Monday, August 23, 2010

RELEVANT: why twentysomethings are out of the gay marriage debate

I just read this short article from RELEVANT, speculating as to why my generation--or, more specifically, the Evangelicals of my generation--by and large are not entering into the debates over gay marriage. The author points to four main causes for this silence: the number of openly gay friends and loved ones these young Evangelicals have; we are weary of the caustic rhetoric that these debates usually evoke; the hypocrisy of a condemnation of same-sex marriage that is mum on the divorce rates in churches; and "different categories." By this, the article refers to a growing view that an orthodox stance on sexuality doesn't necessitate an opposition to same-sex unions. Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, is quoted from the book:
I can believe that my gay friends are engaging in something spiritually damaging, without asking the law to stop them. They can perceive that my convictions are grounded in an ancient spiritual consensus, not hate. We still won’t agree. But perhaps we can understand each other, and continue the conversation with mutual respect.

For Mathewes-Green, it seems, an attempt to forcibly prevent such unions through public policy goes beyond the Christian concern for spiritual well-being to an intolerant oppression of those we disagree with.

Here's my question: twentysomething, reading this (and most of you are twentysomethings), how do you fit into this picture? Is this debate one that you've spoken up on, or something that you shy away from? And why--do any of RELEVANT's reasons resonate with you?

I suppose I fall somewhere into the fourth group. I think that homosexual intercourse is plainly contrary to scripture; there's no way around that. And so I have to discourage other Christians from intimate homosexual relationships, and marriage would clearly stand under that umbrella. I have gay friends and relatives whom I care about, but I don't see that as any reason to excuse myself from the conversation. That's not a form I see concern taking. I rarely react to hypocrisy--it's far too prevalent and human a phenomenon to let that direct my course.
But I do find myself echoing Mathewes-Green often enough. I just don't see any excuse for an American legal repudiation of same-sex marriages. We live in a secular democracy, and the country's law is simply not bound by Christian moral teaching (much less a teaching that is hotly debated by the Christians themselves!). If that were how our legislation worked, then any extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relations should be outlawed, along with so many other things. At most, conservatives should hope to establish their 'one man, one woman' definition of "marriage," and then allow for a civil union institution that will grant totally equal rights and privileges to same-sex couples--though my thoroughly-untrained eye doesn't see any legal precedent or authoritative standard that could underpin such a move.

I understand that a lot of Christians, especially conservative Evangelicals, won't follow my thinking here. If you admit that it's a sin, they will say, then how can you support it? I don't. This is one issue (and not the only one that I have to face) where I find myself standing at a fork in the road, with the aims, hopes, and demands of democracy moving very clearly in one direction, while the aims, hopes, and demands of the Kingdom move full-force in another. This will happen sometimes; they are, after all, not the same thing. Democracy must pursue the rights and freedoms of the people, insofar as they do not disrupt the government. On the other hand, the Kingdom, regardless of what connections Christians have drawn for centuries, is not finally interested in rights and freedoms. The Kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). I don't support gay marriage... but I recognize that America ought to. This is just one of those issues where I cannot in good conscience be a good American.
I guess that means I'm out of the gay marriage debate.

Give me some thoughts. Again, what do you make of RELEVANT's observations? How have you been approaching this important and tender question? How has your church community? Why?


Stephen C said...


First, from talking to Law School friends who took Marriage and Family law, I think there could be a precedent. What they've told me is that people aren't able to define marriage for themselves. You can't rework your vows to be something other than marriage. This isn't to be tyrannical or anything. Marriage is just a particular thing, and if you do this other thing, you're simply not getting married or attaining the legal status thereof.

Second, my involvement in the debate. I'm convinced that we're not justified by heterosexuality, that I struggle seriously with my own sins, and yet I know I belong to Jesus. I'm certain there are Christians struggling with homosexuality in that way. If Jesus has gotten involved with us, however, we will surely be sanctified eventually.

Anyway, I'm always so anxious to communicate that I love homosexual persons that I muddle my message. In the past, I've talked as though I didn't want to hold the opinion I do, because why I just love them so much. I do love them, but there are a lot of conversations where I wish I had been clear and direct in saying that I think active homosexual relationships are destructive to the people involved in them, and then been comfortable leaving the conversation there.

Also, I want to note that there is so much emotion surrounding this topic for so many people, that a lot of the time it should just be left alone. Milk before solid food. Just assure them that Jesus loves them, and urge them to embrace His healing lordship. A serious grounding in the Gospel of Grace is necessary before a lot of people are ready to even begin thinking about these issues. Namely because these people have been crushed with judgment all there lives, which is nothing like how Jesus wants us to approach them.

