Evertt Dirksen, the Republican who led the US Senate through the desegregation legislation of the 1960s, declared, “in the history of mankind there is an inexorably moral force that moves us forward.” He cited Victor Hugo’s statement that “no army could withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”
These sentiments express what is perhaps our new “manifest destiny” as Americans: progressive historicism. This ideology presupposes that history intrinsically and inevitably progresses toward greater social equality and individual flourishing. It is re-enforced by how we typically rehearse our brief, national history, tracing a narrative of ever-expanding equality. It begins with the Declaration of Independence, establishing as “self-evident” that all men, whether or not they owned property, are equal before God. The logic then further unfolds in the abolitionist movement with greater clarity and greater force – and tragically greater bloodshed – culminating in eventual emancipation. It re-emerges again in women’s suffrage, leading to increasing equality for over half of all American citizens. More recently, we saw its triumphant advance in the Civil Rights Movement of the last century, legislating the full political and social equality of African Americans.
So framed, our nation’s history has a clear trajectory of progression, does it not? This ideology may, at least partially, explain America’s unflagging optimism. On the other hand, it also explains one of our greatest fears: finding ourselves “on the wrong side of history.” Surely those who miss, or, even worse, oppose this forward march of progress will soon find themselves in history’s dustbin.
Is this not the fate of those who oppose “equal rights” for the LGBTQ community, and particularly the supposed right of “same sex marriage”? Isn’t the Supreme Court’s recent decision the next logical step toward greater social equality and individual flourishing? Isn’t then the dominant Christian response of opposition to this new ruling doomed to join the dreaded “wrong-side” column of our American history textbooks, occupied by the likes of Dred Scott and the Dixiecrats? Perhaps.
Obviously many lines have been drawn connecting the gay rights movement with abolition, women’s suffrage, and desegregation. However, as it has been argued elsewhere, gay is not the new black. The gay rights movement is no Civil Rights Movement. Obergefell v. Hodges is no Loving v. Virginia. Though these comparisons have long been pressed by gay activists – and to great effect – they do not in fact stand under scrutiny. They fail at a few critical points.
First, despite the constant comparison, sexual identity is not to be equated with racial identity.
Homosexuals and African Americans are both “minority groups” (2-3% and 13.2% of the population, respectively), but the nature of their identities as minorities is very different. In fact, as a nation we implicitly acknowledge this difference when, being quite prepared to call Bruce Jenner, “Caitlyn,” apparently, we adamantly refuse to call Rachel Colezal, “black.”
The undeniable truth is that ethnicity has definite genetic underpinnings and distinctive physical attributes (as does gender, but that’s another post). The same however cannot be said regarding sexual orientation. In fact, the LGBTQ voice has become somewhat incoherent on this point, as many bi-sexual and transgendered activists have vociferously denied the “born this way” biological essentialism that has been the univocal self-justification of the gay community. Moreover, the hunt for the “gay gene,” appears outdated. As a result, this line of argumentation is very quickly being abandoned.
Secondly, the Civil Rights Movement involved clearly defined issues of social equality. The marriage controversy, however, is very muddy.
The segregationists’ slogan, “equal but separate” wore thin quick, particularly when it was plain that separate was never equal. And though there is no justification for prejudicial discrimination against any fellow human being, let alone an American citizen, such discrimination is not entailed in the question of same-sex “marriage.” Prior to last week’s ruling, no American was denied the right to marry. Hence, the Supreme Court of Kentucky declared, in one of the first “marriage cases” in the US, that the two female plaintiffs who filed suit against the state seeking to marry each other were:
prevented from marrying, not by the statutes of Kentucky. . . but . . . by their own incapacity of entering into a marriage as that term is defined. . . . [T]he issuance of a marriage license [is not warranted] because what they propose is not a marriage. [Jones v. Hallahan, 501 S.W.2d 588, 588-90 (Ky. 1973)]
The pertinent issue isn’t marriage as an “equal right,” but the propriety of re-defining marriage as accommodating two individuals of the same sex. Those who balk at this so-called “definitional defense” merely beg the question of their own social constructivism. According to this view, marriage is a social construct or artifact, and so can be socially re-constructed at any point, whether by due democratic process “of the people,” or by judicial activism, as happened with the SCOTUS ruling last month.
But if the question is merely the enjoyment of privileges and rights attending marriage, then why is it that “civil unions” are not enough? Why is it necessary to radically re-define an ancient and foundational institution that has been honored throughout the ages and across the globe? Perhaps here the presented “narrative of (incremental) progress” conceals the degree to which our trajectory is being re-routed.
Thirdly, the Civil Rights Movement fundamentally involved issues of moral rectitude and justice: in sum, racial equality.
This was plainly consistent with our own historic conceptions of human nature and rights as embodied in our nation’s founding documents. All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The collective and individual racism of the majority culture in America was (and is) profoundly at odds with “these truths” we profess. Though hatred toward people who identify as homosexual or otherwise “queer” similarly violates these truths, this conclusion neither requires that sexual orientation be placed in the same category as ethnicity or gender, nor that homosexuality itself be regarded as morally neutral. Race and gender, as created aspects of human nature, are glorious dimensions of the divine image. Homosexuality is not. “Same-sex marriage,” unlike desegregation, is the enshrining of an essentially immoral arrangement. It is therefore unjust. It may be “on the right side of history,” for now; but it is not “on the side of the angels.”
Fourthly, and relatedly, unlike the issues involved with the Civil Rights Movement, “same-sex marriage” is clearly unbiblical.
Shamefully, the majority of white, evangelical churches remained silent during the Civil Rights Movement; worse, many even opposed it. But those who resisted it had no coherent biblical rationale to do so. The reason was simple: there isn’t one. Tellingly, most arguments against segregation in general and miscegenation in particular were far more “practical” than theological. The only “biblical” cases attempted were (1) appealing to Israel’s laws of separation from the nations (which totally ignored the entire New Testament), and (2) the baseless “Curse of Ham” theory (which thankfully few were bold enough to present as a serious argument). The Bible, however, beginning with Adam and Eve as the head of the human race, in which every ethnic group was promised God’s blessing through the seed of the woman and the seed of Abraham, and ending with every nation, every tribe, every tongue surrounding the Throne of God in the new heavens and earth, is an uncooperative text for racist ideologies. In fact, as Russell Moore points out, among the most persuasive arguments for the Civil Rights Movement were those evangelically framed and Scripturally rooted by its Christian leaders.
Not all progressive measures in politics represent genuine progress. And history sometimes moves backward. But like the early church, and the Lord who founded it, when we find ourselves – at least for the present moment – on the “wrong side of history,” we have an awesome opportunity to display the right side of heaven through self-denying love, radical good deeds, and a kindness toward others that causes them to ask the more significant question: Am I on the right side of eternity?
In the coming weeks we will continue to unpack the relevant issues in three parts:
Week of July 5th: Scripture and Homosexuality
Week of July 12th: Theology of Marriage and Sexuality
Week of July 19th: Christian Response to the SCOTUS Ruling
On Sunday evening, July 19th, we will have a church forum on “Marriage, Sexuality and the Church,” to discuss this further as a family, including a time to hear from other leaders in the church and dialogue together over questions raised. In the meantime, we’d love to get your feedback here: Marriage, Sexuality and the Church Questionnaire