Same sex marriage - is it a big deal? Part Two
Last issue in Part One Ben looked at the same sex marriage debate from the point of view of its advocates and started in at the Christian perspective. He picks up here in Part Two looking at homosexuality.
So what about homosexual relationships?
n what we have looked at so far in the Bible, homosexuality seems invisible. Does that give us latitude to include homosexual relationships in the institution of marriage by the partial analogy they might provide, namely two individuals committing to faithfully care for one another and share an exclusive sexual relationship? The difficulty is that because Genesis 1-2 articulates something deep about the way God intended human beings to be, they set norms which understand maleness to be for femaleness and femaleness to be for maleness, rather than maleness for maleness or femaleness for femaleness, and so homosexuality is being addressed implicitly. So it is not a surprise, really, when later we see that the Bible accepts neither homosexual desire nor homosexual practice as something holy and good, but regards these as the (shameful) exchange of something proper (heterosexual sex) for something improper (see Romans 1:24-27).
This is a moral position that is increasingly being regarded as outrageous, and indefensible, because as a culture we operate more and more from moral philosophies that reject the idea that God’s intention for something such as human sexuality, or marriage, exists, or, even if it does exist, the idea that it is to be found in the Bible is not taken seriously. Rather, the rights and wrongs of human sexual behaviour, or same sex marriage, are to be judged by whether or not they do harm, or impinge on rights or freedoms of others.
Hence, moral condemnation might be justified if a person’s homosexuality was exploitative, or harmful to others. Moral reservation might be justified if a person’s homosexuality was a kind of decadent acquired sexual taste that invariably went along with other wanton or self- destructive behaviours, or was evidently a flawed way of coping with personal deficits or traumas in the past or present. No doubt some people’s homosexuality does exhibit some or many of these characteristics, just as many people’s heterosexuality exhibits similar flaws. But to condemn homosexuality per se, even in its most innocent forms, seems these days to be plain wrong. Consider the well-adjusted teen who discovers themselves, through no choice of their own, to be same-sex attracted; who does not want to engage in reckless promiscuity, or exploitative sexual practice, or tear the heterosexual world down. They just want to fall in love and pursue a romance like others do: a respectful, tender, exciting romance, and in time a lasting, loving partnership for life. Why stand in the way of this? Why not guide, guard and ultimately bless these instincts, just as we do for our heterosexual youth? The Bible seems to talk in overly lurid terms of impurity, degradation, shame and unnaturalness, which don’t seem appropriate to the case of our honest and good-hearted teen.
Now it should be noted that the Bible’s language often sounds over the top next to our typically reserved forms of expression. Read Romans 1 and note that homosexuality is not more vigorously condemned than envy, gossip or disobedience of parents. St Paul was not unusually indignant about homosexuals, regarding them as the worst of sinners. Not at all. We can and should recognise that a same-sex attracted person is not, on account of that temptation to homosexual behaviour, more depraved than one tempted to boast, or to be unmerciful, or than any other human being subject to any temptation. In the West, homosexuality has been firstly criminalised and then medicalised, and there has been injustice done to homosexual people in those approaches. This injustice gives the current push for homosexual inclusion a great deal of moral energy and legitimacy, and it is right that we repent of such sins of our ancestors as executing, imprisoning or imposing involuntary medical interventions upon homosexual people. Such honest and good-hearted teens as we have imagined above should not fear that in admitting their situations to themselves or others, they might come in for any kind of ill-treatment.
Still, to discover yourself to be sexually attracted to members of your own sex is clearly a momentous thing. It is to discover yourself to be in a particular minority of the human experience, and it does require you to understand it in some moral context. If that moral context is an ethic of maximal self-expression and self- determination, (as long as you don’t harm others who do not consent to your actions) then it seems you should be free to seek the fulfillment of that sexual attraction if you wish, as long as you don’t do wrong by others in the process.
