This past week has been an exciting one for supporters of same-sex marriage equality. First came the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, declaring that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Then came Vermont, less than a week later—but this time it was the state legislature that acted to legalize same-sex marriage, and they did it in defiance of the governor’s veto. On the same day, Washington DC’s city council voted unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states (a decision that may not become law, since it must be approved both by the mayor and by Congress).
As a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage rights, my excitement over these developments has been tempered by two things. First, opponents of marriage equality are organized and often effective in their responses, as recent events in California have shown. But more significantly, there’s the knowledge that the very events which bring me such joy are for others a source of moral outrage, fear, and even heartbreak.
In this country, those most likely to feel these things are, like me, Christians. Where I see a move toward greater justice and equality, they see the erosion of divine law. When I celebrate the fact that my best friend’s 20-year relationship with another man may soon enjoy the same legal standing as my marriage, others fear that this expansion of marriage rights threatens the very institution of marriage.
When I reflect on recent events, I think about my cousin, Jake, who founded the Equality Ride that travels annually to colleges whose policies discriminate against gays and lesbians. I’ve seen the creative ways in which he and others have confronted these discriminatory practices, and I feel exuberant that his efforts and the efforts of so many others seem finally to be making a discernible impact. The world is changing because dedicated people motivated by a sense of justice have the courage to act and to sacrifice.
And yet I know that many will look at my cousin’s efforts and see a misguided sense of justice, a misdirected courage, and sacrifice for the sake of something abominable. And their perceptions are largely based on their understanding of divine will and revelation.
They Plug Up Their Ears with Bible Verses
Like them, I call myself a Christian. Like them, I feel called to follow in the ethical footsteps of Jesus. Like them, I turn to the Bible for insight into the divine. But unlike them, I see the relation between the Bible and divine will as far more complex than the fundamentalist approach to Scripture assumes. Unlike them, I am less than convinced by the so-called “natural law arguments” that take our reproductive physiology as dictating with whom we can legitimately express romantic love.
And unlike them, when I reflect on what it means to live by an ethic of love, I cannot countenance injunctions that exclude my gay and lesbian neighbors from participation in what has been one of the greatest blessings of my life: the chance to nurture a monogamous relationship that is formally recognized by the community and the law.
As I argue in my recent book, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has the effect of inspiring its adherents to pay more attention to a text than to the neighbors they are called upon to love. Sometimes it even inspires them to plug up their ears with Bible verses, so that they can no longer hear the anguished cries of neighbors whose suffering is brought on by allegiance to the literal sense of those very texts.
Love requires compassionate attention. Where such attention is missing, there cannot be authentic neighbor-love. And when a text promises inerrancy, it inevitably captures our attention. Our longing for certainty is hard to resist, and so we’re distracted from the neighbor in need.
Put bluntly, a doctrine of scriptural inerrancy is an impediment to love. And so it seems we shouldn’t expect a God whose essence is love to reveal Himself primarily in an inerrant text. Instead, we should expect such a God to reveal Himself most fully in persons (especially, perhaps, in one particular person). This doesn’t mean Scripture cannot be important in providing us insight into the divine (after all, if God revealed Himself in a special way in Jesus, we’d benefit from the testimony of those who were there). It means, rather, that Scripture is not divine revelation itself but, rather, a collection of testaments to profound divine revelations in history—and insofar as those testaments are human ones, there’s no special reason to suppose they are infallible.
The Scene of the Crime
Consider an analogy. A police officer at the scene of an accident interviews everyone she can find, knowing that each person will have his own perspective on the event. The officer won’t treat any individual report as inerrant, but she can get to the truth by looking at the story that emerges from the collective testimony. The Bible is made up of just this kind of collective testimony, and can afford insight into the divine, even if isolated texts within it do more to express the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of an individual author.
Finally, the fact that a God of love would be more likely to reveal Himself in living persons than in texts means that we should interpret Scripture in the light of compassionate attention to our neighbors—including our gay and lesbian neighbors.
And this is why I cannot prioritize Romans 1:26-27 (let alone the Leviticus texts) over what I’ve learned through listening to the life stories of my gay and lesbian friends. When God comes to me in the form of the neighbor in need, even the gay neighbor, I cannot in good conscience send the neighbor away empty-handed just because Paul—a product of his time—believed that every instance of same-sex sexual activity was simply an expression of inordinate lust. I know better, not because I’m wiser than Paul, but because I live in an age when gays and lesbians have a public voice that enables them to share what it is like to be gay. Paul didn’t.
In a real sense, it’s my allegiance to a savior who teaches that love is the fundamental commandment, who rejected cultural divisions and us/them dichotomies, who said that He was present in the needy neighbor, even “the least of these”—it is my devotion to this savior that motivates my commitment to fighting policies that marginalize gays and lesbians, that exclude them from participation in what is arguably the most important social institution, leaving them like the pauper who can only watch the feasting at the table and hope for some crumbs.
And yet I know that others who claim the same allegiance, and who are as sincere in their desire to follow Christ, are appalled by my support of gay rights. Every time our nation moves one step closer to full equality for God’s gay and lesbian children, their hearts break a little more. While I cannot help but think of this reaction as something that’s possible only because a misguided religious ideology has imposed artificial limits on their compassionate responsiveness, it is still true that those whose hearts break at greater inclusiveness are often deeply sincere.
