A Conservative Christian Case for Civil Same-Sex Marriage

Since conservative Christians oppose gay marriage in the church for religious reasons, it is in our best interest to support gay marriage in society for civil rights reasons.

Wasn't sure you heard me the first time? Then let me be absolutely clear: Conservative Christians should support civil same-sex marriage.

Why? Because the question of whether to allow civil same-sex marriage is a civil liberties question, and maintaining a respect for people's civil liberties in this country is always to the church's advantage. In fact, it is absolutely essential for the survival of our religious freedom in a pluralistic society.

For obvious reasons we Christians have always been adamant supporters of civil liberties when it comes to freedom of religion. We have even managed to be consistent in this principle by not opposing the rights of Buddhists, New Agers, or even Satanists to meet, because we realize that to do so would equally undercut our own right to assemble. Perhaps the thought of undermining religious freedom sends through our minds flashes of those days when the Emperor Nero used to ignite Christians as human torches to light the streets of Rome at night. The persecutions against the early church have ingrained into our Christian consciousness the incredible value of living under a government that protects the interests of religion.

But in the case of civil same-sex marriage, instead of recognizing the civil rights issue at stake here, we oppose the idea, quoting Bible verses and appealing to morals, nature, tradition, history, and the fear that Western civilization as we know it will come crashing to the ground. All of these arguments are related, of course. They are an appeal to that part of American society in which Judeo-Christian values are still deeply rooted. For even in America at the dawning of the 21st century, many people's understanding of morality and nature still reflect the vestiges of the Western Christendom of our heritage, as do their ideas of tradition, history and an ideal society.

We do not, however, argue against civil same-sex marriage in the spirit of calm persuasion. There is desperation in our tone. There is also a great deal of fear and mean-spiritedness in our rhetoric, to the point where we even accuse homosexuals (without much proof, I might add) of being child molesters and sexual predators, and of seeking to corrupt our youth by recruiting them into their "lifestyle."

There are probably many people who think they are justified in having such fears, but it seems to me it is more than just paranoia that feeds our frenzy. We feel deeply threatened, for we sense that we are losing the battle. Not simply the battle against homosexuals, but the battle to hang on to what we still think of as "Christian America."

At one time in this country we could count on quoting a verse from Genesis or Leviticus before Congress or the Supreme Court and that would be the end of the debate. No more. The consensus of common biblical values on which we had once depended is giving way to the pluralism of a postmodern society. And seeing the disastrous handwriting on the wall, we have become politically desperate, and so we lunge at the enemies of Christendom with a ferocity that rivals that of even the most radical gay activists.

Rethinking Our Political Strategy

I suppose we can continue living in denial, stubbornly bailing water out of the rapidly sinking ship of "Christian America." Or we can get in touch with reality and realize that we need drastically to change our political course. The future of the Christian church in America lies with the preservation of civil liberties, not with the dogged pursuit of our Christian moral agenda to the annoyance of everyone else. Christians of all people ought to take interest in making the preservation of civil liberties in this country a top political priority, because as a group of religious people in a pluralistic society, we uphold moral standards and traditions that the rest of the country thinks are at best outdated and at worst harmful.

As a sub-culture that is often a counter-culture, we worry that someday our right to live according to our religious beliefs will be taken away, and we discuss such concerns among ourselves to no end. How often have I heard Christians express fear of having their children taken from them by Child Protective Services because of their belief in corporal punishment? How often have I heard Christians express concern that the current sentiment that automatically equates religious beliefs with intolerance is stigmatizing them, threatening to undermine their ability to get work in certain fields, or their chances in court of being declared a fit parent? With the current rise of the homeschooling movement, Christians wonder whether the government will attempt to quash the movement or allow people the right to decide how their children should best be educated.

It was these kinds of fears of being marginalized from American politics that gave rise to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the Christian Right in the 1980's. We felt ignored, and our response was to band Christians and other religious leaders together to make our voice heard. Fueled by the abortion controversy, we rallied ourselves into becoming a formidable political force in the favorable climate of the Reagan-Bush administration, and that momentum continues to propel our movement forward to this day.

