Why Christians might support marriage equality

Christian discussions of samesex marriage generally center around the question of whether homosexual behavior is, or is not, sinful. Whether one’s view of this question is informed by the Bible, natural law, theological anthropology, or a combination thereof, there are reasonable arguments that can be made on both sides of the question.

In a comment on my earlier post, Chris wrote:

I think the only question which matters is “Is it sin?”

I disagree. Supposing that one has concluded that homosexual activity is sinful, the other relevant discussions when considering how to vote on the issue center around how Christians in a democracy should regard civil law, and around prudential judgment.

Civil law

One might consider that civil laws, ideally, should conform as closely to God’s laws as possible; and that Christians in a democracy have a responsibility to work (vote and otherwise engage in political activity) to make that so. This is the democratic equivalent of Christendom, inaugurated by Constantine in the fourth century and culminating in the Holy Roman Empire. Catholics are, perhaps, more sensitive than other Christians to the perils of this road, given the evils perpetrated by the Church collectively and by Christians individually during this era, from pogroms and ethnic cleansing to the Inquisition.

As Blessed John XXIII said in his opening address of the Second Vatican Council,

Such [civil] intervention was sometimes dictated by a sincere intention on the part of the secular princes to protect the Church’s interests, but more often than not their motives were purely political and selfish, and the resultant situation was fraught with spiritual disadvantage and danger.

Substitute “voters and lawmakers” for “civil princes,” of course. And regarding “purely political and selfish” motives, consider this information from Michael Brodkorb, who was behind the drive to put the issue on the ballot in Minnesota:

Brodkorb was former Deputy Chairman of the State Republican Party and top Senate staffer, and says GOP Senators knew a driving force behind the gay marriage amendment wasn’t morality. It was political reality.

(H/T Feminist Philosophers)

One might consider that civil laws should, ideally, conform as closely to natural law as possible. This appears to be the position that the American Catholic bishops are taking, and I believe it was also the opinion of Charles Curran, the American Catholic moral theologian who argued that natural law provided a religiously neutral common basis for societal moral norms. He argued that some such basis was necessary to provide a means of coherence for civil society, which would otherwise fragment. Aside from the question of whether homosexual behavior does in fact contravene natural law (which falls under the question of “is it sin?”), one difficulty with this position is that natural law is a philosophical construct from an earlier age, which no longer looks religiously neutral to non-Christians or even many non-Catholic Christians.

One might regard civil law from the perspective of religious liberty as an essential good. As the Second Vatican Council taught in Dignitate Humanis:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all [people] should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, [people] cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in [the person’s] very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

A strong view of religious liberty with respect to civil law might lead a Christian in a democracy to support even civil laws that are irreconcilable with Christian morality, on the grounds that civil law should be religiously neutral before it is anything else. [Update for clarity: see below.] Again, American Catholics might be more sensitive to this than other American Christians, as we are both a religious majority (Christian) and a religious minority (Catholic) in this country. I think back to the days of bible reading and prayer in public schools, for example: these were not good laws for Catholics, because it was not our Bible and not our prayers that were being taught.

Prudential Judgment

The other relevant consideration is commonly termed “prudential judgment,” at least by Catholics. This is the point at which Christians are called to look beyond principles and theories, and consider context and application: what will the law actually do? What goods, and what evils, will it actually bring about?

As Mark commented in the same thread,

But whether to criminalize gay sex isn’t the question, is it? The referendum on gay marriage has *nothing* to do with whether gay people have sex or not. It doesn’t even affect whether they get married. Right now, there are gay couples out there who describe themselves as married and are recognized by their friends as married. The question is only: Will the secular government also recognize the marriage?

Voting against marriage equality won’t prevent homosexual activity. It won’t break up samesex couples. (We know this, because a vote against marriage equality is a vote for the status quo.) Even if one believes that homosexual activity is a sin, laws that prohibit samesex marriage do not accomplish the desired good of preventing those sins from being committed.

Furthermore, marriage is not all about sex. Marriage is not even mostly about sex — remember the common joke that once people get married and live together, they have less sex than they did when they were dating. Marriage is about love and commitment. It’s about having somebody’s back in their trials through life, and having somebody who’s got yours. It’s about caring for each other “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” which is traditional language for times of vulnerability as well as times of strength. Those are all unqualified goods.

Civil marriage confers legal and economic benefits that make it easier for people to accomplish those goods: especially in times of vulnerability, when they need that help most.

The exercise of prudential judgment, by its very nature, involves a judgment call; and the Christian and Catholic traditions on the questions of law and morality are broad. I hope that I have demonstrated why many Christians consider this to be a complex question, and how Christians can disagree about the issue, even when both are acting in good conscience according to their tradition.

Update for clarity:
I originally wrote

A strong view of religious liberty with respect to civil law might lead a Christian in a democracy to support even civil laws that are irreconcilable with Christian morality, on the grounds that civil law should be religiously neutral before it is anything else.

I realized this is too broad a statement, and should be qualified as follows:

We can divide civil law into three categories with respect to religious practice: law that compels actions, law that prohibits actions, and law that permits actions. My original statement applies fully only to law that permits, but neither compels nor prohibits. (This is the category in which the marriage equality laws fall.)

With regard to law that compels or prohibits, even a strong view of religious liberty won’t decide the matter in isolation: it must be weighed together with how seriously sinful performing (or refraining from) the specified action is considered to be. In practice, it’s impossible to live and function as part of civil society without, at least, indirect, material cooperation with evil as defined by Catholic teachings: paying taxes (unless not a single government dollar is ever spent on anything sinful) and buying items that were produced by exploited workers come immediately to mind. This is the compromise we make for the sake of being able to have a civil society that is not a confessional state with first- and second-class citizens living in economic isolation from the rest of the world. (Think Europe’s Thirty Years War for why confessional states are a bad idea.)

But I think most persons of religious conviction would agree that we do in fact draw a line somewhere. Exactly where it should be drawn… is not a simple matter. But the purpose of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and the traditional understanding of the wall between church and state is to declare that there is a line beyond which persons shall not be required by law to cross.

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6 Responses to Why Christians might support marriage equality

  1. Ryan says:

    Very well presented and analyzed. While I agree with your stance in favour of prudential judgment, I am especially grateful to read the exploration of its alternatives. Questions like this where the intersection of interests within an individual is complex and the direction is unclear are really fascinating. How do we make a decision in one way or another when multiple, mutually exclusive options are desirable for some reasons and undesirable for others? I believe that, as you said, prudential judgment is the most sound solution, but that is itself a value claim.

    • How do we make a decision in one way or another when multiple, mutually exclusive options are desirable for some reasons and undesirable for others?

      And this is why all Christians are required to be practical moral theologians. Because it’s not simple, and it’s where the rubber meets the road.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Chris says:

    Are you actually arguing that it doesn’t matter whether it is sin? Really??

    Do we not have a responsibility to first and foremost love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

    • No, I’m not arguing that it doesn’t matter: I’m arguing that it’s not decisive.

      I’m not following your connection to the first great commandment – can you make that more explicit, please?

      • Chris says:

        Ahh – my apologies – in trying to be concise I was a little too concise.

        I am saying that, in our thinking, our first responsibility is to God (what is sin?), and what He loves/thinks/expects. And our second responsibility (which is very important, but not more than the first), is to love our neighbor.

        I categorize questions of civil law, the freedoms of our neighbors, etc. under love-of-neighbor.

        When and if the two seem to contradict (as perhaps they do here?), it is clear which part has priority.

  3. Just wanted to comment that I have updated the post to clarify a point about religious neutrality.

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