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

April 11th, 2013 | 16 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

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. 

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Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founder and president emeritus of the Davenant Institute. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife and four children.