The problem is, our political aim was not simply to protect the rights of Christians. It was to enact moral change in society that would affect everyone regardless of whether they agreed with our views. We have sought to push a moral agenda instead of lobbying for civil liberties as we should have. If we had focused on civil liberties, we would have made progress in securing the rights we wanted for ourselves, and made a valuable contribution to securing the rights of our fellow Americans in the process. We could have still taken on abortion and concentrated primarily on defending the rights of the unborn child.

But instead we supplemented our arguments with a lot of religious rhetoric that served only to alienate everyone else. Our strategy of taking our Bibles into the voting booths and transforming preachers into politicians betrayed our self-interest, and our lack of interest in the concerns of the rest of the population. Christian politics has not been about religious freedom. It has been a power grab.

Maybe you don't have a problem with that. "Since Christ is Lord of the nations, Christians ought to be in charge," I have heard many people say. The problem is the Bible argues just the opposite. It says that Christ's lordship is the very reason why we can submit to the government without worrying so much about whether Christians or non-Christians are in charge.

The apostle Paul writes, "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God" (Romans 13:1). God is the one who invented civil government and it is through this institution that he rules the affairs of the world. And he doesn't seem to be terribly concerned if non-Christian or even un-Christian people are in power, as if their presence is going to foul up his program. He can handle it just fine because he is, after all, Lord of the nations.

Thus, it should be no surprise that when we look to the New Testament for instruction on incorporating Christian beliefs into the laws of the land, we are met with a deafening silence. Jesus, in fact, rebuffed the Jews of his day who sought to hail him as a political revolutionary against the oppression of Roman rule. His famous admonition, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21) teaches willing submission to the state regardless of whether its laws are "Christian" or not. The apostle Peter concurs with Jesus, "Submit yourself for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, etc." (1 Peter 2:13), as does the apostle Paul as we have already noted.

Since Jesus and the apostles have little to say about politics, except that we should submit and not worry about who is in charge, why are we devoting so much of our energies trying to legislate the Bible?

If there is any political goal we might legitimately pursue for ourselves as Christian citizens, it is to exist peacefully in our society without harassment. "I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Timothy 2:1-2). But not being harassed means that we don't harass others. Notice that right on the heels of another Pauline reminder "to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient," the apostle, as if foreseeing the political mess we would get ourselves into today, also exhorts us "to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men" (Titus 3:1-2).

Therefore, since the church's primary concern with relation to the state ought to be the protection of our right to freely practice our religious beliefs, our political strategy ought to be twofold: 1) making sure we don't turn public opinion against us by being pushy, overbearing, and malicious; and 2) supporting the rights of other people also to exist peacefully in this land, because in doing so we secure the same for ourselves.

Supporting other people's civil liberties doesn't say that we necessarily agree with their views of morality or religion. For instance, we don't agree with Buddhists and yet we don't hesitate to stand up for religious freedom. What it does say is that we are willing to get along with others and demonstrate the same respect for them that we wish for ourselves. This is not some radical new idea. It is simply practicing The Golden Rule: "However you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

The Validity of the Gay Civil Rights Argument

This leads us to the issue of civil same-sex marriage. Most Christians oppose it, thinking this one is a no-brainer. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin, and so it would seem obvious that same-sex marriage is completely out of the question, right?

But Christians need to take a second look at this issue. Gays and lesbians have built a pretty solid civil rights case in favor of why they should be allowed to marry. For one thing, Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U. S. Supreme Court once wrote, "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival." For another, homosexuals are the only group of people in American society who are legally barred from marriage. As long as the state refuses to recognize same-sex marriage, they cannot legally marry the person they love.

This is something to think about. If you are a single heterosexual adult in America, regardless of your race, religion, or ethnicity you have literally millions of marriage possibilities. But if you are a homosexual adult living anywhere in America, regardless of your race, religion, or ethnicity your opportunities for legal marriage are zilch (unless you go to Vermont, where you can enter into same-sex civil union). The only kind of marriage that can be legitimately granted to you is one you must enter into dishonestly, swearing before God and these witnesses to a love you don't really have.

But the kind of marriage homosexuals seek doesn't even involve swearing before God and these witnesses. What they want is a secular marriage granted and recognized by the state, and we can keep the religious institution of marriage homosexual-free if it makes us happy, they say.

