An Evangelical Intellectual Takes On Same-Sex Marriage, Grasps at Straw Men

Of all the terms used to describe the recent shift in public opinion toward same-sex marriage, “seismic”  is one of the most common. Given the centrality of California to this discussion, headline writers have found “Seismic Shift” difficult to resist. And it makes sense—the earth seems to have moved, structures shifted or collapsed. 

In recent weeks the metaphor has found fresh resonance. Opponents of same-sex marriage are frantically rushing to raise and brace their beams.

Historically, opposition to gay rights has had a religious tone, often couched in the language of sin and vice. Anita Bryant famously accused gays of pedophilia, suggesting that they sought to “recruit” children into their hypersexual ranks. Later, Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell cited the AIDS crisis as punishment for sexual sin. These days, the shifting rhetorical sands demand something less accusatory. Most often, this means that condemnation of deviants casually transforms itself into defense of freedoms. 

But getting from one to the other can be tricky. Often it is more of a climb than a walk; usually it requires some acrobatics.

Take evangelical apologist William Lane Craig, for example. Unlike some more prominent—but less cerebral—figures, Craig’s oppositional stance is backed by a solid intellectual ethos. Nathan Schneider’s recent profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education testifies as much, citing Craig’s extensive education and dogged commitment to study, writing, and debate. Given this background, there is reason to believe that Craig’s take on the issue should be one of the strongest on offer.

Last week, immediately before the Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, he took to his podcast to weigh in. His reasoning—stretched across three central claims, outlined below—is instructive, if only because it demonstrates the challenge facing those who would oppose marriage equality on purely rational grounds.

1) The definition of marriage is unchangeable

Craig starts out reasonably enough, drawing a distinction between morality and legality, and pointing out that many things that are immoral from a Christian perspective are—and should remain—legal. The Prohibition Era, he reminds us, is a case of immoral behavior criminalized to disastrous effect.

At this point, one is tempted to hope that he will take a similar line on same-sex marriage, a position that would be—at the very least—amenable to discussion.

Unfortunately, however, Craig promptly moves on from this thought, leaving its mention as somewhat of a mystery. In its place he offers the “very simple” assertion that marriage is “by definition” between a man and a woman. Therefore, the concept of same-sex marriage is “simply incoherent,” a violation of the “objective nature” of the institution. Advocates of same-sex marriage, he continues, think of marriage as a mere “social convention,” its nature as “arbitrary” as driving on the right side of the road. Changing its meaning is nothing to them, he implies, as they do not appreciate that meaning in the first place.

Though Craig is correct that this argument is “simple,” he is wrong to believe that simplicity makes it good. Indeed, the suggestion that terms and concepts are immune to redefinition is simply.. .false. It demands an unflattering comparison to Rick Santorum, who once stumped around the nation declaring that a “napkin is a napkin.”

Language is a human invention, dependent on agreement and subject to revision. The truth is that—contra Santorum—a napkin is a napkin only so long as English-speaking people agree to call it that. If they instead decide to call it a “chazzwuzzle,” the napkin’s days will be numbered. If they assign it uses other than mouth-wiping, its legacy will be jeopardized too. And this power is not limited to paper products. If people found that, based on changing conditions and norms, the concept of marriage needed updating, they would be within their rights—and powers—to make this happen.

As proof, one need look no further than marriage itself. Craig claims that marriage has been “always and everywhere” defined as between a man and a woman, which is also simply untrue. Anyone who has ever read Ecclesiastes or watched TLC knows that it comes in at least two traditional, patriarchal forms.

2) Traditional marriage does not discriminate

The second arrow in Craig’s quiver is somewhat more novel than the first, but only in that it takes an established—but weird—claim and makes it a little weirder.

Craig sees an important distinction between same-sex marriage, which simply means two people of the same sex marrying, and gay marriage—which would insist that those two same-sex people actually be gay.

Gay marriage, he argues, is “clearly unconstitutional” because it would “rule out” two heterosexuals of the same sex who wish to marry. Since “the laws of the United States have to be blind to the sexual orientation of the people involved,” gay marriage would necessarily be problematic in a way that same-sex marriage is not. The question before Americans is therefore not whether gay people should be able to marry one another, but whether marriage rights should be extended to pairs of same-sex people generally.

Oddly, Craig thus bases his opposition to gay marriage on a more basic opposition to discrimination. Gay marriage is unconstitutional, he says, because “it would discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.” Traditional marriage, by contrast, does not discriminate, because it allows anyone—gay or straight—to marry a member of the opposite sex.

This argument has been made before, with equal self-satisfaction but without quite this level of obliviousness. Throughout his criticism of gay marriage, Craig never finds cause to condemn same-sex marriage, presumably because it makes the same offer as traditional marriage—gay or straight, anyone is free to marry a member of the same sex. Whether they would want to, or why, doesn’t seem to matter.

