Image by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA.
The Supreme Court’s nationalization of same-sex marriage this summer in Obergefell v. Hodges leaves Christians with a lot of work to do—at almost every level. Most of the work isn’t new, but the cultural landmark that Obergefell represents certainly pushes it to the front burner. We need to think hard about how homosexuality is understood and responded to within the Church—most importantly, how Christ calls us to love people. The all but complete dissolution of traditional sexual mores in our society should cause us to reflect on the Church’s witness and lack of witness in these matters. And, among a host of other things, we need to be thinking about politics. Being a political theorist, I have some brief preliminary reflections and a few book recommendations.
Even Christians who for whatever reason agree with same-sex marriage have to acknowledge the sharply compromised position we now hold in the public square. As Justice Alito made clear in Obergefell’s oral arguments, a constitutional right to gay marriage negatively implicates religious groups (and businesses) of all kinds who maintain traditional moral positions opposed to that right. Since institutions like Biola now hold views contrary to a fundamental constitutional liberty, should they be allowed to maintain tax-exempt status? Should they be eligible to benefit from public funds through federal student loans? These are unsettled political questions whose disposition is made all the more uncertain by the concerted—and at this point largely successful—effort to paint orthodox Christians with the brush of rank bigotry. So even Christians inclined to applaud Obergefell for the wedge it drives between civil and religious marriage have serious issues of religious liberty to contend with.
Moreover, many Christians will feel that more is required beyond a rearguard action in defense of religious liberty. If Roe v. Wade has taught us anything, it’s that the Supreme Court’s bid to be the Supreme Oracle of Constitutional Meaning need not be meekly accepted. Indeed, those who look to the other branches of government to advance constitutional interpretations contrary to the Court’s join the venerable company of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, among many others. (Read more about this theory of “departmentalism” here.)
Still, the question remains, how should we think about pro-marriage political action in a post-Christian society? Given the rapid growth of support for same-sex marriage among Americans, why isn’t advocacy for the traditional definition simply an imposition of our values – Christian identity politics? From a Christian perspective, isn’t the deepest meaning of marriage rooted in theological truths our fellow citizens don’t accept? And doesn’t marriage presuppose a sexual ethic our society has all but entirely jettisoned? The Apostle Paul was pretty clear that Christians living in pagan societies shouldn’t be too concerned about the surrounding culture’s non-conformity to Christian standards (I Cor. 5:9-13). The world simply lives by different values, and thus we will always be strangers in a strange land.
These are important questions that highlight deep divisions between the City of God and the City of Man and must always inform our understanding of faithful Christian citizenship. At the same time, if the world was ordered according to God’s eternal reason, if all people are created in the image of God, and if despite our fallenness we still bear discernable traces of that creation imprint, we should except to be able to find common moral ground with non-Christians on the basis of our common humanity—children of the same God whether we all acknowledge it or not. It is this common moral ground that C.S. Lewis points us to in his classic, The Abolition of Man. It’s this universal moral reality that I believe rightly motivates political advocacy in favor of traditional marriage, that doesn’t reduce to Christian identity politics. And that’s important. It’s vital, in fact, because a genuine concern for the common good—not just the interests or views of my group—is necessary to achieve the real intellectual and moral benefits that civil discourse and debate make possible.
So where should we turn to think through arguments for traditional marriage rooted in generally accessible moral reasoning and a concern for the common good? I’m glad you asked! I’ll recommend three books with brief comments:
- What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George (Encounter, 2012).
Cited by Justice Alito in his U.S. v. Windsor dissent, this book is an expansion of the authors’ Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article. Their first task is to answer the title question, then they explain why the state is involved in marriage at all, how that informs public policy questions about marriage, and what the likely effects of redefining marriage will be. Andrew Koppelman, a prominent same-sex marriage proponent, has said of their responses to his work in the book: “Their treatment of my objections is scrupulously fair and accurate.”
- Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George (Cambridge UP, 2014).
A great companion book to What Is Marriage? for those who want to dig deeper into the moral theory. Conjugal Union begins with a concise account of Lee and George’s natural law theory, which provides a basis for all moral reflection, not just sexual ethics. Their treatment of marriage does not substantively differ from What Is Marriage? (as you would except given the common co-author), but a real virtue of the book is that it situates the critique of same-sex marriage within a broader sexual ethic that prohibits fornication, incest, and so forth. This alone belies the charge that the traditional opposition to homosexuality is motivated by bigotry (as Justice Kennedy very unfortunately argued—no, asserted—in Lawrence v. Texas).
This is the if-you-only-get-one book. Anderson’s book was just released. Much like his mentor, Robert George, Ryan Anderson is a tornado of clear, logical argument, universal good will, and indefatigable affability. The book restates the essential marriage arguments from What Is Marriage? (but with a lot of new and interesting material), and then gives an excellent analysis of Obergefell v. Hodges. If you want to understand why even same-sex marriage supporters are lamenting that Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent won the constitutional argument, Anderson makes it really clear. He then turns to religious liberty, providing, among a lot else, the invaluable service of cataloguing free exercise violations already happening around the country. Finally, Anderson reflects on how the pro-life movement’s response to Roe v. Wade should inform our post-Obergefell cultural and political engagement. A comprehensive, excellent book.