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Bearing Witness through marriage

Liberal evangelical Ron Sider makes a strong case in favor of the ancient Christian and indeed natural understanding of marriage (“Bearing Better Witness,” December 2010). He attempts to “balance” his article by simultaneously chiding evangelicals for a) not being sufficiently supportive of the problems of gays and lesbians, and b) not doing enough to strengthen the institution of marriage.

As a Catholic, I was delighted to see both of these exhortations. The Catholic Church takes care of more HIV/AIDS victims than any nongovernmental organization on the planet. And the Catholic Church stands virtually alone in its forthright embrace of the whole of the ancient teaching on marriage, including the prohibitions on divorce, adultery, and premarital sex.

But it is Ron Sider’s last paragraph that really gives me pause.

I see no problem with a carefully written law that defines a number of rights as part of a legally recognized civil union. That does not mean that those rights should include everything but the name of marriage. Given the purpose of marriage law, some rights and benefits”specifically those designed to strengthen the likelihood that children grow up with both biological parents”belong only to those who are married and not to those in civil unions. That would be fair, and also a test. If the gay community’s real agenda is to legitimize the homosexual lifestyle, the community will reject civil unions. If the agenda is, as many now claim, to gain appropriate benefits and rights, the gay community will accept civil unions and not press for gay marriage [emphasis added]

This “test” has already been conducted and the results are in. The entire community of those seeking to recreate marriage rejects civil unions. This community includes not only the leading gay activist groups, but also the “feminists,” the abortion and sex-education advocates, and the academic, legal, and media infrastructures that sustain them.

The people of California created a comprehensive and ample system of domestic partnerships with nary a peep of complaint from evangelicals or anyone else. They were motivated by precisely the concerns Sider cites: fairness and the desire to support suffering brothers and sisters. But domestic partnerships were nowhere near enough to satisfy the radicals. It was they who brought the lawsuit decrying domestic partnerships as intrinsically discriminatory.

That lawsuit stimulated the Proposition 8 campaign. And now, for their trouble, the voters of California are essentially on trial in the Ninth Circuit. The more than seven million Californians who voted for Proposition 8 face the charge that the largest grassroots campaign in history was motivated by no legitimate concern and had no rational basis.

Sider’s test has been conducted. The “gay community” has categorically rejected civil unions. What further evidence do we need that, as Sider puts it, “the gay community’s real agenda is to legitimize the homosexual lifestyle”? I hope Ron Sider will join the rest of us”Catholic, evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews”as we defend natural marriage vigorously in the court of law and public opinion.

Jennifer Roback Morse
san marcos, california

Ron Sider rightly points out that fecundity, or the potential of it, is the essential element for a marriage to exist. His mistake is in the comment that “we have failed to deal honestly with the major threat to marriage and family: heterosexual adultery and divorce.” The worse threat to marriage and the family is the premeditated exile of reproduction by artificial contraception. An intentionally sterile marriage, even if only intermittently so, results in the sexual objectification of spouses.

The corruption of the fundamental definition of marriage came long before any court decision on gay marriage. It occurred wholesale when contraception was officially endorsed (albeit conditionally) at the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference in 1930. For artificially contracepting Christians to deny the tiny gay community marriage is truly a farce if Sider’s reasoning holds true, which I think it does. Christians inadvertently have seen to it that legalized homosexual marriage is a fait accompli.

That doesn’t mean Christians can’t resuscitate the state of true marriage within our own ranks, thereby being a light to the world. But if that means rejecting artificial contraception, the battle against gay marriage will look like a snowball fight in contrast.

Mark Geraty
boise, idaho

Ron Sider’s article lacked a point I heard raised in a conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville: that to allow licensing of gay marriage by the government without the justification of the stake that the community has in securing the rights of children to the support of their biological mothers and fathers means to ask for a government sanction for a sexual relationship or, at the very least, a license for a special friendship. This is a new extension of the government’s reach that should give even the advocates of big government pause. Has the government ever been asked to license a friendship? Does anybody on the left want a government license for a sexual relationship?

I reacted strongly to Sider’s call for an end to no-fault divorce and for a concerted effort to promote extensive Christian marriage counseling. I am an orthodox pastor, and I have seen cases in which the technical ground for divorce is adultery, and the option of a dissolution or no-fault divorce is a blessing. This divorce can be handled as quietly, as cheaply, and as decently as possible because one partner does not have to file paperwork outlining the other’s sins. If the divorce had to be filed in an adversarial manner, it would be filed nonetheless. The characterization of no-fault divorce as two people who suddenly lose interest in keeping their marriage vows is prevalent in the public debate, but, in some cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

Having been on the business end of various methods of holding people “accountable,” I can say that being held accountable looks and feels to many people like punishment and rejection. Sadly, the Church is usually not ready to help people work through a serious marriage failure, and those looking on conclude that they can expect similar harsh or clumsy treatment if they have a season of personal struggle. Most marriage-saving programs assume that the program will work as long as a couple sticks with it. This is works righteousness and hardly the way that the healing power of Christ should be presented.

Finally, in the eyes of many evangelicals, having one’s partner commit adultery is still not grounds for divorce. The partner has to be unrepentantly continuing in the affair. This is a curious case of the Church attempting to be holier than God. If the marriage is irretrievably broken, sometimes by a concluded (and repented and forgiven) affair whose effects still reverberate through the marriage, the Lord’s “adultery exception” can be viewed as a mercy to the straying partner, who is then not forced to reenter a relationship at the cost of his or her own dignity and in opposition to his or her own heart.