Agreeing with interviewer Kevin Harris’ suggestion that “marriage equality” advocates have “hijacked” the mantle of the Civil Rights movement, Craig doubles-down on his claim that traditional marriage is not discriminatory. “The present laws,” he says,

“like the Defense of Marriage Act, do not discriminate against people in the basis of their sexual orientation. The present laws are completely blind—no one is asked about his sexual orientation when he shows up for a marriage license.”

Again, he argues, the question is not at all whether gay people should be allowed to marry; the question is only whether they should be able to marry people of the same sex. The answer, of course, is no. Why? “Because the very definition of marriage—what marriage is—excludes two persons of the same sex being wed in a marriage relationship.”

The authoritarian force of language asserts itself once again, and the circular argument comes full circle.

3) Same-sex marriage is the product of misguided notions of tolerance

This brings us to Craig’s deeper, reasonized—if not actually reasonable—claim.

Dating back at least as far as Francis Schaeffer, fundamentalist pols have sought explanations for unwelcome social developments in basic, distinctly intellectual failures. Quoting Allan Bloom, Craig suggests that acceptance of same-sex marriage is ultimately attributable to decades of education policy that has privileged “relativism” and “tolerance” over traditional understandings of moral rights and wrongs. Consequently, people are much more interested in being “open” to one another than in enforcing absolutist moral codes. Only amid such a morally aimless polity could same-sex marriage find such broad acceptance.

Having dispensed with old moral absolutes, Craig argues, Americans have adopted what he calls the “new absolutes,” referring to values such as tolerance, openness, and “non-judgmentalism.” Since these values have replaced more traditional values, concerns over the moral quality of same-sex relationships are superseded by a more basic drive for inclusiveness. By extension, people are more apt to worry that a rejection of such relationships may amount to intolerance or bigotry than that those relationship are themselves immoral.

This argument actually comes off well—and might be persuasive—were it not for the simple fact that Craig considers this change a bad thing.

Coming from a different speaker, his comments might be understood as a defense of pluralism, but Craig believes that openness and tolerance are symptomatic of a “closing of the American mind,” an accusation that is wholly unsubstantiated by his remarks. The point about “relativism”—which he disavows but relies on nonetheless—is equally self-defeating.

The values espoused by pluralism are values, and they join every other established system of thought in discriminating between rights and wrongs, truths and falsehoods, etc. While “relativism” has long been a favored bogeyman of conservative pundits, it holds no sway in real life. Thus a segment of the interview that borders on the reasonable ends up—with the rest of the interview—merely perplexing.

Concluding his critique of “tolerance” as a political value, Craig claims that the term is now understood in a completely different way than it has been in the past. This portion is worth quoting at some length. He says:

Tolerance should mean, though I disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it. So that we tolerate people, but we discriminate between views. We discriminate views as true or false, but we tolerate those who advocate false views. We recognize their right to an opinion and their right to express it. But in the new tolerance, the new kind of value that’s been accepted, you discriminate against people, but you tolerate all views. So that you tolerate same-sex marriage as well as traditional marriage, you tolerate all the views, but now you will discriminate, for example, against those who hold traditional views by calling them bigots and intolerant and rejecting them and vilifying them. So the new tolerance is quite a reversal of the traditional tolerance.

The first portion of this claim is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, Craig would probably be hard-pressed to find any American who did not at least claim to separate the quality of particular views from the right of individuals to hold them.

But he then conjures a “reversal” that is pure fantasy. There is simply nothing at all in the liberal value of tolerance that even remotely purports to justify discrimination against individuals. Period. But Craig takes it a step further, arguing that people are discriminated against even as their views are not. If this were true, advocates of same-sex marriage would be calling Craig a bigot even as they embraced his views. But this doesn’t happen.

The claim, absurd as it is, does perform a very important task for Craig’s argument. Namely, it victimizes defenders of traditional marriage, allowing them to play the role of the discriminated, the rejected, and the vilified. Having spent decades opposing new freedoms for gays, Christians now claim that gays are somehow stripping freedoms from them.

Given the history between these groups, this claim demonstrates an incalculable level of chutzpah.

I suggested earlier that Craig’s reasoning might be instructive to those interested in the arguments that drive the debate over same-sex marriage. Having now worked through that reasoning, perhaps an assessment is order.

William Lane Craig is a smart and educated man. He is respected and revered by many aspiring scholars in the evangelical community. His reputation for thoughtfulness is, by all accounts, deserved. But even he is wholly unable to mount a persuasive opposition to same-sex marriage.

His argument is, in a word, nonsensical.

Craig trades in straw men and red herrings, preferring split hairs to plain sense. He misdirects and confounds, grasping at hypotheticals when real people hang in the balance. And for all his twists and turns, he has nothing at all to say to the millions of men and women who simply want to be with those they love, to start families of their own, and to participate in a conservative institution that they value every bit as much as he.

Perhaps there are many things to be learned from this Christian intellectual. But foremost among these has to be the tenacity of the preconception. Like his fellows, Craig has committed himself to reaching a particular conclusion, needing only the right words to guide the way. He will get there, even if it means turning in ever-narrowing circles.