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shutterstock_135908630Earlier this week, Jonathan Merritt wrote an insightful piece about how he believes evangelicals will respond if the U.S. Supreme Court finally and authoritatively legalizes gay marriage at the federal level.  I think his take is spot on, and he lays out a few diverging stances which may have already begun to differentiate themselves within the ranks of conservative Christians.

Conservative Christians have been among the most ardent opponents of gay marriage and rights for decades. How will they respond if the Supreme Court makes gay marriage legal nationwide?
The answer, it turns out, depends on which Christian you’re speaking to.

He goes on to present a handful of key players in the national debate about same-sex marriage, using each one to illustrate a slightly different strategy for dealing with this contentious issue.  Most interesting to me were the key Catholic and Baptist spokespersons since together those two groups make up the lion’s share of the conservative Christian voting bloc.  The Baptist’s take caught my attention because it would represent a clear shift in strategy for that denomination, while the Catholic argument stuck out to me because it was just so very bad.

A Really Bad Argument Against Gay Marriage

Robert P. George has already made a name for himself as the Catholic in Chief in the public debate over contentious issues like abortion, birth control, and same-sex marriage, but today I learned the name of the new kid in town:  Ryan Anderson.  I’ve already heard George’s argument against gay marriage, and Anderson’s approach appears to be an extension of that.  Adelaide Mena of the Catholic News Agency reported a while back:

Speaking to students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Anderson acknowledged that efforts to redefine marriage are often characterized as being rooted in a sense of justice.
However, he said, the case against redefining marriage is actually an argument based upon justice, “precisely because marriage exists as the prime institution of social justice that guarantees and protects the rights and well-being of children.”
“If you care about social justice and you care about limited government; if you care about the poor and you care about freedom – it’s better served by a healthy marriage culture than by government picking up the pieces of a broken marriage culture.”

Ah, yes, “a healthy marriage culture.” I have plenty to say about that.  But for the most part, this is a repetition of the already worn out argument, typically presented without quantitative support, that somehow letting same-sex partners marry will be worse for families and therefore will erode the social fabric of our society.  Never mind the fact that the broken homes behind our national struggle against poverty come from failed heterosexual relationships anyway.  Anderson wants to portray those who oppose gay marriage as warriors in an epic battle for social justice rather than against it.  But he goes further than that.

He explained that many of those who promote the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples understand marriage to be an intense kind of romantic relationship between sexual partners. In this view of marriage, adult desires and sexual needs are of primary concern, and the needs of children produced by such a union are secondary.

Oh, I see.  He says that if gay people get married, it can only be because they want more sex, whereas when straight people get married, it’s for the children.  Where does he get off claiming that same-sex couples aren’t trying to build families?  Is it because of the biological factors involved?  That would be a terribly weak argument considering the many medical and adoptive options available for same-sex couples today.  The only thing preventing gay couples from adopting are the legal limitations which result from the activism of people like Anderson and George.  They are themselves creating the problem they describe.  If building families seems less central to same-sex marriages, it’s most likely due to the prohibitions which conservative Christians are themselves pushing into law.  Anderson continues:

However, this understanding of marriage is lacking, Anderson said, as it does not take into account the needs of children…But across diverse societies and throughout history, he contended, marriage has been understood as a “comprehensive union” in which man and woman become “one flesh,” particularly in their ability to create children. As a whole, in this understanding, “marriage is ordered to the comprehensive good in the creation and raising of children.”

It’s been pointed out by many before that this line of reasoning against same-sex marriage is sterile since by the same reasoning you could argue that heterosexual marriages are invalid if they don’t produce children.  And what’s more, this plays into the centuries-old Catholic hangup about sex being only for procreation and not for recreation.  Somewhere in their distant past is a theological belief that sex is somehow bad and yucky, and should only be done when it has to be done, to make babies.  That’s part of why birth control is so very bad to them:  Take away the procreative function of sex and what you have left over is a purely sinful act.
The article about Anderson concludes by vaguely referencing quantitative support for his views without giving any indication of where this support can be found.

He pointed to studies examining socio-economic factors, which show that children raised by their biological mothers and fathers fare better than those raised by other family structures, particularly same-sex parents.

