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”1. 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.2
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.3
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.4
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.