Right now, Christians are fighting a battle we can’t win. Gay marriage is already a reality in our society. Barring a miracle, gay marriage will be legal in every American state within twenty years.
A few weeks ago, I saw a debate between a conservative American pastor and a liberal Catholic blogger (a British expatriate) about the subject of gay marriage, moderated by a British journalist. I paid very close attention, even though I was tired and sitting toward the back.
Andrew Sullivan, who defended gay marriage, did so graciously. He did not, like many of his allies, attack Christian opponents to gay marriage as homophobic and bigoted. He had strong words for them, but he won points with those of us in the audience who disagreed with him for making an effort to understand the conservative position.
Pastor Doug Wilson, who defended traditional marriage, did so ably and made some crucial points. He asked Sullivan, who believes in monogamy, why polygamists could not use the same arguments that Sullivan had used, when they organized themselves the way the “LGBT community” had done. Sullivan literally spluttered at this charge, and spent more time grandstanding about AIDS victims and gay soldiers in Afghanistan than responding substantively. He himself made many good points, but neither he nor the noisy college students in the audience could see any merit in this one. Overall, if I had been undecided at the debate (trust me, no one was), then I think Wilson’s points about the mess heterosexuals have made of marriage, the heartbreak of divorce, and the ultimate imperative upon Christians to love sinners and yet hate sin would have convinced me that, at least, his position is morally praiseworthy and logically tenable.
But in that ballroom, things looked different. My friends and I, who support traditional marriage, made of a majority of the audience, but at the end when moderator rather mean-spiritedly asked for a show of hands and declared Wilson the winner, I didn’t feel like he had won anything–and neither had Sullivan. In that debate hall, Wilson and Sullivan had argued well. But in the real world, the necessary gay character on every TV show is convincing thousands of people every week that gay marriage is normal and, after all, they’re in love. These arguments are all well and good, but they’re not changing hearts and minds.
Of all the things that happened in February 2013, that debate was not perhaps one of the more significant. It excited some comment on blogs, but already most people who did not attend have forgotten it. But I will never forget the ecstatic hooting of the pro-gay-marriage minority as they pumped their fists in the air at the debate-ending vote, or the silent, self-conscious assent of the cowed, Christian majority.
Christians have lost. It’s unpleasant for us to realize it, but we must do so. The gay debate is one of many debates that we’ve lost in the post-war period. One example: even thirty years ago, the normal American family went to church. That’s not true anymore. There are millions and millions of faithful Christians in America, but there are also millions of nominal Christians, who for years have been convincing themselves and everyone else that they are living for Jesus, but they are not. It’s sad, but it’s also true. These people are inoculated against the Gospel because they’ve been exposed to it (or a close facsimile) all their lives.
So for the reactionist commentators who wonder why and how gay marriage became so popular, so fast, stop looking at church attendance stats. Faithful Christians are a minority, even and especially in the United States, so it is infeasible to make jingoistic cultural war presuming on the ranks and ranks of “Christians” who really just go to church for fun, who care more about low taxes than the sacrifice of Christ, and who will accept gay marriage as soon as the cultural momentum turns in that direction (that was around 2005, if you’re wondering).
We’ve lost the debate, and that really is a bad thing. Gay marriage will not be good for the institution of civil marriage. I don’t care if a man wants to leave his estate to his male lover with a lower tax rate, or get spousal access to his deathbed, but the idea that children will be raised to think that having two mothers or two fathers is normal repels me. Our culture lost the ability to raise children in two-parent homes, and now we’ve lost the restriction on which sex those parents should be. Despite what I’m about to say, the gay marriage debate really does matter. Or, it did.
Gay marriage is a distraction. The real attack on Christian marriage comes from our toxic hearts.
Here’s the rub: the state will do what it wants, and it wants to allow gay marriage. But we are Christians before we are Americans. We should care deeply about politics and how to make our nation a righteous one, but we should accept that we have lost this civil battle and draw up battle lines for redeeming marriage within the church. Bible-believing Christians would have a time of it trying to defend gay marriage, and it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously sanctioning it Biblically. But that little objection hasn’t lowered the divorce rate.
If we care seriously about God, about the Church, and about marriage, then we will fight a new battle, for Christian marriage rather than against the private sex lives of unbelievers. We need to win hearts and minds before we can preach sexual ethics to them.
Christian marriage, not civil marriage, is the battle that matters.