Where’s the General Christian Defense of Marriage?

835 - Christian US

Last week I pointed out that a lot of the liberal glee at Kim Davis’s apparent hypocrisy was disingenuous. One of our commenters who supports same-sex marriage countered that there is reasonable grounds for suspicion about conservative motivations for opposing same-sex marriage, however. He wrote:

There’s a slightly deeper issue at play, which none of the news or reporters that I’ve seen has addressed. That is the observation that for “Christians opposed to marriage” (my term), the reasons–including scriptures and arguments about what’s best for children or ‘family’–ought to sound as loudly with respect to divorce. And yet in many voices divorce seems to get a pass.

This is a legitimate point, and it’s worth more of a reply than I gave in the comments at the time. So, what explains the discrepancy between Christian opposition to same-sex marriage (which seems loud and absolute) and Christian opposition to divorce (which seems quiet and muddled)?

1. People are selfish hypocrites sometimes, and this includes Christians. Divorce is something that a lot of heterosexuals have participated in and/or may expect to participate in at some future time. So it effects them in a way that gay marriage simply doesn’t. Therefore opposition to divorce is seen as either limiting their future options or condemning their past actions, and so they are more likely to accept it than same-sex marriage which they can safely depend on never impacting them directly.

2. According to Christian sexual ethics, divorce (or something like it, e.g. separation, annulment) is morally acceptable and even beneficial and necessary in a small but regular and persistent set of cases (e.g. in cases of abuse). But, by the same code of ethics, same-sex behavior is not routinely acceptable, even in a minority of cases. So you can’t attribute all the discrepancy between opposition to divorce and opposition to gay-marriage to selfish-hypocrisy, because some of the difference is actually intrinsic to the underlying Christian philosophy. Of course, I don’t expect any same-sex marriage supporters to accept that this is correct, but at least it is consistent.

3. Christians have been more opposed to divorce than I think the general public is aware. This is simply because conflict draws attention. When Christians oppose divorce and try to strengthen marriage they are, for the most part, not really arguing with anyone. There is no broad, popular movement that celebrates divorce or infidelity or walking out on your family. As a result, Christian opposition to these things tends to fly under the radar and go unnoticed. But it is there. In fact, that’s what made me think of this post. Thrice, which is my favorite band, has not one but two tracks on their fairwell album Anthology that address this issue directly. Here’s one of them, “The Weight.”

The other is “Promises.” Both of them are full-throated condemnations of modern sexual morality, including not only infidelity but serial monogamy, which is generally accepted through most of American culture.

Or how about Fight the New Drug? The anti-pornography organization “presents itself as a non-religious and non-legislative organization”[ref]Wikipedia[/ref]. That’s not at all dishonest–the group has no religious or political dogma or goals, but it is a marketing tactic to have a broad-based appeal. The fact remains that all four founders of the group are Mormon.[ref]LDS Living[/ref]

Then, as I mentioned in the comments at the time, there’s also covenant marriage:

Covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage in three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana) of the United States, in which the marrying spouses agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for later seeking divorce.[ref]Wikipedia[/ref]

This is a pretty direct attempt to mitigate the effects of no-fault divorce and, while it is not become at all common even in the states where it has been enacted, it illustrates a Christianity that is working to bolster traditional views of sexual morality in the public sphere.[ref]Whether or not you think that is a good idea is a separate issue, which I’m sure will be addressed many times at Difficult Run in the future.[/ref]

The reality is that the Christian fight to defend and bolster marriage is only visible when it conflicts with the mainstream of society, and it is visible in direct proportion to the extent of that conflict. When Christians sing about fidelity and marriage, basically no one notices. I’d wager that a lot of fans of Thrice don’t even know what Dustin Kensrue is singing about. When Christians campaign in ways that are indirectly opposed to social trends, such as fighting for abstinence-only or abstinence-first sex education–they are seen as obnoxious, backwards meddlers. But it’s not exactly headline news. And when Christians find themselves in a fight with an organized, dedicated, savvy coalition such as the gay-marriage campaign, then they are seen as bigots and it absolutely does become headline news.

In other words, a lot of the impression that Christians mysteriously decide to care about marriage just in time to oppose same-sex marriage is a function of the fact that no one notices what they are doing the rest of the time.

