Why gay marriage is such a problem for Christians

Unlike some of my co-bloggers here on In Due Course, I will admit to having some sympathy for the Christians who have been dragging their heels on our society’s recent embrace of gay marriage, and of gay pride more generally. This is not to say that I have any sympathy for their position — I don’t. But I have sympathy for them in the sense that I feel bad for them. The reason I feel bad for them is that I can see how, intellectually, they’re in a really tight spot. They are under intense social pressure to change a particular moral belief that they hold, but they can’t see any reason to change this belief, other than that they’re under intense social pressure to do so. Should they buckle under and change the belief, this would reveal a deep truth about morality that they are unwilling to acknowledge, and that in many ways undermines the point of having religious beliefs at all.

I’ll explain why I think this below, but before getting into it one quick caveat. I’m not talking about the merely political requirement that one accept gays and lesbians as having equal rights as citizens, or that they be able to live their lives free from discrimination. This is uncontroversial, but it doesn’t speak to the moral question. Just as one might believe that abortion is immoral, and yet still think that it should be legal, one might also believe that homosexuality is immoral, and yet still think that it is a private matter that should not affect anyone’s legal standing in society. Christians have no basis for opposing the demands for equal rights. Where problems show up is when Christians are pressured, not just to accept the legal equality of gays and lesbians, but to change their moral evaluation of the practice. And yet, the belief that “homosexuality is sinful” is increasingly being condemned as an inherently discriminatory belief, as though it were analogous to the view that “miscagenation is sinful.” Thus Christians are being asked to endorse not just gay rights but also gay pride. This demand clearly goes beyond what a “political” form of liberalism, in John Rawls’s sense of the term, is entitled to make.

The difference between these two demands — the demand for legal equality and the demand for an end to moral condemnation — are clearly intertwined in the debate over gay marriage. This is because the demand for legal equality could be satisfied by some form of civil union. Thus the demand for marriage is often made precisely because it is taken to imply a form of social recognition that is inconsistent with, or erodes the force of, moral condemnation. Cases like Trinity Western’s law program (discussed here) represent one of the tricky borderline cases, where the private moral condemnation has public legal implications, and so the case can be used as a wedge to put pressure on the underlying moral view.

Anyhow, I wrote a short opinion piece on the whole subject about 10 years ago, back when I was writing for the Montreal Gazette. It never got much uptake, but I still think it is a useful contribution — especially for those who don’t understand why religious communities are making such a big deal over the issue. I’ll reproduce it here, with a few notes below elaborating on the argument.


Why all the agony over gay marriage?

On June 27, 1969, rather than submit to routine police harassment, patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village chose to fight back. The resulting melee, now known as the “Stonewall riot,” marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. Who would have imagined, at the time, that this movement would go on to provoke the most significant crisis in Christianity since the Protestant Reformation?

In many ways, the trouble caused in Christian churches by the gay rights movement is puzzling. Churches are being torn apart, literally divided in two, over the issue of homosexual marriage. What is perhaps even more striking is the amount of agonized deliberation and debate that the issue has caused.

Why has homosexuality proved such a bitter pill for so many Christians to swallow? After all, most churches started out on the wrong side of the issue when it came to sexism and racism as well. Yet they were able to accommodate themselves to feminism and civil rights without institutional crisis. Why is homosexuality so different?

I think the answer to this question touches upon a very profound dilemma faced by religious believers in the modern era. Most people who believe in God do so because they feel that God is needed in order to make sense of their moral commitments.* “Without God,” as Dostoyevsky said, “everything is permitted.” No God means no morality.

Part and parcel of this conviction is the thought that morality is something fixed and immutable. Moral laws are basically an expression of God’s will, and are no more subject to change than the laws of physics. Furthermore, since the Bible represents a revelation, in some form, of God’s will, there is an important sense in which the Bible “gets it right” on question of morality.