However, if the moral context in which you make sense of your same sex attraction is the Bible, with its teaching that, ‘At the beginning of creation God made them male and female’, and, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’, then you can’t help but see the decision to pursue a homosexual attraction as a thing unspoken in the plan of God. And if God made maleness for femaleness and femaleness for maleness, then to pair maleness with maleness, or femaleness with femaleness is to pair things that may not in the end pair well together. It may not be at all clear at the outset of pursuing a homosexual relationship where it might take you and what it might work upon you and in you. Maybe it will all seem to work well enough at first, and even for a while. Maybe it will seem to be just as good—or perhaps even better—than the heterosexual pairing. But maybe we don’t see what even the best of homosexual relationships— those partnerships said to be ‘akin to marriage’, in their lifelong, exclusive faithfulness—mean for the true wholeness of those who pursue them. Perhaps the power of our sexuality works upon us and our companions for ill when we desire our own sex, when the male carnally seeks the male, or the female sexually finds the female. If there is something we are meant to find in the otherness of the other sex, we will not find it if we marry ourselves to someone of our sex.
This is rather vague, I admit, but ultimately the Christian relies for moral guidance on the Scriptures, to which we entrust ourselves. Unlike the LGBTI moral vision, we don’t rely on our own determination that the expression and fulfillment of our own sexual desires and gender identity are an important part of living a healthy, happy life, and the harm only comes when we live in fear of abuse and discrimination at the hands of bigots, or internalise the homophobia of the heteronormal culture.
To return to the trembling teen, they must decide somehow whether their best hope lies in learning how to become gay (i.e. come out and develop a social identity as a person embracing his or her homosexuality somehow), or in learning how to honour the maleness and femaleness that God has given us by refusing to pair maleness sexually with maleness, or femaleness with femaleness. Ultimately to choose the latter moral meaning of gender, desire and sexual behaviour over the former is an act of trust in the God who addresses us in the Bible, and an act that must be an individual’s Christian discipleship.
But if our vulnerable, same-sex attracted youths are to navigate this momentous development in their lives, they will need a community that can be trusted to treat them with love, care and seriousness at all times, whether or not they accept all the guidance they are offered. So we cannot have parents who turn away from their children over this. We cannot have peer groups that bully or intimidate or jeer at anyone who dares be less than robustly, constantly heterosexual. We cannot have churches that blithely speak as if ‘those homosexuals’ are all out there, and presume that ‘of course none of us are ever anything like them’. Rather we need our communities to have people in them who have enough gentleness and openness for vulnerable and apprehensive people to trust enough to confess to them their great matter; the thing that perhaps dominates their self-perception and waking consciousness. And having revealed this momentous thing, same-sex attracted people need to be treated with dignity, kindness and as much wisdom and love as we can muster from the Lord who made us and redeems us, and speaks to us in the Bible.
So, what do Christians fear in all this?
I wrote above that supporters of the change to the Marriage Act fear rejection, and a continued sense of exclusion, and that more LGBTQI people will end up more despairing and suicidal. What do the opponents of same-sex marriage fear? Specifically, what do Christian opponents of same sex marriage fear? One thing we fear for our culture is that the more we do cast aside the teachings of the Bible, the more people will be cast adrift morally, and suffer for it in very real ways. Christians look at the considerable angst constantly generated within a heterosexual culture of dating, sex and marriage that has left Christian sexual ethics behind. Men are made shallower and commitment-shy, and women are frustratedatthepressureanddifficultyofforming lasting, satisfying connections and founding families. Because marriage is subordinated to the personal satisfaction of those in it, divorce is too easy an answer when satisfaction is wanting, to the long-term detriment of the children and extended families of the divorcing couple. And of course, many couples never even marry, and many people live with a string of partners, and many children suffer in their households from a lack of secure love and attention from parents who are themselves secure and cherished. Because the embrace and normalisation of homosexuality is carried out in conscious rejection of the inherited Christian sexual ethic, Christians fear this normalisation will not push us back towards a high view of marriage, but will just reinforce some of the bad things we see in the post-sexual- revolution heterosexual ethic.
