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

April 11th, 2013 | 12 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.  Even if we wanted it to be, our culture would not be willing to let us off the hook so easily.  To the reigning libertine ethos, the harboring of private moral objections to a practice is in the end nearly as offensive as the assertion of public legal restraints on the practice.  Indeed, this is always the case with sin.  The sinner cannot rest content with mere external liberty to pursue his desires, so long as he finds himself confronted with those who, if only by their own personal purity, bear witness against his sin.  The promiscuous playboy may find intolerable the resolute chastity of his roommate, even if that roommate never says a word about his behavior.  Likewise, contemporary society is quick to declaim about how “judgmental” Christians are, particularly evangelical ones, and although many of our churches are rife with Pharisaism and lack of charity, we can be too quick sometimes to admit the force of the accusation.  For contemporary society will feel “judged” by us, no matter how silent we remain, so long as our deeds bear witness against their sin.  In other words, no matter how charitable we seek to be, no matter how non-confrontational, so long as we seek to be faithful to Christ as individuals and communities, this faithfulness will be a source of offense.  We see this already in the moves in some quarters to treat Biblical teaching on homosexuality, within a church context, as “hate speech.”

However much we might try to withdraw, then, the battle will keep coming to us.  Our mere presence in society ensures that.  If we are to cause offense anyway, then, we might as well be ready to give an explanation for it.  Perhaps, in the current climate, we should hesitate to be the ones starting the argument, but the argument will come just the same, and we need to be prepared to argue our side of it as persuasively as possible.  The recovery of a rich theology and natural law account of marriage is thus of paramount importance to us, even if we might prefer to concentrate our political efforts in other areas at present.  Moreover, it is of course oversimplistic to speak of what “the Church” should be doing in public debate, because the Church is made up of millions of people, with different gifts and different callings.  Even if we decide that the gay marriage debate should not be a priority for most of us, there will still be plenty of Christians, the Robert Georges of the world, who have been equipped to make these arguments in the contexts where they are given an opportunity to speak, to ensure that the public square is not left without a witness to once universally-held convictions, however little purchase they may seem to have on the public imagination anymore.  Indeed, Edward Feser’s point against Rod Dreher deserves emphasis here.  Inasmuch as the swelling tide of libertine secularism justifies itself with the rhetoric of pluralism, there must be some of us ready to call its bluff and insist on challenging the new orthodoxy in the public square with our troglodyte convictions, rather than permitting our adversaries the comfortable delusion that their position is just self-evident common sense.  Truth will always deserve a hearing, no matter how seemingly obsolete.

In any case, we should also realize that the battle, however much we may contemplate tactical withdrawal, remains of high strategic importance.  To the extent that evangelicals have abandoned the natural law tradition, many have come to imagine that in opposing homosexual marriage we are merely opposing some arbitrary Scriptural dictum which God insisted upon once upon a time, and which we must therefore insist upon as well.  Weary of the bruising culture wars, then, many evangelicals are thus tempted to wonder if the issue really matters that much after all.  Viewed within a more holistic understanding of natural and civic order, however, the social consequences of same-sex marriage are significant and wide-ranging.  Of course, the drive for same-sex marriage is more a symptom than a cause of disordered thinking about society, gender, and marriage, but removing the last vestiges of traditional marriage institutions will clearly accelerate the disorder.  (I highly recommend Alastair Roberts’s recent thoughts on this score.)


Rather than a tactical withdrawal then, I would suggest that a shift in tactics is largely in order.  We need better, deeper, more patient, more creative approaches to the culture war.  And one of the effects of these new approaches will be to challenge the dominant metaphor of “culture war” within which I have been operating thus far (even if the leading alternatives—words such as “engagement” and “dialogue”—are hopelessly vague and woolly).

I will very briefly outline five things that should be part of a better Christian approach to the gay marriage debate: personal engagement, deep critique, retrieval of the foundations, cultivation of the imagination, and leading by example.

1) Personal Engagement

One problem with the metaphor of “culture war” is that, particularly within the context of modern technological warfare, it implies a long-distance, impersonal mode of engagement.  We are great at writing books and blogposts on issues like gay marriage, lobbing our grenades into the public square and hoping to weaken the opposition.  Needless to say, that approach isn’t working.  Perhaps in an earlier, more literate age, when the primary means of discourse was print, such an approach could meet with limited success.  But we are fast reaching the point where most of society, formed on rapid-refresh visual media, is unable to engage with complex, linear, textual arguments.  As Alastair Roberts contended in his Calvinist International posts (here and here), it is not that “natural law arguments” in particular have failed, but that arguments of any kind have little purchase.  Few can be bothered to listen, and fewer still to listen till the end.  We will accomplish little, then, by simply adding more of the same arguments to the public debate, and if we try to gain attention by being louder or more provocative, this will hardly achieve our desired purpose.

Successful persuasion requires long conversations, and long conversations require personal, one-on-one engagement.  Needless to say, a prerequisite to such personal engagement is cultivating friendships with those who disagree, something many of us, growing up in our evangelical ghettoes, are singularly unpracticed in.  We may also be a bit nervous about it, and rightly so.  For such personal engagement puts us in a position of vulnerability, a position of having to revise our preconceptions, retract our mischaracterizations, and learn new things of our own.  Difficult or not, however, this is a discipline that we must learn if we wish to continue to live as salt and light within our world.