Now, a couple of closing caveats / clarifications. I’ve said “Christians” a lot, but traditional Muslim and Jewish traditions also oppose same-sex marriage. So do a small number of atheists and agnostics, including some homosexuals. But the focus here was on Christians, so that’s what I emphasized. There’s also some ambiguity around the term “Christian.” Is everyone who is born and raised as a Christian really a Christian? I don’t want to get into the business of being a gatekeeper and judging who is “good enough” to be Christian. That’s misguided, counterproductive, and distasteful. But it is worth noting that, when you see polls that show the extent to which individual Catholic opinion differs from Catholic teachings, a lot of that has to do with the interplay between religious conviction and sheer social-cultural inertia.

As long as religious belief is the default, and for the time being it still is in most of America, being an atheist is going to be a much more meaningful descriptor than being a Christian for the simple reason that–by and large–atheists are people who choose to be atheists. The same can’t be said of Christians, since the category embraces both people who consciously choose to be Christian but also people who haven’t really given it much thought and just happened to be born into a Christian family (to, quite possibly, parents who also haven’t given it much thought).

This is important, because it means that you should not be surprised when a minority of Christians actually get out there and support Christian beliefs. That’s not because Christians are more hypocritical than other groups. It’s because, as the dominant religious group in the US, the category includes a lot more “by default” members than other groups. That’s just something to keep in mind.

12 thoughts on “Where’s the General Christian Defense of Marriage?”

  1. I got a covenant marriage in AZ with my (second) wife,

    What I find interesting/depressing is when I bring it up with Mormons, it’s often treated like “that’s interesting, but not for me” because, well, you never know what the future might bring – i.e., “opposition to divorce is seen as either limiting their future options” (as for the “condemning past actions” – every time I’ve tried to talk about the evils of divorce over at M*, suddenly several divorced women show up and start attacking me for enabling abusers or whatnot; the abuse and accusations aimed at me when the topic has come up,, make it so it’s just not worth bringing it up).

  2. Nathaniel: I have three comments or responses.

    First, this is no longer a topic of general interest and I would move on to other things (Syria? Immigration?) except that I am the commenter you refer to in your opening. I feel some obligation to carry on.

    Second (and the only important point), I object to the phrase “who supports same-sex marriage” in general or applied to me. I support marriage. The difference is material. The majority in Obergefell understood the question as one of including same-sex couples in the established institution of civil marriage. This is a discrimination issue. I agree on all fronts with the majority. The dissent in Obergefell can be understood (although some may disagree) as viewing the question as one of creating a new legal status, that of “same-sex marriage.” If that’s what we were about then it could reasonably be referred to the “states’ rights” category of issues, where there would be a case for “same-sex marriage” being not wrong or right, but a matter for states to decide. I would submit that by majority opinion this was a discrimination issue, not a states’ rights issue, and was correctly decided. And therefore a reference to “same-sex marriage” is simply incorrect. The term is “marriage”.

    Third, as you allow for, but I want to underline or make clear, the idea that divorce is morally acceptable in a small but regular set of cases (with which I agree, by the way) but that marriage of two persons of the same gender is not acceptable even in a minority of cases, strikes me as hypocritical. If that’s “Christian sexual ethics” then (a) it is not mine, and (b) it is hypocritical.

  3. Chris-

    Surely you understand that which term we use (marriage vs. same-sex marriage) is inseparable from our stance on what the moral and legal status the practice (by any term) is. Therefore, while I’m happy to have you use whatever term you like, you can certainly understand my unwillingness to concede to your terminology (which is equivalent to retracting my position on this issue).

    If you’re worried that my terminology may appear to be attributed to you, I’ll happily add a note to correct that impression. But I will not stop separating traditional marriage from same-sex marriage unless/until such time as I’m convinced that it is right to do so. Which (1) I don’t foresee happening and (2) certainly won’t happen merely as a result of closely-decided SCOTUS case.

    Third, as you allow for, but I want to underline or make clear, the idea that divorce is morally acceptable in a small but regular set of cases (with which I agree, by the way) but that marriage of two persons of the same gender is not acceptable even in a minority of cases, strikes me as hypocritical

    There is certainly hypocrisy in the self-interest with which many Christians give divorce a pass but oppose same-sex marriage, but I do not believe there is any hypocrisy in the stance that something akin to divorce (e.g. separation or annullment) may exist in some cases while marriage between spouses of the same gender can exist in no cases.

