Published June 8, 2015
After the battle is won, it’s the time for the mop-up operations. Right now, this is pretty much where we are with same-sex marriage. There are few people left who doubt that it won the public opinion battle, the political battle, and perhaps, one day soon, the judicial battle.
But the question remains: Why have Christians fought this so hard? And, more importantly, why are they so freaked out by the result?
The popular Christian writer Rod Dreher, to take just one example, blogs almost daily about the link between what you might call the new sexual regime and the need for Christians to stage a tactical retreat in the public square. They need to focus on reinforcing their community bonds and orthodoxy, he says, something known in intellectual Christian circles as “the Benedict Option,” after St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of Western monasticism.
But while traditional Christian ethics and same-sex marriage are like oil and water — and the devout lost a big cultural and political fight, and that sucks — that still doesn’t explain why they’re freaking out so much.
Well, there are some obvious reasons.
The first one is that it sometimes seems like liberal advocates don’t just want same-sex marriage, they want to erase all traces of opposition to it. Very clearly, significant numbers of them, if not the majority, believe that the only reason one might oppose same-sex marriage is rank bigotry, and that such bigotry must be stigmatized and, if need be, written out of the public square using the tools of the state.
As my colleague Damon Linker has been reminding our readers, admirably, this sort of thing goes against the American and Enlightenment belief in pluralism, and sells short the great ethical traditions that afford a special place to heterosexual monogamy in their worldview.
Anyway, the point is, when, infamously, bakers can lose their job over a catering job because of their opposition to same-sex marriage, Christians, understandably, get a chill down their spine.
The second obvious reason is just the sheer scale and speed of the change. Twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was a completely fringe idea. Now it is the majority view (even in Ireland!). That’s gotta cause someone whiplash. (And it should instill some humility in anyone who is so certain that no other view can even be countenanced, and that all other views will be buried.)
But there are less obvious reasons — less obvious, I think, both to Christians and non-Christians.
I think the biggest one is that same-sex marriage’s victory has exposed just how far contemporary American society has strayed from Christian ethics, writ large. The Sexual Revolution, but also economic phenomena like consumerism and more cutthroat capitalism, led society on a drift away from the Christian vision of society. But since that same society still retained a patina of Christian affiliation — most people did spend an hour on church on Sunday, and did feel that that God, Jesus, and other Bible stuff were important — Christians could kid themselves that American society, underneath it all, still believed and sought to live up to the Christian message. It only needed some nudging and prodding to get back on its feet.
The right-wing political version of this, slightly different and related, was the idea that America always had and always would have a “moral majority,” and that changes in mores had been foisted onto an unwilling public by a cabal of politicians and media executives.
Before same-sex marriage, the biggest ills related to marriage were things like divorce and premarital sex. And since those have been around, in some form or another for centuries, if not the dawn of time, and since most people weren’t pretending that these things were fantastic, exactly, the debates had a “haggling over price” quality to them. Christians and the rest of the society agreed on the fundamentals, and we were just debating details.
The fact that so many Americans, so quickly, could not only fail to follow Christian ethics, but do so in such a lopsided manner simply exposed that most of them never really had much of an interest in Christianity — except, perhaps, as an Oprahfied spirituality — to begin with.
At the end of the day, same-sex marriage, while not the world’s most important issue in itself, acted as a catalyst for all sorts of other trends that made Christians realize just how little work they had done, and just how much they still have to do.
That might bring anyone to exasperation.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.