Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?

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18 Comments

  1. SCOTUS ruled,
    and there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    Yet very little has changed for evangelical Christians. Their churches can still refuse to conduct same sex marriages. The weeping and gnashing of teeth is an over-reaction.

    What has happened, is that they have discovered that their white evangelical privilege is not as great as they had believed. And that discovery is what they are reacting to.

    I don’t see the SCOTUS decision itself having much effect on the culture wars. The over-reaction by evangelicals might have the effect of driving youth away from conservative Christianity.

    Reply
    • Neil,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree that the biggest single result of this ruling is that (some) conservative evangelicals and other religious conservatives will feel pushed out of the mainstream. As a historian, I can’t help but notice that this is exactly the same result as the SCOTUS school-prayer/Bible ruling of 1963. At that time, evangelicals reacted furiously, but there was not too much of a change in actual school practice. I could see that pattern playing out again here.
      And maybe this is only because I’m up to my eyeballs in all things higher-education right now, but I disagree that this will have no concrete effects. As Justice Alito noted at an earlier hearing, this ruling–eventually–could push institutions to equalize their marriage benefits. So, for example, if Wheaton College decided not to provide housing for same-sex married grad students as it does for heterosexual couples, the school could and likely would lose a lawsuit. That’s not nothing. At the very least, these sorts of fights, IMHO, will continue to cause skirmishes along culture-war fronts.

      Reply
      • I agree with you. This will be like Roe v Wade at religious colleges. I think we will see civil disobedience and lawsuits. It’s sad, but IMHO, the LGBT community still has a fight on its hands. I long for the day when discrimination goes away, but I might not be around to see it happen. After all, it’s been over 40 years since Roe, and look at how the fighting is still raging in the states. Pro-lifers have been very successful at putting roadblocks in front of women who seek a legal medical procedure.

      • I think you’re both right, but I question whether the first court battles will be over something like married housing for gay students.

        Wheaton is typical of many Christian colleges that claim to be primarily concerned with fornication (extra-hetero-marital sex) of any kind. Based simply on the relative numbers of straight and gay students on these campuses, if you had some RAs and campus ministers answer questions under oath about their awareness of student fornication, I would guess the hetero to homosexual cases would be in the ballpark of at least 10:1.

        These colleges can, quite legally, punish gay and straight fornicators as they emerge. That practice will pass legal scrutiny if the enforcement is evenhanded. The need for fairness creates an incentive to step up enforcement on the hetero majority, but there must also be powerful incentives against it. I would not be surprised to see schools caught in this position to make missteps, be sued, and over time get out of the chastity belt business.

    • “What has happened, is that they have discovered that their white evangelical privilege is not as great as they had believed. And that discovery is what they are reacting to.” You do realize that black conservative evangelicals also hold the view that traditional marriage is the Biblical truth, too, don’t you? There are more black conservatives in churches today than you realize.

      Reply
  2. You do realize that black conservative evangelicals also hold the view that traditional marriage is the Biblical truth, too, don’t you?

    Yes, I am aware of that. However, I have not heard much about protests coming from them, though perhaps that’s a matter of what the media covers.

    Reply
  3. Agellius

     /  June 29, 2015

    Dan:

    Christian teaching does not require policing sins committed in private. What a Christian institution cannot do is outwardly approve or appear to condone public sin, by which is not meant sin committed in public, but sinful activities that are publicly admitted and not repented of. Therefore it seems to me that as long as it didn’t allow unmarried heretosexual couples to cohabitate, then in placing the same stricture on homosexual couples (which according to Christian doctrine cannot be married) professing to be married and therefore presumably having sex, it would be treating both equally.

    Reply
    • I think you missed the point, but you bring up another problem. A Christian gay couple that is legally married can’t be punished by their Christian college on the mere presumption they are having sex. They would have to be caught in the act or admit to having (or intending to have) sex. The schools will not recognize the marriage but do not see getting married as a sin; it is the sex that’s a sin. (You may well see some couples get married and remain celibate as a protest.)

      The rules I am aware of at several CCCU schools do focus solely on the sex, which they do not carefully define. I think this is really just a legacy of anti-sodomy laws, which were about the prohibition of specific sex acts without regard to gender, orientation, or marital status. It would be much easier for the Christian schools if they could just have a second-base rule and say no sodomy (anal or oral sex) for anyone is allowed, and no fornication. (That is actually what their student bodies tend to understand is wanted or reflective of the older generations’ expectations and assumptions.) Of course a sodomy ban would be illegal if applied to straight married couples and has been for some time. So technically the question could be raised today on a conservative Christian college campus whether non-penetrative sex is fornication at all for gay or straight people. A common opinion among younger evangelicals is that anal and/or oral sex is not quite fornication for unmarried heterosexual couples. (In fact this “loophole” is a conscious part of the evangelical youth culture and has a crass rhyming name.) This is not just smart-aleck college kid reasoning; in Jewish tradition, female-female genital contact is not fornication, and it does not really come up in the New Testament.

