I went to Chick-fil-A this week. My main motivation, other than the obviously terrific food, was to help make a stand against political intimidation directed at a business that has always conducted itself honorably and well. The company treats its customers and employees with respect and has an admirable portfolio of charitable giving. Its public position on marriage is essentially the same as Barack Obama’s view until he opted for a restatement. I bring the president into the matter simply to highlight the fact that at least as far as gay marriage goes, the company stands with the overwhelming verdict of history. Dan Cathy did not set out some novel, crackpot view of things.
So, I went. But I recognize that the underlying dispute requires a better discussion than the one we have seen so far. How can we break the controversy down in a fair way so as to establish a better conversation going forward? Right now we are devolving into a form of tribal warfare with camps of enlightened progressives rushing to battle with equally enthusiastic conservative theists. (I blame the guy who invented the Darwin bumper sticker for making things worse. I am sure he is rich and happy somewhere.)
An honest broker would try to explain the positions of the two parties in ways they would accept. So, what do the parties believe?
The progressive camp sees history as a series of liberations brought about by brave men and women willing to challenge the status quo. Thus, over time there are people who see through the repressive nature of custom and tradition and, eventually, manage to overcome existing patterns in favor of a new, better freedom. This group credits itself with bringing about equal rights for women, ending slavery, establishing legal equality for racial minorities, and reducing the influence of religion by pointing to science as a superior way of evaluating the world. (I don’t fully agree with this narrative, but this is a fair picture of how progressives view themselves.)
The conservative camp sees history as resembling a huge and ancient tree. It has deep roots in rich soil. While they acknowledge that the tree may need to be pruned from time to time, they fear that the progressive party wants to simply uproot the redwood and rob us of its shade, fruit, and protection. Traditions are the roots and trunk of the tree. They are practices that have proved themselves over long use. Marriage as a male-female arrangement is one of those practices. And it cannot be denied that altering the fundamental understanding of marriage may well result in a much bigger transformation than even the progressives imagine.
Now, it is hard enough to work things out between those who want to protect the old tree as much as possible and those who would have tendencies more toward declaring the tree rotten and starting over. There is another important factor. Many of the people in the conservative camp hold to religious traditions in which it is believed that God, himself, forbids homosexual sex and marriage. This revelatory truth is bolstered by simple biology in the natural world. Men and women are obviously complementary in a way that same sex pairs are not.
The critical point here is not to get at who is right and who is wrong. I can see people coming to a lot of different conclusions for different reasons. For example, one could absolutely believe homosexuality is wrong and still conclude that same sex pairs should be allowed to determine their own legal family arrangements. We also need to realize that religious conviction is involved and thus the dispute is not like some budget debate where we can agree on a number in the middle. American Christians are broadly familiar with the Old Testament and its severe criticism of a people who failed to observe God’s commands. And we aren’t merely talking about ceremonial commands or commands against idolatry. There are strong ethical commands. Some of them deal with sex. If Christians are pushed as vigorously as the mayors of Boston and Chicago pushed Chick-fil-A, they are likely to see themselves as being tested in their faithfulness. The fact that people in the progressive camp will label them hateful and retrograde will simply highlight the reality that it is sometimes costly to be faithful to God.
All of this means that we are dealing with a unique public policy issue. The progressives will simply think that they are dragging conservatives forward as with slavery, but that is somewhat self-congratulatory and unfair. Would you consider William Wilberforce to be equivalent to a modern progressive? Or was he more of an orthodox Christian working from religious conviction? In any case, the Bible doesn’t speak nearly so definitively on slavery as it does on homosexuality. Theologically, it would be extremely difficult to alter the church’s view. Slavery does not provide a handy template. The situations are not biblically analogous.
I think there are three ways to go forward. I will offer them up without evaluation just so we can ponder the road map ahead a bit.
Option one is for the conservatives to work hard to prevail at the ballot box and to keep gay marriage at bay legally. As a result, gay marriage will develop in the same way abortion law would have if the Supreme Court had not ruled in Roe v. Wade. Even if conservatives prevail, some states have and will have gay marriage. We can observe the experience of gay marriage in those states and add a degree of empirical evaluation to our decision-making process.
Option two is for the progressives to prevail through court decisions and/or state and federal law in establishing that sexual orientation is exactly like race. The law is a teacher. Those who oppose gay marriage will be marginalized as extremists. Association with such people will be dangerous to careers and to the existence of various institutions, such as Christian schools (and maybe even Christian-owned businesses as Boston and Chicago mayors suggested).
Option three is libertarian in nature. We stop treating marriages as entities officially approved or denied by any government. No pastor or chaplain need ever be forced to preside over a union with which they do not agree because the government will not have a place in marriage. There need not be a protracted government struggle over the issue because it will be a private matter. This answer is not as simple as it might seem. Government still has to be involved in family relationships if only because they create public controversies when they dissolve or when mistreatment is occurring. What would really change is that household arrangements would become contractual. Consenting adults can contractually agree to unite their property, to have children together, etc. As Michael Sandel has pointed out, this option has the best claim to neutrality.
This fundamental social and political debate is extremely important to our country. The United States has several different strong public identities that at various times complement and contest each other’s missions. We are conservative and progressive. We are religious, but very much not in a top down way. We love freedom and equality, though the two don’t always go together. The key to avoiding a continuous state of culture war may lie in recovering the real meaning of tolerance. Tolerance means that we live with people we disagree with without trying to overwhelm them through force and law. Tolerance does not equal approval (which is the modern view). Tolerance would solve the problems we have in the Middle East because tolerance would mean a nation like Iran, for example, would acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. I don’t have the solution to our problem, but I am certain that being more tolerant of one another (in the true spirit of that word) will help us a great deal.