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Tolkien Was Right: Notes on the Respect for Marriage Act and the Post-Boomer Church

November 30th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

Some time after his death, an editor was going through the papers and books in J. R. R. Tolkien’s library when he came across an old copy of C. S. Lewis’s pamphlet “Christian Behavior,” which would later be re-published as one section in Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. Folded inside the book was a letter Tolkien had written but apparently never sent to his long-time friend and fellow Oxford don. In it, Tolkien took issue with Lewis’s treatment of divorce in the pamphlet.

Briefly, Lewis argued for the creation of two separate marriage institutions within the United Kingdom. The former, church marriage, would be handled by the Church of England and defined by Christian conception of marriage while the latter, civil marriage, would be overseen by the state and would be governed by the moral norms in favor with British society. Through this, Lewis thought, British Christians could preserve Christian ideas of marriage, including the prohibition against divorce, while honoring civil laws that were far more permissive regarding divorce.

Tolkien objected strongly to the idea and wrote an aggressive letter to his friend saying so. “No item of Christian morality,” Tolkien said, “is valid only for Christians.”

In other words, Christian morality is human morality because Christianity is a true account of reality, including the human person. You can’t create bifurcations between a kind of privatized religious morality and the real public morality that governs our common life together. Tolkien continued,

The foundation is that (Christian morality) is the correct way of “running the human machine.” Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting 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…. 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.

To be sure, sins and crimes are separate things. There are any number of sins that oughtn’t be made illegal and punishable by the government. But Tolkien here is not arguing for sectarianism or theocracy.

He is merely insisting that we flirt with disaster when we presuppose that the moral law and our nation’s civil laws have (basically) nothing to do with one another. If you can change civil laws in ways that make them explicitly contrary to God’s moral law, Tolkien thinks, you’re headed for trouble.

If this debate sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that: It closely mirrors the debate that has happened in recent weeks between David French, Carl Trueman, and Al Mohler regarding the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA).

In short, French sounds strikingly like Andrew Sullivan these days, supporting a conservatism defined far more by its Burkean deference to custom and to a gradualist political method than by specific, positively stated moral content.

Trueman, meanwhile, thinks French is indicative of a shift in conservative Protestantism which he attributes to “evangelical elites,” and Mohler thinks French is a cautionary tale for political conservatives. All of them, I think, are focusing their attention on the wrong problems. Before getting to that, let’s deal directly with the Respect for Marriage Act. Then we can consider the more interesting questions lingering around the edges of this debate.

Essentially, the way we should approach the RFMA is this: There is a good prudential case for supporting it. If the choice put before us is the RFMA or the Equality Act, the RFMA is obviously preferable as it at least pretends to care about religious liberty and has some language included in it that may genuinely provide protection to religious conservatives. In the possible event that the contemporary SOGI regime is here to stay, we should take what protections we can get now. This is my friend Matt Anderson’s prudential argument for supporting it and I think it is a compelling case. (Tim Schultz has written a similar argument.)

There is also a good prudential case against it: The religious liberty language is extremely weak — Mark Joseph Stern makes this point in a recent piece — and the bill gives up an enormous amount from a social conservative perspective in exchange for very little. That, of course, has been the social conservative style for time untold.

As long as we’re reasoning on the grounds of what is prudentially best in this moment for our particular nation, I think a number of possible approaches are admissible and none should be cause for division or for Christian discord.

Where the problem arises, I think, is that most of the argument so far isn’t really about prudential political reasoning amidst challenging circumstance, but is instead a debate hopelessly constrained and conditioned by the culture war, such that the interesting questions get backgrounded while boring disputes largely propelled by personality are foregrounded.

For Mohler, there isn’t really a prudential case here at all. The RFMA must be categorically rejected, full stop, and anyone who says otherwise is clearly just a woke, weak, compromised fraud. There is no attempt to reason, no attempt to consider prudential questions that should obviously arise given the church’s weakened position in American life. There is only Mohler’s characteristically vain declamations.

Also, contra Trueman, the problem isn’t “evangelical elites.” If the past several years have shown us anything, it is that most of these “elites” have quite limited influence with many self-identified evangelicals. One also begins to wonder at what point a chaired Christian college professor and best-selling evangelical press author will, himself, become an “evangelical elite.”

Yet French’s acceptance of gay marriage as an inextricable part of the pluralist order which cannot be transgressed or challenged is no less a solution. The subtext to so much of French’s political writing is an under-developed doctrine of creation, which allows for Christian morality to exist at a remove from questions of public order and common life in precisely the ways Tolkien addressed in his rebuke to Lewis. For civic libertarians like French, and here I suspect you might also include figures like Paul Miller, Christian morality exists atop the world, as it were, and tells individual Christian people how to live in the world. It guides Christians in how to engage with the world when they step down into it. But it doesn’t itself shape the world in any sort of direct, tangible way; the world is governed by other laws. That Christian moral norms would supply the moral content that actually defines our common life in the world is to him anathema and to most in the historic church so obvious as to be banal.

Strikingly, it almost seems as if French and Mohler are vexed by slightly differing versions of the same basic problem, which is an over-estimation of America’s importance in God’s redemptive story and a potentially idolatrous tendency to privilege the concerns of their idea of America over the concerns of Christian faith.

