This past Tuesday, nearly three out of four Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The vote was the first in the nation since the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex weddings in that state. But it will not be the last.
To be fair, many in Missouri felt this issue had been thrust on them because of the Massachusetts Court’s judicial activism. This could set off a series of state initiatives to attempt to solve the problem. But the gay rights movement is not going to go away. In the meantime, my fear is that this will result in another public face-off where people of faith will be painted as “bigots” and “judgmental” and proponents will be portrayed as “reasonable” and “tolerant.” In the process, there will be no discussion of the underlying issues and no public enlightenment. Can I suggest a more modest proposal on how we can–as followers of Christ–engage this issue?
I suggest starting where the gay rights movement “gets it right.” Too often, religious people are very frontal about what they hate, dislike, or disapprove of. But where does the gay rights movement get it right? I think it’s found in their title: the gay rights movement.
The idea of rights is derived from the word “right,” which originally meant “morally good.” If you say you have the right to do something, you are saying it is morally good and that people ought to be able to do it. This idea that people ought to act in a certain manner was addressed by T.S. Eliot in 1951. Speaking before the august faculty of the University of Chicago, Eliot noted that education aims to develop people who will act in a certain way. We don’t educate people simply to read and write; we think they ought to take this education and act in a moral manner. If this is true–and it is–Eliot concluded: “Every definition of the purpose of education, therefore, implies some concealed, or rather, implicit philosophy or theology.”
Did you catch that? Because educators think people ought to act in a certain way, they are entering the realm of religion. When my gay friends tell me they have the right to live this way, they believe they ought to live as gays and are calling upon a moral universe. And that leads to the question: whose religion?
My fear is that we are all caught up in rights without realizing they can only be based upon a moral universe of right and wrong. Or we’ll look to legislation as the answer. Laws are important, but I am reminded of one legislator, William Wilberforce, who thought laws were largely important for reducing opportunities for temptation but did not change the human heart. He once wrote: [the best hope for Britain lay not] “in her fleet and armies, not so much in the wisdom of her rulers, but in the spirit of her people and in the persuasion that she still contains many who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ.”
This is a simple, but difficult issue. It is simple because it challenges an age-old tradition and long-settled practice — that marriage is between a man and woman. It is difficult, because many in our culture apply only the standard of “tolerance” to any proposed social change. But maybe we’ll make some headway by encouraging public debate to focus on the issue where the gay rights movement begins: What is morally right about gay marriage–and what is the source of that right? That way, we may all learn something as we elevate the conduct of public dialogue and exercise more control over how we are viewed as participants in the give-and-take that is so essential to democratic decision-making.