Three Positions on Gay Marriage: Clarifying the Options

Option One:  Gay marriage is wrong both theologically and politically.  Neither the Jewish nor Christian faiths can be twisted into affirming it theologically.  (Andrew Sullivan agrees.)  Without male-female complementarity, politics would not even exist.  No community without that complementarity would even have a future.  Male-female marriage and childbearing are at the heart of politics.

Option Two:  Gay marriage is clearly wrong theologically.  There is nowhere for the church to go on the issue.  However, the aspirations of politics can be different than the aspirations of faith.  One possibility would be to say that adults are free persons who have to make their own moral choices and those shouldn’t be regulated when they don’t directly interfere with the lives of others.

Option Three:  We can simply make a new decision theologically about gay marriage.  Maybe we can even find a way to reinterpret sexuality within the Christian context.  We can solve the theological problem.  And politically, there is no problem.  Politics is about majorities and the new majority is moving swiftly into place.

What does it all mean for Christians?  I would suggest that faithful Christians can find themselves embracing either option one or option two, but that option three is not available to anyone with any reasonable concern for orthodoxy.  

Why the Young Don’t Respect Adults

I was raised with as great an emphasis upon respecting my elders as you can have.  This is another way of saying I was raised in the south and in the southern way.  Though I am 43 years old, I am constitutionally unable to refer to older men in authority by their first names.  The scholar Ralph Wood recently invited me to call him by his first name, I had to beg off so as not to destroy my digestion.

Nevertheless, as a teenager my pride rose up within me and my respect for older persons plummeted.  I still remember with embarrassment the time when I told my sister that we had “surpassed” mom and dad.  Happily, it was a temporary effect, but I observe it today among other young people and have wondered what is the cause of it.  

After thinking about it for some time, I think I have the answer.  When young people look at adults, they see them as fixed in their positions.  You are a secretary.  You are a teacher.  You are a vice-principal who wears out of date French cuffs to the prom.  You are managing a restaurant.  It doesn’t matter what or who you are.  Your cake is baked.  At least that’s the way the young person tends to see it.  They, on the other hand, live in a world of possibility.  In your case, we have solved for x, but in their case x remains an open question.  The young still hold out billionaire, celebrity, American Idol, and Tony Stark as possible outcomes in their own lives.  

As a result, when many young people measure themselves against adults, they compare their x versus the adult’s x and find that unknown x largely trumps defined x.  In other words, if I may be greater than you, then I’ll assume I probably am greater than you.  And if that is so, why should I respect you, listen to you, accept your authority over me, etc.?  

Respect is a matter of algebra.

A Sad Return to the Church of My Youth


When I was a young child (grade school age), my parents spent a few years at the local Episcopal church.  I was actually baptized there when my sister was christened as an infant.  (I have since been baptized as an adult after my conversion.)  Though I did not understand much about church at that time, I tended to spend the hours looking at the stained glass that filled the two long sides of the chapel.  The panel posted above is one that often caught my attention.  

Last week my father and I ventured downtown to eat at a new pizza place.  I wanted to walk around and take in the sights around my small home city.  There was the church we had attended.  We tried to get in, but the doors to the chapel were locked.  I wandered around until I found an open door.  After I explained my desire to see the inside of the chapel to the secretary, she found the priest.  He was a young guy with red hair and beard.  We went together into the small sanctuary.

The beautiful stained glass was still there.  So, too, was the rich, dark wood of the pews and the arched ceiling.  I asked if I could take some pictures.  He welcomed me to do so.  We began talking about the beauty of the church and how it aids in worship by transporting the mind toward the transcendent.  I told him my pet theory that young people will want more liturgy and worship and less emphasis on preaching because preaching is content and content is available 24-7 on your phone, in the car, while walking, etc.

It was a pleasant conversation and it was good to be in that place with a hallowed feeling.  But then he addressed the one thing I hoped he would not talk about, which has become a new gospel for many in the Episcopal church.  He talked about gay marriage, its inevitability, and our acceptance of it in the church.  I felt it was the wrong moment for him to bring that up.  Maybe he wanted to see if I knew the secret handshake.  In any case, no more time to bask in memories.  Maintaining a cheerful demeanor, I thanked him for allowing me into the chapel, and walked out into the bright sun of the spring afternoon.  

