Gay Marriage Tidewater

David Cole captures readers’ attention with the observation that “the gay rights movement has achieved more swiftly than any other individual rights movement in history, not merely the impossible but the unthinkable.” A few years ago, writes Cole, “those who fought for the right to marry … the partner of one’s choosing, regardless of gender — were called crazy and worse, by many.” As things have turned out and are turning out they “have proven not foolish romantics, but visionaries.” While the move toward acknowledging the rights of gays has elicited enormous backlash — that needs no chronicling here — Cole can quote Ellen Goodman: “In the glacial scheme of social change, attitudes [about gay marriage] are evolving at whitewater speed.”

Cole pictures that Supreme Court decisions could rule in ways which would slow that speed, but “it seems certain that in the not too distant future, we will look back on today’s opposition” on this subject, “the way we now view opposition to interracial marriage — as a blatant violation of basic constitutional commitments to equality and human dignity.” If so, how do religious institutions and leaders regard these options? Many are seen as being among the stronger forces and voices on the “anti-” side, but others are often public supporters on the “pro-” side.

Weekly I find on my desk piles of print-outs on this “public religion” debate, but rarely make use of them in Sightings. For once, before the tidewater sweeps all these evidences aside, let me summarize what I read and hear on many fronts among the “antis.” Advice given them: 1) Pretend this change is not occurring and ignore it; 2) since that doesn’t work, mount fierce opposition in state and church; 3) since that works less well each year, work out strategies for living in the face of changes one cannot welcome; that approach works at least temporarily for some, but the these resisting forces are themselves conflicted and convincing only to the convinced; 4) point to downsides in ecumenical relations with “poor world” churches where the tidewater does not yet rush; 5) reappraise your arguments, converse with the “other”, and make your case.

They will hear other counsel, such as: 1) It’s all over. The culture has changed. Among those of college age, and millions of others, most don’t even know what the dammers of the tidewater are talking about. 2) Notice that partners in gay couples in thousands of Christian gatherings, including in their pulpits, are often observed, even by the uneasy, as being among the most dedicated members. Exclude them now?

Where the pro- and anti- folk converse, one overhears: “Does not the gay marriage movement violate Scripture, the presumed norm in most churches?” Advocates of gay marriage come back: they recognize that a couple of verses in each biblical Testament rule out homosexual acts as sin. However advocates deal with that, expect to hear something like: “Why select this issue?” They will go on: “In our parish, perhaps in the pulpit or in our family are — against more explicit biblical witness — divorced-and-remarried-to-divorced persons who are honorable and honored members. Why are they not disciplined or criticized?” Fall-back position: “But gay marriage is against Natural Law, so it’s simply wrong.” That works for many Catholics and some Protestants, but most in church and world are wary of citing Natural Law: “its teachings, when invoked, tend to match what people have already decided, on other grounds, is right or wrong.

The tides rush on.

David Cole, “Getting Nearer and Nearer,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013.
Michael J. Klarman, From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.