« Same-Sex Marriage and the Political Task »

Our first step toward considering the question of gay and lesbian relationships as a matter of public policy is, once again, to remind ourselves of the proper differentiation of society.  Modern American life contains a multitude of different areas and responsibilities: schools, churches, states, dorms, families, businesses, clubs and more.  In each of these, the way Christians live out their lives and exercise their basic responsibilities will be different, according to what that area of life is about.

This is something we can recognize intuitively.  Christians are very familiar with the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself, and the Sermon on the Mount contains some very dramatic examples of how this might be done.  But most of us recognize that in different areas of life we carry out the love command differently: the way we love our parents looks different from the way we love our roommate looks different from the way we love our priest looks different from the way we love a hurricane victim looks different from the way we love a spouse.  In all these cases, we seek to love our neighbors, but the way that love is demonstrated will be different, according to the nature and character of that area of life.

Politics is another of these areas of life; accordingly, the way we love our neighbors politically will have something to do with what the field of politics is about.  What is politics about?  From a Christian perspective, politics is fundamentally concerned with public justice, which means that politics is that area of life in which we love our neighbors by seeing that justice be done for them.

What does this have to do with same sex marriage?  In my experience, when Christians consider same sex marriage as a public policy issue, we often approach the subject as if we were in church.  If we believe homosexual relationships are not part of God’s design, we say that governments should not recognize these relationships because they are sinful.  Similarly, if we believe that the church should embrace homosexual Christians who make public commitments to each other, we conclude that the legal definition of marriage should be revised to include these relationships.

My view is that these arguments may be beside the point.  Consider that of the Ten Commandments, only two (murder and theft) are declared crimes by the government.  Not many people today argue that government should criminalize possession of a graven image, for example.  In this way, we see Christians readily distinguishing between ecclesiastical and political spheres of life.  Note that by doing so, they are not suggesting that Christian principles are inappropriate in politics.  On the contrary, Christian principles are introduced into politics in a way that is appropriate to the political sphere of life.

So perhaps our question need to change.  Here’s one alternative: what are the justice concerns in marriage in which the state might have an interest?     

It seems to me that as part of its task, the state has an interest in the ordered, stable reproduction of society.  So generally the state will seek to encourage these sorts of stable relationships, especially because the state is concerned that children be raised in these sorts of loving environments. 

The protection of the people within marriages and families will also be a concern for the state.  So governments will seek to ensure that people in families are not abused, that partners and children be protected in situations of divorce, and that be treated justly with regard to access to health care and inheritance laws for example.  On the other hand, I don’t believe that the interest of the state goes so far as to ensure that the marriage be Christian, even if the majority religion of the population is Christian.  In other words, it would be unjust for the state to say that only Christians may marry.

Taking these points together, I conclude that justice demands that states offer recognition to same sex relationships, for the same reason that it recognizes heterosexual relationships: because the state has in interest in supporting stable familial relationships, and to provide the parties with the legal care that justice demands.  Note that, once again, we need not come to this conclusion because of a reluctance to introduce Christian principles into politics: indeed, we can support state recognition of same sex relationships precisely for Christian reasons concerning the task of the state to administer justice.  We can come to this conclusion regardless of what we might believe concerning the biblical normativity of these relationships (as the question might be considered within the ecclesiastical sphere, for example).

Should the state apply the label of “marriage” to these relationships?  I don’t think it should, especially as we should avoid the implication that marriage is somehow a creation of the state.  Note, however, that if the state continues to reserve “marriage” for heterosexual relationships, it will need to justify how maintaining the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual relationships can be justified in terms of the state’s interest in promoting justice.  This will be especially challenging because the state generally does not make a distinction between Christian marriages and those of other faiths—currently, all are usually given the marriage label. 

I suspect that it might be more straightforward to reserve to other spheres of society the authority to decide for themselves what is and what is not a “marriage.”  This is especially true as governments have an interest in protecting both those who agree and those who disagree with same-sex marriage. Neither side should be seeking to use government power to enforce its view on the whole of society: governments should not seek to prohibit homosexuality in every area of life; neither should they seek to remove all barriers to homosexual practice.  Both sides in this debate need to respect the jurisdictional limits of the state, while also supporting and protecting the authority of other social institutions to exercise their own social responsibilities.

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Reader Comments (6)

This is in response to Paul's post, specifically paragraphs 1-2, in which he wrote, "Our first step toward considering the question of gay and lesbian relationships as a matter of public policy is, once again, to remind ourselves of the proper differentiation of society. Modern American life contains a multitude of different areas and responsibilities: schools, churches, states, dorms, families, businesses, clubs and more. In each of these, the way Christians live out their lives and exercise their basic responsibilities will be different, according to what that area of life is about.

