The federal court decision on Californiaâ€™s Prop 8 legislation has prompted many responses. One significant theme is that conservative Protestants, who oppose gay marriage, whether from the pulpit or in ordination standards and hiring practices, should prepare for continued marginalization and even legislative harassment if they continue to publicly oppose gay marriage. In this vein, Carl Trueman writes:
Those evangelical leaders, academics and evangelical institutions that prize their place at the table and their invitations to appear on `serious’ television programs, and who enjoy being asked to offer their opinion to the wider culture had better be prepared to make a choice. As I have said before in this column, we are not far from the place where to oppose homosexuality will be regarded as in the same moral bracket as white supremacy. Those types only appear on Jerry Springer; and Jerry generally doesn’t typically ask them their opinion on the ethics of medical research, the solution to the national debt, or the importance of poetry to a rounded education.
(BTW, Trueman adds that the older generation of conservative Protestants dropped the ball on this one and failed to produce an exegetical argument against homosexuality. He remembers that for his peers, â€œnow in middle age, dislike of homosexuality . . . had more to do with our own cultural backgrounds than with any biblical argumentation.â€ He even admits that â€œwe were basically bigots and we needed to change.â€ Trueman may be too young and too English to remember â€“ if he is middle-aged, what does that make me? â€“ that when John Boswellâ€™s much read and discussed book came out, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality , this geezer remembers any number of evangelicals responses to Boswell, all before the age of the Internet, peppered with important historical and exegetical arguments about biblical teaching on homosexuality.)
I may be as naive as I am old, but I do not agree with Truemanâ€™s assessment that opposition to gay marriage will become synonymous with white supremacy and other crack pot ideas from the perspective of the cultural mainstream. At a deep level, Americans identify with the underdog. Homosexuals have used this to gain acceptance, even though people with the kind of access they appear to have to cultural elites are generally not eligible for the category of the oppressed.
Minority groups in the United States do oppose homosexuality and they do so without any noticeable threat. For instance, Muslims are not keen on gay marriage, nor are orthodox Jews, or African-American Protestants for that matter. And yet, the thought of the state threatening these groups with penalties for their stances on homosexuality seems far-fetched. If Andrew Sullivan were to come to a place in policy debates where he wound up on the other side of a dispute with Jesse Jackson, I bet Sullivan would have enough sense not to charge Jackson with bigotry â€“ something that rarely sticks on minorities. And if Jackson were a spokesman for African-American ministers opposed to homosexual marriage, I doubt he would be banned from the Sunday morning talk shows for doing so. I could actually see lots of bookings (though I wouldnâ€™t be at home to watch them).
The problem for evangelicals is that they are the minority who thinks like a majority. It would be one thing to look at the numbers, recognize you donâ€™t have the votes, and look for ways to protect your own sideline institutions. This was the approach to public life in the United States by Roman Catholics and they found their political outlet in the multi-cultural Democratic Party. But evangelicals have readily identified as the mainstream tradition in the United States, with claims about the nationâ€™s Christian founding, and an accompanying political theology that says God loves republics and freedom. Evangelicals have also tended to approve of the Republican Partyâ€™s efforts to impose cultural uniformity on the nation. In which case, evangelicals may like to think that they are a minority only seeking toleration for themselves what other minority groups want (or have). But they have a uniformity-by-majority disposition that seeks to establish their norms as those of the nation.
This is the main reason for quick and ready dismissals of evangelicals as bigoted and intolerant, not their actual views or practices on homosexuality. Gay marriage is an emblem of a deeper cultural divide that prevents white conservative Protestants from embracing some form of cultural diversity. If they could concede ground to homosexuals (I donâ€™t know if it should be civil marriage), they might be able to gain concessions for their own churches, schools, and families. But for the better part of 200 years, evangelicals have approached public life as a zero-sum game.
Scott Clark is sensitive to the particular consequences that gay marriage would have for the entire culture, and not for a certain sector of it, and argues plausibly for considering the social consequences of gay marriage. Scott is particularly concerned about the fallout for the family:
By analogy it is not possible to re-define the fundamental units of society without a cost. Consider any society. Assuming a certain degree of natural liberty and mobility, if people are living together in a defined space, those people have consented voluntarily to live together. They have made a society. What is the basic unit of that society? It cannot be the isolated individual if only because no mere individual is capable of forming a society or of perpetuating a society. There must be a basic social unit. Historically that social unit has been understood to be a heterosexual family, a father, mother, a grandfather, a grandmother and their children and grandchildren because it is grounded in the nature of things.
I tend to agree with this but sense it is almost impossible to use this line of reasoning in a plausible way. For forty years our society has been experimenting with a host of new social forms. Some of those were surely welcome â€“ racial integration, and redefining womenâ€™s roles. But the impetus to overturn unwanted hierarchies did not leave much room for recognizing the value of hierarchy more generally and the way that social order depends upon other kinds of order. And so along came sex, drugs, and rock â€˜nâ€™ roll as the baby boomersâ€™ favorite idioms for resisting cultural and moral conventions.
Evangelicals may have taken longer and been more selective in appropriating the cultural shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, but when it came to worship and sacred song they did so with abandon. Granted, it is a leap even to suggest â€“ let alone argue â€“ that Praise and Worship worship was a step on the path to gay marriage. But if Christian rock did to religious conventions what rock did to cultural conventions, it is possible to wonder where the bending of conventions ultimately leads.
Scott points in the direction of his observation when he writes of the generational differences on opposition to homosexuality. The younger generation has:
been raised in a culture which not only tolerates homosexuality but celebrates it. Consider the contrast between the way homosexuality was regarded in popular culture in the first half of the 20th century. Liberace was openly effeminate and made only the thinnest of attempts to protest his heterosexuality. Homosexual movie stars regularly went out of their way to create a heterosexual image and especially when it was contrary to fact. Some movie studios had a policy requiring single male actors (e.g., Jimmy Stewart) to visit a studio-run bordello in order to demonstrate their heterosexuality.
In the second half of the 20th century the old conventions, which has lost their grounding in nature and creational law, were deconstructed. . . . All of this took decades but it happened. Itâ€™s a real change of culture, of attitude, of stance, of definition of what constitutes acceptable social and sexual behavior and norms.
If Scott is right, and I think he is about the gradual ways in which the culture has changed since 1960, then evangelicals may want to rethink why it is that their disregard for what the created order reveals as appropriate for Christian worship is okay but homosexual disregard for the created order of sexual reproduction is not. It could be that Truemanâ€™s point about bigotry has a point: can you really sing Christian rock in praise of God and oppose gay marriage with a straight face?