Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Whose Christianity?

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1) The Bible contains tons of outdated rules that nobody follows and have no relevance to modern life.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?


Josh D. said...

Just another one of your cynical tirades Thelen...
Oh, this was the first one? In that case, I think I'll co-opt this "turkey talking" phrase.

Josh D. said...

Now here's some more turkey for your gullet. I think your leaving a question hanging in this post: Confronted with the political reality that some people do in fact care what the Bible says, is your point that attempting to placate the bible thumper through bible-friendly arguments is just a sort of dishonest argument that shouldn't matter (an argument that seems to be philosophically pure and pragmatically foolish, because it takes as its premise that the bible just should not matter as a socio-political text, which is all well and good but not a helpful lobbying position).

Or are you saying something stronger, that placating that side of the argument gives some force to the idea that it's the proper playing field for these arguments to play out, akin to your Chicago Bears agreeing to play two games at the MetroDome each season to face a certain defeat?

If your point is the first, then here's the choir saying "thank you, preacher man," but I doubt it's a point that needs to be made and seems to cede a lot of political ground. If your point is the second, well I'm not sure you made that point.

I think the blog name should be "The Thela-Monster: slow-moving, but deadly"

The colon will let people know you went to law school

Ben said...

@ Josh D.:

Perceptive, as always. This is something I wrestled with while writing this up. The point I'm driving for is the second point, that making these arguments is bad because it legitimizes the notion that these sorts of debates have a place in our political discourse. And I can only grant you that I haven't cashed that check yet. Consider this an opening salvo in developing that argument, which is something that will take some time. But that's what this blog is for. Or at least what's is supposed to be for, before it descends into poop jokes and linking funny YouTube videos.

And, in a move that transcends perceptiveness and borders on clarivoyant: Thela-monster is one of the names I floated for this. Get out of my brain.

Marcelo Teson said...

In general I agree with you that these religious arguments have no place in a debate about policy. I'm about as antireligious as they come (more than you, I'd wager).

That having been said, I'll gladly tolerate the legitimacy of using religious arguments on these issues if it means convincing enough people that gay marriage is okay. Those rights are more important and more pressing than whether the discourse is philosophically pure enough. The infringement I get from people believing in gay marriage for the wrong reasons is less than the infringement gay people deal with when they can't marry at all.

Ben said...

@ Marce:

I don't think that philosophical purity is much of a value at all, and I'm certainly not here to defend it. But, apropos of Josh's comment, I do think there is a problem with legitimizing the notion that the proper interpretation of the Bible should have anything to do with whether same-sex couples should marry.

That being said, this discussion raises another issue: do we really think that these arguments are actually changing people's minds? Are there tons of Christians out there who were against same-sex marriage, but have changed their minds because of arguments like Miller's? I'm skeptical, and I think this issue has broad implications. One thing I didn't touch on here but will doubtless be touching on soon is the notion (endorsed by Miller in a quote from the original post) that, when it comes to same-sex marriage and other issues, people aren't getting their opinions from religion. They're getting them from somewhere else. Religion is just providing them with a powerful justifying language for holding their belief with particular fervor, and for regarding attacks on their belief as more insulting than an attack on some other non-religious opinion.

Maybe that just leaves us where we started, debating the harm of not making these arguments against the harm of legitimizing people's relying on their religion to bolster their position. But I'm not sure it leaves it where we started, because, as should be clear from my original post, I think people will always be able to find support for their homophobia in the Bible. And if that's so, maybe we should focus on arguing that the Bible ought not be a source of political rules, rather than trying to convince people, in the face of undeniable problems with the text, that the Bible actually favors same-sex marriage.

Tom D said...

I'm not sure what argument is a winner. They argue that 1 man 1 women is the way things have been done for thousands of years and it's not really true. So facts aren't always very important in arguments - which anyone who pays attention to life probably already knew.