Anyone who has looked into the causes of poverty knows that having committed parents around gives an adaptive advantage to the children in those homes, particularly when there are two parents who can share the responsibility and perhaps even double the income. The data for that can be easily found.  But where does this elusive data comparing same-sex relationships to opposite-sex ones come from?  Can we actually see it?  I often hear conservatives talk as if such studies have been done, but they never seem to be able to provide a citation.  On the other hand, every time I look for legitimate studies on the subject, I find further confirmation that children raised within the homes of two gay or lesbian parents fare just as well if not better than raised by heterosexuals.
In the collective memory of Catholics, the Church is supposed to run the world.  For them, Christian identity markers are supposed to play a normative role in society, and they would have been fine if the separation between church and state had never become a thing in the first place. So I expect that the Catholic side of the conservative Christian response will remain combative on this issue along with all the other hot button issues like birth control and abortion.
But what of the Baptists?  Their views about the relationship between the church and the world are a bit more complicated.

Will Baptists Return to Their Apolitical Roots?

In my home state, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (formerly S.B. 2681) passed with flying colors, making it legal for businesses to refuse service to people because of their sexual orientation.  This was our version of Arizona’s infamous “turn away the gays” bill, which failed to pass in their state.  Not so in mine.  In my state, Mississippi Baptists have a full-time lobbyist whose office sits across the street from the state capitol, and he spent a considerable amount of his time working the legislators to ensure that this bill saw the light of day.  It was a major victory for Mississippi Baptists, who seem to still agree with the Catholics that conservative Christian identity markers should be normative for all of society.
A couple of years ago, Russell Moore took over the Southern Baptist Conventions’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  Back when I was still in school it was called the Christian Life Commission and it was still headed up by its founder, Richard Land.  Land typified all the strengths and weaknesses of Falwell era Baptists, and he eventually lost his position after making some racially insensitive remarks surrounding the Trayvon Martin case.  Moore’s tenure as the public face of the SBC has been marked by significantly more nuanced arguments for the same things Baptists have always believed, only now without the thinly-veiled racism.  He is a product of a different time, and his position toward the culture wars reflects a shift in how Baptists see themselves engaging the rest of the world.  Listen to what Merritt tells us Moore has to say about the imminent arrival of marriage equality:

If the court were to “redefine marriage,” Moore said Christians should “be ready to offer an alternative vision of marriage and family” that doesn’t include same-sex unions. Interestingly, his vision would be promoted primarily within the church rather than changing laws through political action.
“We must articulate these truths about marriage in our gospel witness, and we must embody these truths in churches that take marriage seriously,” Moore said. “This means we must start teaching our children a countercultural word about what it means to be men and women, about what marriage is, and that must begin not in premarital counseling but in children’s Sunday school.”

Do you see the shift in posture there?  Moore is signaling a shift in public policy for Baptists on the national stage.  Anticipating an imminent defeat in the national courts, he argues that Baptists should labor to “offer an alternative vision of marriage and family” rather than seeking to strongarm the rest of the world into being like them.  This, at long last, is the more historically consistent Baptist way of talking about the role of the church in the world.
I’ve written before about how Baptists historically respected the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.  In fact, they practically pioneered it in the first place.  They began in this country as a persecuted group, and when you’re in the minority you tend to become a champion for equality and fairness. Theologically, they also adhere to the doctrine of a “believers’ church” in which only the converted come under their auspices.  Unlike those traditions in which civic and ecclesiastical authority are blended into one structure, making everyone born into a region automatically a member of the state church, Baptists have always seen the church as being “in the world but not of it.”  That’s why, prior to the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Baptists didn’t usually take an active institutional role in trying to influence American politics. Perhaps a shift in the political winds will bring about a return to the way Baptists used to think about their place it the world as a “witness” to an alternative reality rather than as a parental role bent on telling everyone else how to live.
Other voices highlighted by Merritt’s article similarly call for a more nuanced and diplomatic position on same-sex marriage. Both Brandan Robertson of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality and Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network argue that distinguishing between civil marriage and Christian marriage can provide evangelicals a way to acquiesce on the issue of marriage equality in the public sphere without having to endorse homosexuality itself. “There is a distinction between Christian marriage in the eyes of God and civil marriage in the eyes of the state,” Lee said.  Perhaps making this distinction will allow future evangelicals to save face in the culture wars, giving them a way to excuse themselves from this particular battle without having to change their doctrinal position at all, which many of them seem incapable of doing.  Merritt sums it up this way:

Conservatives are changing their minds, albeit slowly, about homosexuality, but are shifting more rapidly on gay marriage.

This would be a baby step forward, and a welcome one as far as I’m concerned.  Doctrines don’t change quickly in the church because religions based on authoritative revelation don’t have effective mechanisms for self-correction.  But this legal skirmish has clearly been a losing battle for them, and it’s nice to hear that at least some of their leading spokespersons are beginning to accept it.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...