Can gays and Christians co-exist in America? As the saying goes, “Can this marriage be saved?” I still hope the answer is yes. But for now, it is very much up in the air—and the answer is no longer in Christians’ hands.
This is a provocative thesis on a sensitive topic, one many of us would rather not face. I had long hoped not to return to writing at any length about this issue, especially not when conservatives are winning so many other arguments these days, and this is one that persuades few people who have not already made up their minds.
While I have written repeatedly on efforts to enact same-sex marriage through the courts, I have never lifted a finger on fights to address the issue through the democratic political process, where it belongs—in part because same-sex marriages, if recognized by legislation, are never likely to crack 1 percent of all marriages, and so will by themselves have little impact on our society. Moreover, many of my allies on the Right and personal friends are gay or are supporters of same-sex marriage, and one hates to pick at the scab of a losing political fight that divides coalitions and alienates old friends. I agonized a very long time over how to fairly present this essay, which may explain some of its length (it will run in five parts this week).
But sometimes, both truth and faith demand a defense when under assault, and I also have many friends and allies who are religious believers and despair that nobody is telling their side of the story. When my faith itself, the faith of a billion Catholics, is being cast in public debate and popular culture as a bigotry that must be stamped out by any means necessary, I feel an obligation to rise in its defense. To lay down a marker, for those who insist that faithful Christianity is “on the wrong side of history.” To explain why we stand where we stand, and why we must. And to consider how we have come to this pass, and what might yet be done.
Today, in Part I of this five-part series, I address two of the most common, misguided efforts to dismiss the Christian view of marriage and the Christian approach to homosexuality as some sort of invidious pretext: the fallacious claim that Christian teaching rests solely on the Old Testament Mosaic law, and the argument that if homosexual orientation is inborn, this somehow disproves Christian teachings.
Part II will discuss the persistent effort to delegitimize Christian doctrines on marriage by comparing them to Jim Crow and slavery. Part III will deal with the Christian concept of scandal and the differences between liberty-based and equality-based views of homosexuality. Part IV will return to the legal debate over whether a rational person could find any basis to distinguish opposite-sex from same-sex marriage, and explain quite how far one has to bend reality in order to conclude that none exists. Part V will examine the prospects for a Westphalian peace on these issues.
The High Stakes of the Marriage Debate
Many myths about the Christian view of marriage and the Christian view of homosexuality have become so pervasive that we hardly even notice them, yet it is considered rude or worse to counter (people who will not stop talking about the subject suddenly ask, “Why should you care?” when you respond). As a result, without a vigorous defense, believing Christians in this country face a genuine existential threat: that our culture and legal systems will declare the adherence to core Christian doctrines—unchanged for millennia, directly derived from the words of Jesus and the letters of St. Paul, and in the heartland of the legitimacy of Christ’s teachings—to be outside the bounds of civilized society in the way that the Klu Klux Klan is today.
Should faithful followers of the nation’s largest religious denomination, the world’s oldest and largest church, be run out of public life? Should those of us who still believe in the words of Jesus of Nazareth be afraid or ashamed to say so in public?
Make no mistake: these are the stakes, and trying to quietly keep our heads down and stay out of trouble will not long put off the day of reckoning. They are embedded in the legal argument that there is no possible rational basis for ever finding that any distinction at all exists or ever could exist between traditional opposite-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.
A series of judicial decisions have held that nobody who takes the traditional side of this argument could possibly be rational, reasonable, or motivated by anything but bigotry, and the Supreme Court may be on the cusp within the next few weeks of doing the same. The stakes are embedded in the language of debate itself, in which any response to arguments about the equivalence of same-sex relationships to traditional marriage is deemed “homophobia”—literally, a diagnosis that any person professing traditional Christian teachings (or traditional teachings of Judaism or Islam, for that matter) suffers from a phobia, a form of mental illness (a mental defect roughly half of all Americans still share).
These are not the terms of debate used against reasonable people who can disagree in good faith; they are the terms of delegitimization, designed to brand the opposing argument as unfit to be heard in civil society, and its proponents as people deserving of being driven from full participation in that society.
