Same-Sex Marriage:Crisis in Society, Summons to the Church

The debate over gay marriage that erupted in the United States during 2004 seems to have taken everyone by surprise –at least judging from the sputtering and apoplexy that has frequently replaced argument on both sides of the issue. Howard Dean’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, peaking in January, reminded voters of the Vermont civil union statute that Dean signed into law in 2000, offering a package of “marriage-like” benefits to samesex couples. Rings But the concept of civil union, which had seemed radical four years earlier, was unexpectedly leap-frogged in early February by the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s insistence that the state constitution required full marriage rights for same-sex couples. The court gave the Massachusetts General Assembly six months to create an appropriate statute. Within a week of this decision, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom vaulted to the head of the parade by ordering city officials to solemnize gay marriages despite the refusal of the state legislature to approve of anything beyond domestic partnerships.

The reaction was not slow to set in. Dean’s campaign fizzled out in the Iowa caucuses; his support for civil unions, while not the sole reason for his implosion, couldn’t have helped his perceived electability. Newsom was forced to back down by the California Supreme Court and the marriages performed in San Francisco were annulled. During the summer, Republicans in Congress hastily forced a vote on a “Defense of Marriage” amendment to the Constitution, even though it had no chance of passage, on the savvy assumption that it could serve as an effective wedge issue in the fall campaign. Bush’s narrow margin of victory in November was attributed by many to a strong turnout of conservative voters mobilized by the “gay marriage” issue. Even though the stated differences between Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards were minimal on the issue, Americans opposed to same-sex marriage obviously trusted Bush more as a guardian of their values. Liberals were further discomfited by the passage of antigay marriage initiatives in all eleven states that placed them on the ballot.

Throughout, the debate was characterized by the kind of mutual incomprehension that has become only too familiar in culture war debates. For many proponents of gay marriage, the idea that same-sex weddings could harm marriage as an institution was patently ridiculous. How, they asked rhetorically, would marrying a gay couple in Massachusetts or San Francisco harm the marriages of heterosexual couples in Tennessee or Des Moines? Doesn’t it rather strengthen the institution, by witnessing to the attractiveness of the fidelity and stability that marriage is assumed to foster? Do conservatives, they wondered, really think that marriage is the more valued more it is restricted?

Conservatives, for their part, took it as given that the push for gay marriage was not at all about valuing marriage, but rather about validating gayness. The “gay lifestyle,” assumed to be characterized by promiscuity and indifference to family stability, was seen as incompatible with marriage as traditionally understood. Incorporating gay couples into the marriage system, therefore, would effectively subvert the institution from within, with disastrous consequences for society. Especially given the weakened condition of marriage after two generations of high divorce rates and coarsened sexuality, they felt that the times demanded a defense of marriage, not a risky social experiment on it.

Whatever the degree of cogency in the underlying arguments, however, much of the public debate was carried on in terms of slogans and stereotypes. Supporters of gay marriage accused opponents of homophobia; opponents associated supporters with a radical “homosexual agenda.”   Christians must parse the meaning of marriage not only as a social and legal arrangement, but as a venture of faith and discipleship.   The presidential candidates maneuvered wildly. Kerry’s stated opposition to redefining marriage to include same-sex unions was offset by his opposition to amending the Constitution to prevent such redefinition. Bush supported the amendment, but scrambled to appear at least as tolerant of gays and lesbians as Vice President Cheney was regarding his lesbian daughter, Mary. John Edwards mentioned Mary Cheney and her partner in the vice presidential debate, drawing a guardedly polite response from her father; in contrast Kerry’s similar allusion in the second presidential debate was greeted with scornful fury by Mrs. Cheney. The discussion was cloaked in symbolism and subterfuge rather than substantive argument.

One factor that reduced chances for a substantive discussion was that views on marriage and homosexuality were seen to be connected to religious belief. Most politicians and pundits were reluctant to bring religion into the discussion of a public policy issue, despite the clear role of religious belief in undergirding beliefs about marriage and homosexuality. In an exception that proves the rule, Illinois’ Republican senatorial candidate Alan Keyes indicted homosexuality as “selfish hedonism” and called Mary Cheney a sinner. His attack brought a mild rebuke from the Cheney family–although, ironically, nothing like the storm that would later greet Kerry’s complimentary reference to her. Keyes’s eventual landslide loss to Barack Obama was due to many factors, but his inability to maintain the delicate line between religion and public policy was arguably one of them.

Meanwhile, a different approach to the debate was initiated by Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, in a series of articles published in the Weekly Standard and National Review Online. Respecting the unwritten rule that public policy debate should be based on the empirically observable or predictable consequences of proposed policies, rather than on problematic appeals to divine commands or natural law, Kurtz analyzed the data regarding marriage from European countries where gay marriage has been approved. Focusing particularly on Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, Kurtz argued that the data demonstrate a correlation between the approval of gay marriage and the weakening of the institution of heterosexual marriage in society as a whole. Out-of-wedlock childbirth, family dissolution (whether through divorce or break-up of unmarried parents), and single-parent households –with all the attendant social problems –are in Kurtz’s view bound to increase in societies where gay marriage is approved.

