In light of President Obama’s recent endorsement of “Gay Marriage” I thought I would share with you a paper I recently wrote for a class at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. My purpose in it was to analyze the engagement of Evangelicals and the LGBT community over the “politics of marriage” . It is not an attempt to address the morality of “Gay Marriage”, but a look at how we relate to one another.
This is an examination of Evangelical culture’s engagement of the LGBT community as it relates to the “politics of marriage”. In it I will ask “How can Evangelicals interact with the LGBT culture in a loving and truthful way that gets beyond politics?” This topic is imporant to me because of a desire to interact in a culturally intelligent way with my friends that are part of the LGBT community who have been turned off from the church due to its politicalization of marriage. First I discuss my own context. I then detail what I mean by the “politics of marriage”. Next, I take a look at Evangelical culture’s embrace of politics and how it has expressed itself. I conclude by asking what means can be taken by Evangelicals, beyond the “politics of marriage”, to engage the LGBT community in a culturally intelligent and Christ-like manner.
Being aware of my own cultural affiliation is an important first step in fostering cultural intelligence. What cultures do I self-identify with? I am a white male, born in the United States, raised in a middle class Protestant family, an Evangelical Christian, single and heterosexual, and I have committed friendships with several members of the LGBT community.
These relationships to the LGBT and Evangelical cultures are not trivial to me, but central to my understanding of who I am and how God is working in my life. How Evangelicals engage in politics affects my relationships with LGBT friends. These friends feel that they cannot connect to the Evangelical community because of its stance on same-sex marriage. Many of them will not step foot into churches, and others have removed themselves from friendship groups, because of the issue and how Evangelicals engage it. The politicalization of marriage has split LGBT persons from my church family, and disrupted the unity of the wider church. This truly is a “Great Divide” and one that grieves me immensely.
I am left wondering, “Is marriage really that important? Should we have to make a stand on this issue?” Specifically, is this an issue that must be upheld politically by Evangelicals?
Talk about the “politics of marriage”, and the relationship between Evangelicals and the LGBT community, can get wrapped up in any number of discussions (“Is homosexuality a sin?”, “Should same-sex persons be allowed to marry?”, etc.), which, while important, tend to make abstractions of people. These abstractions then become arguments for the public sphere, and are expressed as political statements, and create lines between the two cultures. This writing is not a discussion of those abstract arguments, but is instead a look at how the two cultures of Evangelicals and the LGBT community encounter one another through the “politics of marriage”.
Evangelicals and the LGBT differ in many ways, but they do have at least one common element between them. This is what I have referred to as the “politics of marriage”. It is a set of ideas, behaviors, and products that these two cultures hold regarding the civil nature of marriage. When I say “the politics of marriage” I refer to this set of thoughts, behaviors, and products:
-Both cultures tend to think of marriage as a legal reality, validated by the state, concerning the commitment of two consenting adults to one another, for the good of those in the marriage and for wider society.
-This idea is expressed in behavior from both cultures that makes marriage a political activity, done in cooperation with the state (a legal marriage ceremony), and access to marriage a political endeavor, acted out through the political process (voting, legislation, enforcement, etc. of marriage laws).
-In turn, both cultures create products that reinforce the ideas and behaviors behind the “politics of marriage”. Organizations like the National Organization for Marriage, Freedom to Marry, intiatives like Proposition 8, and books like “Outrage” or “After the Ball” are products of this cultural set. These products reinforce the primary ideas and behaviors of the “politics of marriage”: marriage as a civil affair.
The “politics of marriage” is then thoroughly engrained in the LGBT and Evangelical communities. National organizations, from both groups, set political goals concerning marriage. Both prompt there members to act on these political goals. The products that come from these cultures instill the idea of marriage as a civil reality connected to the state. Browsing through a number of different writings on marriage, from both sides, revealed only two texts giving a sustained argument against any form of civil marriage. Personal conversations with self-identified members of both cultures confirmed that they consider marriage as something that must have a civil basis, that this basis requires political action from them, and they have embraced cultural products that reinforce the “politics of marriage”.
My concern is that in embracing “the politics of marriage” both cultures have unconsciosly set themselves up for limited, ineffective, and hurtful engagement with one another. By concentrating on the political nature of marriage and controlling marriage both groups have 1. limited their engagement of one another to the political, 2. accepted an “us-vs-them” mind-set that comes with this political engagement, and 3. sought to increase their rights, entitlements, privileges, through the political process.
For Evangelical culture, as well as the LGBT, marriage is seen as a political reality to be debated over. As an concept, marriage is a social unit which functions as a sustaining element of society: it is “the foundation of civilization… the wellspring of society.”. As an act, marriage is only legitimate if ratified by the government. Evangelicals and the LGBT view marriage as deserving a privileged position in economic matters and parental rights, these privileges are products of the political nature they give to marriage, that reinforce it.