This is why “tradition” is so important in religious thought. The church is not on a voyage of discovery, out to determine what is right and wrong. According to the Christian view, we already know what is right and wrong. The function of the church is to preserve that knowledge from corrupting influences.

The secular temperament, on the other hand, is far less inclined to view morality as a fixed structure of the universe. Human society requires cooperation, and cooperation requires a willingness on the part of all individuals to moderate their behaviour, in deference to the needs and interests of others. Morality is nothing more than the set of rules that we adopt as part of the compromise that enables such cooperation. Thus the secular perspective sees moral rules as subject to change, as our needs and interests change.

Here we can see why homosexuality poses such a problem for those who take Christianity seriously. There can be no doubt that our new-found willingness, as a society, to embrace homosexuality, represents a change in our moral code. Furthermore, this change in popular morality has been driven primarily by secular forces. Secular ethics assigns enormous importance to consent, because it is concerned primarily with the conditions under which voluntary cooperation can be established. The fact that homosexual relations are freely entered into by consenting adults therefore generates an enormous presumption in their favour.

The Bible, on the other hand, says: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” It takes an awful lot of massaging to interpret that as anything other than a condemnation of homosexuality. Furthermore, the Christian tradition was absolutely unequivocal for almost 2000 years that homosexuality was a perversion and a sin.** Thus for Christian churches to turn around say “oops, we made a mistake” runs contrary to the whole point of having a religiously based moral code.

This is why so many Christians are feeling uncomfortable. The issue of homosexuality basically calls their bluff. Those who decide to accept homosexuality are admitting, in effect, that God is no longer in the driver’s seat when it comes to determining the content of their moral convictions.*** Their moral code is basically just secular morality dressed up in some vaguely spiritual language.

In other words, our new-found tolerance of homosexuality shows how completely secularism has displaced religion as the source of popular morality. The torment that so many Christian churches have undergone on this issue stems from an unwillingness to face the full implications of this fact.


Afterthoughts and elaborations:

* This is a really important point, which I learned from Charles Taylor, and which most of the so-called “new atheists,” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, fail to appreciate. When push comes to shove, most non-cretinous, non-mystical Christians do not believe any of the traditional cosmological or design arguments, but instead have some sort of ethico-theological basis for their belief. In other words, they do not posit God as a scientific hypothesis, they posit God as a moral necessity. So going over the theory of evolution (once again, this time more slowly…) does not really get at the crux of their belief system. What is needed is rather a way of providing, within the scientific worldview, a non-reductive account of normative phenomena.

** Admittedly, one does not hear the “Leviticus” argument very often anymore, partly because it opens one up to rather cruel mockery. After all, if one intended to go strictly “by the book,” then it would be impermissible to have any contact with women while they were menstruating, to wear garments made of more than one fibre, to have any contact with the skin of a pig, etc. The difference, however, is that unlike these other rules, the prohibition on male homosexuality was taken up and became an absolutely unquestioned feature of the Christian tradition for almost 2000 years. Furthermore, the prohibition was not arbitrary, it had a strong theological rationale. If one considers sexual behaviour from an Aristotelian-Scholastic perspective, the first question to ask when considering the permissibility of any action is what good it is supposed to serve (in the broader, providential order). In the case of sexual congress, the obvious good that it is intended to serve (i.e. the intention in the mind of God, when he created us as he did) is procreation. Thus Christians drew the not-crazy conclusion that all forms of non-procreative sexuality were sinful, which in turn gave us the traditional (i.e. old-fashioned) list of sexual vices. So the moral condemnation of homosexuality was not a prejudice, any more than the condemnation of contraception is a prejudice. It was a reasoned conclusion, which followed fairly immediately from a particular worldview. And therein lies the problem. If you reject that conclusion, the modus tollens does not just lead to the rejection of a problematic premise here or there, it leads to a destabilization of the entire worldview.

