Recognizing the civil-religious disconnect, or, “what to do about ‘gay marriage'”

I’ve been working through the whole ‘gay marriage’ issue in my head for a while now, driven in good part by the discussion over on rmfo.net (you’ve gotta be a member to read it, sorry) surrounding California’s Proposition 8. The evangelically-popular, Dobsonian position is familiar to me, but has always seemed (like most Dobsonian political positions) to be harmful to the Kingdom; focusing on divisive politics rather than loving everyone and focusing on the heart issues. Today, though, Andrew Sullivan’s piece on TheAtlantic.com really solidified things for me; in other words, he said what I’ve been thinking – only much more clearly and concisely.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Andrew Sullivan, here’s where he’s coming from: he’s a relatively conservative gay man. That in itself gives you some idea to which side of the debate he comes down on… but don’t let that bias you towards him without giving him a listen. He nails it.

[Many long for] a return to the days when civil marriage brought with it a whole bundle of collectively-shared, unchallenged, teleological, and largely Judeo-Christian, attributes. Civil marriage once reflected a great deal of cultural and religious assumptions: that women’s role was in the household, deferring to men; that marriage was about procreation, which could not be contracepted; that marriage was always and everywhere for life…

But that position, Sullivan says, is untenable.

If conservatism is to recover as a force in the modern world, the theocons and Christianists have to understand that their concept of a unified polis [(state)] with a telos [(purpose, goal)] guiding all of us to a theologically-understood social good is a non-starter. Modernity has smashed it into a million little pieces. Women will never return in their consciousness to the child-bearing subservience of the not-so-distant past. Gay people will never again internalize a sense of their own “objective disorder” to acquiesce to a civil regime where they are willingly second-class citizens. Straight men and women are never again going to avoid divorce to the degree our parents did. Nor are they going to have kids because contraception is illicit. The only way to force all these genies back into the bottle would require… [an] oppressive police state…

Exactly. My dad said much this same thing in a sermon he preached back before the election (which I still haven’t posted, sorry, Dad!) when he likened the Dobson-esque conservatives to the proverbial dog chasing a car. The problem for the dog is when it catches the car – what the heck do you do with it then?

Back to Mr. Sullivan:

That way is to agree that our civil order will mean less; that it will be a weaker set of more procedural agreements that try to avoid as much as possible deep statements about human nature. And that has a clear import for our current moment. The reason the marriage debate is so intense is because neither side seems able to accept that the word “marriage” requires a certain looseness of meaning if it is to remain as a universal, civil institution.

And then he nails it with an example that hadn’t occurred to me.

This is not that new. Catholics, for example, accept the word marriage to describe civil marriages that are second marriages, even though their own faith teaches them that those marriages don’t actually exist as such. But most Catholics are able to set theological beliefs to one side and accept a theological untruth as a civil fact. After all, a core, undebatable Catholic doctrine is that marriage is for life. Divorce is not the end of that marriage in the eyes of God. And yet Catholics can tolerate fellow citizens who are not Catholic calling their non-marriages marriages – because Catholics have already accepted a civil-religious distinction. They can wear both hats in the public square.

[Emphasis mine.]

I am convinced that this is the right position. Certainly, Christians need to be free to teach per their convictions on homosexuality, and need to be free to discriminate as to who they will marry, hire, and so on. (Sullivan argues specifically for those protections in his column.) But we need to accept, nay, support a broader, freer civil arrangement; an arrangement that allows for freedom for as many as possible to live as their conscience dictates in a way that is consistent with the peaceful, common good.

Putting that civil arrangement in place will provide a basis for the lively exchange of ideas that should be present in a free society. While it won’t look quite like what the Founders set up in the United State more than 200 years ago, it’ll be more what they intended. Let’s face it – we don’t live in 1780 anymore. We will do better if we adapt the principles of 1780 for the world of 2008 and move forward. For this topic that means embracing the civil/religious disconnect and supporting state-sanctioned civil marriage for both hetero- and homosexuals.