For French, the post war American conception of civil liberties must be preserved, even if the cost is so high as enshrining in law what God’s Word calls wicked. Thus French’s argument for the RFMA goes well beyond the prudential reasoning of Anderson and strays into a more normative mode. Thus he ends up proposing a more extreme example of Lewis’s gambit: Give the culture what it wants via “civil marriage” while preserving “Christian marriage,” unstained from the world.

The fact that Lewis was arguing for more permissive divorce laws while French is arguing for the acceptance of gay marriage is perhaps all the commentary required to understand why this idea will not work. Indeed, it is entirely possible that ten years from now we’ll be redoing this argument yet again, only this time with state-sanctioned plural marriage in view. If we aren’t, I suspect it will have less to do with any principled and widely shared objection to plural marriage within our culture and more to do with the fact that marriage itself has almost altogether withered and died.

Meanwhile, for Mohler, the status of Christoamericanism is sacrosanct and the church must do all it can to preserve that failing regime, even if it means betraying one’s long-stated principles or, more to the point, taking up practices and postures that are antithetical to Christian piety.

Trueman at least gestures toward the idea that should be central to our thought in this moment, which is that the horizons of the kingdom of God stretch beyond the American regime, beyond the neo-liberal open society, beyond American notions of civil liberties (which often collapse down into political atheism), and beyond the American experiment itself. This is the direction in which we all ought to be thinking. The Christoamericanism of Mohler’s dreams is dead; the civic libertarian America favored by French has become incoherent and corrosive to the life of the church and Christian community in the ways T. S. Eliot predicted it would long ago in The Idea of a Christian Society.

The reality facing us is that a new moment in church history is beginning as is a new moment in American history. If we are to be writers of use to the church of today and the church of tomorrow, then we must reckon with these facts rather than trying to preserve a status quo that has already failed.

This is the situation we must confront: The Baby Boomers, who have provided the lion’s share of our financial and volunteer resources for 40 years, are retiring and dying. Their resources are going away. The rising generation won’t replace them, both because they lack the wealth and don’t give what wealth they do have to the same degree as their parents and because the past 25 years have seen 40 million people, predominantly younger people, leave the American church. So in the near future, the American church is going to get numerically smaller and dramatically less resourced in both its financial and volunteer capacities. Churches will close. Colleges and seminaries will collapse. Non-profits will disappear. Any serious political proposal must reckon with this fact.

This, of course, is the best prudential case for the RFMA: The American church is about to get far weaker and whatever civic protections we can build for ourselves now will be hugely important in ten years time. So let’s take what we can get while we can still get it. If we reject this proposal, the next time we come to the bargaining table our position will be even weaker and we may well be staring at the probable passage of the Equality Act, which would be far worse than the RFMA. That’s one account of the American church’s future and America’s future. But it is not the only plausible account.

Alongside this bleak reality facing the church is another reality facing America, which is no less bleak: Our fertility rate has fallen off a cliff. And as Germany, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Japan, and China are all discovering now, disastrously low fertility leads to other social disasters. But it isn’t just that we aren’t having kids in America; we are enormously dysfunctional when it comes to sex more generally. Whether it is the rise of the incels, the ubiquity of porn, or heartbreaking studies like this one which recently found that a quarter of all women at one university reported being choked during their last sexual encounter, it is clear that we have very little idea what sex is for.

This, in fact, is precisely as Tolkien predicted decades ago. Elsewhere in his letter to Lewis, he said that the disorders and abuses brought about by more permissive divorce laws would never be limited to more permissive divorce laws:

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.

Of course, an ignorance about the most basic human community in creation —the family — will inevitably manifest as more general confusion about human community writ large. And so here we are.

We live in a deeply unhealthy society marked by loneliness, rootlessness, and the dissolution of the family and most other forms of thick community. This has created a crisis of meaning and belonging for millions. Unsurprisingly, many are now turning to drugs, gambling, and alcohol to slake their thirst for something real. This, then, is the best prudential case against the RFMA: We are living in mad times marked by uniquely unhealthy and destructive beliefs about the body, sexuality, and marriage. It cannot go on forever. So why would we encode that madness even more explicitly and intractably into our nation’s laws?

Mark Sayers argues that in gray zone moments, such as our own, the dying era often becomes a gross, exaggerated caricature of itself before it finally passes away. Certainly one could consider current ideas about sexuality and gender to be an example of precisely those dynamics. In which case, we would do well to heed those suggesting we may be closer than we think to an era of “sex negativity.” Far better, than, to preserve the truth about marriage and the family as much as we can and to fight against the codification of lies into our nation’s law in order to make it all the easier to restore the truth to our political lives in the years to come.

The RFMA debate is significant for us in two ways: First, because it raises the interesting and vital questions that the post-boomer church in America will have to take seriously. Second, because most of our current leaders aren’t reckoning with the problems staring us down but are instead relitigating tired old debates whose relevance has long since passed.

If the church is to have a future in America — and I am quite convinced that we can actually have a very bright future in this country — then our leaders will need to stop adjudicating old disputes and reckon with the emerging shape of the post-boomer church.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).