Lest you consider this to be hyperbole, consider the array of public controversies the past few years that have organized pressure campaigns to treat opponents of same-sex marriage and adherents to traditional Christianity as pariahs:
- The organized pressure campaigns to force Christian photographers, cake bakers, and other wedding vendors who refuse to serve same-sex weddings to be hit with ruinous six-figure fines that destroy their livelihoods. And, as happened recently in Canada, when Christian wedding vendors do cater to same-sex couples seeking wedding-related services, organized pressure campaigns that compel them to refund their customers’ money if the customers discover that the vendors oppose same-sex marriage.
- Organized pressure campaigns, complete with threats of nationwide boycotts, against states that try to pass laws protecting such vendors, as happened in Indiana and Arizona.
- The organized pressure campaigns to cause business leaders and celebrities like Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, and ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich (among others) to be fired, boycotted, or hounded from the airwaves for expressing traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality (or in Eich’s case, simply donating to a referendum against same-sex marriage).
- The organized pressure campaigns by public officials and corporate sponsors boycott St. Patrick’s Day Parades in cities like New York (where it’s been held since 1762) and Boston unless they permit groups to march with pro-gay slogans, banners, or group names.
This is aside from the small, petty battles like refusing to do business with people who oppose same-sex marriage.
Some of these are legal or political questions, and the law has frequently ridden ahead of culture and voters. But all signify a shift in social and cultural sentiment, starting among our social elites—lawyers, academics, entertainers, social scientists—that filters down to young people eager to accept what these authority figures tell them. So, while my prior writing on same-sex marriage has focused on the legal issues and the strictly secular rational basis for drawing a distinction between traditional opposite-sex marriage and same-sex marriage, it is the social, cultural, and religious argument that is central and preliminary to all the others, and that is where I will begin before circling back to law and politics in the second half of this essay.
For conciseness, some generalizations are unavoidable. As a Catholic, I discuss Christianity primarily from the Catholic perspective, but many of the issues facing Catholics are common to other theologically faithful, orthodox Christians, including evangelical Protestants, members of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Christian churches, and Mormons, Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Where I discuss the contrary “LGBT” perspective, I am necessarily generalizing about a set of ideas and ideology that is pervasive in political and legal writing on this topic. But by no means do all gay Americans—who are not a monolithic political bloc—adopt the full ideology of the most vocal LGBT activists.
Christians can and should attempt to defuse some of these controversies at the margins, as I suggest in Part V, and are paying the price now for having failed to do so in the past. And the Republican Party, for reasons of its own rational self-interest, must find some way to reach a modus vivendi or détente on these questions, as political parties in our system always do when an issue in the public square turns against them.
But, ultimately, whether peaceful coexistence is possible is not ours to decide. We can only wait and see whether the proponents of same-sex marriage—flush with political power, brimming with unquestioning and judgmental certainty, and in some cases seething with long-nursed grievances—are willing or able to find any stopping point that does not force believing Christians into a choice between renouncing the central truth claims of their faith or being driven from decent society as if they were Klansmen. It is more likely that this will happen if we lack the courage to explain and defend our own beliefs. If we act as if those beliefs are an embarrassment, we only abet their suppression.
Marriage Is Central to Christianity
Let there be no doubt: the teachings (1) defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and (2) against homosexual sex, are so deeply rooted in Christianity that, to tear them out, you would need to destroy the foundations of the Catholic Church and nearly all Protestant and Orthodox churches, and compel them to deny the central claims for the truth and legitimacy of any of their teachings (undoubtedly, for some critics, this is a feature rather than a bug of this whole controversy). If this is a battle to eliminate those two teachings, it can only end with the extermination of Christianity in America. This is not exaggeration, but rather a clear-eyed understanding of the New Testament and the nature of the Church.
There are three primary lines of argument against these two core Christian teachings. All three of them proceed, not from any Christian premise about the truth or falsity of theology, but rather from the view that what the Church teaches cannot be true because of its perceived civil implications. These arguments all—there is no polite way to put this—involve significant amounts of willful ignorance and bad faith; they are unsustainable as theology, and in fact are deeply anti-theology.
God, Man, and Shrimp
The first line of argument made against the Catholic position is what you might call the “God hates shrimp” argument: that Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexuality, and it is simply a part of the detailed rulebook of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that also has all sorts of rules Christians no longer follow, like the rule against eating shellfish. If you eat shrimp, the argument goes, you must not actually believe in the Bible.
