For anyone reading this far enough into the future, the National Conversation is currently focused on the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday making gay marriage legal in all 50 states, which seems to be an appropriate time to share my view on the matter. For what it’s worth, I’ve believed essentially the same thing since some time in college, so at least three years, but since I only started posting regularly on this blog a few months ago, I hadn’t gotten the chance to write it out in detail until now.
Christians, or at least the ones I’ve met, care a lot about their marriages. Christians frequently listen to sermons about marriage, read books about marriage, go through serious pre-marital counseling, talk about their marriages with others, and if they are single, place a lot of hope on their future marriages. One term frequently used is “covenant”: We believe that analogous to how God makes binding promises, or covenants, to his people, the husband and wife in a Christian covenant marriage make binding lifelong promises to each other.
Of course, this is all very good. The most inspiring marriages that I’ve gotten a chance to see have been between two committed Christians. This suggests (but by no means proves) that there is indeed something sacred or special about Christian covenant marriage.
And yet, I don’t think any of this is relevant to the question of what unions the United States of America should recognize as marriage.
This should go without saying, but the US does not consist solely of Christians. There is no requirement that someone be a Christian to live here, or to become a citizen, and our laws rightly do not interpret everyone here to be a Christian. To the contrary, they explicitly grant religious liberty to choose one’s religion.
Within a pluralistic society like this, a collection of distinct, overlapping communities, we sometimes use the same words to mean different things. Marriage, to a Christian, often means what I described above: a binding lifelong exclusive heterosexual union with an analogy to God’s promises to man, and often specifically to Jesus’s relationship to Christians as a whole. But others also use the word as well. To some, Christian or not, children are a big emphasis. To others, personal fulfillment and improvement. To some, it may not be sexually exclusive. To others, it may not be heterosexual.
In fact, I might go even further to say that every marriage is pretty unique. I’ve had the privilege of attending three weddings of friends over the past month and a half, and each couple definitely tailored the ceremony and reception to their own vision of what marriage is about. Is it worthy hard work, or mainly a good time? Is it a joining of individuals, or families? Traditional or progressive? Complementarian or egalitarian? Many of these questions impact the marriage just as much as they do the ceremony.
Given this diversity, I see very little reason to remind someone that their union that they wish to call marriage is not a covenant marriage like the ones Christians have and strive for. In fact, that would be rather annoying. They know they aren’t Christians, and they’re not trying to pretend to be. Why bother?
“But they’re misusing our word!” some might object. Since when is marriage a Christian word? Every culture has featured something like it, and it would be rather pedantic to rewrite most accounts to only consider Christian marriages to be marriages. The Bible doesn’t even do this: as just one example, the character of Pontius Pilate, definitely not a Christian, is recorded as having a wife (Matthew 27:19). Matthew doesn’t bother to use a different word for her (γυνή) there than Paul uses when referring to Christian wives, e.g. in Ephesians 5. Every culture has wanted to call some things marriages that didn’t match the Christian ideal.
“But non-Christian heterosexual marriages are also holy in a way that homosexual marriages aren’t!” This seems rather hard to believe for me. What way is that? “Because they can have children together!” Well, what about barren couples, old couples, or couples who suffer an injury affecting childbearing? “Because if they become Christians, they could stay married!” At the same time, not everyone will become a Christian. Yes, we believe that every knee will eventually bow, but at that point, there won’t be marriage anyways (Mark 12:25). And if a couple does become Christian, many churches already encourage them to reaffirm their vows to each other in light of their new faith. I see no reason why this should not be standard.
“But homosexual sex is sinful!” So is adultery, but we’re not about to make it illegal. And so are greed, malice, lust, gluttony, drunkenness, and idolatry, but we’re not about to make the stock market, internet forums, porn sites, buffets, bars, and celebrity-focused media illegal even though they are institutions that encourage such things. Everyone already knows and agrees that sin is a broader definition than crime, that Christians are called to walk a narrower line than simply following the law.
“But children will be raised to believe that gay marriage is completely normal!” Are you saying you were hoping they’d learn good theology through public schooling? That you, as their parent, will say nothing about the sanctity of Christian covenant marriage? That there was nothing already in conflict between Christianity and the American dream?
“But gay marriage will inevitably lead to conflicts with religious liberty! What if a baker or florist doesn’t want their cakes or flowers to play a role in a gay wedding?” All of these conflicts already existed. What if they didn’t want to serve at a Muslim or Mormon wedding, or even just any wedding that isn’t explicitly Christian? It’s really rather odd to single out gay weddings and draw the line there. I suppose that people might have a right to draw strange lines like that, but those rights will be sorted out over time as the dust settles.
