Should evangelical Christians give up the fight against legal recognition of same-sex marriage?

REUTERS/David McNew
Is it good for our Christian witness to keep fighting same sex marriage in the political realm? And is it even necessarily good for our democracy to keep fighting it?

It seems that I disagree with Tim Dalrymple on lots and lots of stuff. Nevertheless, it’s been interesting watching him publicly wrestle with the question of whether his evangelical abhorrence of gay sex should be codified in anti-same-sex-marriage laws. First, he asked, Is it time for evangelicals to stop opposing gay marriage?

the question at hand is not whether we should abandon the historical Christian teaching on marriage.  The question is whether we should contend for laws and regulations that give this vision of marriage the sanction of government.  And to make one more distinction: the question is not whether Christians have the right to promote their views, just like everyone else does, and to support or oppose laws on any grounds they wish, including religious grounds.  There’s nothing categorically wrong with supporting laws and politicians who recognize and affirm what marriage actually is, even if your view of marriage is religiously informed.  The question, rather, is whether it is still wise to press for American law to recognize only heterosexual unions.

There are about a million and one caveats in that post. Tim knew he was going to be hammered by his fellow evangelicals. He furthered his questions and clarification in a second post, Ten things I believe about evanvelicals and same-sex marriage:

Timothy DalyrympleTimothy Dalrymple

Since I am neither suggesting that we should alter our moral and theological convictions nor that we should cease confessing those beliefs publicly, responses along these lines — “Well then, why don’t we just give up the doctrine of hell since that’s unpopular too!” — are off point.  The question here, the only question I’m raising, is this: (P1) Should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and organize legally and politically to ensure that the laws reflect our convictions – OR (P2) should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and accept a legal definition of marriage that does not preclude same-sex marriage?  In my view, this need not be contradictory.  It would merely entail explaining that we believe homosexual behavior to be sinful, and we believe gay marriage is not really marriage, but we are not going to compel others legally to act in accordance with our convictions.

Tim is being courageous here, IMHO. I think his view of human sexuality is retrograde and a misunderstanding of the Bible, but he comes by his opinions honestly. His question is twofold: Is it good for our Christian witness to keep fighting same sex marriage in the political realm? And is it even necessarily good for our democracy to keep fighting it?

On this latter thought, Richard Mouw answers Tim’s questions with a resounding YES! Mouw is the president of Fuller Seminary, at which I teach as an adjunct DMin professor; I have a great deal of respect for Rich. He’s good for evangelicalism, but he’s wrong about gay marriage:

Richard MouwRichard Mouw

The question is especially complicated for those of us who are inclined to concede the case for supporting “civil unions.”  In a pluralistic society there are many “living together” patterns that I do not approve of on moral and theological grounds, but I nonetheless think should be legally permissible in the larger culture.  We are presently living—to use a fine phrase that I learned from John Howard Yoder—“in the time of God’s patience,” which means that we must also cultivate that kind of patience as we await the Return of Christ.

So, once I have made the concession to civil unions, why not also grant a legal status for same-sex marriage? I am not ready simply to give up on restrictions on what is called a “marriage,” for at least two reasons. One is that much is at stake in legislation about marriage. Some Christians have been arguing recently that we should simply distinguish between marriage as a legal arrangement and marriage as a ceremonially based religious union. I find that unsatisfactory, precisely because it encourages religious folks to abdicate responsibility for legal regulations regarding marriage in the larger culture.

In his post, Rich goes on to criticize my view on marriage and side with Lisa Miller, who wrote about me in the Washington Post a while back. So I thought this would be a good time to summarize my views on same sex marriage, and to push back on Rich and side with Tim (or at least answer Tim’s questions, No).

1) I do not believe the Bible prohibits same sex marriage. This is well-trod ground by many biblical scholars, and I won’t retread it here.

2) Marriage changes. What is considered “marriage” has evolved over time and across societies. Even the Bible reflects that evolution. This is an inescapable fact. (More on this tomorrow.) This word, “marriage,” is a placeholder for a variety of meanings, emotions, and ideals, but it’s not a static entity. It’s a moving target.