Christians (and others) fear that same-sex marriage could lead to bad outcomes for at least some children down the track. For a start, there is the way that homosexual couples become parents. This is not essentially connected to same-sex marriage, but is a related issue that goes along with it because some homosexual couples do wish to found families. Often this involves the use of sperm donation, or surrogacy (whether commercial or altruistic), or other emerging reproductive technologies. And these things can be done well or badly. Children frequently do wish to know who their biological parents are at some point in their lives, and feel somehow hard done by if this is kept from them, or if it is made impossible by the arrangements surrounding their conception and birth.[i] Surrogacy is a tightly regulated practice for good reason – the stakes (emotional and financial) are high for those seeking a child, for those acting as surrogate mothers, and for the children produced, and the same issues about children knowing the mother who carried and gave birth to them arise in the long run. In Australia, gay men increasingly use overseas surrogates which introduces further complications. These issues that arise with third party assisted reproduction would become more pressing if same-sex marriage were to became an incentive for more homosexual couples to found families, and if it were to establish a clearer right for them to do so. Christians already have great reservations about the lengths to which some couples will go to have children via surrogacy or other means. The idea that many other couples might come forward who must use these means to found families does make some apprehensive that there will be casualties on all sides.
The other issues regarding children is: to what extent do children do better with a male and a female parental figure and worse without both? Many Christians might be predisposed to believe that mothers and fathers give different and complementary gifts as they raise their children (not an unreasonable thought, and one which is widely held, even by those same sex parents who deliberately involve opposite sex adults in the lives of their kids). Despite the testimonies of some children raised by same sex parents that there is something lacking from their experience of self-formation,[ii] there is a body of research emerging which suggests that children of same- sex couples do just as well as children of opposite- sex couples.[iii] There may be much truth to this, however, the topic is such a part of an ongoing moral struggle in the culture, and the research is in such an incipient phase, that it is hard to know where the dust will settle in the long run. It is in some ways surprising that parents drawn from a community that suffers higher rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, minority stress, discrimination etc. do manage to parent just as well as the rest of society, but perhaps gay parents are generally drawn from the less troubled sections of the gay community.
All in all, it seems to me that the jury is still out on this. If we are going to pursue policies based on the best and latest social science, it suggests that we should not worry right now that kids are inescapably disadvantaged by being brought up by a homosexual couple. But Christians will always be uneasy for the children of gay parents, if only because we think such children are being brought up by a couple whose sexual relationship is contrary to God’s intention for men and women. This means the message they receive about gender and family conflicts with the order God created for our flourishing. They may be in most ways just fine, especially if their parents are loving, kind, attentive and their home is stable and secure. Indeed, this may make them in many ways better off than the children of a heterosexual union that lacks love and security. But there may be some ways where they have a confusion introduced into their lives, which may have its impact in time.
Legitimacy and acceptance
Probably the most urgent fear that Christians have is about the future legitimacy and acceptance of Christians, if we do not become supportive of the normalisation of homosexuality, and of gay marriage in particular. There are already many people who feel that there can be no principled objection to same sex marriage – only a bigoted objection, on a par with racism, sexism or anti- Semitism.
In the ABC’s Q&A episode ‘Ethics, Equality & Evasion’ (Aug 2015),[iv] American campaigner for traditional marriage Katy Faust was a guest, and the topic of same sex marriage was up for discussion. Richard Di Natale began by saying, ‘Tony Abbott had a chance to drag the country into the 21st century and end discrimination, to end prejudice and he used every tactic in the book to block it, to continue to support prejudice and discrimination in marriage’.
He later added, ‘The only justification for that (resisting same sex marriage) is that you think that the love between those people is somehow lesser, it's worth less, it is not as important and it's different and that's what prejudice is’ (emphasis added).
So opposition is prejudice: an ungrounded, irrational and unjust judgement. Sam Dastyari took it up a notch when he responded to Katy Faust. He said,‘There is so much with what you have said just then that is so offensive, it’s hard to know where to start. … I find it very hard to respect a lot of your views on what you have said because I don't think it comes from a place of love. I think it comes from a place of hate … I think some of it stems from an issue with homosexuality
… You have said that homosexuality drives us further away from God. …. I’m sorry, but I think this American evangelical claptrap is the last thing we need in the debate.’
As far as Di Natale and Dastyari are concerned, there is no legitimate argument remaining against same sex marriage. The religious types still objecting are simply prejudiced, motivated by hatred, and respecting them is becoming very difficult. If this view becomes the standard, then orthodox Christians will be thought of on a par with white supremacists or misogynists or other pariahs and outlaws from civilised society. This will be tough for Christians to live with.
