Predictably, conservative Christian activists and commentators are already decrying the Supreme Court’s decisions today rejecting the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and permitting same-sex marriages to resume in California.
Many are already arguing about the great damage that will be done to marriage with today’s decisions. I would suggest that a more important damage to Christian witness in American culture has already been done, not by the Supreme Court but by the Christian activists; and not just today but for a generation or more. And that damage will intensify in proportion to the Christian outcry in days to come.
What has that damage been?
• Christians (understood to mean here heterosexual activist traditionalists) have become identified with actively pursuing the denial of rights and benefits to others that they themselves enjoy. In other words, the “Gospel” has been identified with the cause of self-benefiting social discrimination against a minority group, a losing hand if ever there was one.
• Christians, claiming to follow Jesus, have become identified as the chief enemies of gay and lesbian human beings (some of whom are also Christians), and of the moral and legal rights of lesbians and gays, whereas Jesus’ enemies tended to be people who performed exactly this kind of marginalization on the despised ones of their era.
• Christians have become known for a deeply distorted moral agenda by elevating the anti-gay cause to the top of their public ethics, and this in a world afflicted by war, hunger, ecological disaster and all manner of social injustice.
• Christians have alienated gays and lesbians and their families, friends, and sympathetic allies, driving many away from the love of Jesus Christ and contributing to the secularization of American culture. They have done a great deal to create hostility to the church and closed ears to the Gospel. The saddest cases are the church’s own rejected gay and lesbian adolescents and twentysomethings. They are legion.
• Christians have contributed to the fear in society that millions of Americans are unable to tell the difference between the church and the state, or between the demands of their faith on themselves vs. the demands of their faith on those who do not share it. This contributes to secularization and weakens respect for legitimate concerns about protecting a zone of religious liberty for religious dissenters.
In broad perspective, there are three ways that Christians will likely respond to today’s Supreme Court decisions and many other recent and likely gains for the LGBT community in the United States. One is to dig in their heels and resist every step of the way, with continuing damages along the lines just indicated, and all this in an increasingly hopeless cause. Another is to draw a clearer distinction between church and state, and between moral and legal norms, deciding that the place to defend and practice traditional Christian beliefs about marriage is in the church, not the state. The third is to be open to rethinking the possibility that the core Christian norms of love, justice, and hospitality must be integrated with moral norms related specifically to sexual ethics.
In any case, an internal Christian conversation is desperately needed, with a healthy flavor of repentance in it. Fighting over the marriage laws of the United States does not advance that conversation. Perhaps today’s Supreme Court decisions can release more American Christians to engage questions of sexuality and marriage where they should really be engaged—in homes and churches, not courtrooms.