I guess I should say I generally want to address the issue in a compassionate way that is geared towards diffusing the self-righteousness usually polluting one side of this debate. Self-righteousness is the absolute anti-Jesus state of mind and should be aggressively spoken against by Biblical Christians (note I said self-righteousness, not the self-righteous).

As far as the debate goes concerning the politics of the matter, I don't really want to weigh in too heavily because I just don't know.

I recently, however, read some articles by N.T. Wright talking about Christianity and Politics that would probably be relevant. Read "God in Public?" from his website. It's really good. (Shameless plug: This article and the topic of how Christianity relates to politics will be discussed sometime during this semester's bible study through Revelation at St. Alban's at LSU! Come on by and find out more!)

Nance said...

haha I love a good shameless plug.

Thanks, Stephen. I couldn't agree more--though this isn't something I addressed in the post at all--about the need for a Jesus-shaped (if that's not too cliche') message to offer LGBT folks, Christian or otherwise. I thought Andrew Marin's little book, Love is an Orientation, did a great job stressing this, even if at the expense of really stressing much else. If we cannot love a gay friend with we speak the truth to them, love them in a clear and conscientious way, then we probably just need to shut up.

As far as your thoughts about defining marriage go, I'm completely on board with "marriage is just a particular thing..." I'm all about letting things be what they are. I just don't know how far an argument like that would go in a courtroom; as it stands, it's my understanding that there simply is no clear definition of marriage on the books--thus the push for a Constitutional amendment to that effect. As long as that's the case, you'll have no shortage of people (in a public that apparently gets to vote on such things? I'm thinking of Proposition 8...) willing to define marriage as a union between two people, sex aside.
Of course I'd be more than willing to be educated on the matter by the Law folk who actually know about such things. Generally I really don't weigh in too much on the legal stuff, though.

And I've never read that piece by Wright, so I'll go check it out. Thanks for the heads up!

Ben said...

Hey Nance,

I've been meaning to post a comment on your well-written blog for some time, so I'll chime in here.

I don't think you need to worry about being a bad American on this issue. You're perfectly reasonable to both defend someone's civil rights while disagreeing with their exercise of those rights. Just as, for example, there's no inconsistency in supporting the "ground zero mosque" here in NYC while simultaneously being highly critical of Islam itself, which is, arguably, a religion more insensitive to civil rights in general and homosexuality in particular than is Christianity. Simply by respecting secularism, you're being faithful to Jeffersonian liberalism, and that certainly makes you a good American.

-Ben Hixon

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Good convo here. I think the whole issue of Christians seeking the Kingdom in their political lives is a difficult one.

On the one hand, we need to ask what are the purposes of law and governments to begin with? I would answer: to defend (as far as possible) the common good. The debate then moves on to asking "what truly is good for the community?" in which different moral theories, and indeed, the invocation of the Kingdom of Christ must naturally enter the conversation.

The final question - and perhaps most significant for the Christian American - is this: My life is dedicated to embodying the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in every way I can within my sphere on influence; what implications does this have for my political involvement/activism?

Some Christians gladly invoke the Kingdom in fighting poverty or child labor etc. Would not the exact same logic apply for what we might "section off" under the heading of "culture war issues"?

Of course, Jesus wants individuals to submit to his laws gladly and with willing hearts, not under compulsion - so how does that play into this whole discussion.

I am still searching on these issues myself.

The United Methodist Church, according to the Social Principles, "supports laws in civil society that define marriage as a union between one man and one woman." It seems to me that the Social Principles are "official guidance" but not "the end of the conversation" in the same way as the Doctrinal Standards (para. 103), so there is room for more conversation on these questions.

Nance said...

Hey Ben--I'm constantly being surprised by who will leave a comment on (and perforce have been reading!) the blog. Thanks for chiming in.

I think that "respecting secularism" is sort of an understood posture on the part of a lot of Christian thinkers. For instance, Richard Hays--an important Paul scholar and one of the commentators who compels me to acknowledge a biblical rejection of homosexual relations--nevertheless is quite serious in his support of civil rights. The first of his concluding points in a discussion of homosexuality is "Should the church support civil rights for homosexuals? Yes."
This has been my position as well, without any reservations, until the very composition of this post. I haven't really disavowed that idea; I'm just sure of myself any more.