Of course, it is difficult enough to demonstrate correlation between two phenomena, and even more difficult to move from correlation to causation, much less to an explanation of that causation. Kurtz eventually argued for the nuanced claim that “gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of the increasing separation between marriage and parenthood” (emphasis mine). He went on to explain:

As rising out-of-wedlock birthrates disassociate heterosexual marriage from parenting, gay marriage becomes conceivable. If marriage is only about a relationship between two people, and is not intrinsically connected to parenthood, why shouldn’t same-sex couples be allowed to marry? It follows that once marriage is redefined to accommodate same-sex couples, the change cannot help but lock in and reinforce the very cultural separation between marriage and parenthood that makes gay marriage conceivable to begin with. (Weekly Standard 9/20, Feb. 2, 2004)

As support for this explanation, Kurtz noted anecdotally that the groups and individuals supportive of gay marriage were often least supportive of the importance of marriage for parenting and for society as a whole–and vice versa. Kurtz’s argument was taken up enth
usiastically by religious conservatives as an empirical confirmation of their belief that exclusive heterosexual marriage was in accord with divine command and natural law. In Christianity Today (June 2004, p. 72), Charles Colson cited Kurtz’s conclusions as support for his argument that legalizing gay marriage will lead to more family breakdown and crime. “Like it or not,” Colson argued, “there is a natural moral order for the family. History and tradition–and the teachings of Jews, Muslims, and Christians–support the overwhelming empirical evidence….”

However, critics have challenged Kurtz’s interpretation of the data. M. V. Lee Badgett, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, argued that, despite the obvious increase in the rate of non-marital child-bearing in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, households headed by both parents are still the norm; that Kurtz fails to show a convincing correlation between gay marriage and the non-marital birth rate, since such rates rose just as fast before gay marriage was approved, as well as in countries that did not recognize gay marriage; and that in any case, the incentives to marriage in American society are much stronger than in northern European welfare states. Hence, in her view, there is no empirical basis for the prediction that recognition of gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage and family structures in the U.S. (“Will Providing Marriage Rights to Same-Sex Couples Undermine Heterosexual Marriage? Evidence from Scandinavia and the Netherlands,” available at www.contemporaryfamilies.org).

II

The debate over empirical data will no doubt continue; Christians should follow it attentively, and assess it objectively. But denominations, congregations, and church leaders have a different challenge in this ongoing discussion: to parse the meaning of marriage not only as a social and legal arrangement but as a venture of faith and discipleship. Marriage must be understood in a way that goes beyond its psychological and cultural consequences, in a way that is grounded in a vision of life lived before God and in fellowship with Christ and the church. And this vision must be articulated in a climate of contestation, where fellow Christians disagree deeply about the role of the church, its clergy, and its liturgy in offering recognition and meaning to relationships between gay and lesbian believers.

The church’s task is complicated by its chronic uncertainty about the nature of marriage itself.   The emerging conviction that slavery was contrary to the Gospel required Christians to reinterpret passages in Scripture that legitimated it.   For many Christians, marriage is easy to recognize, but– once past the level of formal definition–difficult to explain, to ourselves and others. We struggle to articulate the connections among emotional and sexual intimacy, economic and social partnership, parenting, fidelity, and Christian vocation. We recognize that the state governs the institution in most of its particulars, yet we are compelled to link it to central religious realities and symbols as well. And we have only begun to re-state its meaning in the light of the seismic cultural and scientific shifts of the past century: the Kinsey reports and their offspring; pervasive secularization and cultural diversity; contraception and unprecedented reproductive technologies; and the revolution in our understandings of gender relations and sexual orientation.

In order to begin addressing this imposing agenda, I would like to propose a few theses to challenge and develop the church’s thinking about sexual orientation and marriage. The theses (which in no way represent an official editorial position of Perspectives) will be controversial. I know that many sincere and thoughtful Christians will initially resist or reject them. I arrived at them only by a slow process of reflection and experience, which I seek to test against the reflections and experiences of other believers.

1. Scripture is authoritative for the church on this issue; but its message must be reassessed in the light of what we have come to know from historical experience and careful investigation.

Throughout its history, the church has often been called upon to re-read its Scripture in order to come to terms with new discoveries or emerging insights. The discoveries of modern astronomy, for example, necessitated the recognition that a geocentric cosmology was not part of the essential teaching of the Bible, even though such a view is clearly present in many biblical texts. The emerging conviction that chattel slavery was contrary to the gospel required Christians to re-interpret passages in Scripture where the legitimacy of slavery was presupposed. Although such re-readings of Scripture were divisive and controversial when they occurred, we now regard them as moments of important discernment in the history of the church.

