What the Marriage Pledge Means

What the Marriage Pledge Means November 20, 2014

Rational people, people of good will and good sense, will differ about the wisdom of the Marriage Pledge written by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz and endorsed by Rusty Reno this week. They have already begun to differ.

A defense of the Pledge would go something like this: Churches that hold to traditional marriage are eventually going to be forced into the position articulated in the Pledge anyway. If the state says “marriage” includes male-male and female-female unions (and who knows what else), churches that refuse to comply will be out of sync with public policy, unConstitutional and virtually unAmerican in their refusal to grant equality to same-sex couples. Perhaps legally, perhaps only in public regard, marriages in such churches will be considered sub-standard, almost sub-human, the manifestation of animus toward a persecuted minority. Traditional marriage will be viewed as a separate thing.

The Pledge pre-empts that outcome. If that is the trajectory of recent court decisions, it seems best to make the move while it is a considered choice, rather than to be backed into making a move. If it’s a choice, it can be an act of public witness.

That analysis may be quite wrong. Perhaps nothing at all will change for churches upholding traditional marriage. In retrospect, the Pledge might appear not only premature but borderline hysterical. I don’t think so, but I may be mistaken.

But I want to respond to one line of criticism. One of the criticisms of the Pledge has been that it’s an act of retreat from the public square. It seems ironic to some that the very same people who fulminate constantly against secularism now give aid and comfort to secularism with an act of withdrawal.

The assumption behind this charge appears to be that the church has to be connected with civil government to be truly public. The assumption may even be that the best or only way the church can be public is by serving as a department of the state or the nation. Those assumptions betray a misconstrual of both “secularism” and “public.”

Secularization can take an “Anabaptist” form in which churches simply refuse cooperation with state authorities. But it can also take an “Erastian” form in which the church is deeply involved in national affairs but effectively becomes a “Department of Piety” subordinate to state or national interests and policies. American churches have often been informally “Erastian,” functioning as cheerleaders for the American project.

Both of these are forms of secularization and ecclesial privatization, because both involve the church’s failure to act as her own public

Because it is part of a renegotiation of church and state, because it proposes a redefinition of “public,” because it treats the church as a renewable historical community in herself, Marriage Pledge is a rejection of secularization, that is, of the privatization of the church. Positively, the Pledge calls on the church to reassert herself as a public.

Marriage is the most prominent site for the renegotiation of “public,” but it’s not the only one. There have been and will be many more sites, because the post-Reformation forms of Christendom are crumbling and will continue to crumble, and only a truly public church will be equipped to rebuild in and from the ruins.

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