Friday, June 1, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage: A Few Thoughts from an American Christian

It is old news now that President Obama finally came right out and admitted what we all figured anyway, that he's in support of gay marriage.  I say "admitted" because I don't think he really wanted to say anything about it, at least not just yet.  Now, it looks like the argument, in various incarnations, is headed toward the Supreme Court.  I would hate for the Justices to have to debate this topic without first being made privy to my wisdom on the subject, so here it is.

I have kicked this issue around for a long time, wondering how to reconcile my Christianity, which tells me that some things are right and some are wrong, with my libertarian streak, which tells me our country was founded on liberty, and people should pretty much be able to do whatever they want as long as they aren't hurting anyone else. 

I have reached some conclusions, but I too am still "evolving" about what they mean.  Here are some of my thoughts.  As always, I would be interested in hearing yours.

Everyone deserves their basic rights.  No one should be treated with hatred or cruelty.
That's pretty self-explanatory, and hopefully self-evident.  Unless someone has committed a crime which requires their confinement for the protection of society, people should be free. 

This statement applies to the naysayers as well.  If I believe something is wrong, I should be free to say so without being accused of hatred or bigotry.  Thus:

Lots of things are morally wrong.  Homosexual practice is one of them.
I believe in the Bible, and the Bible is clear that God does not approve of homosexual practice.  This is not my interpretation; it is plainly stated in numerous places, in both the Old and New Testaments.  Jesus himself defines marriage as a union of husband and wife.  I frequently read claims of the Bible's ambivalence about homosexuality; these come across to me as a mixture of conjecture, wishful thinking, and intellectual/scriptural gymnastics.  It says what is says, folks.  Take it or leave it.  God is not interested in being politically correct.

It may well be true that the homosexual impulse is a result of genetic, cultural, or experiential circumstances over which the homosexual has no control--it seems that the jury is still out on that.  If that is the case, homosexuals have my compassion, as I would hope to have theirs.  The reason is that one could say the same for the desire to commit fornication, to be unfaithful to my spouse, to abuse alcohol, to lose one's temper, to tell lies, or to be lazy.  A few of these are temptations with which I personally must struggle, and probably always will.

The desire, the temptation, is often not a choice.  The only choice is whether to act on it.  God says there is Right and Wrong.  Homosexual practice decisively fits in the latter category.  All of us, gay or straight, alcoholic or teetotaler, hot-headed or even-keeled, are dependent on God's mercy.  If would be well for those of us who do not personally wrestle with homosexual desires to remember that.

Homosexuality does not need to be illegal.
As much as we Christians wish it were otherwise, not everyone in this country believes the Bible to be what it claims to be.  It is unrealistic, unfair, and counter-productive to try to force unbelievers to act like believers.

One thing we can learn from reading the Old Testament is that theocracy doesn't work.  You cannot save people, individually or as a nation, by forcing them to do the right thing.  Individuals change from the heart and mind, from the inside out, not from the imposition of rules.  Nations change from the bottom, from individuals, not from the top down.  In other words, Governments make lousy instruments of moral or religious revival.  Always have, always will.

It appears that our founding fathers understood this.  Contrary to what many on the "religious right" would want us to believe, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation.  Yes, many of the founding fathers were Christian.  They often cited Biblical principles in designing how our country would work.  Many of them, in their speeches and correspondence, spoke forcefully about the importance of faith and religion in public and private life.  Many of them expressed their perception that our country was dependent on God's blessing, and their grave concern that, if our nation turned away from God, we would be doomed.  I am convinced they were correct in these concerns.

But when it came to writing the law--and by that I mean the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of our land--they made it very clear that the government is to remain strictly neutral in matters of religion.  Read the First Amendment again...and please try to pay attention this time.

Thus, there are many things that are wrong, but legal.  This is as it should be.  The government's job is to unite us as a people, to ensure that justice is done, to keep us safe from external and internal threats, to promote the overall well-fare of the nation, and to "secure the blessings of liberty," so that all of us can be free to live in peace, to believe what we choose, and to basically do our thing. 