*** As far as I can tell, the way that contemporary Christians who want to reverse course on the moral condemnation of homosexuality do so is by putting a huge amount of emphasis on the imperative to “love one another,” or the vague idea that Christianity is a religion that celebrates love above all. But again, I don’t see how any intellectually serious Christian could look themselves in the mirror and regard this as anything other than a crude device, aimed at reducing cognitive dissonance. After all, one cannot just celebrate “love” without distinguishing worthy and unworthy objects or forms of love. The important moral question becomes who gets to define what is worthy or unworthy. And in the case of homosexuality, it is obvious that it is secular society that is doing the defining, not God, and not the church.

Final thought: one can see the structure of the traditional Christian argument against homosexuality reflected in the fact that, when pressed on the issue, Christians often bring up the issue of bestiality. According to the traditional view — which again, is basically just a Christianized version of Aristotle — all non-procreative forms of sexuality are “unnatural,” which is to say, contrary to God’s purposes (that are embedded in all of nature, and that provide the principles of motion of all things). This is what makes sex with animals immoral, this is what makes sex with children immoral, and this is what makes same-sex relations immoral. So when someone comes along and says “actually, same-sex relations are perfectly okay, not immoral at all” the traditional Christian’s natural reaction is to say “well if you’re going to make that one okay, then what basis do you have for condemning all the other stuff on the list?” Of course, the secular moralist can appeal to consent as grounds for condemning sex with minors. But what about animals? Utilitarians, who don’t assign any particular status to consent, seem to have no choice but to endorse bestiality (as Peter Singer has famously done). But even if one doesn’t go so far, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the issue of bestiality, like the issue of incest, is something of an embarrassment to secular morality. We all think it’s gross, but everyone is painfully aware of the fact that pointing this out falls some ways short of establishing its immorality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely with the secular moralist on all these questions. It’s just that I understand where the traditional Christian is coming from, perhaps because I retain enough of my Catholic upbringing to understand the power and the attraction of the Aristotelian-Scholastic worldview. Plus I’m not hubristic enough to think that we secular moralists have satisfying answers to all of the troubling philosophical questions that are raised by the intellectual collapse of the religious worldview. But like I said, Christians are in a tight spot. The demand that they reverse the traditional judgement on homosexuality amounts to a demand that they abandon the closest thing that Christianity has ever produced to a coherent, ordered view of the cosmos. The alternative to that worldview — the secular, scientific worldview — contains some rather terrifying lacunae, particularly when it comes to accounting for morality. My own view is that Christians should just suck it up and accept the secular worldview. But I’m not going to pretend that this is, intellectually, a no-brainer, or that it comes without a price, or that reasonable people cannot disagree about whether this price is too high.



Why gay marriage is such a problem for Christians — 5 Comments

  1. Joe, your diagnosis of why some Christians have difficulty revising their views of homosexuality as morally wrong has some plausibility for those Christians who believe that religious tradition itself provides a suitable grounding for moral convictions. I accept that such folks, to the degree they focus on some aspects of traditional Christian teaching (while neglecting others) may view the acceptance of homosexuality as deeply threatening to their moral and spiritual outlook. (I tend to think you simplify and underestimate the resources within Christianity for moral deliberation and reflection. The Christianity with which I am familiar through my family does not view appeal to tradition or biblical passages as authoritative per se. There is room for a lot more by way of thoughtful analysis and argument. As we have seen in recent years, many reflective Christians have identified good reasons to reject homophobia and change discriminatory practices in their communities.) Traditions, whether religious or secular, can wield powerful influences over people and people can have a hard time adjusting to social or cultural changes that challenge traditions that strike them a familiar and comfortable. Men have had a hard adjusting the emergence of norms of gender equality at home and the workplace. And sure, we can feel some kind of sympathy for folks who are challenged to revise attitudes and beliefs that they view natural or normal. But in cases where we have good reason to believe that the change of norm is appropriate, the kind of sympathy we have isn’t one where we think we think the person clinging to tradition has a point or is being reasonable. Against the background of family traditions, maybe it’s hard for many men to do their fair share of housework. And it’s predictable that many will resist doing so. Moreover, doing their fair share at home may come at some price for many men. But that does not mean that their objections to doing their fair are somehow reasonable. As far as I can tell, you don’t actually think any of the traditional Christian views against homosexuality are reasonable or plausible (even if their sources can be understood). That is, you do not think that appeal to Christian tradition or doctrine provides a successful grounding for anti-gay attitudes nor does it render them plausible or reasonable. Rather given the powerful hold that a commitment to religious traditions has for some folks, you can sympathize with them in the sense of appreciating how unsettling acceptance of homosexuality can be for them. If that’s a correct interpretation of your sympathy then we are not in disagreement.