This politicizing of marriage, embraced by Evangelicals, puts them at odds with the LGBT community. Not because LGBT culture refuses to politicize marriage, but because that community comes to opposite conclusions about many areas of marriage. The LGBT and Evangelical culture, in seeing marriage as a matter of the state, delegate it to a supracultural entity which then becomes the place of engagement on matters pertaining to marriage. This engagement then goes back and forth on the political plane, keeping the two groups from any deep level of interaction.
Evangelicals commonly express the idea of marriage between a man and women as the “historical meaning of marriage that has sustained culture for millenia”, saying this meaning crosses cultures. The LGBT community responds that marriage has not always been defined this way, has changed over time, and that this particular definition is not consistent with cultures outside the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition. Their conclusion is that this definition is cultural, and should not be forced upon them. Evangelicals come to a similar conclusion as regards the LGBT attempt to define marriage: gay marriage advocates seek to “redefine” marriage in terms of their culture.
We then have one cultural definition, pitted against the other, all being played out primarily in the realm of politics. Having come to different conclusions on marriage, the cultures are left to “battle” the issue out in a third space: the state, through political acts.
The Evangelical community has not only argued that the traditional definition of marriage is a man and woman, but also that the ‘sacred’ definition is such. By limiting its engagement of same-sex marriage to the political, the Evangelical community has set itself in an awkward position. It must affirm the “sanctity of marriage” in a setting that no longer acknowledges ideas of the sacred. Evangelicals then not only assert our right to define marriage from our cultural context, but to establish a metaphysical grounding, the category of sacredness, for this definition as well.
I am left to wonder how exactly a legal definition of marriage as between a man and a women can keep it sacred. Is a marriage sacred on the grounds that the state has certified it and because it is between a man and a women? This view assumes that the state has the power to make something sacred through its actions. I am not comfortable with that, nor do I think other Evangelicals should be either.
Not all of Evangelical culture is interested in protecting the ‘sacredness’ of marriage through the political realm, however. Instead many in that community argue against same-sex unions on the basis of natural law: moral intuitions that span across cultures. The LGBT community has responded saying that this is a veiled attempt to once again universalize broad cultural values, which they believe no longer apply.
Just as often, the Evangelical community describe’s itself as as “defending traditional marriage”. This begs the question, what is the importance of keeping “traditional” marriage? National organizations like the Family Research Council will answer that marriage, between a man and a woman, is the ‘bedrock’ of society and provides any number of benefits, as ‘research shows’. But here again the LGBT community will reply that while research shows marriage is beneficial to society, this benefit does not necessarily derive from differently gendered partners… and so back and forth the argument goes, all through a political vehicle that keeps either side from interacting outside of press releases, debates, and ballot boxes.
This type of overtly political engagement creates an “us-vs.-them” thinking pattern between the two cultures. We can see this in polling that shows that the country is divided in half on the issue, in churches that have split because of it, and as each culture villifies its opponents and thrusts a persecution narrative upon themselves. (This does not deny that both cultures have been victims of persecution, but that sometimes, in both communities, opposition is termed as persecution for political advantage.)
This us-vs.-them mentality, brought about by the political process, is concretely expressed in the entitlements, privileges, and agenda items of the Evangelical culture in regards to marriage:
I have already mentioned that Evangelicals feel an entitlement to protect a certain definition of marriage. We can press this point further: why do Evangelicals feel that they are entitled to legal marriage at all? Is that not an assumption on the role of the state as regards upholding relationships in society? Civil marriages have not been an eternal reality, but are a product of the last millenium. If civil marriage came into existence at one point, can it change or perhaps be replaced with something else?
Further, what is the point of civil marriage as Evangelicals regard them? They answer that the states upholding of marriage between a man and a women preserves moral society. I find this correlation troubling in the way it pits political power against evil, instead of relying on the work of Christ on the cross. The Scriptures do not talk about anyone having the power to create a marriage, but instead describe it is a work of the hands of God… so why do we Evangelicals try to press that power into the hands of the state? In doing so, we prop our definition of civil marriage against an entire culture, and do so in a forceful, final, and no-compromise manner, because that is the manner of engagement the political process requires.
Evangelicals should also question our reliance on privileges related to marriage: male-female marriages are automatically accorded economic and parental privileges in the United States based on a connection to reproduction. Yet, technological shifts have made “the link between sex and childbirth increasingly tenuous” and disconnected. With this technological disconnection, what warrants these privileges and why should they be kept from same-sex commitments? Is the Evangelical embrace of the “politics of marriage” perhaps a way to economically benefit only a certain culture through political means? More overtly, we assume the privilege of defining marriage for the wider culture as a man and woman based off the Bible’s witness. This assumption of privilege hurts our engagement with the LGBT culture.