What all this adds up to is that it is not the government's job to enforce morals, except when bad morals endanger the property or person of another.  There are many, many things that are morally wrong but not illegal:  Alcohol abuse, fornication, greed, and on and on.  It has to be this way, if we are to be a free country.  We don't need the government to monitor what happens in people's bedrooms or back yards.  Don't get me started on seat-belt and helmet laws, or we'll be here all night.

As a committed Christian, I must vote my conscience, of course.  But I must also consider this:  Jesus did tell his followers to change the world.  But the weapons he gave us to accomplish this task are gentle ones:  Love.  Hope.  Faith--in him and in his teachings.  Joy.  Patience.  Sharing the good news.  Kindness.  Humility.  Confidence in Salvation.  (against such things there is no law...)

Neither Jesus nor his apostles ever said a peep about using political might to accomplish his aims.  The New Testament says nothing at all about trying to install a government that will enforce our (or his) will.

So no, I don't think making homosexuality illegal will accomplish anything, legally or spiritually.  If we want to change the nation, let's do a better job teaching people about Jesus, and living like his true followers.  Change enough hearts, and the morality of the nation will pretty much take care of itself.

All that said, when it comes to gay "marriage," I do have a couple of very serious reservations.  Strangely enough, they both have to do with freedom.

A problem:  Changing definitions
Simply put, the government, acting on the will of a small but vocal minority, should not have the power to change the definition of a time-honored institution.  Those who express worries about the possible effects such a change might have are popularly portrayed as modern-day bigots, on the same level with those who opposed the civil rights movement a generation ago.  But as much as I value equality (and as much as I hate being considered a bigot), I share this concern.

Marriage is a respected social, legal, and religious institution that has stood the test of time and changing cultures.  Even the ancient Greeks, who were seriously into homosexuality, didn't mess with the definition of marriage.  Until the past couple decades or so, in pretty much all of western (and most of eastern) civilization, "marriage" meant a committed relationship between a man and a woman, simple as that.

These days, the popular term among supporters of gay marriage is "marriage equality."  This term would correctly apply to interracial marriage, marriage between members of different social classes, and marriage between citizens of different nations.  But marriage between two men or two women is more than "marriage equality."  It is a drastic change to the very definition of the word, to the basic concept of what marriage is.  I don't think having such a huge change change forced on us is going to produce satisfactory results for anyone.

I'm not saying we should deny gay people their basic rights...I just don't think we should call it marriage.

Before I close this thought, allow me to make one thing clear: I am not saying that homosexuality is the only, or even the biggest, threat to the institution of marriage.  Don't get me started on promiscuity, selfishness, financial irresponsibility, adultery, and divorce, or we'll be here all night.  But allow me to point out to my Christian brothers and sisters that the Bible--especially the New Testament--has much more to say about those issues than it does about homosexuality, and I think we have done a mighty poor job of picking our battles.  Last time I heard, the divorce rate among professing Christians is exactly the same as in the world at large.  We would do well to focus more on getting our own collective act together, and less on how we can fix everyone else.

A much more serious problem:  One freedom at the expense of another
My second concern involves those other great First Amendment rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

I recently witnessed an online exchange in which a friend, recently graduated from medical school, expressed her opposition to gay marriage.  A friend of hers strongly rebuked her, saying that this young doctor's opinion would render her unable to provide compassionate aid to LGTB patients.

Of course, both friends have the right to their opinions.  But I wonder how long it will take before such disagreements start finding their way into the courts.  Based on what is currently happening, it will be sooner rather than later.

If same-sex marriage is universally legalized, will this doctor lose her right to practice if she expresses her convictions about homosexuality?  As a teacher, will I be required by law to publicly recognize same-sex marriages?  As a musician, will I have to freedom to refrain from performing at same-sex wedding ceremonies?  Will my church be penalized if we refuse to perform such ceremonies?  Will the Christian youth camp at which I have worked, off and on, over the past couple decades be required by law to employ LGTB counselors?

