homosexual marriage is precisely the religious conservatives concern.

Schwenkler anticipates the concern, but doesn’t articulate (unfortunately) how he would avoid it. I, for one, would be curious to read his thoughts.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I seem to be caught in the middle. I agree with you that granting political homosexual marriage does nothing to remove the charge of bigotry. It seems that it has only upped the stakes in Canada, and let to a massive encroachment on religious freedom and free speech. It seems, almost, that one could flip the argument around and say that giving in emboldens the “anit-bigotry” crowd even more, and that leads to efforts to stamp out the very thought that something is wrong.

    On the other hand, I do think that our culture is strongly headed in the direction of homosexual marriage for the reasons he cites. We’ve already had the breakdown of marriage that some fear this would cause. It seems as though some (not you, of course, Matt) see the political solution as a sort of “running out the clock” If we can just get that constitutional amendment before the culture passes the tipping point, then we can sit back and let the culture go where it may, confident in the knowledge that it would be difficult to repeal.

    The answer is to do the hard work of re-building the culture – beginning with the hard work of tending to our own marriages. If the Church didn’t have a 50% divorce rate and crumbling marriages, we may never have found ourselves in the present state of our culture. Right now, we’re not even convincing many heterosexuals that traditional marriage is a good idea.


  2. Matthew Lee Anderson July 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm


    I agree with the sentiment of what you said. I think the marriage crisis is very real, and I’m doing everything in my power to help Christians prevent it from growing in their ranks. If you have someone that would like to publish a book I’ve written on the topic, I’d love to speak with them. : )

    I think most conservatives who want to give up on the legal front and “retreat” (advance?) to “culture” fail to recognize the fact that laws have a causal power in society. They will not be the final determinants of how a society operates, but they will influence it. If the legal structure is such that it discourages abortions, fewer people will seek them, even in a culture of choice.


  3. I fail to see how one can still make the argument that laws impact action in a meaningful (especially when countered with the loss of liberty and foothold gov’t gains in a given area) way. As a country we have some of the most strict drug laws in the world, invest more than any other country to enforce them, and even invest in other countries in order to obtain their help enforcing our drug laws. Many of our brave soldiers who signed up to protect our liberty die in Afghanistan enforcing our drug laws. The money goes up exponentially every year. The laws get stricter every year. And yet here after 40 years of a formal War on Drugs, plus who knows how long of an informal one, we have more drug addicts and drug trafficking that Nixon could have ever dreamed of. What is your basis for thinking that the War on Gays will yield any different results?


  4. Matthew Lee Anderson July 2, 2008 at 10:17 pm


    Good question. I’d point out that you’re counterexample doesn’t prove as much as you claim. The question isn’t whether drug use still exists. The question is whether as much drug use exists now as would have had the laws not been so restrictive. The only way to reasonably answer that question is to compare drug use in the US to countries where it is permitted, and even in that comparison you’ll have to make a number of assumptions that will skew the data one way or the other (for the record, I would argue that drug use is lower in the US than, say, Netherlands–and even if it’s not, the corrosive effects there have prompted a conservative backlash that is leading to an increase in restrictions).

    In addition, Dr. Michael New has analyzed abortion rates in places where pro-life laws were enacted and compared them to places where they were not. In almost every state where such pro-life laws are enacted, there is a consistent reduction in the number of abortions. See

    You’ll have to forgive me for not having the citation handy, but there is also evidence that divorce laws have a causal effect on the number of divorces. There was a scholarly work cited (UChicago, I believe) in The Case for Marriage that argued this, I believe.

    I don’t think that culture is ONLY shaped by laws. But I think it’s a mistake to ignore the laws and focus only on culture. Because humans are communal creatures, we are law creating creatures, and the structure of the laws we create affects the way we interact. That’s my anthropology peaking through, though. The fact that we have ties to community prevents me from being an outright libertarian, though I do have many sympathies for the position.




  5. I think that it seems pretty difficult to have any formal study that finds abortions go up when the law changes, as folks don’t tend to admit to breaking the law, or even to getting an abortion in the first place. This is why Roe v. Wade was heralded by its supporters. Moving a dangerous back alley procedure into the doctors office. Not saying I agree, just that our stats on abortion from that time are largely based on guesses and hospital visits from abortions gone wrong.

    With regards to divorce, we need only look at the purpose of divorce laws to see why they are doomed to fail. If I wanted to divorce my wife it is because I have given up hope of making it better. (Being a Christian I made a decision that I would make it better no matter what.) If I am unable to get a divorce, what are my options? Which of these is really contributing to healthy marriages in our society? Anecdotaly, in the BGC church I grew up in there we several elderly woman who lived seperately from their husbands for decades, since they did not believe in divorce. Are we really improving culture this way? Or are we just making our numbers look better so the Church can feel better about itself.

    To your last point, community ties are one of the strongest arguments for the libertarian position. People naturally band together with those they are similar to. If we outlaw everything we disagree with then we constanly have angry groups of people. If people are able to do what they want within their communities (the underpinings of a position known as federalism and the basis of our early gov’t) then no one is upset. I dealt with this in more depth at in point 5 of my response to John Mark Reynolds.

    Also, the reason I jumped in on this conversation in the first place was simply to point out that the modern Republican position is not the only one a traditional Christian may have. I think the religious right have made it that you must be for the outlawing moral vices in order to be a good Christian and at the same time the religious left have said you must be for huge welfare gains and high taxes on the wealthy in order to be a good Christian. I am simply trying to say these things are political philosophy and will obviously be informed by your faith, but not dictated.

    Our disagreement is on whether the best way to stop gay and lesbian proliferation(?) and strengthen heterosexual marriage is by outlawing their marriage licenses, not how to be a good christian at the ballot box.


  6. Matthew Lee Anderson July 3, 2008 at 7:41 am


    I don’t have much time, but a few quick points.

    First, the abortion study actually compares states where restrictive laws have been enacted AFTER Roe v. Wade, not before. For instance, parental consent laws actually diminish the number of abortions. The abortion industry now is a pretty regulated industry (though not regulated enough!), so I think the data is sound.

    I don’t know what your argument about divorce proves for you. I don’t see how one situation like that means “divorce laws are doomed to fail.” In fact, there is compelling evidence (see: The Case for Marriage) that unrestrained divorce actually inhibits happiness for MARRIED people, as it creates a culture where the marriage vow is no longer permanent, which creates distrust, etc. I’d recommend you read it–it’s a pretty compelling case.

    Again, I don’t think that we should “outlaw everything we disagree with.” My position is a little more sophisticated than that, as I have tried to demonstrate numerous times here at Mere-O in the past. No need for me to rehash that now.

    Regarding your last point, I think you may have mischaracterized Reynolds’ argument. His position seems to amount to “Gay marriage isn’t actually marriage.” That’s a different argument than the one you are critiquing. Notice, nothing Reynolds says precludes the idea that California shouldn’t allow homosexuals to enter into legally sanctioned unions. It’s just not marriage (and perhaps by consequence, the state might be disposed to not allow them to, but that’s a separate argument that Reynolds doesn’t make). So I think you’re resisting arguments that neither Reynolds nor I are making. One could be a traditional Christian, think that the state has the freedom to institute gay “marriage,” while simultaneously rejecting the actual validity of the “marriage” before God. That’s roughly my position–with the added proposition that it is bad for the state to undermine traditional marriage and that such innovations should be resisted for the state’s welfare.


  7. Unfortunately, many of the opponents of gay marriage have weakened their argument by allowing the underpinnings of marriage to be compromised. I have a post regarding this issue at


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