Recently I mentioned that I was sincerely questioning whether religious conservatives should still favor laws and constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage. My reasons were partly practical, partly strategic, and partly theological. Let me try to reframe the argument:
1. It was once the case that there prevailed in the United States an overwhelming cultural consensus on the meaning of marriage. The United States inherited its cultural consensus on the meaning of marriage from the Judeo-Christian tradition. While some of the stories of the Old Testament show individuals with multiple wives, the image of marriage that emerges from the whole counsel of scripture is strongly monogamous and unequivocally heterosexual. When Genesis grounds the marital union of male and female in the created order itself, and when Jesus reaffirms that model, and when countless other scriptures (especially in the epistles) affirm that model as well, it’s 99 percent clear from scripture that marriage should be monogamous and 100% clear that it should be heterosexual. This is the model that America received from the classical Christian tradition, and it’s the model I defend to this day.
2. The Judeo-Christian model of marriage is not merely pragmatic or moral, but also theological. Traditional Christians believe that homosexuality is morally wrong and that same-sex marriage is theologically incoherent. Marriage is not merely a contract. It’s an institution ordained by God as a shelter for the procreation and protection of children, as a sacrament for his sanctifying grace to the husband and wife, and as an image of (and therefore a teaching tool for) God’s loving union with the church. The difference and complementarity of male and female are essential to all three points. That this is a THEOLOGY of marriage becomes increasingly apparent when you study other theologies of marriage, such as Neo-Pagan models that are frequently polygynous or polyandrous, or Muslim or various Eastern models that are polygynous, or even emerging secular ideologies of marriage in the west that are merely contractual and include none of the theological content, and certainly not the theology of monogamy, that one finds in the Judeo-Christian model of marriage.
3. There is no longer an overwhelming cultural consensus in the United States in favor of the traditional Judeo-Christian model (theology) of marriage. If you ask Pew, 49 percent favor allowing same-sex marriage and 40 percent do not. An ABC poll from last September presents slightly more favorable figures for the opponents of same-sex marriage, with 37 percent in favor of legal recognition and 55 percent opposed. In either case, however, it’s clear the cultural consensus has been lost — and every indication is that the marriage consensus will dissolve further. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 73 percent of younger people favor allowing same-sex marriage. The New York Times and CBS News have asked the same three-part question for years — and in November 2004, 21 percent of respondents said that gay couples should be allowed to marry, 32 percent favored civil unions and 44 percent were opposed to any legal recognition. In May of last year, those numbers had changed to 38 percent in support of marriage, 24 percent in favor of civil unions and only 33 percent opposed to legal recognition of same-sex couples. That’s a quick change. Gay marriage is now legally recognized in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maryland, Maine, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
4. So the question becomes, in a secular democracy that lacks an overwhelming cultural consensus in favor of the Judeo-Christian model of marriage, can we and should we as Christians insist that our model of marriage and only our model of marriage be legally recognized? This is where I feel cornered by my own argument. I have insisted over against critics that the marriage issue is not just a “culture war” issue because it’s not a matter of “cultural” preference but a fundamentally moral and theological matter. But if the Judeo-Christian model of marriage is fundamentally moral and theological, then do I have a right in our secular democracy to insist that my moral and theological vision of marriage should be legally enforced while other moral and theological visions should not? My quick answer is:5. We have a RIGHT (just like everyone else) to press for laws that we believe are in the best interest of the country, even if those laws are grounded in our religious beliefs — but whether we SHOULD organize to defend our theological model of marriage legally and oppose other ones is another question. In my view, it’s perfectly permissible for American laws to enshrine common moral and theological convictions, (A) as long as they do not trample the rights of a minority and (B) as long as there is an overwhelming cultural consensus in favor of those convictions.
To take (A) — in a sense, everyone has a right to marry. The state cannot interfere in someone going into a church to marry. But there is no right to have the state recognize your marriage. So I do not believe that current laws deny same-sex partners any rights. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that there is anything immoral or unconstitutional in promoting the Judeo-Christian model of marriage, just as others will promote other models in the contest of ideas that is democracy.
This is, then, not a moral or constitutional but a prudential question: Should we, in the absence of a cultural consensus in favor of our Judeo-Christian model of marriage, try to get our model of marriage legally enforced and other models excluded? I’m not sure that we should. When everyone more or less agrees, that’s one thing. When a substantial percentage of the country does not, then you have one half of the country (let’s say) forcing the other half to live according to its own moral and theological rules. We would be asking the American State to take our side over against other religious or non-religious ways of thinking about marriage. I’m not convinced that’s wise.
- Even though we should continue to affirm our moral view that homosexuality is wrong and our theological view that only heterosexual marriage is truly marriage in the eyes of God, we might acknowledge that we live in an increasingly pluralistic secular democracy where we cannot insist that our moral and theological vision of marriage holds the power of the state and employs that power to defeat and exclude all other models.
- Even though we might feel that legally recognizing same-sex marriages is not in the best interest of the country, we might also feel that forcing others to live under our moral and theological convictions — convictions they do not share — is not in the best interest of our witness to non-believers. We cannot always save others from the consequences of their decisions.
- Even though we might not want, in an ideal world, for same-sex marriage to be legally recognized, we might recognize that the culture is moving that direction, and make a prudential judgment that it would be better to win a legislative compromise that secures our religious freedoms and conscience protections, rather than waiting for the legalization of same-sex marriage by fiat of a Supreme Court judgment that could haunt us for decades to come.
6. Finally, however, we can still oppose same-sex marriage legally and theologically, even if we do not prevent it legally. Hugh Hewitt had me on his radio program recently, in conversation with Owen Strachan, about the Supreme Court taking up a same-sex marriage case. Hugh asked me: “How would you feel if Justice Kennedy cited your blog post to say that even conservative Christians are dropping their opposition to same sex marriage, and in light of these cultural changes we should legally recognize same-sex marriage?” It was a killer question. Honestly, I would feel bad. I remain a critic of same-sex marriage. I oppose it morally and theologically. I think its consequences would be negative. I’m just not sure I should oppose it legally, because I am reticent to use the law to enforce my theology over others, in light of the aforementioned prudential concerns. It’s like premarital sex, or extramarital sex, or divorce without biblical cause, or using God’s name in vain, or committing blasphemy. I want to convince the culture that it’s wrong, and harmful, and based on a false understanding of sex, family, and God. But that doesn’t mean I should prohibit these things legally. So even though I would feel bad, if the witness of the church were better heard, and if we served better to persuade the culture of what we hold to be true and good, then perhaps the outcome would not be too bad. But the question itself points out how important it could be to bring some Christian leaders forward to forge a legislative compromise that does not morally condone same-sex marriage, but removes our legal opposition to same-sex marriage in exchange for religious liberty protections. Pretty soon, it may be too late for a compromise.
That’s my argument. What do you think?