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should evangelicals stop fighting against gay marriage? [response to Timothy Dalrymple]

Over at Patheos, Timothy Dalrymple asked the following rather interesting question:

Is it time now, or might there come a time soon, when evangelicals should decide that the cost of carrying on the battle against same-sex marriage is simply too high?

Anything you can do, I can do better.

This is part of a new feature he’s starting where he asks a question as “a way of inviting Patheos bloggers, or other bloggers for that matter, and all of our readers collectively, to address a question together and offer different viewpoints.” I’m a Patheos reader, both of Timothy’s blog and several others, and I flatter myself that I’m also in that “other bloggers” category even if I’m not as well educated on theology or religion as a lot of the people who might fall into that category are. And Timothy’s question seems sincere to me, even though I have a rather different vantage point than he does so of course I don’t always agree with him. So I thought I’d take a whack at it.

First things first: It’s always the case that there might come a time when “evangelicals should decide that the cost of carrying on the battle against same-sex marriage is simply too high.” I actually think it’s already here, but I also believe that civil marriage should be open to two adults of the same gender so I’m hardly the audience Timothy has to convince. But getting to the heart of Timothy’s question. There are some beliefs that are truly bedrock to little-e orthodox Christianity, which I think are tied up with the Gospel (as I understand it, not necessarily as all evangelicals would lay it out). These truths would include things like: God exists; humans are essentially good, but in need of perfection; that this perfection is possible; and that if justice requires it God would sacrifice Himself to kick-start that project.

I’ll leave that last claim buried inside a conditional because I know a lot of progressive Christian thinkers disagree with the traditional evangelical interpretation of atonement, redemption and Hell, and I’m really not interested in having that debate. Another day, perhaps. And I’m also open to the idea that this list might not be exhaustive. But my point is this: there’s a fairly small number of “absolutes,” typically having to do with theology rather than ethics.” Anything else, if you turn it into a complete non-negotiable, you risk making an idol out of it. Timothy quotes Focus on the Family head Jim Daly as saying, “We should, humbly and winsomely, never stop contending for the things that matter to God,” and I agree with him. But there are a great many things that matter to God, and sometimes contending for one of them, or contending for it in a certain way, that can poison the way people think about Christianity. When the things people associate with that label aren’t those bedrock beliefs I mention but are instead things like misogyny, homophobia, and a fear of science, it’s definitely worth asking: where are they getting these ideas, and what can I do to avoid that association? If we’re making our “issues” – SSM, abortion, origins of human life, women as preachers, whatever – more important than things like “God thought you were worthy of a huge sacrifice,” that’s idolatry.

To be absolutely clear: progressive Christians do this, too. As a progressive Methodist Christian, I’ve seen the causes people I know rally behind, which are more important to them than the heart of Christianity. This concern about idolatry cuts both ways.

Also, to be absolutely clear: simply because something is negotiable (in the sense that we may want to re-evaluate the degree to which we focus on it or the way we do that), it doesn’t mean the question isn’t worth fighting over. It just means people on both sides should be able to ask, “Am I approaching this the right way, and at the right time, to do the most good without harming my ability to make good progress on other “things that matter to God.”

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Now, getting on to the heart of Timothy’s post, same-sex marriage. Here’s the part of Timothy’s post I really want to focus on:

Marriage matters to God. We must humbly acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge, and recognize the possibility that we are mistaken, but for those of us who believe it’s biblically and theologically clear that marriage was created and ordained by God for the union of male and female, there should never come a time when we reject or conceal what God has made known to us.

Our critics should understand this. We do not regard marriage as a social contract, an arrangement established by cultural convention, and therefore susceptible to renegotiation. We regard marriage (whether or not it is perfectly understood in any given culture) as an institution made by God – and Christians in general are critical realists. We understand there are difficulties in perceiving the facts of the world, but we believe there are facts in the world, and most evangelical Christians, and most Christians worldwide, still believe it’s a fact – as objectively true as any other fact – that marriage is the union of male and female. In the same sense that a hydrogen atom simply is constituted by the creative complementarity of a proton and an electron, a marriage simply is constituted by the creative complementarity of male and female. And just as you can put other particles together in other relations, but those will not be simple hydrogen atoms, so you can devise other human relationships and call them whatever you like – and yet they will not be marriages. Marriage simply is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman.

