Increasingly, the name of the game is, according to David Gibson , “Golden Rule” Christianity: love your neighbor as yourself. This is what President Obama cited in explaining his support for same-sex marriage .

Of course, the gloss both Gibson and Obama give on this injunction is contestable. For them, respecting someone means endorsing or tolerating their choices and demands. (I recognize the difference between endorsement and toleration, but equivocate here because they equivocate.)

But cannot loving one’s neighbor as oneself also require that we hold them accountable for their sins and bear witness to them about the truth? In this context, by the way, toleration doesn’t require endorsement. It simply recognizes that in some instances the way to correct sin or error is not through punishment, but rather through admonition.

I’m tempted to argue that the position the President has taken represents the triumph of John Locke , who defined toleration as “the chief chracteristic mark of the true Church.” Locke meant in the first instance that coercion had no place in religious matters, but he also asserted that “everyone is orthodox to himself,” which meant to him that there is no (capital T) Truth other than toleration. You and I, dear readers, may not agree on what orthodoxy requires, but we can surely agree that, whatever it is, it doesn’t consist in Lockian subjectivity. Better a public square in which we disagree (civilly and indeed lovingly, to be sure) than one in which we all merely assume that each of us is entitled to his or her own opinion and leave one another alone. That would be—as Locke (I think) intended—the death of any genuine search for transcendent truth.

I’m not surprised by any of this, not the President’s “evolution” nor his attempt to explain his decision in terms of mere (Lockian) Christianity.

Invoking the Golden Rule may indeed be a good way to speak in a religiously diverse society, since (as Gibson points out) it’s not exclusively Christian. But we who also affirm the importance of the Golden Rule have to insist that, as a principle, it doesn’t necessarily get us to the President’s conclusion and that, inside or outside the Christian tradition, it comes as part of a package (including, say, John 14:6 and Paul’s letters and/or natural law).

Michael Gerson argues that there’s a generational shift going on and that “arguments in favor of pluralism have a tremendous advantage in America. In much of the country, social conservatives may need to choose a more defensible political line — the protection of individual and institutional conscience rights for those who disagree with gay marriage. It is also a commitment of genuine pluralism to allow those with differing moral beliefs to associate in institutions that reflect their convictions.” I’m not convinced that he’s right about the shift or about the appropriate response to it. The fastest growing millenial populations, after all, come from socially conservative groups. And a genuinely pluralistic response to the attempt to redefine marriage may be not to cede that ground and protect dissenting minorities, but to take the state out of the marriage business altogther, providing for publicly recognized civil unions and privately celebrated marriages.

But those are matters for another post.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg


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