People think that by allowing civil same-sex marriage, it won't be long before we'll allow people to marry their sister, or their pet iguana. But isn't there a big difference between a person who chooses incest or bestiality against the normal marriage options available to him, and a person who is only capable of being sexually attracted to someone of the same gender, so that without the right to enter into same-sex marriage he or she is left with no marriage option at all? People who like having sex with family members or dumb animals are making perverse sexual choices. By contrast the vast majority of homosexuals did not choose to be homosexual. They are people who find themselves attracted to other people of the same sex for reasons even they cannot explain.

Am I saying that the civil rights argument rests on understanding homosexuality to be an unchosen condition? Absolutely. And so this is a golden opportunity for us conservative Christians to finally get our heads out of the sand and start looking into this question for ourselves, instead of blindly accepting the anti-gay rhetoric of religious right leaders. Why do we believe people choose to be homosexual? Have we ever asked an actual homosexual person to explain his or her homosexuality to us?

Chances are we have not, because most of us have never had a close enough relationship with someone who is gay to build the trust for such personal things to be shared. We are so quick on the draw when it comes to whipping out our Bibles. Then we get trigger-happy, demolishing every protest with yet another verse that condemns homosexuality as a sin.

In making such condemnations, we don't usually distinguish between homosexual attraction and homosexual sex. The latter is obviously the outworking of the former, but as far as the former is concerned, have we asked ourselves how it is that one chooses to be attracted to people of the same sex? How many of us have taken the time to consider how such a thing might work?

For so long we have told ourselves we don't need to look into it. We believe homosexuality is chosen because the Bible teaches it is a sin, and then we define sin as an act of willful disobedience to God's law. But is such a narrow definition true to our own experience with sin? I think not. None of us have been able to choose away all of our own sins. In fact, there are many things that the Bible considers to be sin that operate at a such a deep level in our nature, such as pride, selfishness, self-righteousness and impurity, that they seem out of the reach of a simple act of human will.

This is something to keep in mind when you go to the gay and lesbian section of your local library or bookstore, or search for web sites posted by gay Christians, and start reading for yourself the personal accounts of people's private struggles with homosexual feelings. I think you will be struck by the similarity of the stories, whether told by men or women, Christians or non-Christians, Protestant evangelicals or Roman Catholics or Jews, ex-gays or people who have tried to change and could not. Even the stories of ex-gays tell of an agonizing, ongoing struggle that seems only to confirm why it is that so many people cannot change.

For the most part you will hear ordinary people talk about how they have battled their homosexual feelings most of their lives and tried to suppress them to no avail. You will learn about the shame and the fear that sent many of them into hiding; and how in spite of every incentive, the desire for parental approval, the dream of someday having children, gaining acceptance in a small town community, escaping the threat of AIDS, people still could not change literally (as in the case of AIDS) to save their lives.

I suppose you can dismiss these people's stories. You can argue that they are so depraved and so in love with their sin that they are incapable of responding normally and humanly to such strong incentives. You can believe that, as long as you understand that in doing so, you are in the name of Christian morality judging all homosexual persons to be categorically sub-human. You might also argue that these people are simply lying. And you can believe that too, as long as you understand that such a cavalier dismissal seems to lack the diligence God expects from us in keeping his ninth commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor.

Why not simply take the common sense route? Why not acknowledge that apart from a miraculous work of God, it appears that for the most part a gay person's chances of successfully adopting heterosexual feelings are about the same as a straight person's chances of successfully adopting homosexual feelings?

A civilized society ought to recognize that there is a big difference between homosexuality thus understood, and perverse and irresponsible sexual practices such as incest and bestiality. Thus, it is only appropriate to respond by treating homosexual persons humanely and allowing them to live their lives with dignity and respect. And whatever we as Christians might conclude about the morality of homosexuality before God, we also have to realize that with respect to society a gay person's open acknowledgement of his or her homosexuality is, in a very real sense, an act of personal integrity.

The Incoherence of the Conservative Christian Position

The leaders of the Christian right don't seem interested in acknowledging the complexities that surround the issue of homosexuality. They have glossed over the difficult questions and gone straight for the emotional jugular, talking about family values, the future of our children, and the decline of our nation, in order to rally an American moral majority behind them. But once again, what we are really concerned about is pushing our Christian moral agenda because, let's face it, we don't really care what the majority of Americans think about morals. If we did, we would be saying that we would willingly acquiesce to what seems to be an increasing majority of Americans who think that giving your child a swat on the hand for defying parental authority is tantamount to child abuse.