Daniel's comment sheds some light on my predicament. Government is often understood as a guarantor of the individual's freedom; Daniel however chose to understand it primarily in reference to the "common good." The assumption, I think, in the United States at least, is that these two descriptions are more or less synonymous: the common good is the individual's ability to exercise liberty. This seems like a confusion of concepts to me. John Stuart Mill wrote that "the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it." Freedom itself was not conceived of, by Mill at least, as the good we seek. We exercise our freedom to seek a separate good.

So here's the question I'm having to wrestle with. If I am going to submit my beliefs to scripture, and therein something is said to be bad, then am I supporting the liberal ideal of freedom at all by demanding that another be allowed to pursue this thing? I understand that not everyone is obliged or inclined to call it bad, but if I take seriously the sort of absolute morality that the faith espouses, then I can't really embrace a pluralist attitude here.
Then, even if I did think that this was a proper way to go about establishing and upholding liberty--and my gut feeling is still that it would be--then I have to decide whether or not I should proceed by a) holding unsullied democracy in one hand and holding Christianity in another, supporting each independently of the other, or b) simply rejecting, in this case, the convictions and logical consequences of liberalism, because it necessitates that I support something that the faith warns me is toxic. Do I really think that personal freedom (self-determination, I mean) is intrinsically good, and that I ought always to advocate it? That's the big question, and at the moment I'm inclined to say 'no'.
Obviously I don't want to enforce an Christian ethic on non-Christians (or Christians who just disagree with me) by means of the state--which is why I'm not trying to fight against gay marriage. But I don't know that it would be right for me to support liberty if that means I'm in any way encouraging something that I think can damage people.
The more I write about it and think through it, the more it seems clear to me, but there are a lot of intelligent folks who would totally disagree (and whose positions I personally prefer), and so I don't at all want to end the discussion yet.

All of that might have just been an overly complicated way of agreeing with Daniel: "I think the whole issue... is a difficult one."

Ben said...

We can all agree that the intersection of religion and politics is murky, to say the least. If as Daniel suggests (Hey Daniel!) politics is an attempt to answer the question "What truly is good for the community?", then it follows that a political vote is equivalent to a moral vote. Then supporting something politically must be identical to supporting that thing morally, and to disapprove of something morally must translate to political disapproval as well. Hence religion naturally informs political decisions, because Daniel is surely right in thinking that one's religion is the place to turn for a definition of morality. Thus anything toxic to the soul as defined by scripture must be voted down as illegal. And surely you're right Nance that the scripture clearly designates homosexuality a sin. (Though to what degree? Is it closer to murder, or to women wearing jewelry and plaiting their hair? Is it a greater or lesser sin than practicing wiccanism or shinto? Ought those other sins also be made illegal?) So if politics is the collective invocation of morality, then no Christian can vote this November for someone who might legalize gay marriage, and indeed should probably vote for the Christian Reconstructionist party.

However, if a government is to have limited powers, then the equivalency between a political vote and a moral vote is necessarily rendered false, because there is no sphere that morality does not touch, whereas a government limited in power is by definition forbidden from certain spheres. And if a political vote is not always equivalent to a moral vote, than the rest does not follow. Instead of the common good, politics should protect individual liberty, and while there is a lot of overlap I agree that the two are frequently and erroneously conflated. Isaiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative liberty is helpful here, as well as Mill's harm principle you referred to, which clearly distinguishes freedom from good and is a central tenet of libertarianism. Jefferson agrees when he says that "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." So the powers of government do not extend to compulsory morality. Of course, a 2/3 vote by both houses and 3/4 of state legislatures can always change this, so the Constitution is not scripture. But if as Daniel points out Jesus wants individuals to submit gladly without compulsion, then maybe a Christian vote is one for liberty and not government-enforced morality after all.

You describe your dilemma painfully: to be faithful to scripture you can't support a toxic action, so how can you advocate a liberalism which might enable that action? But supporting a liberty is not the same as supporting its exercise, in the same way that freedom of religion isn't equivalent to, say, a support for witchcraft. I think the government needs to get out of the marriage business altogether; since that won't be happening, the next best solution is to limit the government's say-so by repealing DOMA. Supporting the inability of the government to dictate who can or cannot marry is not equivalent to supporting the marriage itself, since liberal support for limited power doesn't mean the liberal is supporting all possible actions that aren't legislatable. So personal freedom oughtn't always be advocated because it's intrinsically good, but because limiting that freedom is intrinsically bad. Your choice not to fight politically against gay marriage might in itself be considered a support for liberty and sufficient to satisfy liberalism.