3) Clergy should stop signing marriage licenses. When pastors sign documents that legally bind persons into a state-sanctioned contract, they are acting as agents of the state and forfeiting their prophetic posture toward the ruling powers. Here I agree with Rich Mouw: Christian leaders do have a role to play in the shaping of how the culture views “marriage,” but we abdicate that authority when we act as proxies of the government.

4) Civil Unions are not the answer. “Marriage” matters to LGBT persons because we — a western, Christian culture — have invested it with so much meaning over the centuries. Now gays and lesbians want in on that. We reap what we sow. To tell them that they can have civil unions but not marriage is like saying, “You can drive, but only a scooter; never a car.” As Christians, we should vehemently oppose all classist structures and caste systems.

5) We should encourage monogamy. Long ago, our culture turned against polygamy and began encouraging monogamy. In the U.S., we even financially incentivize heterosexual monogamy in the tax code and many laws. One of the main reasons we did this was to protect children (who have few rights) and women (who had less-than-equal rights at the time). Another irrefutable fact is that many gay and lesbian couples are now raising children — it is illegal to discriminate against them for adoptions, and many are also using surrogates. In order to protect those children, and vulnerable partners in those relationships, we should incentivize monogamy among GLBT couples in the same way that we do among heterosexual couples. I submit that even evangelicals should face the reality that gays couple and raise children and should advocate for monogamy.

6) Therefore, legal marriage and sacerdotal marriage should be separate. Encourage monogamy among all couples, gay and straight. And accord all religious communities the freedom to sacramentalize the marriages that they want to.

This post was written by Tony Jones and originally published on the Tony Jones Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @jonestony

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/06/2012 - 03:30 pm.

    I’m currently enrolled in EFM, a four-year Episcopal Church

    course for lay people, and the fourth year is devoted to theology and 19th and 20th century church history.

    Last week’s chapter was about the “social gospel” movement. The writers noted that the late 19th and early 20th century had a plethora of social evils, including desperate poverty, exploitation of working people, genocide, sexual slavery, war, environmental destruction, everything that we have and more.

    But what did the evangelical churches get really, really fired up about and succeed with? Banning alcoholic beverages.

    With all the social ills around them, they devoted their energies to passing a Constitutional amendment banning the production and sale of alcohol.

    What if all they had harnessed all that energy to supporting labor in its fight against near-slave conditions in the factories or against genocide against the Native Americans or against war?

    Today’s evangelicals are making the same mistake. The evils of 100 years ago are still with us, and yet so many prominent evangelical figures are obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, neither of which Christ mentioned, neither of which can be “cured” by haranguing the people involved. Instead of organizing their people to stand by the roadside for miles waving anti-abortion signs (this happened in Oregon several years ago), why not organize their members to support safe working conditions and a living wage for local workers? Why not speak out against the demonization of Muslims, the poor, and everyone who isn’t a white middle class suburbanite? Why not urge people to protect our one and only Earth? Why not join the people protesting non-defensive wars?

    I wonder if evangelical leaders are aware of the extent to which their two-track emphasis on abortion and homosexuality has alienated the general public, who see these as private matters and are more concerned about other issues.

  2. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 12/07/2012 - 12:45 pm.

    Emotional/psychological cues

    “…why not organize their members to support safe working conditions… Why not speak out against the demonization of Muslims…. Why not join the people protesting non-defensive wars?….”

    This may not be entirely accurate and so I’ll apologize up front if that’s the case. In an attempt to posit an answer to your questions of “why”: I stumbled upon some statistics indicating that a clear majority of those rabidly (and we’re talking “rabidly”) anti-gay turned out to be closeted homosexuals. I have also been given to believe that the *intense* advocates of temperance were recovered alcoholics.

    This is by no means saying that everyone who believes homosexuality and drinking to be wrong are secretly gay or alcohols. It’s merely speculating that this specific “two-track mindset” might be spurred on by individuals who are motivated by internal (emotional/psychological) cues and not by well-reasoned thought.

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