Let's go back to the question of whether homosexuality is a choice. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Christians are right in believing that it is a choice, so that once same-sex marriage is legally approved in society, numerous people begin converting to the "gay lifestyle" and the number of same-sex marriages begin to rival that of heterosexual marriages. Do we really want to see majoritarian politics prevail in such a situation? What if homosexuals were to manage a moral majority that began to view heterosexuality as unnatural? Or perhaps more realistically, a majority that viewed the church's religious prohibition against same-sex marriage as illegal discrimination? Imagine how it would be for us as a religious community to have to fight for our civil liberty against such an onslaught. That is exactly the position we have put the gay community in when we rally public opinion against their right to marry.

That is why we need instead to work toward some kind of mutual respect between our two groups. Perhaps we should even sit down at the bargaining table with the gay movement right now and say, we will respect your right to same-sex marriage in the civil arena as long as you respect our right to exclude it from our churches. Then we ought to join forces and fight like the dickens to keep civil liberties at the forefront of American politics to ensure the protection of our respective interests.

The problem is we don't feel the need to go to such lengths to safeguard our religious freedom because we smugly take for granted that it will always be there. Such complacency has blinded us from seeing how we actually threaten religious freedom when we dismiss gay rights on the grounds that homosexuals choose their condition. Because if homosexuality is chosen, then what about the fact that many of us have chosen our religion? Those of us who are born-again Christians never tire of talking about that moment in our lives when we "made a decision for Christ." Are we now saying that people who choose their "religious condition" don't deserve religious rights either? Does it not bother us that gay writers David Boaz and Stephen H. Miller have already pointed out our hypocrisy on this point?

Now let's suppose that we have the sense to realize that homosexuality is not a choice. We may not agree with the idea that people are born homosexual, but perhaps we can acknowledge that many people develop homosexual attractions in early childhood through factors that are quite beyond their control.

We don't ask people to agree with Christianity in order to respect the rights of Christians. So why should we stand in the way of people who have no religious obligation to our conservative Christian beliefs who want to marry someone of the same gender because they are simply incapable of having heterosexual feelings? What reason do we have that is so important as to justify barring two people from making this private commitment to each other?

We're squeamish? Well, for sake of civil liberties we'll just have to get over it. We think it's wrong? Well, we think the Buddhist religion is wrong too, but we don't prevent Buddhists from meeting peacefully in this country. We don't want to expand the definition of marriage to accommodate something that isn't true marriage? But we recognize Buddhism as a religion that deserves to be protected under America's freedom of religion clause, even though from a biblical standpoint we believe Buddhism to be a false religion.

We're afraid that supporting civil same-sex marriage will send a message to the gay community that Christians approve of homosexuality? Well, believe me, the gay community is under no such delusion. For years they have listened to our arguments against homosexuality ad nauseam and can even quote all the pertinent Bible verses back to us by heart. But if that doesn't convince you, perhaps it would be more helpful to look at it this way. Which is the worse sin, supporting civil same-sex marriage and giving gays and lesbians the impression that Christians approve of their homosexuality; or opposing it and continuing this political campaign of smearing the gay community with half-truths so as to prevent people from entering legally into committed and sexually responsible relationships in violation of their civil rights?

If we're so concerned about the message we might be sending, why not look at it as sending a message that we approve of committed relationships and sexual responsibility? Aren't these the values that we have been trumpeting at our fellow Americans for years? Aren't we the ones who are always condemning the promiscuous "lifestyle" of gay men? Why not look at gay marriage as a step in the right moral direction?

In fact, one of the main arguments the proponents of civil same-sex marriage use is that marriage is a morally good thing for homosexuals. Hearing gay writers Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch argue eloquently on this point is like listening to any staunch conservative praise old-fashioned family values. For they argue that marriage grows a person up, stabilizes a person emotionally, and forces a person to be responsible toward someone else. They even point out that civil same-sex marriage would benefit society by helping to curb promiscuity and to civilize gay men. The strength of such arguments has, in fact, caused some in the gay community to oppose the same-sex marriage campaign, because they see it as a concession to the Christian right-wing moral agenda.