Fighting the Temptation Toward Compassion
A friend of mine was once warned by a Christian mentor against allowing her native compassion to guide her too much, because doing so might lead her to reject some of the community’s norms (especially those relating to homosexuality). For a long time, she took this advice seriously, believing she had to fight her compassionate impulses. She’d come to think of the voice of compassion as one form of temptation. And her own heartbreak over having to say no to the voice of compassion inside her would ache more forcefully every time someone else said yes.
I look at this case and I see a tragedy: ideology has been carefully introduced so as to pit one virtue (the will to resist temptation) against another (compassion). But I know that there are others who will argue that compassion needs to be hemmed in, that there are certain clear divine mandates which impose limits on its proper scope. The injunction against homosexual intimacy, they will argue, is one such limit. These same opponents are likely to dismiss my arguments against biblical inerrancy as so much liberal nonsense.
I wonder if there’s a way to move past this intractable difference of perspectives. And when I ask myself this question, I am reminded of the fact that what has happened recently in Iowa and Vermont is a matter of public policy, not religious policy. And I wonder if, perhaps, there is more room for agreement about how the state should settle the issue of same-sex civil marriage than there can be about what stance Christians should take on the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.
Wall of Separation
What Iowa declared unconstitutional was restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples. Their ruling does not require Roman Catholic Churches to start offering holy matrimony to lesbian couples. What the Vermont legislature enacted was a law granting civil marriage rights to same-sex couples. There is nothing in this law to say that Southern Baptist preachers can’t refuse a gay couple that comes to them asking to be wed. Separation of church and state guarantees the right to do just that.
Civil marriage is a state institution defined in terms of legal rights and responsibilities. The crucial question is what ought to guide the state when it establishes or revises policies concerning state institutions. Can Christians come any closer to reaching consensus on that question than they can on their deep divides over homosexuality?
Here, it’s important to recall the long tradition in this country of Christian communities supporting “a wall of separation between church and state” (as Thomas Jefferson put the point). Why have they done so? In part, it’s because many of the early European settlers knew firsthand what it was like to live in a state where their religious lives were constrained because the state sided with a different religion. The separation was put into place to protect the free exercise of religion.
The idea of church-state separation presupposes that there are precepts and values that are not restricted to a particular religion, secular values that constitute an “overlapping consensus” among diverse communities (to borrow John Rawls’ apt phrase). This country’s founders were convinced that, whatever one’s religion, we could all agree that life, liberty, and happiness were values to be promoted, and that every person had some claim upon access to these goods. Whatever one’s sect or religious affiliation, we can surely agree that people should enjoy equal treatment under the law, at least barring some “compelling state interest” that demands otherwise.
The basic idea here is this: some values enjoy pervasive allegiance across ideological and religious divides precisely because they ensure our capacity to pursue a meaningful life, whether or not our particular religion or ideology happens to be in the majority or in favor among those with power. The idea behind separation of church and state is that letting these consensus values dictate state policy, rather than allowing sectarian religious values to do so, protects our capacity to live out our respective visions of the good life with maximal integrity, even when those who wield secular power do not favor our faith.
And so Christians have reason to value church/state separation—they have reason to want the state to make decisions concerning civil marriage by appealing to consensus values that transcend sectarian religious divides.
Legal Discrimination Can’t Be Justified
One important consensus value is that legal discrimination needs to be justified by compelling state interests—that is, by values more compelling than the value of equality under the law. Sectarian religious values can’t override this principle of equality. And so such values cannot justify legal discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Is a policy of restricting civil marriage rights to heterosexual couples discriminatory? If we accept the prevailing research conclusions from social and behavioral scientists, then the answer is yes. If you’re gay or lesbian, it’s because of a fixed sexual orientation that you didn’t choose and cannot ordinarily change. And your sexual orientation determines with whom you can sustain a romantic sexual relationship.
A policy that limits marriage rights to heterosexual couples therefore ensures that only those lucky enough to be straight can have their romantic relationships recognized by law. Gays and lesbians can marry someone they can’t love, but they’re denied what straight people take for granted: the right to legally marry the person they love.
This is legal discrimination. And legal discrimination violates a secular value that everyone should care about, no matter what their religious beliefs. After all, if legal discrimination can be permitted without justification, then it becomes possible for the law to discriminate against Christians just because they are Christian. And if sectarian religious values were sufficient to justify legal discrimination, then it would be justified to discriminate against Methodists on the basis of, say, Presbyterian teachings.
And so it seems that Christians and other religious communities ought to insist that legal discrimination be justified only by appeal to values that transcend sectarian boundaries. And if conservative Christians insist on that, they cannot consistently demand that same-sex marriage be banned because it violates divine will as they conceive it. Instead, they need to explain what shared secular values, if any, are threatened by letting my friends John and David marry. And they need to explain why defending these values is more crucial than defending equality under the law.
I doubt this can be done successfully. And if it can’t, then all religious people, including those who think homosexual relationships are immoral, should hope that the state will extend civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.
After all, it is better to live in a state that, out of respect for consensus values, allows and endorses things you find intolerable (but which don’t prevent you from living the kind of life you want to live), than it is to live in a state that restricts and prohibits things that are central to your own religious life, out of respect for the sectarian religious values of someone who finds your way of life intolerable.
Perhaps it is too much to think that this principle for regulating public life is one that all Christians can agree on. But perhaps there is more room for agreement here than we can hope to achieve through the clash of rival theologies.