Reflections on the Gay Marriage Decision

Reflections on the Gay Marriage Decision June 30, 2015

As ever, a pleasure to offer this guest post from my friend Peter Wehner, a thoughtful Christian and one of the most important voices on public policy today:


Some Reflections on the Gay Marriage Decision

By Peter Wehner

In light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, here are some thoughts on what it all might mean:

1. In one respect, the Supreme Court decision won’t radically alter the facts on the ground. Prior to the decision 37 states and Washington, D.C. allowed gay unions  (in good measure because of lower court decisions rather than by referenda or by representatives of the people). Before last week more than 70 percent of Americans were living in states that allowed same-sex marriage. To pull in the other 13 states and 30 percent of the population is a significant thing, but it’s not as if we’re entering a whole new world.

In addition, Americans support same-sex unions by a large margin (60 percent v. 37 percent based on this recent Gallup poll, with the gap even greater among the millennial generation). So we were rapidly heading toward a same-sex marriage world before the court weighed in last Friday.

2. The effects gay marriage will have on the institution of marriage is being hotly debated. Some argue that redefining marriage will be a crushing blow to the institution; others say that won’t be the case, and in fact this moment can be turned to one that strengthens marriage. We’ll find out soon enough. For now, I concur with the words of Justice Samuel Alito: “At present, no one — including social scientists, philosophers, and historians—can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are certainly not equipped to make such an assessment.”

3. The Supreme Court decision, as a matter of jurisprudence, was quite problematic. What I have in mind is the manner in which the Court decided the case. As the four dissenting justices argued in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court usurped a power that belongs to the people and short-circuited a debate that was being conducted just as it should in a republic. The invention of Constitutional rights is wrong; so is undermining self-government. Both occurred in this instance. There were several avenues open to promoting gay marriage without the Supreme Court disfiguring the Constitution in the process.

4. My overriding concern is that the Supreme Court decision is used to pressure or even attempt to break religious institutions (colleges, para-church organizations and eventually churches themselves) based on the argument that Christians and people of other faiths who oppose gay marriage are the moral equivalent of George Wallace and should be treated institutionally like Bob Jones University. (This exchange in April between Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Justice Alito was not encouraging.)

I don’t expect the broader society to embrace Christian teachings on a variety of topics – but society should allow churches to teach and act on their core beliefs, which, it’s probably worth pointing out, are beliefs that until just a few years ago were held by every human society throughout history. (For those who don’t follow such things, the basis of the orthodox Christian view of marriage includes complementarity between the sexes and living in accord with what the followers of Christianity believe to be God’s design. I understand many people utterly reject this view; I mention it only to demonstrate that it’s not capricious or based on bigotry.)

There are admirable gay rights advocates like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan who are genuine pluralists – strong advocates for gay marriage and yet who also believe religious institutions shouldn’t be intimidated or coerced into jettisoning tenets of their faith. (Michael Gerson makes the same point here.) I hope their approach will prevail. If it doesn’t, we might well be drawn into a fractious and divisive cultural conflict that would leave people on both sides wounded and resentful and bent on revenge. A good model to look at and build on is the so-called “Utah Compromise” which protects people in the LGBT community from employment and housing decisions based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, while still shielding religious institutions that stand against homosexuality.

5. Social conservatives, having lost the same-sex marriage battle, might be tempted to remain stuck on it, unwilling to move far beyond it; or they might be tempted to withdraw from the debate about marriage and culture more generally. That would be a significant error. As Michael Gerson and I wrote several years ago in COMMENTARY:

far from being a strictly private matter, the collapse of the marriage culture in America has profound public ramifications, affecting everything from welfare and education to crime, income inequality, social mobility, and the size of the state. Yet few public or political figures are even willing to acknowledge that this collapse is happening… the fact remains that our marriage culture began to disintegrate long before a single court or a single state approved gay marriage. It is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage, and when it comes to strengthening an institution in crisis, Republicans need to have something useful to offer. The advance of gay marriage does not release them from their responsibilities to help fortify that institution and speak out confidently on the full array of family-related issues. Republicans need to make their own inner peace with working with those who both support gay marriage and are committed to strengthening the institution of marriage.

It would be an interesting test to ask leading Republicans to speak about strengthening the marriage culture for, say, five minutes without mentioning same-sex marriage.

*  *  *  *

The reaction to the Court decision is as dramatically different as any I can recall. On the one hand are stories from friends who suffered the emotional pain of growing up gay and feeling they were disordered and defective and treated cruelly, sometimes by the church itself. For them, this is a moment when marginalization ends and being fully accepted by society begins.

I’ve heard as well from Christian friends and read public statements about the feelings that have arisen from the Supreme Court decision, ranging from bitterness to fatalism to calls for disengagement. There is a sense that people feel alienated from their own country in ways that they never have before; that this is a moral inflection point for America. And they are frankly afraid that their commitment to Biblical authority will make them a target. As one person wrote to me, “Christian institutions will be systematically harassed and hunted, with every person I ever attended church with or studied under treated — as a matter of law — as a bigot, the exact equivalent of George Wallace.”

As we sort through the aftershocks of the decision, some Christians are talking about this being a time for the church to “disentangle herself from the morally disintegrating broader culture.” I’m all for attending to our own house, but if I understand the implications of what some are arguing for, I think it would be a mistake, in part because the responsibility we have to pursue justice and a good and decent society hasn’t changed or gone away. It’s not an option in a world that is still marked by too much suffering, too many hardships, and too many broken lives. Regardless of how you react to this decision, it doesn’t change the need to explain why life is, as David Brooks puts it in The Road to Character, “essentially a moral drama” and why “the best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy.” That case can still be made – must be made — in a post-Obergefell world.

Whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage in the context of faith – and I have laid out my theological approach here and here – it’s fair to say, I think, that over the years some evangelical Christians have allowed this issue to occupy far too central a place in their theology and public rhetoric. I’ve referred to it as the Christian version of the funhouse mirror effect, in which certain images are distorted and exaggerated.

This past weekend I found myself writing to two ministers I admire, saying to them what I have said before to others: “Given all that the Gospel represents,” I asked, “and all that it teaches, and all that it offers, how is it that people – when they’re asked about the Christian church – often think of it and us as connected to gay rights? I recognize that a lot of this has to do with the media, which can’t cover our faith without being drawn to this issue like moths to a flame. But we Christians have played a role in it, too.” Mark Galli of Christianity Today has written about what he called “Biblical inconsistency,” by which he meant our passion to root out sexual sins while being relatively indifferent to many others.

Over the years some prominent public voices have made the case for traditional marriage in an impressive and morally serious manner (my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel comes to mind). Yet others have succeeded in portraying Christianity as a faith characterized by judgment, stridency and punishment more than grace and redemption.

A final thought: Christians ought to be among the last people to react to setbacks with panic or bitterness, fear or rage, because we believe – or so we claim – in the sovereignty of God; that we are part of a larger story that He is the author of; and that “in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” Throughout history the church has dealt with far, far worse than what American Christians are facing today. And even amidst the worst trials – and Obergefell v. Hodges is hardly that — the most faithful among us still find joy in the journey.

In a period of rapidly diminishing influence in culture, those of us of the Christian faith need to reflect on how we can demonstrate faithfulness and grace in a world that is rapidly changing; speak the truths we hold in a manner that can be heard and received; treat others with genuine respect and dignity because they are precious in the sight of the God; and keep open, always, the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.23.30 PMPeter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. After serving in the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, Mr. Wehner led the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues and is coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.






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