Why is “gay marriage” such a big item on the Evangelical agenda? There might be an element of distancing here. With opposition to same-sex marriage taking up all of our time and energy perhaps we are able to keep our thoughts from “other sexuality issues”, which may “get too close to home, too close to our inner selves, where we may feel insecure.” Are there not other issues distorting marriage that we might be concerned about? We should clean our own house first, of divorce, sexual abuse, pornography, etc. before anyone elses.
Discussion of same-sex unions might also be at the forefront of Evangelical thought because it brings with it issues of gender roles and the gender spectrum that our community has not yet adequately dealt with.
Finally, the Evangelical culture would do well to reassess its moral agenda as regards the politicalization of marriage. Many arguments concerning same-sex unions cite potential acceptance of homosexuality, and increase in the numbers of the LGBT community, as a reason against their creation. Are we then making a civil reality the means towards change, through behavior modification enforced by legislation, in the LGBT community? This puts the cart before the horse in terms of a person’s encounter with God. As Andrew Marin points out, ““The way forward with the LGBT community is not debate… but a discussion of how to have an intimate, real, conversational relationship with the Father and Judge.”
What I propose is that in order to more effectively engage the LGBT culture, we as Evangelicals reconsider our embrace of the “politics of marriage” and lay down our assumed right of ‘protecting marriage’ for the wider society. We have to place less emphasis on the “politics of marriage” by reexamining the fundemental ideas behind it, and counter balancing it with relational engagement.
Not only do we have to lay down this right to the “politics of marriage”, we also need to take up a new posture of humility, compassion, and inquisitiveness regarding the LGBT community. As followers of Christ our Gospel witness has been limited due to “the politics of marriage” and the posture of forcefulness, opposition, and finality that it requires to be effective. A new posture, a more Christ-like posture, would allow Evangelicals to hear the stories of the LGBT community as a minority community.
What does this laying down of the “politics of marriage” and picking up a new posture look for me as I engage my friends in the LGBT community? Andrew Marin, who has purposefully removed himself from the “politics of marriage”, as an Evangelical, is helpful in this regard: we must commit to long-haul engagement with our LGBT friends. Even if we disagree on the political nature of marriage, that should not lead to disengagement with them. Instead we should have humility in our opinions, understanding that they are not ultimate in contrast to Gods, and continue to seek out the other in friendship. Pursuit of those friendships will be a stretch for me, but are what I believe Christ, the God who Incarnated into the neighborhood to pursue people, demands of me.
Further, we have to be intentional in our engagement of both cultures: taking steps to stop the oversimplification or politicalization of marriage. This commitment and intentionality will lead to more personal engagement with the LGBT community. Personal engagment requires transperancy and truthfulness in ourselves, and security in God’s embrace of us. Faithful that God will work where he will, we can remove ourselves from heavy political engagement on the issue, knowing that Christ does not ask us to ‘guard’ marriage, but to be faithful witnesses to marriage within our own context. “By reminding ourselves that we’re not the solution to a person’s issues, we recrown the King in his rightful place as the center of each person’s relationship with God.”
We follow a God who laid down his rights for the love of his enemy. Will we as a Evangelicals do the same for the LGBT community when it comes to the political and marriage? Will our commitment to “the politics of marriage” be the hill we die on, or will we die to our own entitlements, privileges, and agendas regarding marriage in order that some from the LGBT community come to relationship with Christ and his Church?
 Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 84.
 David G. Myers, and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, What God has Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage, (New York: Harpercollins, 2005), Ch. 1. David and Letha give an excellent introduction to how this issue divides the church, families, friends, etc.
 Peter Sprigg, Outrage: How Gay Activists and Liberal Judges Are Trashing Democracy to Redefine Marriage, (Washington: Regnery Publishing House, 2004).
 Marschall Kirk, and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90′s , (Plume, 1995).
 Tony Jones, There Are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (Michigan: The Jopa Group, 2011), Kindle edition.
 I quick perusal of many traditional marriage organizations shows that the theme of “battle” is extremely widespread in these groups.
 Marvin Ellison, Same-sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis, (Cleveland : Pilgrim’s Press, 2004), 154.
 For discussion on the need to hear about and lament stories of persecution from other cultures, see Rah, pg. 45 and following.
 James Nelson, Embodiment: An approach to sexulaity and Christian theology, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 132.
 Milbank, under the heading “The Loss of Sexual Difference”.
 Anne Krabill Hershberger, Sexuality: God’s Gift, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1999), 103.
 Andrew Marin, Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 29.
 Marin, 162. See also Hershberger’s personal reflections in Sexuality, 110-113.
 Marin details sixteen commitments that Evangelicals can make in their lives in order to build bridges to the LGBT community they are the basis for the following. See Love Is an Orientation, chp. 8-10.