This is something we can recognize intuitively. Christians are very familiar with the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself, and the Sermon on the Mount contains some very dramatic examples of how this might be done. But most of us recognize that in different areas of life we carry out the love command differently: the way we love our parents looks different from the way we love our roommate looks different from the way we love our priest looks different from the way we love a hurricane victim looks different from the way we love a spouse. In all these cases, we seek to love our neighbors, but the way that love is demonstrated will be different, according to the nature and character of that area of life."

To me, this is a very thoughtful & provocative response, ripe for discussion. However, I find the example of "love thy neighbor" and its application to different parts of our lives and with different people in our lives not satisfactory. "Love" as described in the Bible, can come in three forms: agape, philia, and eros. These three are indeed different and only appropriate for different people in different contexts, in different areas of our lives. Agape is the goal for all of us, but is a goal to strive for, and only attainable by God/Jesus. Philia is reserved for non-sexual affection, usually related to friendship, same sex affinity and maybe even family. Then eros, biblically, is reserved for marital love. Paul seems to assume "justice" is that what the Bible reserved for marital relationship, can be transferred to love between 2 men and 2 women, which is biblically, should be love "philia". While justice is important - Paul is talking about "human justice" - and "divine justice" is not necessarily the same, and supercede it.

He also indicated that politics is to provide justice to the governed, politics in Greek, politikos "of, for, or relating to citizens" - again, while I'm not a Greek expert nor an expert in any linguistic realms, "of, for, or relating to citizens" are not necessarily "justice" in the way Paul described it. Maybe "justice" is ultimately for the betterment of those concerned. Is that a static definition or a fluid one? Also, the noetic effects of sin, are we sure that our sense of "justice" is God's sense of justice. It is possible - in another culture - what is "just" is not necessarily American's sense of just - just look to China, majority of the Middle Eastern cultures, or in other "nonindustrialized" nations. However, I will argue strongly that in most - if not all - cultures of the world, same sex unions have all been denigrated and excluded from public acceptance. Maybe there is something to that...? I wonder if we'd be having this conversation if the frequency of these unions are increasing...are we responding to an increase in the frequency and/or more freedom to express these feelings? Not to say anything wrong, but can our definition of normality / justice be changed by mere frequency of occurrence? Such fluidity is scary to think about...

June 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTERRY CHI

Terry, thank you for your thoughtful comment, and my apologies for taking so long to turn to it.

I think I probably need to do more theoretical work to make clear how I see Christian love working itself out in these different areas of life. But my approach follows how I’ve tried to work out with my students what Jesus meant when he lays out in his Sermon on the Mount the implications of what loving our neighbors might mean. His words are so radical that they raise lots of questions for those who take them seriously.

My thought has been that Jesus’s words refer particularly to how we love our neighbor within the “sphere” of inter-individual relations—and his emphasis is not so much on the concrete details of how we love our neighbor there, but rather on how radical and encompassing our obedience to that injunction should be. I suggest therefore that the details of the way we love our neighbors in various spheres of life (church, marriage, school, basketball team, etc.) will actually look different than in Jesus’s illustration—but consistent across all spheres will be a committed and thorough-going pursuit of that radical love. So in politics, we seek to love our neighbor politically, and that requires seeing that justice is being done to our neighbor—and our pursuit of that justice may require a level of commitment that may seem strange to the outsider. Loving your neighbor in politics may not require turning the other cheek, but it may require the sort of passion for justice that turning the other cheek requires in interpersonal life.

What is missing from my argument however is a detailed account of how we go about figuring out what love looks like in these various spheres of life. Here I broadly place myself in the tradition of Kuyper, where good work has been done concerning the creational norms of the various spheres and how they relate to each other. I suggest that the norms of those spheres are precisely what will inform the details of how we love our neighbor in those spheres of life.

I think that this might also help us with some of your concluding comments as well. But let me leave it there for now. Let me know what you think!

June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Brink

“A situation where a clean break is made between civil and religious marriage, 'civil' being defined by criteria which may include same sex unions, where religious groups exclude them,” sounds plausible to me, and my preference would be that the former not be called "marriage," but rather "civil union."

Thus, anyone, even heterosexual couples married, say, by a justice of the peace, would not be truly "married," but would be in a civil union. If they wanted to be married, they would have to go to a church, synagogue or mosque, and naturally gays could be married by any church, synagogue or mosque that approved of the practice. Conversely, those truly "married" in church would be free to decide whether or not they also wanted to be joined in civil union.

In short, get the state out of the marriage business, thus restoring the separation of church and state (which has long been violated). And, in the interest of consistency, why should civil unions be limited to two people? Polygamy, after all, unlike gay marriage, is at least documented in the Bible, even though not approved.

As to defining "marriage," there is no need to do that, either by the Democrats or the Republicans. It has long been defined in every culture as a union of one man and (at least) one woman.