Now, first, this is no argument against Orthodox Jews, who actually do still follow the Mosaic Law. Jews may be accustomed to having their religion mocked and maligned, but that does not make it right. From a rigorous Jewish perspective, the rules given to Moses remain in effect just as on the day Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13 are quite explicit in denouncing homosexual sex.
Second, as a matter of Scripture, the “God hates shrimp” meme is factually untrue, and reveals that the people making this argument have no clue what they are talking about. On the one hand, the Old and New Testament’s rules are not of equal weight to Christians, because Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled or superseded (one can have lengthy theological arguments over the precise wording) the old covenant, including the old Mosaic law, and commanded us to follow His teachings.
While that new covenant does not discredit the moral value of the Old Testament laws, it does suggest a reorientation that prioritizes moral teachings over things like dietary rules and rituals that Jesus rather conspicuously broke from in order to illustrate the small-mindedness of rule-obsessed Pharisees. As the Catechism, the Catholic Church’s formal statement of doctrine, explains:
The Old Law is the first stage of revealed Law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments…According to Christian tradition, the Law is holy, spiritual, and good, yet still imperfect. Like a tutor it shows what must be done…However, the Law remains the first stage on the way to the kingdom. It prepares and disposes the chosen people and each Christian for conversion and faith in the Savior God. It provides a teaching which endures for ever, like the Word of God. The Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel….The Law of the Gospel “fulfills,” refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection….The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth.
If you’re curious, less formal explanations of why Christians do not follow all the Old Testament’s rules, from a variety of Christian sectarian perspectives, can be found here, here, here, and here (these are just Internet samples; on any topic of theology, the best stuff is in books and runs much deeper).
Part of that explanation, which I’ll return to below, is that the Old Law was a set of organizing rules for society under essentially theocratic rule (thus, the Old Law contains penalties—including death!—for various offenses), whereas the New Testament is much less interested in the ordering of society and instead instructs us first and foremost to order our own lives with a view to the next life:
In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties. But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership….Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples. Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties.
The second reason why the “God hates shrimp” shtick is factually incorrect is that the New Testament does, repeatedly, express both the condemnation of homosexual sex and the definition of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. The opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most explicit on the former:
The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness….they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man…Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.
Paul returns to this theme again in 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, and while there are a variety of English translations of these and other passages, any serious understanding of them will find Paul (or whoever wrote 1 Timothy) denouncing homosexual sodomy, as the terminology taken from the original Greek includes one word that “was commonly used to refer to young men who were homosexual prostitutes” and another that “literally means A man who has sexual intercourse with a man (arsenokoites). This was the commonly used Greek term to mean a homosexual. You really cannot get any more explicit than this.”
The talking-point that “well, Jesus never said that” should be recognized for what it is: a direct challenge to the authority of Paul and other early church fathers to speak with the authority of divine inspiration, and indeed a challenge to the inclusion of the epistles in the Bible at all. You do not need a lot of familiarity with Christian doctrine to recognize what a truly radical and literally heretical position this is.
From the Catholic perspective, the idea that only the Gospels can teach Christians is, literally, a renunciation of the Church itself—2,000 years of scholarship and ministry have been predicated upon the idea that the Church takes its authority from Jesus’ “Great Commission” to the apostles, and specifically his grant to Peter of “the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgements, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church.” From a Protestant perspective, Martin Luther’s theological basis for breaking with the Catholic Church derives from his reading of the first chapter of Romans—the very chapter that the “God hates shrimp” crowd would read out of the New Testament. You simply cannot tear up and discard Paul’s letters and find anything left standing of Catholic or Protestant theology.
As to marriage, Jesus weighed in quite directly and explicitly on the matter, most directly in the fifth and nineteenth chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, at Matthew 5:27-32, Jesus explains that his law is stricter than the Old Law in matters of marriage, divorce and adultery:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
He elaborates on this teaching at, among other places, Matthew 19:3-12:
Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?’ He said in reply, ‘Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator “made them male and female” and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’ They said to him, ‘Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?’ He said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.’ [His] disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ He answered, ‘Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.’ (emphasis added)
Mostly the same passage appears in Mark 10:2-12. Jesus’ definition of marriage as proceeding from our creation as male and female was no oversight. Contrary to what modern readers unfamiliar with history might think, neither homosexual sex nor polygamy nor divorce were unknown in the ancient world. Quite the contrary. Same-sex relations were quite common in ancient Greece and Rome, and it is no accident that the topic came up repeatedly when Paul was writing to Greeks and Romans.
