Gay Marriage And Christian Citizenship

Fear is rising among committed Christians that the legalization of gay marriage is merely a first step in what will soon become an onslaught of religious restrictions in this country—the removal of Christians from public offices, the dismantling of religious institutions such as faith-based colleges, and, eventually, the requirement that clergy in their own churches perform gay weddings.

Well, I am not so fearful, actually. And I think we have ample resources within Liberalism and Christianity alike to contain this issue. 

I use the word “Liberalism” (with a capital “L”) to refer to the longstanding philosophy of politics that predates the United States, inspired our Constitution, and continues to animate virtually all politics in the West today. In this broad sense, “we are all Liberals,” whether we side with “conservatives” or “liberals” in everyday political skirmishes.

Broadly defined, Liberalism is about freedom (liber is Latin for free). Liberalism tries to advance and maintain freedom of various kinds, including religious freedom. But herein lies the problem. Freedom comes in many varieties, and these often conflict. In fact, every freedom in Liberal regimes is checked by competing freedoms. No freedoms are exempt. Thus, for example, freedom of speech is checked by freedom from unnecessary havoc caused by reckless utterances. Freedom from crime is checked by freedom from undue invasions into our privacy. Freedom to smoke is checked by freedom from unwanted second-hand smoke. All freedoms have limits. None is absolute.

If you think about it, then, the issues arising from gay marriage are new in substance but not in form. They are typical of conflicts surrounding competing freedoms. In this case, the competing freedoms are religious freedom and freedom from discrimination. The first is so fundamental to our regime that it is literally the “first freedom” on our Bill of Rights. But we also cherish—have long cherished—freedom from legal discrimination—from a system that makes invidious distinctions on the basis of accidental traits, such as class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. 

Both freedoms are fundamental to America’s character, and there’s no point supposing that one freedom will simply trump the other, even if religious liberty has held a privileged position in our historical documents. Let’s therefore try to transcend the vitriol attached to both sides of the conflict over gay marriage. When we do, we find ourselves confronted with a difficult political question. That question is not which freedom ought to “win”—freedom of religion or freedom from discrimination—but rather where the boundaries should be drawn between freedoms that are both desirable and yet naturally limit each other. How should we as Americans choose to harmonize the competing claims that these freedoms entail? 

If the real question concerns the boundaries of these competing freedoms, then the problem with the way this issue has been handled by homosexual and Christian apologists alike, is that it’s been treated as a simple moral question. Either you are for gay marriage or you are against it. One’s political stand is then a mere projection of one’s moral position. But the question is more complicated than that. It is by nature civic, not merely moral; and this has implications for how it should be approached and finally resolved. 

Civic questions are, interestingly, not answerable by individuals reflecting privately on their own moral beliefs. They are answerable only by the collection of people who make up a civitas (a political community). In other words, while I as an individual am perfectly capable of resolving the question, “what do I think of gay marriage?” I am not capable of resolving the question, “what should we do to solve the tensions between this freedom and other, competing freedoms?” That is something only the parties to the conflict as a whole can determine. 

Of course the Supreme Court can rule on issues like this and pretend to have solved them once and for all. But in fact courts do not “solve” such conflicts. At best, they issue artificial rulings in the hope of stating what “we citizens ourselves” would eventually work out with respect to the boundaries of our freedoms. The Court can also educate through its rulings, but there are limits to this. If Roe v. Wade taught us anything, it is that some beliefs are so closely held that they cannot be “educated away” by the Court. 

The problem then is that Christian activists and Gay-rights activists have both tended to see only one question, when in fact there are two. The question both sides see is whether gay marriage is good or bad, moral or immoral, right or wrong. But that is not the ultimate question from a civic point of view. The ultimate question is, again, how we as citizens should live together in a polity that exhibits diverse (and deeply held) answers to the moral issues at hand. 

On this point, I would like to make a few observations about how such conflicts have been successfully negotiated in the past. Both from the standpoint of Liberalism and the Christian tradition, we have powerful resources to fall back on. 

First, the way gay activists have been ferreting out Christian business owners and humiliating them in the public eye is a prime example of bad citizenship. For, unlike the historic case of businesses that refused to serve African Americans prior to civil rights legislation—an analogy that is often, but facilely drawn—Christian citizens have longstanding religious reasons to be uneasy with some (though not all) business transactions with gay couples. The reason is that in Christian teaching, homosexuality is a sin; marriage is a sacrament; and weddings are communal celebrations that commit the celebrants to what is being celebrated. 