      My original point was rather different. We’re talking about Protestant colleges where there is no “seal of the confessional.” If someone confesses to a private sexual sin they may be summarily fired or expelled if this information is given or passed along through the college administration. That is existing policy and practice at some of these schools. If someone is caught doing something in private that breaks the school’s rules, the person who catches them may be obliged to make a report as well.

      Of course they can choose to be prudential and discrete in their enforcement, and they often are. Those who serve in a counseling capacity are unlikely to support a policy where they become judges or major influencers of who is publicly punished for sins privately confessed, but I would not be surprised if that’s how it works at some schools. Today, without a clear enforcement policy, discretion will inevitably be accused of bias. Perhaps homosexual confessions and trysts are “found out” and disciplined at a much higher rate that heterosexual ones. Perhaps men or women are overrepresented, or an individual feels singled out for some personal reason. As soon as a student expelled for sexual misconduct alleges something like this and demonstrates it in court, you have a problem unless you have a clear policy and paper trail.

      Reply
  4. Agellius

     /  June 29, 2015

    The point I’m making is that the only basis on which a Christian college forbids a gay married couple from cohabiting on campus should be that publicly proclaiming themselves “married” would cause scandal, due to the fact that sex is presumed to be a part of marriage, thus making it a public sin. You can argue whether that is a valid presumption, but my contention is that it is. If sex were not essential to marriage then being “faithful” or “monogamous” would have no meaning. Naturally there may be exceptional marriages — Mary and Joseph’s marriage comes to mind — wherein the spouses abstain from sex for some purpose. But absent some reason for believing that to be the case, it’s reasonable to assume that a married couple are having sex. Two men living together but not claiming to be married or a “couple” would not necessarily cause scandal, because there would be no ground for assuming that they were having sex; that is, unless they went around advertising the fact, in which case that would be a separate ground for forbidding them from cohabiting.

    All I have to say about colleges that punish people as a result of private confessions of sin, is that I think it’s a terrible idea, regardless of the issue of lawsuits. It can only discourage people from confessing their sins honestly.

    Reply
    • I agree with you about the private confession resulting in a public penalty — for which no public explanation is offered, so gossip fills its place. When that happens with faculty or staff members, the gossip hangs on for decades and sticks to whole families.

      No that is not the case at all. I’m not aware of any colleges that have forbidden gay couples from cohabitating or from getting married. They are entirely focused on prohibiting extramarital sex, and only recently have they needed to specify what that means because they can no longer make heteronormative assumptions. In fact it’s likely that the colleges have facilitated cohabitation of gay roommates or visitation privileges they deny on the assumption that only male and female students would potentially be engaged in sexual activity. I don’t think most want to get into excessive scrutiny, but two openly homosexual students who merely cohabitate or spend time in private space together are liable to be a target of “scandal.” The situation is ripe for all kinds of trouble not just as the law changes but as younger evangelicals refuse to choose the closet.

      Who told you Mary and Joseph abstained from sex? Jesus had brothers, and the whole virgin birth thing is based on a mistranslation of the Septuagint.

      Reply
      • Sorry, I meant “mistranslation of the Hebrew *in* the Septuagint.” And I meant roommate assignments and visitation privileges have been made on the assumption that you only need to regulate private space shared by male and female students. The immediate cases hitting the courts similar to this now — at religious and non-religious schools — actually involve gender identity and expression more than orientation. Once they have a trans or other ambiguously gendered student there have been reactions about where the student can live, whether they can have roommates, what bathroom they can use, and what athletic teams they can join — if any. People feel scandalized and then proceed to be very discriminatory.

      • Agellius

         /  June 29, 2015

        “Who told you Mary and Joseph abstained from sex?”

        Oh, just the Catholic Church. But let’s debate that privately if at all.

      • Oh, no thanks. I forgot that was in the catechism. Eep!

      • The Catholic Church states that there was no word for “cousin” during that time, so Jesus’ brothers are merely cousins. The OT referred to such relatives as “near kinsmen”. You can disagree, but that’s why the teaching is presented in the RCC. I am an ex-Catholic.

      • Yeah, I’ve looked at that in the past. Forgot about it. There are actually several pieces to the argument, but they all take that form of inferring unlikely and highly speculative things to suit pre-existing theology where sin was framed materialistically by Augustine in terms of his Stoic and Manichean influences. (Mainstream natural philosophy of the day.) In this view original sin is passed through men sexually, and this contaminates women who in the case of Mary and her mother (and presumably the grandmothers all the way back) must have been immaculated conceived.

        Yes it’s all a retrospectively elaborated system produced by male celibates in the western church (not the eastern) whose essentialism tended to radicalize the misogyny in their Jewish and early Christian materials. This should not be mocked or dismissed as rubbish but understood, as well as the fact that the church emerged from a group of culturally dislocated men, women, and eunuchs who were often victims of abuse, sexual slavery, etc. Eschewing marriage and even one’s own testes was valorized with the third gender eunuchs becoming the ideal for everyone and later the priesthood.

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