I’d love to see Timothy write more about this, particularly the theology. I am not a theologian, and while I study religion and the reasonableness of theism, I do this as a philosopher. That means I’m more interested in whether certain thoughts withstand scrutiny than I am in where they come from, so I’ve only ever studied the Biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage as a lay person. Timothy has a truly impressive pedigree in theology (he has advanced degrees in theology from Princeton and Harvard, and also studied at Oxford) so I’m hesitant to challenge his interpretation of what the Bible actually says, particularly when he didn’t elaborate in this post on where he got that interpretation. But let me give it my best shot.

Based on what he says about complementarity, I’m guessing that Timothy is referring to Adam’s initial reaction to Eve:

And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gn 2.23-24, NKJV)

… or perhaps Jesus’s discussion of this text with the Pharisees in Mt 19.3-7. The standard understanding, as I understand it is that, since Eve was created when God took something out of Adam and built it into Eve’s body, Adam and Eve complement each other. They complete each other, and what’s more, all men inherited Adam’s essential maleness, and all women Eve’s essential femaleness, so that a woman will always complement a man in a way no other man ever could and vice versa. I take this to be the purpose of Timothy’s hydrogen analogy: just like the single electron and single proton are different substances, and just like they come together through a specific bond to form a specific atom in a way that no other arrangement of protons and electrons ever could, a single man and a single woman come together to form a marriage. Even if you could get two electrons to bond, this bond wouldn’t produce a hydrogen atom. Similarly, men and women are intrinsically different, and it’s the bond that forms between these intrinsically different types of humans that gives us marriage. Two men may be able to form a bond, it may even have an erotic component, but it simply isn’t marriage. This, as I understand Timothy, is the way the world has always been.

Only… it’s not. Ever since the chicken wars this summer, Timothy’s fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clarke has been chronicling the many forms “biblical families” take. These post start with Dan Cathy’s statement that “We [meaning Chick-fil-A] support biblical families” and follow it up with extensive Biblical quotes either about specific family, other times it’s some abstract teaching about how families should ope. Irate. And we’re not talking about June and Ward Cleaver. Yesterday’s installment mentioned Elkanah, Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sam 1.1-7), the endearing story of a man with two wives. “[Hannah's] rival [meaning the other wife] used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.” This is a family that Hallmark has apparently not made a card for – we’ve got polygamy and childlessness that basically made Hannah’s wife a torment. Other recent stories include a rather touching account of cannibalism (interestingly, blaming a neighbor for not offering the kid up as a meal), familial gossip that led Noah to curse the offending son’s child to “the lowest slavery,” and Abraham’s (you remember him, the hero of the faith) denying his marriage and letting Pharaoh marry his wife without even divorcing her for the sake of political expediency. That story actually played out again in the next generation. We also got Paul’s advice that it was better not to get married at all. Honestly, I’m not sure I can blame him, looking at this list!

Some (okay, a lot) of Fred’s stories have been evidence of a messy history where the Israelites didn’t obey God. But here’s the important point: this history is pervasive. The Bible is full of polygamy, unpunished rapes, fathers prostituting their daughters and wives, things of that sort. Timothy admits that marriage is not always “perfectly understood in any given culture,” but the more I read the Bible, the more these incidents seem like the rule than aberrations. Ward and June Cleaver it ain’t.

I think if I agreed with Timothy about complementarity, I’d probably agree with him about gay marriage, at least to a greater degree than I do. This is part of why I think being an LGBT ally is partly about feminism. Universal opposition to gay marriage only makes sense if you think all male/male and all female/female relationships are significantly different from all male/female relationships. And that only makes sense to me if you think men are different from women on some deep level. I don’t believe that, so I simply don’t see a reason to deny other people the legal structure that helps them build a life together, based on their gender.

I’m not completely convinced, though, that Tim’s view as marriage built around complementarity is all that accurate, historically. Set all the polygamy, all the rape-cum-courtship, and other aspects of Biblical “family values” that don’t fit all that well in the modern evangelical Christian’s conception of the good family aside, and we’re still left with a significant problem. If you look at the history of why people got married and the expectations they carried into it, personal compatibility is a relatively recent addition to the institution. You can see this in the stories about the patriarchs, particularly Isaac, where Abraham sent his servant off to fetch a wife Isaac had never met. This was an arrangement to join families and produce the next generation for much of human history.

