Fighting Gay Marriage Is a Lost Cause

Editorial Note: This piece is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."

The struggle against gay marriage in the United States is a lost cause, because the current American assumptions about democracy and the meaning of marriage are fundamentally incompatible with the Christian understanding of the nature of human beings and their sexual relationships. Moreover, the issue of gay marriage is not the most fundamental point of disagreement; that point was crossed many decades ago with the social acceptance of birth control, which altered social attitudes toward sex and over time encouraged sex completely divorced from love. It is therefore more important for Christians to develop a robust countercultural practice and reflection on sexuality, which is more life-giving than the weak legal understanding of marriage that prevails in popular opinion.

The current American assumption about marriage is that it involves two adults consenting to an economic partnership: an exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit. As such, the assumption includes the conviction that such partnerships ought to be protected by law: all couples should be able to have the same legal rights (inheritance, access to hospital records, tax breaks, and so on). Seen through the lens of American legal theory, this logic is correct, meaning that there ought to be no legal difference between gay and straight legal unions. Moreover, the assumption goes, there is a cultural meaning attached to the word "marriage," meaning that if some couples are allowed this meaning while others are not, there is prejudice. That logic is similarly correct.

The American assumption is weak, though, from a philosophical and cultural perspective, and wrong from a Christian theological perspective. The weakness lies in the fact that this logic about marriage is divorced from a philosophical or theological anthropology, rooting itself more in a model of law known as social contract. A social contract is basically an agreement among people about how they as a society will act. According to an American version of this theory, law is good if it reflects the will of the majority. And since the majority of people are coming to embrace the economic partnership model, the law ought to reflect that model. Over time, that model will likely have to include all sorts of legal partnerships as public opinion continues to change.

Historically, at least in the West, marriage was rooted in either a philosophical or theological anthropology (or both). One common version of the philosophical anthropology ran like this: government recognizes the social good of the partnerships of men and women raising children, and offers incentives (like tax breaks) to encourage this service to society.  It leverages the ordinary sexual desires of its citizens to work together for a social good. Broadly speaking, this philosophical anthropology was a modern version of the Natural Law theory that had its origins in ancient Greece (Stoic and Aristotelian philosophy, for example) and basically held that there was an overarching order (logos) in the world and that marriage reflected the ways that human beings structured themselves toward that order.

Changing attitudes toward sex in the 20th century, and especially since the (latest) sexual revolution, have led to the slow abandonment of this philosophical anthropology. Fewer and fewer Americans believe that marriage is rooted in an overarching order in the world. This change is especially uncomfortable to many Christians, whose theological anthropology (marriage is created by God for the good of human beings and the good of the human family) could be easily squared with the modern philosophical anthropology. Uncoupled from that philosophical anthropology, many Christians have found themselves scrambling for ways to respond, and even developing theological responses to the changing American attitudes. To be sure, some have embraced these attitudes as reflective of a need to continue to develop Christian theology, so that it more adequately reflects what they perceive to be perennial flaws in the theology of sex. In their view, Christian theology ought to accommodate itself to include the blessing of many different kinds of sexual relationships, rather than the more specific permanent male-female relationship known as marriage in the New Testament.

Others, however, believing that modern attitudes toward sex depart significantly from the Christian tradition, find themselves needing to simply assert that these modern attitudes, while gaining in popularity, are fundamentally flawed. And in honesty they must therefore assert that as these modern attitudes become the law of the land (in a growing number of states), their own views of marriage represent a countercultural posture.