After I left, I wondered whether I should have engaged the question with him.  I could have worked through one of my hobbyhorses, which is that while there is room to talk about gay marriage in the context of politics (a libertarian turn of sorts), there is nowhere to go on the issue theologically.  I might have said with Martin Luther King, Jr. that the church must be a thermostat (something that affects the environment) rather than a thermometer (something that simply tells you what the environment is).  

But to tell you the truth, I was a little heartsick and in no mood to dispute.  

The Formerly Conservative Evangelical Progressive

The formerly conservative evangelical progressive

Is one who has mastered the art

Of perfectly pronouncing

The secular world’s conventional wisdom.

This professor

Or that promising young writer

Has received many a delightful affirmation

From all the right people

For having learned the amazing trick

Of echoing the cultural consensus

Just as it begins to safely coalesce.

They manage this despite having come

From unfashionable places

Like Monkeytown

Or maybe even

The Southern Baptist Convention.

So, perhaps they could be forgiven

For losing patience with the rest of us

As we persist in our stubborn failure

To see the light

Shed by their liberated radiance.

We are moved only by our tribal hatreds.

But they have become

Avatars of love.

Erick Erickson, Andrew Sullivan, and What “Bigots” Deserve

Andrew Sullivan and Erick Erickson recently agreed on something having to do with gay marriage and community life.  Well, sort of, anyway.  The nature of Sullivan’s agreement is productive of further discussion.

Erickson pointed out, quite sensibly, that Christians who are photographers or bakers are not seeking to reject any and all business from gay customers.  Rather, he noted, that Christian photographers and bakers object specifically to participating in a gay wedding.  A wedding, for many people and certainly for Christians, is an explicitly religious activity.  It is really not unreasonable for people with a particular religious view of marriage (such as Christians well within the mainstream of Christian belief) to not want to participate in something they believe to be wrong.

Bravo to Erickson for making a subtle point clear and to Sullivan for recognizing the point has merit, or at least is worth further thought.  There is a hitch here, however.  Sullivan argues that gays can afford to cede this discretion over thought and action to Christians who object because such people are obviously losing.  Given the fact of tables being suddenly turned, surely champions of gay rights can afford to “leave the fundamentalists and bigots alone.”

How gracious of Sullivan to make such a charitable offer.  But is the characterization of such people fair?  We are experiencing a change in the way we define the good society.  In the past, it was uncontroversial (and biologically pretty natural) for communities to think that in a good society men marry women and that same sex pairs do not marry.  Rather, the appropriate mode for same sex pairings was friendship rather than sexual intimacy.  At this point, it is clear that our definition of the good society is changing and that the majority are at a minimum saying that people have to decide these things for themselves and that men can thus marry men and women can marry women.  But here is the essential question:  What exactly is it about a social tipping point that turns yesterday’s commonsensical person into today’s bigot?

I think one way I could try to defend opponents of gay marriage from charges of rank bigotry is to examine the moral intuitions of children.  In the course of raising mine, I have noticed that they had no underlying matrix of reason by which to understand racism.  When they were a little younger, they never talked about a child as being black or white.  The racial awareness simply wasn’t there.  If I heard them telling a story about a classmate and wanted to know more about the child, I would ask them to describe the child.  They would then include a description which might include something like light skin or dark skin, straight or curly hair, tall or short, etc.  The implication is that bigotry must be cultivated.

Same sex marriage is susceptible to a similar analysis.  Because of a situation in our extended family, my children became aware of a man who wanted to be with other men instead of women.  They simply did not understand why a man would want to share romantic love with another man.  The idea violated their concept of what a man is.  A man shares romantic/marital love with women rather than men.  I learned this about their reasoning before I ever tried to explain things to them or to help them understand it.  Just as a child’s natural understanding tilts away from racism, I would suggest that it tilts toward a complementary view of the sexes.  In other words, men go with women and women go with men.  Just as bigotry must be cultivated, so, too, must the appreciation of same sex pairings.  In other words, bigotry is the result of intentional cultural work and so is the appreciation of same sex pairs.  Neither is a natural understanding from the child’s point of view.  (Please understand  that I am not morally equating bigotry with cultural advocacy of gay acceptance.  That is not the point.)

