This week has been a watershed moment for the fortunes of marriage in our culture. I’ve been following the discussion with great interest, including listening to oral arguments that were made before the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday (here and here).
Without question, the most significant thing that I have noticed in debates both inside and outside the Court has been the utter lack of moral argument. This was brought home in spades on Wednesday when Justice Elena Kagan highlighted a statement made by the House Judiciary Committee in 1996 when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed. Here are the critical lines:
Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.
As you can see, the statement is unambiguously moral. In fact, it renders a moral judgment on homosexuality that would be almost unheard of in contemporary political discourse.
The 1996 statement draws a sharp contrast with the debates we’ve been hearing this week—debates that have been evacuated of any trace of moral argument about homosexuality. It is clear that Kagan counts such moral judgments as out of bounds, and of course proponents of gay marriage would agree. But what has struck me this week is that traditional marriage proponents seem to have conceded the point as well. Thus no one on either side of the question ever seems to raise the issue of the moral status of homosexual acts. This is a major shift in our national conversation about marriage, and it happened in less than twenty years.
It’s easy to understand why gay marriage proponents would resist arguments about the moral status of homosexuality. They consider the matter settled in favor of their view. But why have traditional marriage supporters ceded that ground? And is it proper for them to do so?
Take Ryan Anderson’s appearance on the Piers Morgan program earlier this week. Anderson did a fine job of making the case for marriage in a very hostile context. But did you notice that he made no argument concerning the nature of homosexuality itself? He presented a typical natural law case for marriage, arguing for the intrinsic link between heterosexual marriage, procreation, and child-rearing. But he made no mention–even on natural law grounds– that heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality. Why not?
There seems to be a strategic calculation that the case for marriage must be made in the public space on exclusively non-religious grounds. Albert Mohler argues that this approach is a strategic mistake and a failure of principle. I agree with him. Here’s why.
Let me say first of all that I consider Ryan Anderson to be one of the good guys. He is a stalwart leader in the cause to keep traditional marriage privileged in law. He is the co-author of What Is Marriage?, and he has been front and center this week making the case before millions of Americans. Moreover, he has taken his lumps this week for speaking out. If you don’t believe me, just take a gander at the ill-treatment he received at the hands of Piers Morgan and Suze Orman. He bears a reproach for the stand that he has taken, and I want to share that reproach with him.
But I do want to question the wisdom of making the case for marriage on purely amoral and non-religious grounds. And on this point I’m thinking particularly of how Christians engage this issue in the public square. As the public space for holding forth Christian views shrinks, does it really make sense to contract Christian moral reasoning in order to fit the smaller space? If we do that, will we not be surrendering the very aspects of our message still powerful enough to provoke the moral imagination of the people we are trying to persuade? Will it not seem disingenuous and evasive for us to ignore the elephant in the room?
Let’s face it. The primary reality shaping the contemporary debate is a moral judgment about homosexuality. Related to that is the fact that public opinion has shifted dramatically concerning the moral status of homosexuality. Seventeen years ago, the House Judiciary Committe could call it immoral with absolutely no controversy. Now only seventeen years later, such a statement would be considered by many in our country as hateful, bigoted, and beyond the bounds of rational discourse. The proponents of gay marriage know that this shift has taken place, and they enter this debate with the cultural winds at their backs.
Is it not the role of Christians to stand athwart this prevailing culture? Is it not the very definition of being salt and light to do so (Matt. 5:13-14)? We cannot faithfully bear witness to the Christian story without also telling how human sexuality and marriage fit into it. That means that even those who make exclusively natural law arguments will have to bring focus upon what the natural law has to say about sexual morality. The natural law speaks not only to the links between marriage and childrearing but also to the morality of the sexual act itself. We can hardly speak of the former without also explaining the latter.
It also means that Christians must be willing to move beyond the publicly assessable arguments of natural law to the specific witness of Christian revelation. It is not legitimate for Christians to suspend indefinitely their Christian witness when they enter the public space. If suspending that witness indefinitely becomes the terms for getting a place at the table, then we may need to forfeit our seat. At the end of the day, we must be willing to go to Jesus outside the camp and bear his reproach (Heb. 13:13). If we fail to do that, we’ve lost the debate no matter how many people may be compelled by our eloquent appeals to reason and natural law.
I am not saying that we should drop natural law arguments in favor of biblical ones. This is not an either/or thing. It’s a both/and thing. We’ve got to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. That means that we press both natural law and biblical arguments as far as they go. And in doing so, we must never leave behind the fact that our views on these matters are fundamentally moral in nature. That message may marginalize us in some contexts. But isn’t that what it means to count the cost of following Christ? (Luke 14:27-28)