I recently had a class with a Public Policy Prof who studied persuasion for a living and his conclusion, boiled down, was that people listen to simple factual arguments only when the perceived penalty of not listening to them is high.

So global warming which at the popular level is now accepted, even fatalistically so, gets people's attention in a way that it didn't 10 years ago.

But civil rights is a slightly different beast. Non-southerners seeing the actual life of southern blacks when TV and photo news magazines became widespread had to be a big part of support for the civil rights movement of the 60s.

I'm not sure there's anything similar for gays now - an abstract person not being able to see his or her spouse in the hospital is not the same as actual person on TV being hosed down in the streets.

In the scheme of things the big change will only come when people with different opinions die off. Or, at a regional level, when there are major demographics changes. Obama didn't win the capital of the Confederacy because of "real Virginia" after all.

I do think that the number of people for whom this is a deal-breaker is overstated. Raising taxes, recessions, etc. are the kind of things that cause parties to lose power. I don't see this as one of those things.

Marcelo Teson said...

Your points are compelling. The one thing I want to add is on the subject of whether these things actually ever change peoples' minds. I think they do, especially in this issue.

I only have anecdotal evidence to support it, but I've met quite a few people who voted for prop 8 and are in principle against gay marriage, but they haven't thought through the implications of what that means. Some of those people had an epiphany about it after the legislation passed and they saw how much it hurt people. Other people whose support for gay marriage was noncommittal became ardent evangelists for gay marriage once they saw it banned in CA.

I think what's interesting about this particular political situation is that Prop 8 has become this massive teachable moment that has kind of forced people to take a side once and for all. A lot of the support for or against this issue is still VERY soft, and could change with the right kind of framing, hence the usefulness of some of these religious arguments. As long as you concede that Christianity can never allow gay marriage, you then place people in a position of having to choose whether or not to stay Christian if they don't want to discriminate against gay people, and that's never a good place to be. Framing the argument in religious terms allows people to support gay marriage without feeling like they have to abandon their church. Even if the framing isn't really where we want our level of discourse to be, I have to admit that framing matters, and a potent religious argument is a handy weapon in the arsenal.

Marcelo Teson said...


per your last paragraph, one of the interesting things about the Yes on 8 campaign was the way they attempted to woo CA conservatives (most of whom are libertarians and not social cons) by tying the gay marriage issue to the things they care about - raising taxes, recessions, etc. By spreading the lie that schools would be required to teach kids homosexuality or that churches would be forced to marry gays by the state they got those otherwise ambivalent soft supporters to the polls.

Tom D said...


I agree with your point re: framing and the softness of public opinion. I think you leave unstated, but implied, that the pro-gay marriage side was pretty disorganized until the last moment and the anti-gay marriage side was quite organized from the beginning.

My point re: big change coming only when people die off was not that Prop 8 was inevitable or even likely, but that we won't get gay marriage in, say, Georgia for a long time coming.

In the meantime smart arguments can be made and cause change in areas with friendly demographics with the eventual effect of change in areas that presently have less friendly demographics.

I don't like the idea of going any further than making it clear that gay marriage is compatible with Christianity. Going down the road of justifying policy with religious text per se, rather than morality in a broadly understood sense is dangerous.

I think it is fair to say that propositions suck as a way of doing just about anything.

As a thought experiment, what if it ended up 52-48 the other way? Obviously the situation for gay couples changes in the present, but does it change the near and long term strategic positions any? Do the funding sources like the LDS dry up?

Qwikzotik said...

I don't know how auspicious the name "Thela-monster" would be given that the Wikipedia entry for "Gila Monster" contains the following:

"Another myth held that the Gila monster did not have an anus and therefore expelled waste from its mouth, the source of its venom and 'fetid breath.'"

Ben said...

@ Qwikzotik:

That would be a powerful image for any who would dare oppose me.

Tom D said...

Your critics, which I presume to be both numerous and powerful, might perhaps call the Thela-monster an apt personification of the blog's contents.