A few naysayers notwithstanding, a celebratory mood has come over the American left. But circumstances have conspired to keep some sand in the vaseline. In particular, these days have not been perspicuous for left-leaning Christians. Conservative Episcopalians have torn asunder their communion. And the nation still smarts from a bruising, religion-infused battle over same-sex marriage in California. Apparently, even the state that rains pornography upon us, coming through the wires like manna from heaven, couldn’t be depended on to stop zealots who think that the law ought to keep homosexuals from visiting their partners in the hospital.
A number of arguments have sprung up to explain why same-sex marriage should be legal. Unsurprisingly, one of those arguments attempts to beat Christian opponents of same-sex marriage at their own game. This line of argument is nothing new. But I suspect that we will see more of its ilk in the months and years to come, as same-sex marriage advocates attempt to appeal to whoever it is in the mucky middle of American politics that will end up deciding this issue.
One prominent place where such an argument is being made is in the December 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek, whose cover promises that Lisa Miller will lay out “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” (As an aside, “religious” is an odd choice here, given that the otherwise white cover is also adorned by the Holy Bible, crucifix on the front, rainbow-colored bookmark inside the book near the beginning, perhaps marking one of those verses in Leviticus opponents of same-sex marriage love to quote. Nobody at Newsweek seems worried about whether Krishna or Odin approves of same-sex unions. But this is a discussion for another day.)
In keeping with arguments of this type, Miller lays out two basic, connected arguments for why Christianity actually supports same-sex marriage:
1) The Bible contains tons of outdated rules that nobody follows and have no relevance to modern life.
2) The core principles of Christianity, properly understood, argue for allowing same-sex couples to marry.
My purpose here is not to directly engage with either of these arguments. I am no theologian. Instead, my purpose is to explain how these arguments illustrate why this debate has no place in a discussion of public policy.
Miller begins by covering some familiar ground. Some Christians want to define marriage narrowly today, but they should take a look at what actually happened in the Bible. Abraham slept around, the Old Testament good guys are a bunch of polygamists and Jesus and St. Paul would rather have us not get married at all. And besides, those outdated parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality, they also tell us about “treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or turtle dove.” In this age of serial monogamy, modern medicine, sanitary napkins and factory farming, nobody cares about any of this any more. So, if these rules are useless, but we still want to be Christians, where do we look?
Apparently we look to “biblical values.” Amongst those values, Miller singles out “acceptance of all,” “inclusion, even in defiance of social convention” and others.
And that’s well and good. Those are good values. But I am at a loss as to how this theological debate helps us decide whether the state should recognize same-sex marriages. Miller is too. And she betrays this in her piece. After arguing that various passages in the Bible don’t lend conclusive support to the prohibition against same-sex marriage, Miller concludes, “Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition (and, to talk turkey for a minute, a personal discomfort with gay sex that transcends theological argument)” (emphasis mine). Now, I’m all for the argument that many Christians leaders have bamboozled their flocks with a few Bible verses into embracing homophobia. But, since we’re turkey-talking here: the Biblical roots for this homophobia, however shallow, are real. These verses might be taken out of context, but they’re not taken out of nowhere.
Contrast that conclusion with a quotation Miller attributes to “great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann,” that “[t]he religious argument for gay marriage… ‘is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.’” Bruggemann’s point about the “bent” of the Bible is a far cry from Miller’s claims that Christian arguments against same-sex marriage are not based on the Bible “at all.”
And, as I’ve said several times throughout, I don’t know what the Bible says. But what’s become clear here is that neither does Lisa Miller, or Walter Bruggemann, or Mormon Prophet Thomas S. Monson or anybody else.
Now, I acknowledge that figuring out what the Bible says is of profound importance to Christians. But I would hope (against hope, likely) that those same Christians would acknowledge back that answering those questions should not have anything to do with who gets to see who on their deathbed or who gets to adopt children.
This is why defending Christianity’s role in a public policy debate presents a problem. Without that perspective, nobody would think that resolving a debate about same-sex marriage should depend on how best to interpret a convoluted religious text written by men claiming to speak for God.
And anybody who repeats the same tired slogans, that this is a Christian nation founded on Christian values where Christianity should have a voice in deciding this and other issues, should explain what that means. Whose Christianity? Which Christian values? Because if we’re talking about the outdated laws from Leviticus, we don’t want Christianity in the public square. And if we’re talking about general slogans we can all agree on, we don’t need it.
People turn to Christianity, as with any other religion I would imagine, for a variety of reasons. Some people like the values Miller mentions. Some people like other values, or interpret those values in different ways. Some people like some of the outdated rules. And none of these people can make an argument that knocks out their rivals. None of them can lay claim to the one Christianity.
I hope Miller is right. I hope Christianity commands its followers to support same-sex marriage. But I’m not sure it does, and I am sure that nothing is as clear as Miller wishes it were. If it condemns homosexuality, all the worse for the Bible. But, if it does, why should it be the worse for us?