However, some people think that there is a place for objection to same sex marriage, especially religious objections. Kelly O’Dwyer did not share Di Natale’s and Dastyari’s view. She advocates same sex marriage, but said of objectors to same sex marriage, ‘I do respect that they have a different view to mine and I respect that it is based, for them, on their religious beliefs in many cases. I do think that we do need to understand that in society there are people who have got different views on this issue’.
But it was Brendan O’Neill who really took on Di Natale and Dastyari. He said, ‘Here is what freaks me out about gay marriage. It presents itself as this kind of liberal civil rightsy issue but it has this really ugly intolerant streak to it. Anyone who opposes gay marriage is demonised, harassed, we have seen people thrown out of their jobs because they criticised gay marriage…. It’s like a 21st century form of religious persecution. … as we have just seen in Sam's attack on Katy, calling her hateful and saying she’s talking claptrap, it’s not acceptable to express this sentiment in public life.’
O’Dwyer seconded O’Neill, saying, ‘we need to be tolerant of everyone's views. And I think the idea that people are demonised for their very heartfelt, very sincere views is actually quite wrong.’
This is a delicate situation, because any society has certain limits of tolerance. These days heartfelt, sincere views that are judged racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic will not get a hearing, because the moral conviction of our culture is that a principled assertion of white racial superiority, or female inferiority, or essential Jewish degeneracy is impossible, and such views only serve to tap dark passions that lead to abuse and violence of one kind or another. If you seek to live and speak according to such convictions, you will be excluded.
Now because our western, (imperfectly) Christian past has pressed pretty hard on homosexuality at times—making it a criminal offense or a psychological disorder, not to mention a target of disgust, abuse or violence— we are finding it hard to escape the suspicion that it is Christianity that encourages similar dark passions that lead to abuse and harm. There is a great test for our society in all this. Will there be a place for any principled objection to the moral equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual relationships? Or will the prevailing view come to be that principled objection to homosexuality is impossible? If refusing to endorse homosexual relationships becomes equivalent to refusing to endorse equitable treatment of Indigenous people or women or Jews, then our culture won’t tolerate Christians who do not adjust their convictions. Christians have been out of step with the moral convictions of our time for a while now (Churches still teach against sex before marriage, for example), but if the mood of the culture waxes controlling and punitive (as O’Neill feels some advocacy of gay marriage has become), we could be in for a bruising time.
We might hope that Christian objections to homosexuality might be thought of in the way anti-abortion views are thought of. While some people feel passionately that abortion is a woman’s right, and that the anti-abortionists are vile, there is still generally a sense that there are two real sides to the question of abortion, held by people of principle, even if those principles are different. And so anti-abortionists are not universally regarded as reprehensible, as, e.g., neo-Nazis tend to be. I would prefer those who object to the introduction of same-sex marriage might be thought of as principled, morally serious people, rather than hate-fuelled bigots.
Flowing out of that judgment about why people are objecting to same sex marriage comes the question of whether Christian objections to homosexuality or same sex marriage should be legally accommodated under any new legislation, or whether Christian objections are an obstacle to the good order of our society, and must be publicly repudiated and legally suppressed. Christians look with anxiety upon court cases arising that charge Christians with unlawful discrimination. One recent case in Ireland involved Gareth Lee bringing Ashers Bakery to court under Ireland’s Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006. Having taken his order, Asher’s subsequently declined to provide Mr Lee with a cake decorated with a pro-gay marriage slogan on the grounds that to do so would, theyfelt, involvetheminpromotingacause to which they had moral objections on religious grounds. Mr Lee took Ashers to court with the assistance of Ireland’s Equality Commission, as a ‘pathfinder case’, to confirm the meaning and effect of Ireland’s anti-discrimination legislation. Mr Lee won the case and the subsequent appeal. At the appeal, the judge said, ‘The supplier (of a service) may provide the particular service to all or to none but not to a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds. In the present case the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message. What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.’[v]
Daniel McArthur, manager of Ashers, said, after the appeal was lost, ‘We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a pornographic picture, or with swear words, we wouldn’t even decorate a cake with a spiteful message about gay people, because to do so would be to endorse and promote it.’[vi]
As McArthur saw it, this was not a refusal of service on the grounds that his customer was gay, but rather a refusal on the grounds that Ashers was being asked to support a cause they could not in conscience support. One journalist, Peter Tatchell, who initially supported Lee against Asher’s, changed his mind and wrote his reasons: ‘This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.