    This doesn’t even seem to be a question of what one believes about marriage between people of the same gender. Clearly that is a question of what defines a marriage or–if you prefer–of who may enter into a marriage. But separation is a question of what criteria justify the dissolation of marriage. The question of what is necessary or proper to initiate a marriage and the question of what is necessary or proper to end or annul a marriage are separate questions. In particular, what is the contradiction in saying, “Only relationships ordered towards procreation constitute marriage” and saying “these relationships can be annulled in the case of deception or lead to separation in the case of abuse”? Obviously you do not accept the first premise, but that’s not the issue at hand. The question is: what’s the conflict between these two premises?

  4. Oh, one more thing: Don’t feel obligated to post if you find the effort taxing. I am working on a post about Syria / immigration that I hope will go up soon. Since I value your input, I’d rather not have you burn out on an issue that you find uninteresting. I’d rather you give them a pass if it means you stick around for the issues you do think are interesting.

  5. One last multi-part comment (not last because I’m taxed, but last because I do have other things to do and because I am highly confident that we will not (ever) come to agreement):

    1. I chuckle when you and others make a point of “closely-decided” as though that means the decision is fragile or will be reversed. It’s decided. It’s done.

    2. And therefore you are simply wrong to insist on “same-sex marriage” when referring to civil marriage. (But I know you won’t change. So enough.)

    3. I call hypocrisy because to the extent the so-called “Christian” position on marriage is about procreation, it finds room for exceptions (for the old, for the infertile, but not for same-sex couples). And to the extent the so-called “Christian” position on marriage is about scripture, it finds room for exceptions (for divorce, but not for same-sex couples). Your terminology may differ (no, I’m sure it differs), but when I see an absolutist position on only a minority class, with exceptions and allowance elsewhere, I call that hypocrisy. Or inconsistent. Or bad logic.

  6. (What I should have added) “simply wrong” to insist on “same-sex marriage” is not a matter of argument or position, but a matter of law and vocabulary. When two men get married, in Virginia or in Utah or in Massachusetts, they are “married”. That’s the whole point. There is no such thing as “same-sex marriage” under the law. There is only “marriage”.

  7. And by the way, if I were a betting man I would wager that we are in reasonably close accord regarding Syria and immigration. Time will tell, but chances are that I will have nothing to say!

  8. “I call that hypocrisy. Or inconsistent. Or bad logic.”

    It might be useful to segregate hypocrisy from inconsistency from bad logic. They are three separate charges with specific definitions. More importantly, hypocrisy and inconsistency are irrelevant because they condemn the person promulgating the values, not the values themselves. Bad logic is the only one of the three that actually calls into question the values. Which is why I kinda scratch my head at how the charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency have seemingly become the ultimate weapons in debates about values.

  9. That being said, every time talk of consistency comes up, it sure is nice to be Catholic. Unless anyone conflates annulment with divorce >_>

  10. Bryan: Granted hypocrisy, inconsistency, and bad logic are three distinct charges, when I see “exceptions for us, absolute prohibition for them” I think each and all three distinct charges apply.

  11. Logic: You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Actually, it’s quite solid logic; it passes the wff test. Of course, Chris’s view is also good logic – the difference is that Chris and Nathaniel are defining their terms differently; they each have a different definition of marriage – however, if you really understand logic, all that matters is you’re consistent with your definitions, not that the definitions reflect truth (truth is something outside the scope of logic properly understood; a sound argument is both valid and true, but logic only tests for validity, and validity does not have to have much relationship to truth – we used to create all sorts of absurd, untrue arguments in logic class, just to drive that point home).

    The problem is that the convservative/orthodox (small “o”) Christian view sees an ontological difference between same sex and opposite sex relationships, whereas Chris K. sees only an epistemological difference.

    However, calling Nathaniel a hypocrite (which he is not – he is clearly practicing what he preaches), inconsistent (which he is not – his definitions and principles are consistent), and using bad logic (which he isn’t – see above), is not very conducive to actual conversation. At best, it’s mere signalling which political tribe you belong to. As a rhetorician, I can say it’s very bad rhetoric.

  12. Great article. Every time I hear this objection, I just want to scream, “BUT WE ARE!!! Every day. But we just aren’t making the news.” Movies like Fireproof are great examples. Many of the older, prominent figures in today’s marriage debates were actually at the forefronts in opposing no-fault divorce decades ago. The ministry against divorce is daily and constant — but again, it doesn’t make the news. It’s become so commonplace it’s invisible.

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