11 thoughts to “Recognizing the civil-religious disconnect, or, “what to do about ‘gay marriage'””

  1. I’ve even argued in the past that I don’t care whether the state sanctions marriage at all, but I do think that civil society does need to recognize and validate non-familial bonds that two consenting adults choose to make with each other. It’s more contract law than anything, although certainly the contract dissolution negotiations have a lot more heartache.

    You’ve described largely where I find myself, and honestly, if I hadn’t gone home this weekend, I would’ve gone to Huntsville’s anti-Prop 8 rally. This is a civil rights issue, and it pisses me off. I wrote a letter to Sullivan as such last night.

  2. Chris,
    I find this all very alarming. I decided to check out your blog largely due to hearing from others your comments on gay marriage, and thought I have to check this out for myself in order to avoid rending a pre-mature judgment. And I have to tell you that talk about 'right' and 'wrong' (according to Scripture) must be a thing of the past. Not once is it mentioned in your comments what Scripture says to this issue. The real dis-connect is when people refuse to acknowledge what God says about marriage and homosexuality. Everything else that is not based on Truth, on what God says, is verbal kaka, Chris, I am sorry, brother, but the second we set aside Truth (and say it's outdated and that we need to intertwine it with what is socially acceptable today) and find it more necessary to be bound by what the 'law' says (this law is made by man, not God's Law) is when we put ourselves on real shaky ground and en-danger ourselves of having no testimony to those who desperately need God. Chris, you are my friend, but this doesn't sound like you. I am really having a hard time believing that this is the stance you are taking.

    1. Nate,

      I'm a little bit disappointed by your comments here. Calm down a bit, back up, take a second read, and hear what I actually said. My goal with this piece was NOT to talk about what Christians should believe or what I believe the Bible teaches about homosexual behavior. You will still find my beliefs to be as orthodox as ever.

      But, to your point, I have a question for you: where in the Bible does God tell us what position a secular government should take on homosexual "marriage"? I don't think that it's a given that a secular government should hold all the same positions that God's people should hold. So then we have this discussion.

      As you can read above, I think the evangelical church has been mistaken to fight so hard against the idea. In the end, it has profited us little, and has instead alienated us from a large group of people who very desperately need to hear the Gospel.

  3. The best argument in favor or what you just said, Chris, is to just observe Paul's behavior in the NT. He lived in an empire that was far more pagan than ours (though we're getting there quickly), yet he never advocated that Christians should try to impose their moral stances on their society. He certainly never advocated revolution, which would have been the only option in their non-democratic society. As I read his letters, he seemed to advocate a "quiet revolution" of the heart.

    Now I am a transformationalist, that is, I believe gospel redemption applies to all of creation. But I believe that transformation happens from the inside out, from the heart to behavior. In other words, if Christians want to transform society to be more "Christian," they do so by making more Christians, not by using power plays to impose their standards on unwilling unbelievers.

  4. Government, by God's design, is coercive. It bears not the sword in vain. Its main purpose is to keep us from killing each other -literally-. Look what happens in "failed states". The church should always be persuasive. "Put that sword down. Live by it, die by it!" When the church or any religious body, combines with the government, there is nothing but trouble. Note Constantine, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Taliban etc. Christ always appealed to the hearts of the people, not their twisted arms. Christianity seems to see its most explosive growth (of real heart-and life- changed people) under very secular, even oppressive governments.

    The important point to protect, if we can, is the freedom to evangelize, (faith comes by hearing) and the freedom of people to make changes in response to their heart changes. The same freedoms are going to allow behavior by those with unchanged hearts that Christians will be appalled by. But that is who and where we all were and are without a real inside out change of heart.

    God looks on our hearts and values our faith. There is something almost Palagian in the assumptions of government laws to enforce "Christian" behavior.

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