This trio of facts puts many Christians in a terribly awkward position when they are asked to contribute to a gay wedding, either by providing flowers, or taking photos, or baking cakes. The situation is much more awkward than merely doing business with homosexual and heterosexual couples alike, which ought (in my view) to be routine. But for gay activists to take advantage of the awkward position in which many sincere Christians find themselves is simply a failure of good will and good citizenship. 

Moreover, when this attempt at humiliating Christian business owners extends to death threats (as it has), it’s also an example of criminality. No one who knows what it feels like to be discriminated against should have any truck with such conduct. It’s a violation of the Liberal “civil relationship” which, for better or worse, can be boiled down to the principle that we have no right to harm people (no matter how much we dislike their beliefs and practices), so long as they do no tangible harm to others. Holding unwelcome views is not a tangible harm.

But the terms of civic fairness cut both ways. Christians who believe that homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular are terrible sins have no right to insist that civic institutions reflect such beliefs. The criterion of public morality is not what apostolic teaching maintains, but rather what “we” who mutually inhabit this community deem appropriate “for us.” Anything less would not only be a violation of fairness, it would be a reversal of the hard-won policies of toleration that emerged after the civil-and-religious wars of the 17th century and which constitute the groundwork for freedom (including religious freedom) in the West. 

And there is strong support in the Christian tradition for the settlement that undergirds Liberal regimes. Christ calls us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, thereby instituting a delicate but necessary arrangement in which Christians participate in civic life while orienting their souls toward God.

The great theologian St. Augustine championed this delicate balance when he argued that Christians live in two cities at one and the same time: the City of God and the City of Man. And he was convinced, based on St. Paul’s testimony in Romans 13, that civic obedience is obligatory for Christians, even when living in a sinful regime. 

So too with the Reformation theologian (and one-time Augustinian monk) Martin Luther; in fact, Luther pressed the point further: Insofar as civic offices need to be filled, Christians should feel fine about filling them, since somebody has to. Even the office of “Executioner” could be filled—despite the fact that Christians as Christians ought not kill—because a Christian executioner acts on public authority, not his own, when he executes a death sentence. 

The challenge, then, for Christians who accept this longstanding tradition is to preserve our souls while living and participating in a regime that is not, in many respects, Christian. The challenge is to orient our commitments correctly so that the kingdom of God comes first in our loves and attachments, rather than the kingdom of man. The goal is not to transform the kingdom of man into the kingdom of God (which is futile and dangerous). Nor is it to make civic participation conditional upon a Christian litmus test: “I’ll participate only insofar as I think our laws are ‘Christian.’” Neither Christ nor Paul nor Augustine nor Luther—each of whom spoke wisely on this matter—says any such thing. 

To this extent, I am tempted to rehabilitate a classic argument from St. Augustine. When it comes to citizenship, Christians ought to outstrip even the most ardent secular citizens by a wide margin in trying to bring about civic peace and order. We should be leaders in striving for a modus vivendi by which, in this case, homosexual citizens and others can live in peace. 

Of course, some very tough issues need to be addressed. And these are not all going to go our way. It may be that some Christians will want to resign from offices like “Justice of the Peace” rather than officiate over gay marriages. I happen to think—theologically speaking—that such resignations are unnecessary, because a Justice of the Peace who officiates at a gay wedding (whether he happens to be Christian or not) is not participating in a Christian ceremony, but a secular one. Marriage predates Christianity by millennia, incidentally. This is analogous to the distinction Luther had in mind when he argued that Christians could in good faith be executioners, even though Christians qua Christians should not kill. Nevertheless, Christians who do not already occupy such positions may understandably decline to seek them. This is a likely effect of the changes underway.

But what about those frightening scenarios with which I began? Won’t the gay activists fight on until religious schools are coerced into doing things that go against their basic doctrines? For instance, will religious schools have to treat same-sex faculty marriages as identical to heterosexual marriages when it comes to hiring, housing, and benefits? 

