Now that a constitutional right to same-sex marriage has been declared in the United States, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling last month in Obergefell v. Hodges, many Christians will perhaps respond,
— Inevitable, really: I always thought it was pointless to fight this
or come out with any of the following:
— The horse was out of the barn long ago (the damage to marriage in the sexual revolution, with no-fault divorce, a contraceptive culture, etc.). This is just one more reminder of the world we are in: nothing new here
— It’s done: they won. Actually I’m glad it’s over because now we can forget all about this
— Gays getting married just never bothered me. Why were people fighting this anyway: after moaning about gays being promiscuous they freak out when they want to get married! What does it matter? Canada did this almost a decade ago and what difference has it made?
One thing all of these views have in common is that they pay no attention at all to the implication in the suggestion, from the President of the United States, for one, that
This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts.
What is it these millions believe that is being affirmed by the US Supreme Court, by President Obama, by the colours recently blazoned on the White House, and by the jubilation of these millions? What millions of Americans believe in their hearts is that Christians are against gays, hate or look down on them, bear an “animus” toward them, as the Supreme Court said, and an animus of the same order as the historic contempt of whites for blacks that society repudiated in the last great victory for equality, the triumph of the Civil Rights movement.
Don’t fail to notice that the colours of that glowing White House are the colours of a flag. Whenever one flag is raised in victory there is another flag, somewhere, that the victors have thrown in the dust, as the symbol of the thing they have been fighting. (What is the ‘flag’ that these millions believe has been vanquished? I wish I knew, but it may well be a cross.)
Believe what you like about the years that have led us to the Supreme Court recognition of a Constitutional right to gay marriage; now that Americans have won a victory of such magnitude that the White House itself drapes itself in the flag of the victor, what next?
Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal.
Just ask yourself, who were the vanquished in that last great equality victory (and how were they treated)? The vanquished were race bigots like the waitress at the Bonnie Brae Diner captured in Life magazine, in 1961, defending her decision not to serve the ambassador of Chad:
He looked like just an ordinary run of the mill nigger to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador. We serve them if they don’t get noisy but only out of the goodness of our hearts…. We’ve got our life savings in this place, and the main part of our trade is southern truck drivers.
Even if I love my neighbour in good Christian fashion I have a righteous disdain for contemptible talk like that. I am tempted not to care too much if a business run on such principles tanks under public, federal, I-don’t-much-care-what pressure. Let’s say we pause for a moment to wonder if our attitude toward such people is harsh: the moment passes, to heck with wondering, we have given these people all the consideration they deserve.
Whether that kind of response to bigotry is legitimate or not (I doubt it is) it is not hard to understand it: nothing is easier. And that is the treatment that people got, without much hand-wringing on our part. Were we wrong to think,
— The attitude these die-hards are clinging to has to be driven out.
Weren’t we correct in thinking,
— These bigots want to hold on for dear life, when all of society is changing around them: well let them pay for it, with shaming, with the loss of their businesses, with people taking them to court just out of principle, whether those people could have crossed the road to get that coffee or not.
These thoughts are hardly indefensible.
Well, this is what is coming. This is what it means to be on the losing end of “a victory for America.”
So the question for the Christians who are responding to this event in the several ways noted above is this: do you agree that those fellow-Christians still defending the traditional definition of marriage should get that treatment – the treatment of the losers in an historic win for equality? Because if that is what they are – the losers in an historic victory – then they surely deserve it in the eyes of Americans. And maybe Canadians will get somewhat busier too, in the contagiousness of a ‘civil rights victory’. The question is not self-pitying foolishness (Aren’t you going to stand up for your kind? ) but legitimate and basic: Which of these positions is actually right?
(In answer to ‘what difference has it made in Canada?’, two responses. Is a thing mistaken, is a decision unjust, only the day someone gets unfairly treated because of it? And just how are people gauging this lack of consequence: what counts for them as a consequence? If you believe we have seen a victory for rights, the punishment of the guilty is certainly not something you are going to call an ‘unfortunate effect’.)
Whose side are you on, on today’s calendar date, as the Attorney General of the State of Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union and the person originally affected pile on to sue a seventy-year-old florist who refused to make flower arrangements for the same-sex wedding of a long-time customer? Don’t say ‘Oh but this is too much!’ How much is too much for an assault on “a bedrock principle” on which the nation was founded? How much is too much for discrimination that “threatens not only the rights” of Washington residents “but menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic state,” as the complaint charges? If you agree with the Obergefell decision then this florist has committed the same sort of offense as the Bonnie Brae waitress. Don’t you think she should be punished?
– Or would you defend her decision and her right to keep making it?
You may have been a Christian sitting out the whole marriage debate because it seemed so … [insert here whatever reason you had] – but what now? In a battle for rights it is pro and contra, right and wrong, just as Abraham Lincoln explained.
If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away.
Isn’t it the same with anything right, versus anything wrong?
If “discriminating against” gay customers, as the florist is charged with doing, is wrong, then all words, acts, laws, and constitutions defending and supporting that discrimination are likewise wrong, and should be silenced and swept away. Now, what about all creeds in favour of it? Presumably those creeds should have certain parts of them neutralized in so far as acts affecting others are concerned.
Or is it more complicated than that?
In his victory speech Obama seemed, momentarily, to take account of a certain complexity:
I know that Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue. Opposition, in some cases, has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs.