June 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRamsey Michaels

I am quite impressed with the idea of decoupling marriage from the church or a religious body. The practice introduced in Europe in the later 19th century of first officially approving a marriage at a marriage office or some other public office (e.g., in Germany the Standesamt) is a good one. That insures that the contractual obligations of a marital relationship are protected under secular law and the judicial institutions of the state. Then the parties (if they so choose) proceed to a church or other house of worship where a minister of religion solemnizes the commitments that the couple make before God and the assembled congregation. As a firm adherent to the separation of church and state I am extremely bothered by a minister acting as the agent of the state to solemnnize contractual actions that are legal and secular in nature along with those that are spiritual. That ought not to be! Had we had this understanding of marriage we would not have had such unnecessary legislation as the Defense of Marriage Act or the brouhaha we had in North Carolina last month over a state constitutional amendment to ban any kind of same-sex marital arrangement. The egregious actions of so many evangelicals in a well-funded campaign to impose their religiously determined view of sexual relationships on all the citizens of North Carolina severely undermined the Christian witness that I and many other North Carolinians hold dear. Evangelicals have a lot of repenting to do for this tragedy of pushing an essentially political issue that rested on a shaky biblical basis and offended so many secular people and practicing Christians alike.

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June 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard PIERARD

Paul: In my opinion, if we earnestly obey what Jesus discussed on the Sermon on the Mount, we will be pursuing it daily for the rest of our lives. It is impossible to "live by the Sermon on the Mount" as some people say. While impossible, it is not something that we should not strive for. While I'm not a linguistic expert, it will not surprise me if the "love" is not the generic "love" in our American English, and definitely not agreeing with whatever another person believe it is the best for him/her. Jesus loved his disciples hard...teaching them hard lessons, bending over and washing their feet, soothing the waves, rebuking them harshly (Peter) or gently (Thomas)...never ever coddled them. Jesus never refuted the OT, but to fulfill its teachings, but going beyond it. To me it means that OT teaching are "necessary but insufficient", while some have interpreted this as OT is unnecesary and insufficient, when it comes to the teaching of Jesus.

What is justice? Is it "just" that a young boy fell to his death during Paul's teaching? From a human perspective, I believe and agree that not granting same sex unions the same marital rights and privileges (social, economic, interpersonal, political), on the human level, is unjust. However, that was the law laid down by God...not me/us.

When we complain and gripe and try to use our human (e.g., the creature's) lenses to interpret HIS SOVEREIGN domain & choices (The Creator), is like my 2 year old daughter throwing a tantrum when we don't give her 10 Hershey's Kisses, instead of some boring "adult food" for dinner. Could she understand why broccoli, chicken, noodles, and milk is better than milk chocolate? In her mind, it is unfair and incomprehensible, but we parents know better.

Unfortunately, for us humans, I prefer to trust God and His Word, if others don't find it "PC" or popular, so be it.

If I can understand God before or after I came into His salvation, then I don't need Him. Need is a forever seeking & reliance...because of ignorance. The veil is still there, just not as opaque.

June 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTERRY CHI

Our conversation is beginning to move in the direction to ask: should we have two definitions of marriage, one recognized by the state for civil purposes, and the other left to religious institutions to bless and define as they choose. Pragmatically, I think this is where public policy is headed. But I want to reiterate my case that the state has a strong interest in protecting the institution of marriage as a union between one woman and one man.

Lisa Sharon Harper’s post offered a powerful and important reminder that marriage law has a complicated, and often ugly history. But failures in the past should not dictate our path forward. Spouses should not be property, marriage law should not be yet another forum for perpetuating sinful patterns such as racism.

But, as I outline in more detail in my post, marriage is not about individual gratification, it is about self-sacrifice, providing for future generations, and protecting the common good.

I concur with Paul Brink, when he states: “It seems to me that as part of its task, the state has an interest in the ordered, stable reproduction of society. So generally the state will seek to encourage these sorts of stable relationships, especially because the state is concerned that children be raised in these sorts of loving environments.”

I agree, and that is why I argue that the state should protect the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, an ordered institution for reproduction. Same sex marriages are not naturally connected to reproduction. This is not a new idea, nor is it an exclusively Christian one. As I stated in my initial post, “Marriage between a man and a woman has been recognized for millennia as a foundational institution that helps maintain the common good.”

I am not convinced that Christians who support exclusive male-female marriages will win the day, but I do believe we need to be a part of the conversation explaining why marriage is an essential institution that is one of the building blocks of civil society.

Paul also raises important points when he notes that certain essential benefits, like access to health insurance, are tied to marriage (at least in many jurisdictions; this is changing via many local ordinances and state laws). We will likely consider this further in our next set of postings that explore health care, but I am concerned when marriage law has the consequence of keeping some sector of our population from access to medical care. Although I am still working through this issue myself, I think some form of state-recognized civil unions would be best to provide gays and lesbians essential benefits without changing the definition of the institution of marriage.

June 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterAmy E. Black

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