In the case of racism, we would see the culture’s work in the child to be pernicious.  Creating an awareness of racial difference is not a good thing.  The question, then, is whether the culture’s current work to change the understanding of marriage is good.  I would suggest that the answer is not as obvious as it appears to have suddenly become.  Is it really so difficult to understand the people who do not think that it is?  Is it necessary to demonize them as “fundamentalists and bigots,” especially when their view was uncontroversial as little as ten years ago?  The physical complementarity of men and women is powerfully suggestive to the ordinary conscience, is it not?  And yes, religious understandings run in that direction, too.  God is the designer.  People infer intent from the complementary design of men and women.  The underlying point here, though, is that the perception of same sex marriage as something that is improper is not only religious in nature, it is intuitive and has been for thousands of years.

Are those who have not acclimated themselves to the cultural moment, then, really “fundamentalists and bigots?”  Or are they people who have legitimate reasons to think what they think?  You, the reader, may not be convinced by them, but does your lack of assent invalidate the viewpoint entirely?  I think a little more respect is in order, especially from those who are building a case primarily on the logic of freedom.  Free people have to be thinking people.  And free people must also be generous toward those who dissent.

As a final side note, I recognize that the points I have made about the moral intuitions of children do not constitute some kind of bulletproof defeaters of arguments for same sex marriage.  Just remember that I have not proposed to win the argument.  Rather, I have sought to give pause to those who would run roughshod over the consciences of those who protest the current cultural movement.  It seems to me that the burden of establishing respect for a conscientious standpoint should be lower than the burden imposed on one who seeks to completely prevail in argument.

Ham v. Nye and a Better Question

I like to read church signs, so I’m always attentive to the ones around town.  A short time ago, I exited North Park and observed a local church advertising the debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis.  Most readers have probably noticed that the debate came and went with little effect, though it provided grist for the internet content mill for a couple of days.

When it comes to the great media battle of Science versus Religion, I have noticed that the controversy consistently revolves around Genesis, creation, and the age of the earth.  But why is that so?  My contention is that the fight over Genesis is the wrong battle.

Many years ago, when I courted the woman who would become my wife, I asked her father to tell me about his favorite portion of the Bible.  I was still a relatively young Christian at the time and did not have much mastery of the text.  He told me that his favorite part was Paul’s visit to the Areopagus in which the apostle engaged the men of Athens.  I played along as if I knew what he was talking about and went home to look it up.  The interaction takes place in Acts 17: 22-33.  Paul takes note of the “unknown god” of these men and then describes the God he knows does exist.  Paul doesn’t base his argument upon the age of the earth, but rather insists that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead as a form of assurance or proof (depending on the translation) for men such as those in his audience.

What I am suggesting is that while the headline battles over Genesis command all the attention, the real action revolves around the Gospel accounts and the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those who hope to diminish or destroy the influence of Christianity in the United States and the world should turn their attention there.  Likewise, those who hold Christian beliefs should stand upon that foundation. 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than the correctness of a particular interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity depends.  Either Jesus Christ was the son of God or he was merely a carpenter’s son who unaccountably built the most spectacular martyr’s reputation of all time.  It is difficult to explain why his memory persisted with such force while other rabble rousers who died at the hands of the Romans and other historical oppressors were forgotten almost instantly, historically speaking.  The resurrection is one way to answer that question.

Gary Habermas has gone so far as to argue that “Even if we take the New Testament as simply an ancient text with excellent credentials, which it surely is at a minimum, there is enough historical evidence to make a very strong case for the resurrection of Christ.”  Here we have a debate that really gets at the crux of the matter.  The essential question for a world considering the claims of Christianity is not “How old is the earth?,” but rather, “And whom do you say that I am?”

