October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 4, 2004
The last year has seen some dramatic cultural shifts in our country. In November of 2003, the Massachusetts state Supreme Judicial Court struck down bans on gay marriage. In February, gay marriage licenses began to be issued in San Francisco, and shortly afterward city officials in several other states followed suit. And in May, the state of Massachusetts began to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. But these events are meeting significant resistance, as several state legislatures, including lawmakers in Massachusetts, are currently considering constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages. Recently, President Bush declared his support for such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, perhaps like that proposed by U.S. representative Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), a move that has drawn the ire of many of Bush’s opponents. Public debate over this issue in the months and years to come promises to be rancorous and divisive, even as gay marriages become a nationwide phenomenon.
What is the Christian to think of all of this? Most of us agree that such unions are immoral, but views on the legal question are more varied. Some emphatically oppose legalizing same sex marriage, while others are willing to recognize such a right. One of my colleagues opined to me that marriage as a legal contract in this country has become so distanced from its moral-spiritual significance that to campaign against the legalization of same sex marriages is a waste of time. “Let the Pagans have it,” he declared, throwing up his hands in disgust. Is this “let Rome burn” attitude defeatist or simply realistic, given the moral trajectory of our culture?
When pressed to give grounds for opposing a legal right of same sex marriage, Christians might find themselves at a loss to provide reasons that are compelling in the public square. This is not like the abortion debate, where philosophical, biological, and other non-religious considerations sufficiently demonstrate that killing a fetus is (almost always) tantamount to murder and therefore deserving of a legal ban (notwithstanding Roe v. Wade). Conclusive extra-biblical arguments against homosexual relations are hard to come by, and even the strongest of these might demonstrate only that the homosexual lifestyle is less than ideal or not in the best interest of those involved.
The biblical case against homosexuality is strong, as condemnations of such relations are consistent from the Old Testament (Gen. 19, Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13) to the New Testament (Rom. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10), and such considerations imply the moral illegitimacy of same sex marriages. But arguing on biblical grounds for a legal ban on gay marriage is problematic, to say the least. Using such texts to justify legal restrictions on others who do not share our religious convictions (such as our belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture) is widely regarded as a proscription of religious liberty. So we must look elsewhere to build our case. But where are we to look? What extra-biblical grounds for opposing same sex marriage will play in the public square?
In following this debate, I have discerned a few principal lines of argument used by conservatives, appealing to such matters as tradition, the nature of family, majority opinion, and negative social consequences. Here I want to unpack these arguments and assess their merits. Ultimately, the questions I aim to answer are these: What are the prospects for building a case against same sex marriage that will be broadly persuasive to the American public? And should Christians even bother with such an endeavor or is this indeed ground that we might as well surrender to the “pagans”?
One strategy is a slippery slope argument that runs as follows. Traditionally in our culture marriage has been defined as a union between one man and one woman. To break from this tradition and allow homosexuals the legal right to marry will open the way to allowance of any number of deviant marital arrangements, from polygamy and polyandry to incest and even bestiality. Therefore, as a matter of social order, we must not depart from the traditional legal definition of marriage.
Here proponents of gay marriage typically make two points in response. First, traditions sometimes err. There is nothing sacrosanct about the fact that people in a particular culture—or even all cultures—have always done things a certain way. Any tradition, however revered, might turn out to be fundamentally mistaken. So we must be willing to allow our cultural understanding of marriage to evolve. Secondly, those who claim that legalizing homosexual marriage will lead to further redefinitions of the institution must provide some evidence that such radical changes are likely to take place. Providing such evidence is extremely difficult for any slippery slope argument and especially so in this case. Defenders of gay marriage may also point out that public opinions of multiple partner and incestuous marriages are strongly negative, and allowing homosexual marriage will likely do nothing to change this. So fears of an “anything goes” mentality resulting from this change are unfounded.
The matter of public opinion suggests another strategy. A recent Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans oppose allowing homosexuals to legally marry, while 24% favor legalization. 23% had no opinion. (Americans are less inclined against civil unions that grant homosexual couples some of the legal rights of marriage, with 41% opposing and 34% favoring gay and lesbian civil unions.) Given this decisive public opinion against homosexual marriage, isn’t it clear that we should not proceed with legalizing the practice?
The problem with this approach is that majority opinion is notoriously fallible, as our nation’s political history so painfully illustrates. The majority of Americans once believed that slavery was a properly legal practice and that women should not have the right to vote. As we look back on public debates concerning these issues, we recognize how foolish those prevailing opinions were. Proponents of homosexual marriage are quick to draw an analogy between these cases, claiming that just as we erred in denying equal rights to minorities and women, so we err today in proscribing the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to legally marry. And, they argue, the homophobes who deny these rights are no morally better than racists and sexists.
Of course, the notion that homosexuals are simply another oppressed minority group is itself flawed. To regard voluntary and private sexual behavior as a defining feature of a sub-population, comparable to race or gender, is problematic, to say the least. It is an insult to African-Americans, Hispanics and women in this country who have been targets of discrimination and oppression because of factors that are both involuntary and public.
Still, the gay and lesbian lobby continues to make dramatic political-legal strides by exploiting this analogy. (Affirmative action laws for homosexuals are increasingly far-reaching. Consequently, the day may soon come when schools like the one where I teach pay a serious price for discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.) So the gay marriage proponent has good grounds for believing that public opinion will continue to shift in favor of legalizing the practice. For better or worse, the American cultural conception of marriage is evolving. Thus, when it comes to public opinion, time appears to be on the side of gay marriage.