The church must guard against the tendency merely to discard uncomfortable passages of Scripture on the basis of cultural opinions that are not shaped by the basic message of the Gospel. Equally, it must guard against an inflexible insistence that traditional interpretations are not subject to correction or revision on the basis of clear fact and Gospel insight. And in times of discernment, Christians must obey the rule of charity toward those who disagree with them, as long as they can recognize that their dissenting sisters and brothers share a commitment to interpreting the Bible in the light of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus Christ.

2. Sexual orientation is not chosen by the individual; and in many cases it is not subject to alteration. These are facts that the church cannot deny or evade.

Many Christians still believe that the “homosexual lifestyle” is, in virtually all cases, chosen by individuals who could just as easily choose heterosexuality. From a scientific perspective, this idea is now on a par with Flat Earth theories; from a moral perspective, given the availability of information on the subject, such a belief reflects a culpable failure to acknowledge uncontrovertible fact. Leaders in the church, no matter what their views on the moral status of homosexuality, are obliged to confront and refute this view, even (perhaps especially) when it is expressed by those who in other respects agree with them about homosexuality.

The issue of sexual re-orientation is more complex. Some Christians who recognize the complex, non-chosen nature of same-sex orientation still insist that it is subject to therapeutic intervention and alteration in at least some cases.   In the churches of the Reformation, celibacy is not a state of life that can be imposed on a Christian by the law of the church.  Whether or not this is true (it is a minority view among psychologists), and whatever the percentage of alterable orientations, every informed participant needs to acknowledge that re-orientation does not work for a significant number of gay and lesbian people who attempt it. Such persons cannot be dismissed as morally defective or obstinate, or as a statistical “residue” that can be disregarded when the church develops its position. They live among us in our families and congregations and communities as Christian believers, and they must be given the full respect and consideration of the church.

3. Sexual attraction and intimacy are basic components of the emotional intimacy that achieves its full meaning in the context of marital commitment.

A person with a same-sex orientation can no more achieve genuine sexual attraction to and intimacy with an oppositesex partner than a heterosexual can with a same-sex partner. This means that a b
asic building-block for emotional intimacy and commitment is available to gay and lesbian people only in the context of a same-sex relationship. If such relationships are forbidden by the church, then gay and lesbian Christians are denied the context within which healthy emotional intimacy and commitment are developed.

Celibacy, a pattern of life that foregoes development of an intimate partnership with another individual, can be an honorable calling for some who wish to devote themselves without reserve to other goals and relationships. It can also be a burden borne by some who have not succeeded in finding an intimate partner to share their life. But at least in the churches of the Reformation, it is not a state of life that can be imposed on a Christian by the law of the church. We need to consider the implications of this for the common strategy of mandating a celibate life for gay and lesbian Christians.

4. Christian marriage represents a realm of values and an opportunity for human thriving that the church should seek to offer to all its members.

For the church to close the doors of Christian marriage to any of its members is, on its face, a restriction of the Gospel as it relates to this area of life. The early church decided at the Council of Jerusalem that the boundary formed by Jewish identity could no longer contain the Gospel message; therefore, it mandated the admission of Gentiles on an equal basis (Acts 15). So the church is called now to consider whether the denial of marriage to gay and lesbian Christians is, in light of what we now know and experience, an unacceptable limitation of the Gospel. If such denial has the effect of “ghettoizing” brothers and sisters in Christ, excluding them from this realm of values, because of who they are and cannot help being, then the church must change.

Yet, it is important that the church offer Christian marriage, not a diluted or secularized substitute. Ideas of marriage as a temporary contract “revocable by UHaul,” or a collection of convenient legal and fiscal arrangements requiring no fidelity, or “a private institution designed solely for the gratification of its participants” (as Colson fears) must be challenged by a vision of marriage as a covenant partnership, permanent and exclusive, yet reaching beyond the couple to embrace extended families, church communities and neighborhoods, and anchored in faith, worship and discipleship.

Granted, the church needs to renew its vision of heterosexual marriage in exactly the same way. The challenge may be greater with same-sex couples, however, precisely because the alienation between them and the church is deeper and longer. In reaction, some sectors of the gay community have developed views of sexual intimacy that are profoundly antithetical to the Gospel. The church cannot purchase reconciliation on the cheap by reshaping the Gospel according to alien standards; but neither can it remain un-reconciled in order to avoid conflict and its attendant risks. We have our command from God, “who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Christians must participate in the public debate over same-sex marriage, with its emphasis on empirical data and predicted consequences. That participation should be informed by an attempt at honest and even-handed assessment, rather than partisanship and tendentiousness. Whatever else we do in the church as we discuss this in coming years, we must at least avoid the easy sloganeering and name-calling that we witnessed earlier this year in the wider society. But we must not forget that a deeper discussion, one more profoundly connected to our identity as Christians, awaits us within the church. This discussion must be carried on in the spirit of the Gospel itself, avoiding rancor and recrimination, understanding the aspirations and anxieties of those who disagree with us, and upholding the goal of discernment for the church rather than victory for “our” party. Only if the church is true to the Gospel in the way it struggles with this issue can it achieve truth in the result of that struggle.

David E. Timmer is Professor of Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a co-editor of Perspectives.