Polygamy appears often in the Old Testament, and was still common in many places at the time of Jesus. Divorce, as the Pharisees noted, had even been expressly permitted in the Old Law. Jesus, speaking to his own times, often had to explain things in terms that would be understood by the people of the day, but being divine and speaking for the ages, there is no reason to think that it was accident or error that he placed the complementary creation of male and female at the center of his explanation of the divine origin of marriage.
It is, in any possible good-faith reading of the gospel, only a man and a woman of which Jesus speaks when he says, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In a single stroke, his definition excludes same-sex marriage, polygamy, and divorce. While that definition may seem radical in today’s America for reasons different from why it seemed radical then, it cannot possibly be written off as merely an artifact of its times without denying the divinity of its author. If this is the wrong way to describe marriage, then God is wrong and, with him, all of Christianity.
The Hard Road
The second popular argument against the biblical Christian teaching on marriage and homosexual sex is what you might call the “born this way” argument. Put simply, this argument says that homosexual orientation is inborn, inherent, or otherwise not a matter of personal choice, and therefore acting in accordance with that orientation cannot be immoral, because it can’t possibly be immoral to be who you are. There is a surface emotional appeal to this, but it does not withstand even mild scrutiny.
First, a brief digression. As a scientific matter, we don’t actually know the origins of homosexual orientation—no “gay gene,” for example, has thus far been identified—nor do we know the equally important question (for scientific purposes) of whether homosexual orientation has the same origin in all people. Popular writing on the topic tends to just assume this latter point. For example, it may well be the case that gay men and lesbians come by their orientation in different ways, or at least we should not automatically assume they are identical in the absence of evidence.
Similarly, even within a single gender, the question of single versus multiple causes is an empirical one worthy of study to better our understanding. Without direct knowledge of causation, we can also not know for certain whether it is possible in any case for a man to change his sexual orientation in adulthood. One hopes—although recent history is not encouraging—that all these questions can be examined dispassionately by scientists dedicated solely to enhancing our knowledge, without regard to political agendas.
Absent direct causal evidence, we can only rely on circumstantial evidence. This is not to denigrate the strength of scientific conclusions that can derive from circumstantial evidence. For example, we do not know how smoking causes lung cancer, but the epidemiological evidence of correlation between smoking and lung cancer is so overwhelming that causation can be reliably inferred.
Without delving too far into the science, there are a number of theories about the origins of homosexual orientation—genetic, biochemical in the womb, environmental in childhood—and an ongoing debate over the extent to which they mesh with the available circumstantial evidence. But it is nonetheless fairly clear that, at least for most gay men, homosexual orientation is something that is basically fixed and immune to outside influence by the late teen years. The desire, by that point, is not a matter of choice: the heart wants what it wants, and the body wants what it wants.
At the same time, it ignores reality to argue that no one has a choice between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The most recent survey data from the Centers for Disease Control, for example, shows that 2.5 percent of the adult population self-identifies as either gay or bisexual: 1.6 percent gay, 0.7 percent bisexual. As an overall percentage, it is possible that these poll numbers are skewed by some form of underreporting, although it’s the best data we have at present.
In any event, the proportion between the two groups is telling. Nearly a third of the people who self-identify as either gay or bisexual consider themselves bisexual. Whether or not you believe that people are born bisexual, it is ridiculous to suggest that bisexuality offers no choice. If you’re going to accept the monogamy inherent in marriage, you must suppress your attraction either towards the opposite sex or towards your own sex.
It should be sufficient to agree on these two basic points (i.e. that there are both effectively immutable characteristics and behavioral choices at issue) without wading into the swamps of related arguments over “gender identity” or whether children can be said to have a sexual orientation. Regardless of who does have choices, the unyielding reality is that homosexual orientation—in and of itself—is not a matter of choice for a significant number of people.
