In parts I and II, I focused on the substance of Christian teachings about marriage and homosexual sex. In this part, I discuss the reasons of theology, politics, and legal strategy that bring Christian sacraments and morals into direct collision with the LGBT-rights movement.
As discussed in parts I and II, the arguments for excusing Christians from following Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on marriage and on homosexual sex are grounded in unsettled science, bad history, and worse theology. The more serious argument among people who are more versed in Christianity is not what is right or wrong as a matter of scripture or doctrine but that Christians need less judging and more mercy and humanity towards gay people. We are told to follow the example of Jesus’ injunction that he who is without sin should cast the first stone.
As a general rule for living the Gospels, this is indeed worthy advice, and conservative Christians have too often failed to heed it in dealing with gay men and lesbians. A spirit of toleration and Christian charity goes a long way to encouraging others to follow the Golden Rule, and even if they don’t, it remains our duty as Christians. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is technically correct theology, but as a practical creed, it’s got the order backwards.
But there is a critical distinction between sin and what the Catholic Church calls scandal. It is a distinction that, again, comes directly from the Gospels, straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ. Without it, you can understand neither the traditional Christian dichotomy between the sinner and the sin nor the reason why same-sex marriage and other LGBT-rights controversies create direct threats to Christian conscience. Christians who are otherwise inclined to “live and let live” are increasingly faced with demands that they provide positive celebration and endorsement for sin. That violates the duty to avoid scandal.
Sin and Scandal in the Gospels
To sin, to break God’s moral commands, is human. It is central to all Christian thinking, to the very purpose of the incarnation and the crucifixion, to recognize that every one of us is a sinner. No Christian can refuse to associate with sinners. Jesus made a point of doing so, and when the Pharisees questioned him for hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors, he responded (at Mark 2:17): “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
In a similar vein, his injunction when forgiving the adulterous woman, “[l]et the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” was deliberately aimed at reminding the crowd that they were all sinners as much in need of his forgiveness as she was (John 8:3-11). Just as crucially, that story also ends with Jesus telling the woman to go and not commit this sin again. He pointedly gives her forgiveness and mercy, but not justification for her actions. His mercy separates her from her sin, rather than encouraging her to embrace it.
Scandal evokes the opposite reaction. Jesus says, at Matthew 18:6-7: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (see also Luke 17:1).
As the Catholic Catechism puts it, elaborating on these passages from Matthew and Luke:
Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized….Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.
Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. (emphasis added)
Christ calls us to mercy towards sinners, in recognition that we are all sinners. But it is not hypocritical for sinners to profess virtue and denounce sin; it is precisely what the Gospel demands of us, sinners though we are. What Jesus denounces as hypocritical and cowardly is the opposite—pridefully refusing to admit sin and portraying sin as virtue, which causes others to be led astray when they emulate its example. That is implicit in Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus notes that the tax collector who beats his breast in remorse and begs God’s mercy goes home justified, while the Pharisee who proclaims his own virtue does not.
Sin’s Not the Problem—Celebrating It Is
Likewise, we all are called to confession and repentance. Every sin, no matter how bad, can be forgiven, even those sins that we know (through our weakness) we will commit again. Except one: the refusal to admit sin and repent, the insistence that a sin is not a sin. God will not forgive us when we do not admit we were wrong. And to hold up sin in public as if it were virtue is scandal, called such because the church sees it not only as a personal sin but as leading others to sin.
This is the doctrine at the core of Christian resistance to any sort of public celebration of same-sex relationships. The problem is not that homosexuals are sinning, for all of us sin, and all of us have family and friends who sin, and all of us sit in pews listening to priests who sin. The problem is not associating with sinners, which is not just permitted but commanded to Christians. The problem is celebrating sin as if it were virtue.
To Christians who accept the New Testament’s teachings—to Catholics who accept the Catechism—this is why things like “Gay Pride” events, or gay groups marching (as gay groups, rather than as individuals) in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or taking part in an expressive way (such as a wedding photographer) in a same-sex wedding is wrong: it crosses the line from tolerance and mercy towards our fellow sinners to the perpetuation of the idea that a sin is not sin, but a thing to be celebrated. It crosses from forgiveness of sin, which Jesus’ example commands us to offer, to justification of sin, which he condemns in the strongest language he uses anywhere in the Gospels. (As Erick Erickson puts it, of course Jesus would bake a cake for gay people—but not for a gay wedding).
You have the right in a free society to call your relationship whatever you want, but when you demand that I call it what you want, that is the point where your rights end, and mine begin. A Christian who surrenders to government or social pressure to celebrate sin has committed the grave sin of scandal. This Christians cannot do and still call themselves Christians.
This is the very point on which Thomas More, the patron saint of my profession, resisted to death. More went to some lengths to avoid confrontation and stay silent as King Henry VIII rewrote the Christian rules of marriage to suit his own needs and shattered the Church in England in the process. But when he was asked to swear an oath to a remarriage he could not in conscience support, he felt he had no choice but to refuse, even knowing it might lead (as it did) to his death. More’s conscience could abide the king’s sin, but not his own scandal.