2) Deep critique

This theme is picking up on some of the points Peter Escalante made in his “Who Are You Calling a Modernist?” post.  Christian condemnations of the gay marriage agenda will remain ineffective so long as they remain superficial.  Our contemporary ethical confusion is not inexplicable blindness, but the contingent result of ideological currents within the past couple centuries, currents in which many of us Christians have been complicit.  It’s beyond clichéd to blame everything on capitalism, but if we want to bewail the collapse of the family, and the fragmentation of society into a war of monadic, self-interested actors, then we will need to attend to the new patterns of economic production and distribution that helped initiate that dissolution of traditional structures, and that deprived the discourse of the “natural order” of most of its persuasive force.  Likewise, if we want to complain about the sacrifice of public institutions and a concept of the common good to the insatiable demands of individual rights, then we had best start our critique with the libertarian climate of possessive, laissez-faire individualism that dominates so much of our political rhetoric, especially on the Right.  In fact, however, it has often been the case that the voices that are loudest in their denunciation of the “gay rights agenda” have also been those most likely to ostracize any attempting to mount such a “deep critique” of cherished right-wing values.


3) Retrieving foundations

Several of the essays I looked at in the two-part survey prior to this post emphasised that, if our society no longer understands the natural law, this is hardly an excuse for abandoning the concept.  On the contrary, we must embark on the long and grueling task of re-educating contemporaries (starting within the Church) on the building blocks of the Christian philosophical and political tradition, and on the basics of how to construct, advance, and digest a rational argument.  This will be a very long-term endeavour, but without it, any triumphs we do gain in public debate are sure to be short-lived.  Of course, Peter Leithart is equally correct that we need a revival of biblical literacy within our churches.  If our critique of same-sex marriage is supposed to proceed from a rich positive vision of marriage and sexuality, then we must work to regain the biblical understanding necessary to perceive and re-present that vision.


4) Cultivation of the imagination

Peter Leithart is also right in his contention that we need a “renaissance of Christian imagination.”  Of course, the objections to his prescription stemmed not merely from its biblicist contention that “the only arguments we have are theological ones,” but also from what could be read as a retreat to aestheticism, an abandonment of the demands of rational argument in favor of a strategy that depends merely on wooing our opponents with something pretty.  By emphasizing the need for a recovery of reason under the previous heading, I hope I have made clear that such a retreat to aestheticism cannot be the basis for a Christian politics.  Nonetheless, there is something to be said for learning how to “be all things to all men.”  In a society where few people know how, or have the patience, to process complex verbal arguments, there is nothing wrong with learning to speak to them in terms that they can more easily understand.  For our society, that means arts and media.

Greg Forster says something of this sort at The Gospel Coalition, writing that “We know the truth about sexuality and can therefore describe it accurately. We can tell stories that make people say, "Yes, that's the truth about life.”  Telling such stories will often take place through media such as film, which offers an extremely powerful way of depicting the flaws in broken relationships and the beauty of rightly-ordered ones.  I’m not suggesting that conservative Christian filmmakers go to Hollywood and start making films depicting broken, angst-ridden gay relationships—I somehow doubt that would get very far—but there is room for filmmaking that offers beautiful portrayals of marriage and sexuality as it should be.  So much of contemporary cultural opposition to traditional models of marriage and family is that they’ve never seen it done well.  It’s like the student who decides he hates history because he had one dry, dull history teacher in high school.  You won’t persuade him by lecturing him on the importance of history as a subject, but by exposing him to the study of history as it’s meant to be—an exciting adventure of story-telling and mystery-solving.  If Christians can capture the imaginations of our culture with a compelling vision of God-given sexuality, we may again have a fighting chance in defending the institution of mariage.


5) Leading by example

This last point is really just an extension of the previous one.  We can’t all be filmmakers or song-writers or even good story-tellers.  But we can all do our part to offer the world beautiful portrayals of marriage and sexuality as it should be.  Whether it be through loving, mutually-submissive but gender-differentiated marriage, or through pure, self-sacrificial singleness, each of us has an opportunity to do our bit in the fight for marriage by modelling for the world a better way.  By modelling joyful obedience to God’s sexual order, we can show that we’re not just naysaying because we don’t like people to have fun, but because obedience leads to flourishing.  Of course, we shouldn’t be naive or insensitive as we do this, pretending that it would all be easy for homosexuals if they just repented of their desires or decided to be celibate.  Wesley Hill has written beautifully and powerfully on the pain and brokenness of the gay experience, and just because we believe that for most people, and for society as a whole, God-given sexual order leads to joy and flourishing, this does not mean that some will have difficulty sharing in this joy.  To them, we must be always loving, always hospitable, offering ourselves as faithful companions on a painful journey.  But this should not make us so afraid of offending that we never dare to declare the beauty of Christian marriage.


Of course, after all this (especially after summoning desperately sinful spouses like myself to help show the world what Christian marriage looks like), we should remember that we live by faith and not by works.  It is Christ’s kingship, not our ingenuity, that will preserve society from dissolution, that will draw all people to himself, and it is all too easy to lose sight of that fact in our hand-wringing about the failure of our arguments, and our quest for “new methods.”  In the end, our task is not to win the world over through our wit and wisdom, but to witness to Christ, and trust in his victory.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.