There’s just so much in the news these days to support the idea that the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s are not over. According to that narrative, there is a battle between the forces of evil (godless secularism) and the righteous remnant, fighting for the soul of America. The problem some people have in accepting that narrative is that it assumes a black-and-white division on all questions and challenges facing us as a nation; and once one identifies with a particular side, the opportunity to question assumptions within the camp seems to disappear, as anything sounding like what the enemy might say casts one under suspicion of heresy and/or treason.
So let’s take the latest issue on its own, outside of its connection to any other issue, separated from any real or imagined patterns emerging. I write concerning Proposition 8 in California, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling was handed down by a 2-1 decision. That’s right, two judges have made a decision concerning so significant an issue as whether gay and lesbian persons have the right to marry their partners–or more precisely, whether the voters of California can decide for them. That was the actual ruling, as CNN Senior Legal Correspondent Jeffrey Toobin pointed out. His explanation follows:
Instead of ruling that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all circumstances, the court issued a narrower ruling. The judges said that the peculiar circumstances in California – a right to same-sex marriage withdrawn by a vote of the public – was unconstitutional.
California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, superseding a ruling by the California’s Supreme Court, which had allowed same-sex marriages in California before that.
So the voters of the state unduly attempted to override the prior decision of the state’s Supreme Court. In Toobin’s opinion, this is what will keep the ruling from becoming a matter for the U. S. Supreme Court; if so, it will not have immediate ramifications outside California–except for the significant momentum given to advocates of similar measures in other states.
But what is at stake in the apparent collision between Christian understandings of marriage and what has been declared by the California courts (pending appeal, which will likely fail since it is to the same court that created the perceived need for Proposition 8 in the first place)? On one hand, no one is forcing anyone to “marry” anyone; Christians are not required to give up their cherished views regarding their marriages. On the other hand, it does create problems when married couples of the same sex enter into the church and expect full acceptance of their status–and having the law on their side. The practical side has some sticky matters to it–including the need to extend benefits to any such individuals who may be employed by church agencies.
The theological-philosophical side is the more concerning, however. What we have is a legal body, comprised of very few people, deciding what marriage is. One cannot grant a right to something without, at least by clear implication, declaring what that “something” is. The fact that it had never been defined until Proposition 8’s belated attempt owes not to lack of earlier understanding, to the fact that at the time of any state or federal constitution being written, everyone knew what marriage was. It would have seemed a silly exercising in stating the obvious for those framers to define marriage; they would likely have been ridiculed for their love of unnecessary wordiness. All cultures share a common understanding of a man-woman relationship as marriage, however much they differ as to the roles and expectations, rights and duties adhering to the respective partners. Christians tie this to the order of creation (Genesis 2), culminating in the “one flesh” entity created by the union. At the time the Pentateuch was first received, these words (and whatever oral traditions may have been behind them) only gave grounding for what they already knew and practiced concerning marriage.
If there truly is an ontology (a true and given nature) of marriage, the State of California, along with others who have traveled the same pathway, has granted the “right” for persons to be what they have chosen not to be. Whatever legal status a state or federal body may wish to grant to same-sex couples, it cannot grant them marriage without throwing the very concept of marriage entirely out of meaning. There may be reasons for which such status might make sense (that’s another debate); but they cannot make it marriage. What is at issue here is whether there is a givenness to not only marriage, but to anything at all. And that debate puts us squarely into the postmodern skepticism regarding any claims to knowledge whatsoever. Which is what has spawned this whole matter in the first place. Which reminds me that if God undergirds and reveals anything, we ought to pay attention for our own opportunity to thrive in the world He gave us.