It seems, then, that neither the slippery slope argument nor the argument from public opinion holds much promise for those who oppose legalizing homosexual marriage. However, we have yet to consider the strongest argument in the traditionalist’s arsenal. Heterosexual marriage is the foundation of human civilization and a basic precondition for civil society. To legally recognize same-sex marriage undermines this basic social unit. Homosexual partners cannot have children naturally, but of course they can and do adopt children. Legalizing gay marriage would dramatically increase the prevalence of this practice, the ultimate broader consequences of which would be devastating. Children need the complementary care of a father and a mother, as each brings certain vital parenting strengths to the nurturing process.
Numerous studies indicate that children not raised by a mother and father face greater risks for a variety of psychological problems. Homosexual relationships, in particular, pose significant risks to the children of such couples. Recent studies have shown that homosexual relationships are more likely to involve mental illness, substance abuse, and violence than are heterosexual relationships. To legalize gay marriage, then, would be a public endorsement of a socially debilitating practice.
While this line of argument has significant force, there are several reasons that it will likely not succeed in preventing the wide acceptance of gay marriage in this culture. For one thing, gays and lesbians can appeal to the fact that heterosexual marriage is not exactly flourishing in our culture. The rates of divorce, child abuse, and other symptoms of dysfunction in traditional family settings are astoundingly high. Also, proponents of gay marriage will likely note that since civil unions and adoptions already take place within the gay community, legalizing marriage is not likely to make things worse. If anything, permitting the practice might reinforce commitments between homosexual couples, thus making for a more secure home life for children.
Such responses to the social consequences argument, however, are not as common as the appeal to the moral-political trump card of our culture: freedom. Proponents of gay marriage constantly appeal to their “right” to be married just like any heterosexual (conveniently forgetting that like everyone else gays and lesbians do have the right to marry, so long as they marry someone of the opposite gender). It seems that personal autonomy is the most fundamental value in America today, and even the prospect of considerable harm to our children will not deter us from behaving perversely or otherwise irresponsibly.
My conclusion, then, is that the prospects for success in preventing gay marriage in this country are, over the long term, not hopeful. The best arguments against the practice are theological, and such appeals simply won’t play in the public square, where they are increasingly seen as religious oppression. This leads us to a deeper and more ominous trend, of which the gay marriage debate is but a mere symptom, namely the marginalization of religious belief in American public discourse.
Only on biblical grounds can we build a plausible argument against gay marriage. But to make such an argument is seen as intolerant and a violation of religious liberty. We have reached the point in our nation’s history where public discussions of morality must be conducted without any appeal to religion or theology. And for this reason I expect that the biblical view on gay marriage will not prevail in this culture.
The issue of gay marriage is but a symptom of broader cultural trend. What used to be regarded as legitimate integrations of faith and public life are increasingly regarded as oppressive and intolerant (and often as violations of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution). We are witnessing the gradual secularization of our culture; our nation’s once Christian ethos is degenerating into paganism before our eyes. The wide acceptance of homosexual lifestyle is only one dimension of this broad cultural shift.
This is not news to most of us, but what this bodes for our future as Americans is no less distressing. If current legal trends continue, Christian colleges and universities will face unprecedented forms of institutional persecution, as they are forced to choose between tolerating homosexual behavior among its students, faculty, and staff on the one hand and losing federal funding (e.g., student loans, scholarships, research grants, etc.) on the other. More ominously, Christian schools might eventually face federal censure for using religious faith as a criterion for employment. Thus, a dilemma appears on the horizon for administrators at such schools: maintain your Christian distinctive and risk institutional financial ruin or opt for financial security and surrender your Christian commitment. I, for one, believe the latter approach would be both foolish and faithless, and I trust that most of my colleagues would concur. Only time, as they say, will tell, but we would do well to process these issues sooner rather than later.
As weighty as this issue is, it is but a parochial aspect of the larger issue of the Church’s response to America’s slide into paganism. How are we to respond? As I see it, two contrasting answers to this question present themselves. One calls for organized political efforts to stem this cultural drift. A champion of this approach is legal scholar Robert Bork who, in his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, recommends “an energetic, optimistic, and politically sophisticated religious conservatism” as the best antidote. One wonders if, eight years on, he is still hopeful about this option.
The other approach is for Christians to focus less on beating back paganism politically and to emphasize preserving our own faith communities, specifically by reinforcing our moral-spiritual commitments and resisting pressures (especially financial ones) to make concessions to our culture. This was the approach advocated by Alasdair MacIntyre almost a quarter century ago in his (now seemingly prophetic) book After Virtue. MacIntyre advised that we follow the path of Christians during the Dark Ages: going underground. He warns that, as was the case in the first millennium of the Christian era, this might be the only way to keep moral order alive as Western civilization (again) declines.
As I reflect on the gay marriage debate and other disturbing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly sympathetic with MacIntyre’s approach. But let me make this clear: this is not a recommendation for civic apathy. On the contrary, Christians must maintain strong and energetic civic and political involvement. Yet one need not be a political scientist to gauge the long-term prospects of such efforts, nor a futurist or cultural studies expert to see the challenges that lie before us. In the years ahead, it will likely become very hard to be a Christian in this country. Indeed, we might face forms of persecution once thought inconceivable in America. So let us count the cost, both personally and institutionally. Let us recommit ourselves to morally serious, counter-cultural Christian living. And let us abide in this hope: We are in the hands of a sovereign God who is in the business of redemption. Christianity saved Western culture once. Do we have any reason to doubt that the verities of our faith—or better, the God in whom we trust—can do it again?