‘The judge concluded that service providers are required to facilitate any “lawful” message, even if they have a conscientious objection. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti- migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.
‘In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.’[vii]
The issues here are subtle, and it is easy to have sympathy with each side of the case: with Mr Lee, for thinking it important to have the equality laws tested and enforced, so that they do what their framers wished them to do in society; and with Ashers, who were not simply refusing service to a gay man (which would be unacceptable), but were trying to avoid making a cake in support of a cause that made them morally uneasy. Christians may fear that they will need to tread carefully or leave certain lines of business altogether to avoid becoming the target of devastating court cases designed to advance a cause they cannot support. But legal suppression is unlikely to change Christian minds. Christians have a track record of being able to endure with patience the suppression of their views and freedoms (and other sufferings too) without losing their convictions.
We have surveyed the debate from both sides. Although I have clearly spent far more time articulating the Christian side of things, I have wanted to represent the perspectives and fears of each side of the debate with some truth and sympathy. I hope I have not fallen too far short of this. I have also wanted to discuss the issues in a measured, thorough, fair-minded way, and not in slogans or tendentious rhetoric. Again, I hope I have not fallen too far short of this.
It seems clear to me that the cause of same sex marriage is part of a clash of moral visions: an older Christian one which is being challenged and partially displaced by an evolving new moral outlook concerned with rights, freedom, self- expression, individual autonomy and concerned with the challenging and overturning of received norms in service of a better future we are fighting our way towards. Will these moral visions fight to the death in a zero-sum game where one must win and the other must submit or die? Or will we be able to figure out a way for each to permit the other to exist according to its own integrity, and to speak its mind publicly, and to commend itself, and persuade others in our cultural forums, forming real a moral multiculturalism? (This may be the best, if not the easiest, future to aim for together.)
It seems to me that many Christians have been able to make space for homosexuality in our society. This has happened slowly, and not without some regrettable unkindnesses. There is much that we can happily support in our changing context: the decriminalisation and demedicalisation of our approach to same-sex attracted people, for instance. The insistence that homosexual people are not mocked, belittled, threatened or abused, but are treated as our fellow human beings, our valued neighbours.
There are ways we won’t join the movement to normalise homosexuality. I’d expect many, perhaps most, Christians would vote against introducing same-sex marriage if it came to a plebiscite, given the long-established teaching of the Bible and the churches that homosexual behaviour is not good for those who engage in it, nor pleasing to God. Some Christians opposed to homosexuality might vote in favour of it, believing that it will do more good than harm to encourage homosexual partners to commit to faithful, lifelong unions, or for a range of other reasons.
Whatever individual Christians might do, within many of our churches we will discourage people from homosexual behaviour, and expect Christians to refrain from it throughout their lives. The different moral assessment of homosexual behaviour amongst Christians will persist, and we will try to commend the Bible’s vision of gender and sexuality to all and sundry. We believe it is the best and truest vision, even if we ourselves only grasp it imperfectly and can learn new things from it still.
I hope that the LGBTQI movement will not use their growing influence to go after Christians, poison others against Christians, to drive Christian voices out of the public space with cries of ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’. No doubt the LGBTQI movement will continue to try to persuade people that it has a better moral vision of gender, sexuality and human life than the Christian one, and that’s to be expected. But it may also find it can give a place to allow dissent from Christians and other conscientious objectors from LGBTQI moral vision. I hope it will.
[i] See, eg, www.dcsg.org.au, www.tangledwebs.org.uk, anonymousus.org, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/ wellbeing/11607985/Is-it-time-to-question-the-ethics- of-donor-conception.html, http://theconversation.com/ secrets-and-lies-why-donor-conceived-children-need- to-know-their-origins-44015.
[v] As reported at www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/ oct/24/born-again-christian-ashers-bakery-lose-court- appeal-in-gay-cake-row
[vi] Watch the video of McArthur at www.theguardian. com/uk-news/2016/oct/24/born-again-christian-ashers- bakery-lose-court-appeal-in-gay-cake-row
[vii] Watch the video of McArthur at www.theguardian. com/uk-news/2016/oct/24/born-again-christian-ashers- bakery-lose-court-appeal-in-gay-cake-row