This is a compelling argument for treating gays and lesbians with respect and human decency, and accommodating oneself to the reality that gays are not going anywhere and cannot simply be talked out of their heartfelt desires. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly recognizes this: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination…constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
It is also a compelling case, politically, against efforts to criminalize consensual homosexual sex. And it is an argument, within Christian churches, for more understanding of the unique burden carried by homosexual Christians in seeking to be faithful to Christ’s teachings. But none of this is, in any meaningful sense, a theological argument; to derive a principle that endorses homosexual sex from the fact that some people have an inherent and possibly inborn desire for it is the classic appeal-to-nature fallacy that assumes that whatever is natural must be moral.
This is irreconcilable with Christian ethics. The foundations of Judeo-Christian morality from the Garden of Eden forward are built on the idea that our natural desires lead us to sin, for which salvation from outside nature is required. In fact, more broadly, the entire project of human morals and ethics assumes that what separates us from animals is our ability to say “no” to our instinctive desires.
The Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, are shot through with repeated exhortations to not simply give in to the desires of the flesh and to accept that the teachings of Christ would be demanding to follow. Over and over, both Jesus and Paul tell us this, most memorably in this passage from Mark’s gospel:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48)
These are demanding teachings for all Christians, gay or straight—even more demanding when combined with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-32 (quoted above) about lust. The Catechism itself stresses, “Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life.” Jesus explicitly applied these teachings in this context. In the crucial passage on marriage, he concludes:
Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it. (Matthew 19:11-12, emphasis added)
In short, to summarize in a nutshell a debate that spans nearly the whole of the Judeo-Christian and Western philosophical traditions, the fact that an individual moral teaching may be difficult to follow can be an argument for leniency and exception in its application, but it has never been an argument for deeming a moral teaching to be invalid, especially—in the Christian context—one that comes to us directly from the words of Jesus or the epistles of Paul. Such a line of reasoning, if followed, would eviscerate the entire concept of Christian moral teaching and replace it with something more like a book of manners.
Broadly speaking, Christians are instructed that sex must be confined to marriage, a longstanding and carefully reasoned interpretation of the Sixth Commandment (against adultery) that hundreds of generations of scholars have reaffirmed and that was reinforced, not superseded, in the gospels and the New Testament. These, too, are hard teachings to follow, and in the real world Christians often fail at them. We should not be surprised that gay Christians fail at them, too, but that should not stop us from calling it failure rather than trying to conform the definition of sin to “only things I never do.”
In explaining why not everything that is inborn is therefore morally acceptable, defenders of conservative moral teaching tend, as moral teachers often have, to resort to argument by analogy. Analogies are drawn to other human tendencies that may be said, more or less, to be inherent, genetic, or otherwise wired into us, ranging from a predisposition to alcoholism, to other forms of sexual preferences, to the rather obviously extreme example of pedophilia. (One could just as easily analogize to positive traits or tendencies that we are born or grow up with, except nobody has moral proscriptions against those, so it’s hard to make a workable analogy out of them).
That brings us to one of the challenges of having a rational debate on these topics, because the response to any argument by analogy is not reasoned rebuttal but, almost invariably, the throwing of an apoplectic fit at the comparison. But the core question of every moral argument remains, whether it upsets you to ask it or not: does, or can, Christianity reasonably ask human beings to meet a higher standard of conduct than simply doing what we desire or are naturally inclined to do? The pedophile example, like analogies to Hitler in philosophical debates about war and politics, is designed to test the limits of this line of reasoning precisely because it is so extreme that almost nobody defends acting on pedophilic tendencies.
As will be discussed in Part III below, the issue of treating sexual orientation as an identity, and denying any distinction between identity and behavior, is a recurring theme in the divide between the LGBT and Christian worldviews. But as a matter of Christian theology, while biology certainly informs our understanding of the world, it does not eliminate the idea of moral limits on human behavior. To be a Christian is to recognize that human beings are called to be more than the sum of our biological impulses. To demand that those impulses be given the central place in our identity is to deem Christianity a dead letter, and set in place the human body itself as our idol.
PART II TOMORROW: Why the Christian view of marriage and sexuality is not at all like the arguments offered in defense of slavery or Jim Crow.