Personally, I think it’s good that marriage means something different today than it did back in the times the Bible was written. It shows me that as humanity grows throughout history God’s will grows along with us. Now, producing the next generation and raising them is important, and if some Christians want to insist there should be an institution that lets us recognize this, I’m not actually against that. But they should recognize that the majority of people getting married in my generation aren’t doing this because they want to have children right off and need a stable environment to raise them in. In my experience, it’s more about wanting to publicly express your love and commitment to this other person, solemnize that relationship before God (if they’re religious), and take on the legal and social structure that will stabilize their relationship. It’s about love between two individuals more than it’s about procreation. If you think that marriage really is about being fruitful and multiplying, though, I think you have to admit that many, even most, heterosexual couples aren’t really looking for that kind of relationship these days. It seems unreasonable to single out homosexual couples as failing to live out this purpose.

(As an aside: When I read Genesis 2, particularly as interpreted through the lens of Paul’s letters, I see it as emphasizing the idea that most humans are designed to live out some kind of partnership, and that celibacy should be a voluntary choice rather than the default status forced on someone by virtue of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose. I am happy as a celibate single woman, but I read this passage as a reminder that my own state as a woman “called” to be single, at least for this part of my life, is the exception rather than the rule. But I’d need another post to really give that topic the detail it deserves, so I’ll drop this point for now. ;-P )

All of that said… I am very glad that Timothy opened this topic, because it’s one I really wish evangelicals – and all Christians, really – would explore in more depth. That’s one more reason why I think evangelicals could make a strategic decision to ‘give up” on this particular battle in the culture wars. When we spend all our time fighting over what secular marriage should look like, there’s just not the energy or attention left to work out a good theology of religious marriage. And that’s a first-class shame. We need to focus more on the religious side of things here than we do. (Timothy, on the off-chance you’re reading this: I would love to see you blog more about sacramental marriage, and would gladly reply in kind, or just be happy to read your thoughts.)

Finally, I want to comment on Timothy’s “social contract comment.” He said that evangelical Christians “do not regard marriage as a social contract, an arrangement established by cultural convention, and therefore susceptible to renegotiation.” In light of that, I wonder… just how reasonable is evangelical Christian resistance to SSM (civil, non-sacramental marriage, I mean)? Because it seems perfectly reasonable to me that a secular state would want to set up a social contract kind of marriage that didn’t derive from the sacrament. The government has a vested interest in encouraging permanent relationships between adults. Committed couples means a built-in social safety net. If my husband can care for me or if we can stretch my income further when he loses his job, that means married couples won’t rely on social safety net programs as much as singles like myself will.

So even if evangelicals aren’t talking about a social contract when they discuss marriage, I think the government has every right to want this. It’s in their interests to know whether tax incentives and other benefits that encourage people to get and stay married are actually going to long-term couples. And there’s really no reason to restrict these couples to the kind approved of by any one religion, is there? If I’m reading Timothy right, he seems to be saying that when evangelicals discuss marriage they’re simply not talking about the same thing that society at large is discussing. In that case, why should evangelical concerns that the Bible establishes marriage as between a man and woman have anything to do with this social contract marriage? I’m genuinely confuzzled by this one. If Christians view marriage as a distinctly Christian institution, why are we so eager to offer it up for a popular vote by codifying it in the law? And why would we give the government the right to define who a sacrament is open to?

That’s the part of this I really wish evangelicals would think about carefully. Do you think marriage is a sacrament, a social contract separate from religion, or some combination of the two? I know my answer here: it makes me nervous when the state tries to tell the church how to carry out its institutions, or vice versa. It seems that the evangelical position stated by Timothy in his post – that what Christians mean by marriage isn’t the social contract idea I believe American society quite reasonably relies on – is actually pretty compatible with this approach. But for those who disagree, I believe these questions are worth asking. What relationship do you prefer church and state to have on this issue, and would you be happy if religious groups other than yours had the same impact? Perhaps, rather than giving up the fight, it’s time for evangelicals to clear up their thinking on how much civil marriage really impacts the sacrament they seem to care so much about?

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