Behind many of these arguments is an unstated cultural norm that America is a Christian nation and we can assume that everyone is basically a Christian until they do something as obvious as marry someone of the same gender. This is the flash point, not any of the other sins I listed, simply because a gay marriage ceremony is so obviously not Christian, while other sins are either more in the shadows or more slippery.
This is why we see eulogies at funerals talk about the dead going to a better place whether or not they professed any belief. It’s why we have debates about a war on Christmas, as if we somehow believe that everyone should celebrate the holiday like Christians do, the true “reason for the season.” Gay marriage is just one of the most obvious symptoms of the death of a universal nominal civic religion in this country.
So what should the state recognize as “marriage”? I don’t think there’s an obvious answer. We have a bunch of instances of relationships that might fit, and it’s a question of which examples are similar enough to other examples. Ultimately, it’ll come down to what that label will be used for.
Taxes are pretty easy to understand: From an economic perspective today, there is very little difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriages, so they should be taxed the same. (Well, there is probably a gender pay gap. But this would suggest a somewhat complicated fix of taxing gay couples more but lesbian couples less… but the exact amounts would be rather complicated to calculate.)
Children are a little bit more complicated. There is naturally very little data on long-term effects of children raised by homosexual couples, so we can’t answer what the average effect is yet. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Does every heterosexual couple raises kids better than every homosexual couple? Hardly. Even restricted to those seeking to adopt, I wouldn’t expect that to be even close to true.
I had a happy childhood, and I’m thankful to both of my parents for how they raised me. I can see positive effects from having both a father (e.g. to coach my soccer teams) and a mother (e.g. to help me to deal with social situations). It’s hard for me to imagine how it would have been different if either of them had been the opposite gender, because it would have affected so much.
Childhood consists of many important moments, some of which are potentially easier for a biological father and a mother to handle. But those are just a small component of 18 years of parenting, and by no means should be a dealbreaker for a loving homosexual couple seeking to adopt. And of course, this is all armchair theorizing; it is incredibly unfair not to give them the chance to prove themselves.
While I’m reminiscing about my childhood, I also think of the single mother in our neighborhood who has been one of my mom’s closest friends for the last nearly 20 years. She chose to adopt three girls and raised them by herself to adulthood, and pretty adeptly as far as I’ve been able to tell. (Honestly, read that blog post I linked; I had already written a draft of this paragraph when Erika posted it on Facebook. Quite the coincidence…)
So that’s who I think of when people say that kids always need a mother and a father. Should she not have been allowed to adopt?
But when you talk to gay couples, this isn’t about the tax benefits and the opportunity to adopt children. The right to marry is just a big deal in itself to them. Without it, they’ve felt under direct attack, oppressed, that homophobic bigots run the country.
That’s why the decision to recognize gay marriage should have been one of the easiest decisions to make. Hypothetical concerns about a word or if they become Christians or homosexual parenting being inferior fall far short of the importance of the right to marry to many gays and lesbians. Who are we to say that these small potential concerns of ours outweigh their freedom?
It even goes beyond that, though. By staking a claim in the opposing side, Christians have done more damage to our reputation than almost anything else. We’ve literally told gay people across the country, “No, your intense desire to get married means nothing to us.” They’ve felt, and others have observed, the sting of those words. And they want nothing to do with us.
So I’d challenge every Christian who has stood in opposition to gay rights: Do you really believe the hypothetical concerns you’ve brought up outweigh their desire to free themselves from oppression? Is every non-Christian homosexual couple seeking marriage less worthy of governmental recognition of their vows than every non-Christian heterosexual couple seeking it?
Well, this is convenient timing for me to say something like this, isn’t it? Right when it no longer matters what anyone in this country believes anymore. As much as some Republicans might want to try to write a constitutional amendment to overrule the Supreme Court, that’s a Hail Mary that no one’s running deep to catch.
All I can say to my friends who supported gay marriage before me is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not speaking up sooner in a context like this. I’ve been pretty open with these views in Christian small groups I’ve been part of, and with close friends, and I wouldn’t say I was “closeted” about this in any way. You’ll pretty much have to take my word that I wasn’t afraid to speak up, but only now have the context to write out my thoughts completely like this. My only hope is that you’ll read this as better late than never.