Sex and Identity
This brings us to why this is such an explosive confrontation, and one that both sides view as an existential struggle. If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, the primary fronts in the culture war involved heterosexual relationships and heterosexual sex. There were battles over divorce, premarital sex, contraception, open or “swinging” relationships, pornography, abortion, single parenthood, etc. These were often ferocious arguments, and many of them are still being litigated culturally, politically, legally, and religiously to this day.
As bitter as those culture-war battles could be, however, there was generally a shared implicit understanding that if the Christians lost, they could be left to themselves. Coexistence was possible. The reason for this was that the heterosexual culture warriors, little though they might like to admit it, accepted at a fundamental level that they were arguing about conduct. You might not like it that your Christian neighbor viewed your live-in girlfriend as a sinful relationship, but you accepted that this was something you had freely chosen to do, and if somebody else’s moral code was violated, hey man, that wasn’t your problem because you didn’t agree anyway. You were disagreeing over how you chose to live your life.
The same-sex marriage fight is different because it has been framed, not as a battle over conduct, but as a battle over identity, as to which differences of opinion are impossible. The ideology behind the same-sex marriage movement and other “LGBT issues” as they are commonly presented derives from the premises that 1) sexual orientation is integral to personal identity, 2) sexual relationships are inseparable from sexual orientation, and 3) any criticism of homosexual relationships is therefore a criticism of the person’s identity itself—an expression of bigotry equivalent in all material respects to racism because it casts moral disapproval on an immutable characteristic.
But, as noted in Part I, this is not at all how Christians view these questions. Christians, following scripture, view heterosexual marriage and heterosexual sex as behaviors subject to moral principles. To the Christian mind, the idea that homosexual sex and homosexual relationships are exempt from these same moral principles on grounds of being an “identity” is illogical, asymmetrical, and, in a theological sense, scandalous.
At the same time, Christians do view our status as Christ-followers, created in the image and likeness of God, as central to our own identities, in a way that transcends and ultimately outlasts not only such artificial earthly categories as race but even earthly realities like our physical bodies and their sexes. To Christians, even not-so-devout Christians, the very purpose of life on earth is the individual’s relationship with God, and all other things are either means to that end or obstacles to it. To a Christian, a believing Christian, faith is not just something you believe or do—it is why you exist.
Why Gay Ideology Leads to Christian Extermination
Christians can and do, of course, deal with many issues (science, law, history, sports) that require lines of reasoning that have no faith component. To reason outside the domains and doctrines of faith, though, is one thing; to declare them invalid or irrational is to deny the central facet of our existence and identity. To treat a legitimate Christian teaching as bigotry that must be stamped out, rather than merely subjected to external disagreement (as other faiths do) is, ultimately, to treat the Christians themselves as people whose identity must be stamped out by society.
Certainly there are those, like New York Times columnist Josh Barro, who argue openly for such an approach to Christians:
Energy behind SB1062 isn't so much about rights as norms– socons desperate to retain idea that reasonable ppl can disagree on gay marriage
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) February 25, 2014
It's weird how views held for no reason — i.e. "faith" — get extra deference instead of reduced deference.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) February 24, 2014
The common LGBT activist view that sexual relationships are inseparable from individual identity is not going away, and Christians—while we may find that worldview wrong and illogical—must find a way to coexist with it. But coexistence is possible only if the distinct Christian view of identity is also treated as legitimate. If it is not, then the continued presence of Christians in society cannot and eventually will not be tolerated.
For Christians, coexistence may sometimes take work, but it ought not to be difficult. For people coming of age after the Sexual Revolution and trying to stay faithful to Christ’s teachings, it is commonplace to encounter unmarried heterosexual peers in one’s teens and early twenties who are sexually active. It quickly becomes apparent, even if spending your time around mostly churchgoing Christians, that a great many of your friends will be people who have no problem with unmarried sex, and engage in it without much visible guilt. Can you coexist with unmarried people having sex? Of course you can, and you’ll have a lot fewer friends if you can’t.
Most modern young people face this reality. Some fall victim to scandal—being surrounded by the practice, they lose the ability to judge it wrong. Those who do maintain their principles learn to balance that with coexistence, not grudgingly but joyfully. The same principle extends to how Christians coexist with Jews, atheists, and Christians of other denominations. We can disagree about big, important, fundamental things; I don’t much care who thinks I am going to Hell, as long as they don’t consider it their job to send me there.
Likewise, it is no contradiction for a Christian to take the same approach to gay friends, gay co-workers, gay political allies, gay fellow congregants. We do not demand as a price that they give up their sexual relationships, and they should not expect to demand as a price that we give up our faith or our principles. It would be a poorer and a meaner America if we cannot learn to make that spirit run both ways.
