Many make the mistake of thinking that opposition to gay marriage is religious. A Facebook friend recently posted this quote: “Have you ever noticed the same people who claim that marriage is a religious institution only think that LGBT people shouldn’t get married? They never seem to object to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists getting married.”
This is a perfect summary of the ignorance with which many (though by no means all) gay marriage proponents operate. And I think their ignorance largely the fault of religious supporters of traditional marriage who have forgotten the categories of reason and nature.
Many times Christians present our arguments for the traditional family by making arguments from Scripture and speaking of “God’s design for marriage.” For instance, Billy Graham recently issued a statement in support of Chik-fil-A and its owners, the Cathy family, in which he said, “Each generation faces different issues and challenges, but our standard must always be measured by God’s word. I appreciate the Cathy family’s public support for God's definition of marriage.” Dan Cathy himself said, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the broader population thinks opposition to gay marriage is a matter of religion alone. And as such, it can be marginalized. Indeed, it must be marginalized, for our culture assumes a fundamental split between faith and reason. The roots of this split reach back to the medieval period in William of Occam’s nominalist and voluntarist theology, which conceived of God not as reason but as raw arbitrary will. Religion became regarded as irrational. And most modern Christians—whether Protestant or Catholic—accept that split, having absorbed it from the ambient culture.
There’s a reason Occam was never sainted. The broader Christian tradition has claimed God is rational. First, the intelligibility of creation suggests a rational intellect as creator. Second, the first verses of the Gospel of John claim that the logos—the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God—was God and the agent of creation. Most translations render logos as “Word,” but it can also be rendered as “Reason”: “In the beginning was Reason . . . and Reason was God.” The split between faith and reason (and thus religion and the public square) is not a necessary given of Christian theology. Rather, the broader Christian tradition has seen faith and reason operating in harmony. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” that faith and reason need each other, that reason provides common ground for believers and non-believers, and that the separation of faith and reason leads to violence. Benedict XVI picked up these themes in his Regensburg address. You will find no greater defender of right reason today than the Catholic Church. And so the irony of the gay marriage debate is that traditionalists are making arguments based on reason and nature, while secular culture is now largely irrational in spite of its trumpeting of reason, as the severing of faith and reason has led to a nihilism wherein the greatest good is the fulfillment of whatever desires among consenting adults. Is that all reason can really say, that anything one wants goes as long as no one else gets hurt?
These claims are controverted, of course. It’s a common postmodern maneuver to claim that all appeals to the objectivity of nature and reason are merely masquerades instantiating culture by the will to power. We need to continue having that discussion. But for now, in simpler terms, consider this: Is “Thou shalt not kill” a truth of faith, or a truth of reason? Shall we repeal our laws forbidding murder because its prohibition is found in a religious text?
Of course not. And so when thoughtful religious people make arguments in the public square based on reason, they should not be discounted. For instance, responding to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s remarks declaring Chik-fil-A restauranta non grata, Cardinal George suggested on his blog, “It might be good to put aside any religious teaching and any state laws and start from scratch, from nature itself, when talking about marriage.” He then made the following points:
Marriage existed before Church and state. Therefore, “Neither Church nor state invented marriage, and neither can change its nature.”
Marriage concerns the physical complementarity of the sexes. “The sexual union of a man and woman is called the marital act because the two become physically one in a way that is impossible between two men or two women.”
Even though marriage precedes the state, the state has an interest in regulating marriage, which is a public institution, to the end of “assur[ing] stability in society and the proper protection and raising of the next generation of citizens.”
The Church is also interested in regulating marriage, “because Jesus raised the marital union to the level of symbolizing his own union with his Body.” For Catholics, at least, the harmony of reason and faith, of nature and grace, means that things that existed before Jesus Christ was ever conceived—water, bread, wine, marriage—can be raised to the level of a sacrament.
The Cardinal, then, claims that the State has a duty not to define marriage according to the passing fancies of the body politic at a given time but to protect marriage as a natural good preceding the State. The Church too has a double duty, as it is indebted not only to nature but also to revelation.
Because of the harmony of faith and reason, thoughtful Christians can speak of marriage in terms of both categories. And we sometimes confuse categories, and that proves confusing to the general public. But make no mistake: Our defense of marriage is no act of legerdemain, in which we try to force what we know solely by revelation on the public. (Observe no one is pushing laws forcing participation in the sacraments or forbidding participation in a particular faith.) Rather, we are concerned for the common good, a rational concern motivated by our very faith. Convinced that reason and nature teach us the truth about marriage, we will continue to make arguments in the public square about the public goods of marriage, for no society or person can long thrive kicking against the goads of reason and nature.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Billy Graham Offers His Support to Chik-fil-A
Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson, What Is Marriage?
Does Jesus Care About Sex and Marriage?
Anthony Esolen, Ten Arguments for Sanity
Cardinal George, Reflections on “Chicago Values”
John Paul II, Fides et Ratio
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