There is nothing remotely far-fetched about these concerns, as this excellent report from National Public Radio documents.  Our legal system is consistently moving toward increasing gay rights at the expense of religious rights.  If you think this is as it should be, check out that First Amendment just one more time, remembering that this Constitution is the supreme law of our nation.  The government, as the definer of marriage, is in a bit of a tough spot, since it is forbidden from either respecting or prohibiting religious belief or practice.  Interesting.

If homosexual people want to call their relationships marriage, that's their business--they can think and say whatever they want, and I don't have a big problem with that.  I do have a big problem with the government requiring me to lie about my beliefs to avoid being penalized.  I do have a big problem with being forced to support and condone something that I believe to be morally wrong.  (Don't get me started on the immoral and wasteful ways the government uses our tax dollars, or we'll be here all night.)

I think that in the long run, setting a precedent that forces people to either lie about or abandon their deeply held convictions is going to be a bad thing for everyone.

What's Gov got to do, got to do with it?
There is no simple solution to all of this, but I tend to think we should get Uncle Sam out of the marriage business altogether.

This isn't as crazy as it might sound as first.  Think about it:  I don't need the government to sanction my marriage to Mrs. Badger.  Our vow is between us, before God, and we will stick with it whether the government recognizes it or not.

So, why is the government involved in defining marriage at all?  There are three main reasons, three main types of legal benefits derived from marriage:  Financial (inheritance, tax breaks, SS benefits, etc.), medical (insurance, visitation, information sharing, etc.), and family (joint adoption, immigration and residency benefits, etc.).  I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but these are the basic ideas.

Do any of these benefits inherently require institutional marriage?  Probably not.  There would be a thousand details to work out, but I really think that by getting the government out of "marriage," we could make it more fair for everyone.

For example, I see no reason I should not be allowed to declare anyone I please to be my next of kin, heir, beneficiary, and/or "immediate family."  This person would then be allowed to share my insurance policy, visit me in the hospital when I get sick, share information with the medical professionals who are taking care of me, then get my stuff after I die anyway.  I am fairly sure that many of the laws for this are already in place.

I see no reason why one should not be able to file taxes jointly with anyone with whom one shares a residence.  After all, many married couples already maintain separate bank accounts, and many unmarried room mates share expenses.  It seems only fair.

Such arrangements could be strictly legal, not implying any sort of sexual or emotional relationship.  It could be two college students, sharing an apartment but romantically uninvolved, who decide it would be temporarily, financially beneficial to file taxes jointly as a household.  (Allowing for this sort of thing might also require considerable streamlining of the tax code.  Don't get me started on that or we'll be here all night.)  It could be as simple as a patient wanting to grant visitation benefits to a best friend during a long hospital stay.  

Or, it could be two people who want to go the whole distance and enter into a complete legal and financial partnership.  If they want to add an emotional and sexual commitment, go through a religious ceremony, and call it "marriage," that is between them and God.  No government necessary.

Churches would thus be free to act like churches, not fearing legal reprisals, because there is no legal status at stake.  If gay people (or polygamists, or close relatives, or whatever) want to consider themselves married, they would have a First Amendment right to say that.  And if someone chooses not to recognize my marriage for some reason, they have that right too:  No skin off my nose.

I'm no legal expert, but it makes sense to me.  I don't need you to condone my marriage for it to be real.  Grant me the same consideration.  Keep "marriage" personal, not legal.  That way, everyone's rights--religious, financial, medical, and free-speech, whether they agree with gay marriage or not--can be protected.

This solution, such as it is, is not completely acceptable to me on several levels--I am especially concerned about how it would work with children and adoption, although I'm not sure it would make things any worse, with the divorce rate we have these days--and I am sad and disturbed that it has come to this.  But it seems the best we can do at this point.  If we leave it for the government to keep defining marriage for us, someone is going to get burned.  Most likely, in the long run, all of us.

And that, Your Honors, is one American Christian's opinion.