Here is a response that my (C. Michael Patton) friend Mark Gaither, Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Redemptive Divorce, wrote to my post on Homosexual Marriage. It is very well thought out and provides a helpful perspective that, while we may disagree, is important.
With great respect to my friend and colleague, Michael Patton—and I mean that sincerely—I take issue with his article, “Changing our Thinking about Same-Sex Marriage.”
First, I find the starting premise flawed. The thesis states: “The government should NOT make homosexual marriage illegal.” The word “illegal” makes the premise factually incorrect. To make something illegal is to prohibit certain actions or behaviors. The various “Defense of Marriage” propositions do not make homosexual marriage illegal (assigning punishments to people claiming same-sex unions); these proposals seek to define marriage a certain way so as to determine how to apply privileges and protections to people based on marital status. That is a crucial distinction.
His article also proposed that “the government should stay out of the marriage business all-together.” The line of argument then proceeds from there, the core of which really turns on this question: Should Christians in America become libertarian? The issue of same-sex marriage turns out to be a good test case for this question, prompting us to reconsider the role of government in marriage and, as he suggests, all other theological matters. Consider the following line of reasoning based on what I consider a better starting premise.
In the United States, our laws reflect the collective theology of citizens on any given issue. The definition of marriage by the government does not presume to determine theology; it is the other way around in a participatory government such as ours. “The government” is us, “we the people.” The U.S. Constitution does not erect a wall of separation between church and state; Jefferson overstates its political-social impact. Our founding document establishes an officially secular government with these intended benefits: every philosophical persuasion is given a voice in government and religious institutions are protected from official government intrusion. Our democratic-republican form of legislature then permits—indeed expects!—government to reflect the collective values of its citizens, who may or may not hold religious values.
As it relates to the issue of marriage . . .
The “definition of marriage” in the legal sense merely identifies who shall be subject to our laws concerning marriage. Our government recognizes and honors the institution of marriage with certain privileges and burdens because “we the people” wanted it that way. The government deemed certain unions “valid” based on criteria stipulated by its citizens, who were informed and influenced by the Bible—at least in days gone by.
It is true that our government is officially secular. Rather than choose a particular moral code on which to base its laws, the U.S. Constitution frames a system whereby the legal code reflects the values of U.S. citizens. Put simply, if the preponderance of citizens believe stealing is good, then robbery will be legalized. (That’s obviously hyperbole, but you get the point.) Historically, our laws concerning marriage reflected a Judeo-Christian code of ethics. This is undeniable, regardless of whether the Founders were evangelical Christian or deist or atheist in their personal beliefs. (Even atheists today draw their personalized moral systems from their Judeo-Christian forebears, whether they realize it or not.) Today, however, with more people drifting away from the biblical view of homosexuality as sin, an ethic of equality has begun to take precedence.
The question then becomes, What is our role as Christians in all of this? A more libertarian stance would be to offer the following compromise: remove the issue of marriage from politics and government altogether; recognize no civil union, whether traditional or homosexual. Should we take a more libertarian stance or pursue an even more active role in shaping our government to reflect our values?
Jesus left His followers on earth not merely to preach the good news and make disciples. We have a duty to the biblical definition of divine justice, we have a responsibility as heavenly envoys to transform our world until every human institution in every corner of the earth reflects the values of God’s kingdom. We must pursue this through our own personal interactions and en masse through churches and para-church organizations using any suitable means available. Fortunately, our participatory government gives us a divinely orchestrated opportunity to do just that in the United States.
I have considered the libertarian compromise myself because I, like many Christians, would prefer to keep theological debates out of the courts and in the public square. Unfortunately, the libertarian ideal, which seeks a minimalist government, is a good idea that will never gain traction. Unless everyone agrees to minimalist government, no one can reasonably expect it. Too many other factions want a bigger, more active government. In the debate over the legal definition of marriage, we can withdraw our theological argument, but our opposition will not. And, frankly, I’m not ready to cede the argument because I have a duty, as a Christian and as a voice in participatory government, to have God’s view of marriage prevail.
The non-viability of the libertarian ideal notwithstanding, I still considered the proposed compromise myself. Stated again, it is to remove the issue of marriage from politics and government altogether, to recognize no civil union, whether traditional or homosexual.
That appears reasonable until you begin to consider all the implications. The traditional view of marriage as the union of a man and woman—in the eyes of all religions, not only Christianity—is woven into the fabric of every human institution and government in the world. Now, homosexuals want to co-opt the institution of marriage—a religious invention older than recorded history—yet without accepting the entanglements of religious devotion. To save all religions from having to rewrite their ancient texts or forsake their sacred traditions and grant homosexuals their face-value demand for equal status under the law, we must scrub our legal code of any privileges or considerations for married couples. Individual taxes for all, no community property except by contract, no marital consideration in probate, etc., etc., etc., so that all people are treated as individuals, regardless of who plays house with whom. That would be like unweaving a sweater to remove a particular color yarn only to re-knit it anew. Possible, I suppose, but quite a task.
In the end, however, I think this compromise will not help matters. As it stands right now, homosexuals can cohabit with no governmental intrusion. They can call themselves anything they want without governmental sanction or prohibition. Most of what they seek in terms of privileges can be obtained through legal instruments, such as living wills, medical power-of-attorney documents, trusts, etc. So, let us not think the debate is merely about civil equality. Homosexuals crave, more than anything, legitimacy. Not merely tolerance. And gay rights activists won’t be happy until everyone in America calls homosexuality “good” and “natural.”
Michael’s article asked, “If the government eventually ‘legalizes’ all gay marriage, so what?” This libertarian-style retreat merely cedes ground to our opposition in the sincere hope that it will stop there. Make no mistake, the agenda won’t end with marriage laws. Homosexual activists have patterned their movement after the black civil rights movement, seeking the same protections and provisions of the law as it relates to race. Holding the theological position that homosexuality is a sin will become no less a crime than declining to hire someone based on color. The social groundwork has been laid. The Supreme Court has fallen. Capitol Hill next. Hobby Lobby is fighting for its life. Soon our churches. Homosexuals will not be satisfied until they receive complete sanction for their lifestyle choice or all opposition has been stamped out, leaving no one to call it sin.
I would rather not compromise until defeated. I think an America that adheres to and honors divine truth is a stronger, better nation. Our Constitution provides a God-ordained opportunity to have the kind of influence Christians could only dream of having in centuries past, a privilege they most certainly would have exercised. As it happens, we have a practical means of shaping our country to be more godly rather than less. Consequently, I cannot be libertarian. I cannot compromise.