Solving the Higher Education Problem via Disaggregation

There is little question that higher education is a difficult field of endeavor right now.  Though the MOOC experiment clearly seems less a threat now than a year or two ago, there are major challenges which have to be surmounted.  There are two that come immediately to mind.

First, cost has become a serious problem.  Tuition prices have risen in a way similar to healthcare prices.  The existence of third-party payers in healthcare finds a mirror image in the third-party financiers in higher education.  Many students and families obtain loans and push payment off into the future, thus creating some insensitivity to price.  At the same time, institutions have managed the price of tuition in a non-sustainable way.  They make their budgets in a highly incremental fashion.  “It cost us this much to function this year.  It will cost a bit more next year.  Plus, we have to provide raises to everyone.  That means we will need to increase tuition.  Ask the board to declare a 5% increase.”  Do that enough times and the compounding effect of all those tuition increases becomes quite substantial.  Thanks to government financing, the reaction to the massive increase in tuition has been delayed, but it is growing.  Parents and students are looking for a better deal.  Institutions will have to find a way to give it to them.

Second, universities are governed in an unusual fashion.  While the endeavors carried out within the university can be quite different (compare the business school to the nursing program to the philosophy department to research-driven physics), the governance can be highly collective and democratic in nature.  The differences become even more significant when you start to mix-in fully online programs, continuing studies programs for adults in the evenings, and other programming.  A problem that arises out of this situation is that the very broad decision-making group is not necessarily appropriate.  As an example, the people who love online education are quite different than those who have staked their lives on classroom teaching and mentoring during office hours.  Yet, these same people are often tied up in the same group in terms of curricular decisions and other matters.

The major problems I have identified are related to cost and governance/policy/administration.  It seems to me that a good strategy for meeting those challenges might lie in disaggregation and decentralization.  Rather than having one university with one tuition rate and lots of centrally made decisions, I think we should have a university comprised of several distinct entities with a great deal of independence.  The colleges within the university should really operate as colleges with different tuition rates and a lot of ability to run their own affairs.  The professional colleges/programs can charge a significantly different tuition rate from the college of arts and sciences.  The online program will have the ability to hire its own professors who have a special interest in that type of instruction.  Each group will be able to make important choices about their curricula and methods.  They should even be able to make some of their own choices about marketing.  By breaking up the constituent parts of the university, we will increase the likelihood that innovation will occur and that cost challenges can be attacked.

But universities, especially the private ones, have missions they are trying to fulfill.  How will they make sure a group of decentralized operations manage to achieve the overall mission?  I think the answer there has to do with Peter Drucker’s early insights about General Motors at its peak in The Concept of the Corporation.  GM’s separate lines were able to do what they needed to bring about the greatest success within their market segment, but the execs at the top set the policy within which the sub-groups operated.  In other words, the executive management exercised an almost constitutional type of authority over the Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs.  Permit the widest independence consistent with the overall policy and mission of the organization.

Now, I am not making the case that decentralization is always a panacea.  One of Machiavelli’s better points is that different types of leadership are more applicable to particular times and circumstances.  But it seems to me that decentralization is the best answer for the ills that plague the universities.

How would it all work out from a budgetary perspective?  After all, some parts of the university are clearly more profitable than others.  Yet, the unprofitable parts might represent critical elements of the overall mission?  The budget would need to be set-up in such a way that the profit-making sections are able to benefit from their successes and can reinvest in their own efforts.  However, it would also be a simple matter to require them to make a contribution to the broader institutional treasury which could be used to subsidize the areas of the university worth subsidizing.  That point brings me to another one of Drucker’s propositions.  He argued that the market should rule where it is good for it to rule, but there should be some activities or principles that are not exclusively guided by market response and thus deserve some protection.  I would argue that something like a philosophy or theology department fits that description.  Whether or not the market values those offerings, they should be part of the university’s program.

These are all just preliminary thoughts, but I think decentralization provides the potential for real, substantial gains in the intermediate term and still more in the long run.  I hasten to add that this same advice would not necessarily apply to an entity which has avoided the university designation and has remained a true college.  A true college may well be small enough and have a cohesive enough community of interest to keep the parts together.