Values-Driven Politics, Gay Marriage, and Christian Witness
Something caught my eye recently in a Christian bookstore: a promotional banner concerning a new book about the possible implications of gay marriage on America's moral fabric, written by a prominent Christian. Pictured on the banner were two same-gender couples, one female and one male. Clad in the common wedding garb of their respective genders, the members of each of these couples gazed happily into their partners' eyes, and on first glance, they looked like wedding cake toppers. Stamped in the corner of the picture in sensational red letters was the word "LEGALIZED."
As a Christian, I wondered how this graphic might strike gay customers, delivery people, or publishing house sales representatives that might stroll through the store one day soon. It seemed to me that the complexities of the issue had been reduced to a single provocative image. Struggling with my own feelings about the issue and convinced of the need for nuance and sensitivity on this subject, I felt betrayed by the banner and its creators. Could anyone see Christ through this packaging? I was having trouble.
For as much Christian commentary as exists on the issue, popularly framed on different sides as a contest between crusading cultural warriors and secular liberals or open-minded liberators and puritanical preachers, the debate over gay marriage is often sadly devoid of a certain civility that characterized Christ's own dealings with people.
On both sides, frustration and misunderstanding have begotten malice, self-righteousness, and little understanding. While some conservative Christians harshly lampoon the gay community and stand in need of rebuking by their brethren, some decidedly secular supporters of gay marriage (or abortion, for that matter) are quick to level the age-old charge that religiously derived views have no place in politics, that "religious" people should stay out of such discussions. This tendency, too, needs revision.
Cast by some as the latest in a series of skirmishes in the so-called culture wars, the debate over gay marriage actually follows in a long American tradition of values-based debate over the nature of certain rights and their extension in civil polity. The sweeping ideas fought for in the American founding, for example, had as their seed a theistic view of the transcendent dignity and equality of humankind fomenting in the Northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies in the century leading up to the Revolution. Practically speaking, however, we know that the application of this values-driven politics was often heinously lacking, due in part to embedded mores and to the political machinations and compromises that characterize all revolutions. At the same time, the rights fought for and asserted were a unique confluence of classical liberalism and theistic natural law theory, a confluence that at its most radical held to the equality of all people regardless of race or gender. From this seed sprang the abolition, women's suffrage, and civil rights movements, movements largely spearheaded by men and women of faith, movements charged with truly completing the values-based revolution of 1776.
Today, most Americans, like many then, understand human rights as universal and transcendent, and historically we have believed that they are transcendent because of God, the personal endower of our certain unalienable rights. As a nation, we may or may not currently retain this latter understanding, though either way, whenever we find ourselves employing ultimate beliefs about truth to bring about social and political change, we really engage in the traditional American enterprise of mixing religion and politics in a values-driven quest for the good. The god we seek to honor, whose will we seek to do, whose message we work to spread in this process need not have a name, though it may, and for many of us, He does.
Though religion is often cast as anathema to good politics, it differs little in a political sense from other worldviews engaged on a daily basis in the perpetual Arthurian drive to change the world. Secular and sacred systems hold certain things as ultimate, universal, and essentially transcendent. The adherents of each of these systems articulate their views and advocate their goals along similar lines, each in service to a view of truth that cannot be empirically proven but must be debated, processed, and decided upon by the body politic.
Through a long process of just this sort of debate, we have come to a point in our national life when most of us agree that all persons are equal and are created that way. We hold that all adults, regardless of race, gender, or property owned have the right to choose the way they shall be governed in a federal democracy. Establishing each of these beliefs as laws of the land was part of a process in which traditional theists and ideologues of every other stripe took stands for what they viewed to be universally true.
The debate surrounding gay marriage exemplifies one of the larger difficulties of a theistically oriented republic in which citizens are not bound by the state (thank God) to hold a specific set of religious beliefs. Though only one or the other view on this issue can be transcendently true in the end, politically speaking, each is valid. The existence and expression of each view is protected under the law, and, importantly, each view has a place in the public exchange of ideas. Inevitably and unfortunately, those who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds will be labeled as intolerant, and those who offer a transcendent explanation in support of gay marriage (with or without the trappings of religion) will be vilified as godless, but responsible advocates from both sides are nonetheless engaged in the same kind of values-driven activity. Our political system allows for this kind of debate, as any truly free politics must. Those on opposing sides of this issue would do well to promote a broader acceptance of the kind of values-driven politics our nation was forged in, and, should they hope to remain true to America's highest values (as both sides claim), promote an open atmosphere in which their opponents' views can be shared and heard.
For Christians on all sides of this or any issue, establishing a respectful and truly loving discourse should be of the utmost importance, not merely because we wish our own voices to be heard. More importantly, we must engage in this debate carefully and lovingly so that even in public discourse regarding the most delicate of issues, we can honestly model Christ, our true bridegroom. May we never think of Him as merely the topper of our ideologically comfortable butter-cream cake.
A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Christopher Cocca is a Community Fellow in Political Science at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He writes widely on politics, culture, faith, music, sports, and philosophy.