Here’s where I think some calm political analysis goes a long way. The supporters of gay marriage are a radically diverse and fragile coalition of people. They are persuaded that gay marriage doesn’t hurt anyone in a politically relevant sense; they’re for freedom from discrimination. But the same coalition does not exist when it comes to depriving religious schools of their longstanding legal rights. There are, of course, extremists who might wish to destroy all vestiges of Christian belief and practice, but they do not have the numbers to win—not even close. (This despite their over representation in the press.) One must analyze these issues case-by-case, and understand how different issues generate different coalitions of support and resistance. 

Of course, for many Christians today, this isn’t good enough. It’s too messy and “compromising.” Their view is that America is a Christian nation, and when that ceases to be the case, we’re all in for trouble. At its extreme this view implies that Christians cannot or should not live in a culture that permits biblically forbidden practices. 

But this view is na├»ve. Not only can we live in such a culture, we always have. Adultery is sinful but legal. Coveting wealth is sinful but legal. Hatred of neighbors is sinful but legal. There has never been a time when politics was insulated from sin, and the best theologians have always known this. Except where the sins of our culture directly imperil our personal salvation, we are obliged to participate at least minimally in citizenship: to render unto Caesar; to obey the authorities; and, where possible, to contribute to the cause of civic peace and order. 

Of course this raises the question: at what point do the sins of a culture directly imperil the personal salvation of Christian citizens? It’s a valid question, but not as hard to answer as we sometimes seem to think. I won’t rehearse here the fundamental requirements of salvation articulated in scripture. They’re not really “requirements” after all, so much as qualities that flow naturally from properly ordered loves. But it’s hard for me to see how the waning of Christian values in our public culture necessarily imperils the salvation of committed Christians who continue to believe and practice their faith in their private communities and, wherever possible, in public as well. Christians have managed to thrive in cultures much more iniquitous than ours. Our salvation is not being snatched away from us. And, frankly, I don’t believe it can be, by the acts of legislatures or courts.

Nevertheless, we must prepare ourselves for the fact that the Judeo-Christian culture that was so dominant at the time of our Founding is indeed dissolving all around us; and it will continue to do so. It will never die out completely, but it will certainly become less politically relevant. And to that extent we can expect to see all kinds of changes in our laws and our public morality. Moral laws don’t do much at the end of the day. The philosopher Plato saw the paradox of moral laws: a good society doesn’t need them; a bad society can’t be helped by them. Law, even “constitutional law” is not going to prevent America from changing. 

But as I’ve tried to suggest here, we are a long, long way from witnessing the dismantling of religious liberty. The issue of gay marriage in civic life is an issue that has found its moment. That is, in part, because it emerges from a solid American tradition of equality before the law that is attractive to many people on the right and left. The same support is not there when it comes to persecuting Christians and regulating their private institutions. 

We live in an age of extremism, or at least an age in which extremism gets all the press. But extremism leads to a bad political end. That’s the hard-won lesson we Christians learned from the English Civil War, in which an unconscionable amount of bloodletting took place before Christians of all stripes reached the conclusion that endless bloodshed is a waste of time. The wise truce that emerged from that horrible event was that politics and religion ought to be kept largely (though not perfectly) separate to such an extent that battles between ultimate principles can be avoided, and peace can be maintained.

This truce is too valuable to lose, and yet it needs to be renewed by successive generations. Today we can say: Christians aren’t going away, and neither are gay citizens. Thus we have to think about the end game here. It’s no good clinging to unrealistic visions of how one side or the other will achieve ultimate victory. 

We will never awake one day in the future to tell our grandchildren a story like this: “Once, long ago, there were gay people who wanted to get married; and this put our whole nation on a slippery slope toward perdition and anti-religious spectacle. But we stopped them! We blocked the legalization of gay marriage and now we’re all going to be okay.” No such story will ever come true, and neither will the equally absurd story on the Left that posits the final removal of Judeo-Christian values from our polity. 

So what should we do? The answer is that we—both sides—should abandon the winner-take-all logic that has driven so much of our civic debate, and embrace the hard work of finding the right boundaries to this set of competing freedoms. It’s the work of Christian charity and responsibility toward the state, in my view; so we should be taking the lead in this. 

We begin by “witnessing,” by showing the culture what a charity-based understanding of politics entails. We then—or rather, at the same time—demonstrate what Christianity uniquely has to offer to a secular society obsessed with identity politics and the pursuit of material goods: namely, that the permanent things emerge from love, not power; and the ultimate goods are not of this world. 

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.