The Relationship Between Liberty and Equality
So there is a cultural collision, one that cannot be resolved simply by asking Christians to stop believing what Jesus, the New Testament, and the church have told us. How did it become a pitched political and legal battle? It happened because the LGBT cause, in consequence of the worldview that sees all LGBT issues as questions of identity rather than free choice, was framed as a fight over equality rather than liberty. Further, it happened because the movement has been carried forward via the liberal progressive view of equality as a positive condition for government and the courts to promote, even if that means denying or destroying actual differences that exist in the real world.
In the American tradition, both liberty and equality are important values. Going back to the early American spirit de Tocqueville observed, they have often been in harmony: Americans see universal liberty as a means of expressing social and political equality, and of creating the conditions for economic equality of opportunity. But modern culture-war flashpoints often bring these two values into conflict because progressives see liberty as an obstacle to equality (or at least, as inadequate to provide it), while conservatives tend to place a higher value on liberty, on the theory that liberty produces as much equality of opportunity as we are likely to get without destroying opportunity.
Gay Activists Choose Confrontation
Early LGBT-rights arguments from the 1960s to the 1980s were often framed in terms of liberty, most prominently the fight against sodomy laws and the obvious injustice, highlighted in the years of the AIDS crisis, of gay couples being denied hospital visitation rights enjoyed even by unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners. Some social conservative hardliners, of course, were unsympathetic even to these arguments, but for many of us, there was a strong case for recognizing gay liberty to form intimate associations and for passing laws to create space for those liberties.
This is why I and more than a few other social conservatives came (in my case, two decades ago) to favor legislative passage of civil unions that could be tailored to protect liberty. Unfortunately, there was never much of a constituency to make that a reality, especially once the courts seized control of the issue.
In order to argue for liberty for gay relationships, one need only adopt the modest principle that consenting adults ought in most cases to be able to do what they want, so long as they’re not harming anyone else. This principle had already proven repeatedly to be popular in the previous decades of culture-war arguments, and it preserves an escape hatch: Christians could agree with the general liberty principle without being compelled to agree to the scandalous proposition that same-sex relationships are actually the same thing as the sacrament of marriage.
Was there any point at which a genuine political opportunity existed to build a coalition to support a pro-liberty gay-rights policy? Maybe there was, and maybe there wasn’t. But from the very outset of the same-sex marriage debate, LGBT activists chose to pursue a maximalist litigation strategy deliberately modeled on the civil rights movement’s drive to destroy Jim Crow. This strategy by its nature de-emphasized liberty and mutual tolerance in favor of a winner-take-all battle for control of the law.
Adoption of this model necessarily required suppressing any distinction between identity and behavior: while a pro-liberty argument creates space for differences in behavior, a pro-equality argument requires that the discussion focus solely on immutable characteristics. The “Jim Crow” strategy focused on litigation far more than persuasion, with activists using equal-protection arguments to gain judicial recognition of same-sex marriages beginning in Hawaii and Vermont in the 1990s, while shunning approaches to legislatures, bitterly opposing any effort to have the issue settled by popular referenda, and seeking to have any contrary legislation or referenda nullified by the courts.
Given the political terrain from the early 1990s through the mid-2000s, this was a coldly rational calculation, but also a risky one. Rational, because public opinion at large strongly opposed recognizing same-sex marriages, while the legal profession and thus the courts was mostly in favor, so the best results were likely to come from appealing to lawyers while freezing out voters. Risky, because voter backlashes against the legal system tend to be a blunt instrument on those rare occasions when the sleeping giant of the electorate is aroused, and an inherently confrontational litigation strategy could provoke that.
Unsurprisingly, the “marriage equality” movement initially did produce a backlash that made political compromise all but impossible, and thus ran (for some years) a risk of derailing the movement by enshrining amendments in state constitutions, and possibly the national Constitution, that could have precluded political recognition of even civil unions. Popular referenda almost uniformly favored traditional marriage as late as 2008 (when both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned as opponents of same-sex marriage—the former not reversing course until 2012, the latter in 2013). Even in 2012, opposition to same-sex marriage fared better at the polls in deep-blue states than the comparatively moderate national Republican ticket.
The tide by now has turned, of course, due in part to cultural and generational shifts. But even today, LGBT political activists strenuously oppose having the question settled by the voters or in a legislative compromise of any kind rather than in a winner-take-all court battle, belying their confident assertions of overwhelming popular support. Christian conservatives, by contrast, have developed something of a siege mentality, recognizing that any offer of compromise will be regarded as a sign of weakness and a signal to demand unconditional surrender.
The result has been an angry stalemate that waits almost entirely on the decision of one 78-year-old judge, Anthony Kennedy. In Part IV, I will explore why the effort at a judicial resolution of this issue is so wrongheaded, and in Part V, why there ought to be a better way, and what remains of the avenues to get there.