Sincere, deeply held, and legitimately held beliefs? No. Just sincere and deeply held, like the wrong-headed arguments pro-slavery Christians claimed to discover in the Bible. In this setting all that Obama means by “good will” is that these people who are against equality are not all bad: the beliefs they picked up (which put them on the losing side) they picked up in much the same way as their opponents acquired their beliefs; both sides give their beliefs a central place in their lives and hold these beliefs with equal sincerity. Obama believes all of that. But these people of good will are wrong, as wrong as that Highway 40 waitress, and in the scales of justice all that “good will” is void. They deserve just what is coming to them for raising a flag against equality.
When Obama wrote about this in The Audacity of Hope he said America’s proper course was a matter of “proportion”, of not going too far.
Any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion. … even those who claim the Bible’s inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, based on a sense that some passages – the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ’s divinity – are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life. The American people intuitively understand this, which is why … some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a constitutional amendment banning it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.
What does this add up to?
If your beliefs grind against the view of equality held by the Supreme Court and those many millions, your beliefs are grit in the machinery that defines what America is – an engine of progress – and an America that cares about its progress would be foolish not to remove this grit.
In the last great fight for equality, in which America won (and yes: too bad for the losers), there were two sides: those who believe in equality versus those who believe in inequality; those who see the light versus those who are blinded by animus. The new debate has been framed in just this way, as if we are seeing the same trouble all over again.
But this is an illusion: not there are not two sides, there are three.
1 | those who believe that equality demands same-sex marriage;
2 | those who believe in inequality – who see any deprivation suffered by homosexuals as God’s judgement on homosexuality (if you want to find ‘Christians’ with an animus toward homosexuals that is, sadly, not hard to do: journalists certainly have no trouble since, as it happens, these people often want to be seen);
3 | and those who believe that equality (that “bedrock principle” of every person’s equal rights) is perfectly respected by the traditional understanding of marriage, which does not deprive homosexuals of any of their actual rights – though it doesn’t give them the exact kind of recognition they want. If this is the truth, notice the bracing implication here: we do not even have, in the matter of marriage, an injustice that needs to be fought: there is no ‘fight for justice’ in which to have a victory. The people who think in this way, far from being drooling low brows, include justices on the Supreme Court bench.
In his dissent Justice Roberts said there are competing visions of marriage in America. In the eyes of some
the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling [but] a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational…. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.
Even if you believe, as do Obama and Justice Kennedy (et al.), that equality of rights itself endorses one particular “vision of marriage,” there is a rival view – which is to say, a view that is equally well supported by argument – that equality does not dictate any such thing, indeed dictates no “theory of marriage” at all, leaving the people of a nation that was also built on liberty free to embrace a vision of marriage set on other foundations. For instance, the Christian foundations so central to American history – a foundation of thought that this attempt to fabricate a new equality struggle (“gay is the new black”) is now painting as a virtual enemy of Americans.
If you are going to say anything when these events are mentioned – when people delight over business closures and the arrest of pastors:
city officials [in Coeur d‘Alene, Idaho,] have laid down the law to Christian pastors within their community, telling them bluntly via an ordinance that if they refuse to marry homosexuals they will face jail time and fines –
you are going to have to pick one of those three positions. One of them, obviously, you will have nothing to do with, but if you pick the first position be clear on what you are saying: that the legal punishments meted out to those who deprive others of their rights are deserved punishments. It is perfectly just if, for denying people what equality entitles them to, that gentle grandmother, sympathetic as she may be – as Jesus showed, the law does not ‘look at people’s faces’ (Mt 22:16) – loses her business, her home, her reputation. Her reputation as an upstanding citizen should be the first thing we take from her.
But if, on the other hand, you are going to pick the third position then you will have to learn to make an argument. You really don’t have the option to say,
— It’s too hard to make this argument that people just don’t get: I’d rather just let them have their way and punish whomever they want.
The argument is not complicated, though it is often badly made. (The attempts made at the Supreme Court failed twice, but so far as I know this has never been a test of faulty logic.)
There are three things that have to be explained.
First, why it is that marriage defined as it was does not deny homosexuals or lesbians anything they are owed as the equals of heterosexuals, which they are – in fact we are neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals but people, for whom this institution was created. They are not owed the redefinition of something that they do not want (heterosexual marriage), something that does attract others, in order to get something they do deserve (societal recognition that love is love), which could be had in other ways. The first question you should be able to answer is,
Question 1 | Does a right to same-sex marriage mean the redefinition of marriage?
Second, you will have to make clear why it is that defining marriage restrictively around male and female is not bigotry: why the defense of traditional marriage is not in any way an assault on that “bedrock principle that we are all created equal.” The second question to answer is,
Question 2 | What is a bigot? (Are defenders of traditional marriage denying anyone something that is naturally theirs?)
And third, you will have to show why it makes at least as much sense to define marriage on the basis of the role marriage plays in our society as it does on the basis of the role marriage could play in giving gay unions recognition. The third question is,
Question 3 | What purpose should a definition of marriage serve?
In the three posts to follow these questions are answered in a clear and concise way – because that is what we now have to do, repeatedly: give clear answers in a brief form. The more these things are properly explained the more people will have to see what they do not see now: that the Christian defense of traditional marriage is a legitimate view of marriage not based on animus.
By making these arguments you will hardly convince anyone who is thrilled by the new take on marriage just ratified by the US Supreme Court, but even these people may begin to understand that this is an issue, quite unlike the race issue, on which liberty, the freedom to think differently, has a bearing.
“The Anger That Inflamed Route 40 Yields to Common Sense,” Life (8 December 1961)
Cheryl K. Chumley, “Idaho City’s Ordinance Tells Pastors To Marry Gays or Go To Jail,” Washington Times (20 October 2014)
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Crown, 2006), 261
White House photo: Getty / Mark Wilson