  2. Hi Colin — the point was not just that people are wedded to their traditions. The part of the argument (i.e. my argument) that I thought was neat was the suggestion that, because so many people ground their religious belief in what amount to ethico-theological arguments, they have special difficulty adjusting to a change in the moral code that is of obviously secular origin. And while it may be possible to adjust one’s convictions in response to the change (many people have), there is still the fact that the change does not have its origin in the faith or the faith tradition (no one got the idea that homosexuality is okay from reading the bible, e.g. no medieval heretic ever suggested it — or at least none that I know of). Now if you believed in God because you subscribed to some sort of cosmological argument, or an argument from design, this change in the moral code would not pose any particular challenge to your faith, because the two are basically unrelated. But if you subscribe to an ethico-theological view, then the change does challenge the basis of your faith, because it suggest that God is some sort of extra gear in your process of moral reasoning. See what I’m getting at?

  3. Hi Joe, I see what you are getting at and I think it provides a credible account of why some Christians find the acceptance of homosexuality as a threat to their faith. However, I think that kind of threat is only faced by people of faith who are narrowly dogmatic and not very reflective about the resources for moral deliberation and revision there can be within the Christian tradition. My grandparents were very committed Christians and the source of their faith was not an abstract philosophical argument for the existence of a benevolent deity. Yet they and their Christian friends did not approach moral deliberation simply by citing isolated passages in the bible as providing the definitive Christian view on any given topic. Of course, the text and tradition mattered and I cannot pretend that they were enlightened liberals on every subject. By their mode of moral reflection and their receptivity to revision of their views was quite broad. (I think they took seriously some biblical insights about human fallibility and believed that being guided by faith required one to think.) In this respect, I think your diagnosis underestimates the room for the revision of moral beliefs about homosexuality and other issues in ways that are commensurate with a ethico-theological view. Your analysis supposes, I think, that the gulf between norms of secular reasoning and reflective religious reasoning is wider than it really is – at least for folks who are not dogmatic. But I also think that there are dogmatic commitments that some people have outside of their ethico-theogical views that shape their sense of identity and are hard to abandon even when faced with good reason to do so. Perhaps dogmatic adherents to certain ethico-theological views face a particularly difficult challenge in revising their views about homosexuality and face a particularly acute kind of existential crisis when confronted with the idea that they should not view homosexuality as deeply immoral. But I think some dogmatic non-religious types face parallel challenges in revising their views when core commitment of theirs are challenged by reasoned argument. I think this is true, for instance, of certain kinds of intolerant nationalists. But I am happy to concede that some Christians face the special challenge you’ve described and as I said there is a sense in which I can sympathize with the difficulty they have accepting homosexuality. My main point is that recognition of that difficulty does not make the substantive moral view they hold more reasonable. But I think that on that point we are in broad agreement. If that is right, then when it comes to thinking about TWU I suspect we will also be in broad agreement.

  4. Sorry Joseph, I think our argument is too strong. The Bible says many things, not all of them, consistent. If the Bible is understood in its entire context, there is the possibility of accepting homosexuality as morally acceptable without God effectively leaving the scene. The argument is elaborated in Jay Michaelson’s God Vs Gay.

  5. Hi Joe,
    Very thoughtful analysis. What do you make of the United church’s acceptance of gay marriage? Your argument–which, as a Christian, i feel makes a lot of sense–calls into question the integrity of its theology.