So Sullivan and Rauch give us plenty of moral reasons to get behind this movement and push. And why not? If America is finally showing signs of getting beyond its adolescent fling with the excesses of the sexual revolution, and is starting to value marriage once again in light of these age-old virtues, perhaps we had something to do with it.

Yet we should not make the mistake of thinking these people are begging for our compassion on their moral plight. They want their rights, not our pity, and it is important that we consider this issue from that angle. Otherwise we will think, as we Christians are so prone to thinking, that we can justify opposing their right to gay marriage as long as we do it lovingly. But I'm not sure if people understand what we mean by that. Frankly, I'm not sure if I always understand what we mean by that. The impression I get from homosexuals is that given a choice between having us drench them with our loving Christian compassion while we open up our Bibles to Leviticus, versus having us listen to their arguments rationally and objectively and then grouchily concede to them the point, they would overwhelmingly prefer the latter.

Paving the Way for a True Testimony

Our relentless pursuit of a moral agenda is not only futile in our pluralistic society, it is not only involving us in an ugly power struggle that is hurting our testimony to the world, but it poses a direct threat to civil liberty itself. This was illustrated last year in southern California when a group of students calling themselves the Gay-Straight Alliance Club sought approval from the school board to meet during lunch hour at El Modena high school under the protection of the Equal Access Act. This was the same Act that Christians rallied hard for in the early '80's so that Christian clubs could meet freely during school hours on their public high school campuses.

But fifteen years later it was the Christians who turned out in droves at the school board meeting to protest the freedom that the Equal Access Act would allow the gay-straight club. In the end, the board members voted 7-0 against the club's application for club status. The students then responded with a suit, winning a settlement in September of this year.

By trying to deny the gay-straight club the right to meet because of moral objections to homosexuality, Christians were undermining the very right that they themselves had once fought so hard to establish. Did Christians rally for the Equal Access Act in the first place because they were such die-hard libertarians? Apparently not. Civil liberty was only a means to getting our way. Then when the principle worked against us we did not hesitate to undercut it. We tried to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs because we saw that some of those eggs were going to people we didn't like.

It is high time that we grow up and learn to play fair. Freedom for us means freedom for someone else too, even our fellow Americans in the gay and lesbian community. Is that too high a price to pay? Of course not. Civil liberties is what gives Christians the freedom to pursue our moral convictions in this country in the first place. It is what guarantees a future for ourselves and our children in which we will be able to practice our religious beliefs free of harassment and fear. It is what paves the way for us to make a true moral impact on our culture, not by trying to legislate the Bible as if that will change people's hearts, but through leading by example as Jesus commanded us: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

How will this help forward the gospel of Jesus Christ? A wise Christian minister once said, "It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club."

It is no wonder that nobody listens to us anymore. For too long we have been trying to persuade people with the gospel while wielding the club of political authoritarianism. What a contradictory message this presents to the world. Does not our gospel say that God is love, and that he has come down to earth, stretched out his hands, and allowed himself to be nailed to a cross for our sins, so that the gates of paradise might be freely opened to anyone who believes? When will we lay aside our club so that this message may be heard more clearly, and felt more poignantly?

We often think being a witness for Christ means doing some extraordinary thing. But sometimes the best witness to the gospel is as simple as being civil enough to respect people's legitimate freedoms, and being decent enough to put aside the name-calling and treat people like human beings. Supporting the civil liberties of homosexual American citizens is decent, civil and, yes, loving. Loving at least in a way that gays and lesbians are more likely to understand.

* * * * * * * *

For research purposes, an excellent collection of viewpoints representing all sides of the civil same-sex marriage debate can be found in:

Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader, edited by Andrew Sullivan

The following writings have contributed key arguments to the case I have presented in the above essay:

Virtually Normal, by Andrew Sullivan

"Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage," by Andrew Sullivan

"Marrying Somebody," by Jonathan Rauch (also appears in Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con)

"For Better or Worse?" by Jonathan Rauch (also appears in Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con)

"A Pro-Gay, Pro-Family Policy," by Jonathan Rauch

"And 'Special Rights' For All," by Stephen H. Miller

"Gay People Want to Get Married, Too," Eric Marcus

Kingdom Prologue, by Meredith G. Kline

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