These are deep waters, and heavy and sad issues. Can First Things find a moral theologian who can state when or how a divorce (and its corollary, remarriage) is justified? I know and am thankful for Catholic moral theology on these matters, but the discussion could be widened.

Harley Wheeler
thompson, ohio

In his excellent article, Ron Sider makes the utilitarian case against gay marriage, stating that “Other things being equal, it is better for children to grow up with their biological parents. Marriage to the mother is by far the best way to ensure responsible fatherhood.” I have little doubt that he is correct, and I would add that it seems insane to experiment with the possibility that he might be wrong by educating the next generation of our nation’s children from grade school onward (as is already being done in California and Massachusetts) that they must expunge from their brains any fundamental connection between marriage and babies.

We do, after all, already have a test case on the matter. Black American men are decades ahead of their white counterparts in severing the connection between marriage and fatherhood, so much so that it is easy to forget that before that experiment began in the 1960s, the legitimacy rate for black Americans was higher than that for whites. And it should be no surprise that the black community today is ahead of white America in its opposition to gay marriage, having lived through the horror of the first experiment.

That being said, the problem with Sider’s argument (and mine) is that by arguing what he thinks marriages should mean, he allows that marriage can mean anything we want. It is as if the man who decided that dogs were better than cats suddenly decided to call his cat a dog or claimed that his cat was actually a dog all along. When arguing against gay marriage, most opponents jump directly to the cultural consequences while allowing the biggest concession of all right out of the gate: that there’s no fundamental reason why same-sex relationships and marriage can’t be the same thing.

The institution of marriage came into existence only because men and women produce children. This is why we have no religious ceremonies or sets of laws administering “best friends.” This is also why we can’t honestly debate whether or not gay couples can be included in marriage any more than we can debate whether or not we should include cats in what we mean by dogs. The only honest debate we can have about marriage is whether or not we should do away with it altogether.

J. Douglas Johnson
chicago, illinois

In “Bearing Better Witness” Ron Sider states, “Legalizing gay marriage would weaken the connection between marriage and procreation . . . which is why court cases in support of gay marriage typically downgrade the role of procreation.” On the other hand, he places most of the blame on the breakdown of marriage and the family. “Worst of all, we have failed to deal honestly with the major threat to marriage and the family: heterosexual adultery and divorce.”

In all fairness, it does seem important to point out that while gay “marriage” does weaken the connection between marriage and procreation, divorce does not. While gay couples cannot procreate, heterosexual couples can, married or unmarried. Divorce is an urgent issue in need of our attention, but it is not the cause of but the result of a much greater problem. Gay “marriage” is the current end result, not so much even of the rethinking of marriage, but of the rethinking of the purpose of procreation in the context of the conjugal act. In this regard it would seem that the fault of evangelicals lies in a very different place than Sider acknowledges.

In my experience, evangelicalism places an undue emphasis on the aesthetics of sex with little if any regard for ontology. For example, when I was involved in a college campus ministry, I helped show a film that featured a popular evangelical speaker talking about dating. He focused on the primary purpose of sex as a pleasurable means of bonding or fulfilling the sexual needs of the partner. A bold Catholic student in the audience was livid over the dichotomy between pleasure and procreation. At the time, I didn’t understand his concern.

Similarly, I didn’t question the evangelical pastor who counseled my wife and me prior to marriage when he gave us the popular evangelical Christian sex manual by Ed and Gaye Wheat, Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Marriage . The title of the book summarizes what I was taught in evangelical circles: God primarily intended sex for pleasure.

As a whole, evangelicals have uncritically accepted artificial methods of birth control. The purpose of these technologies is not so much to “weaken the connection between marriage and procreation” as to render it null and void. So what is wrong with gay “marriage” from the perspective of evangelical heterosexual couples on birth control? If sex is “intended for pleasure,” it is truly difficult to know where this line of reasoning ends. We are currently in the process of discovering this as a nation.

Famously, Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae (1968) that men should consider “how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality . . . . It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticontraceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and . . . may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” This, and other Catholic teaching on the subject, strikes at the heart of Sider’s concern about divorce within evangelicalism and would assist him in his case against gay marriage.

The key to strengthening the connection between marriage and procreation does not lie in doing battle against divorce or even gay marriage; it lies in joining the battle against the contraceptive mentality entrenched both in our culture and our churches. Bearing better witness needs to begin, I believe, with a proper understanding of the body, a proper Christian anthropology. And, toward this end, I recommend what is popularly known as the Theology of the Body, in which Pope John Paul II painstakingly develops a Christian anthropology whereby the conjugal act is seen as an unreserved gift of the self from which flows life, something that cannot be realized in either a homosexual union or a heterosexual union ruled by contraceptive practices.

Charles B. Slater
rochester, minnesota

Ron Sider gets it exactly right when he states that the unchristian treatment of gays by evangelicals (and, I would say, by people of most if not all religious traditions) has severely compromised evangelicals’ ability to make the argument in the public square for marriage’s privileged status as the relationship sanctioned by the state for procreative potential. I believe he is also correct to call out adultery and divorce as the greater threats to marriage and the family.

To this list of threats should be added other modern social developments that have become endemic in our society: abortion, artificial contraception, and pornography. Each of these promotes the modern secular doctrine that sexual relationships can, should, and ultimately must be completely separate from procreation, except for an optional linkage that may be consciously and occasionally chosen by some couples. It should be noted that this doctrine defies biblical revelation, natural law, and even completely secular evolutionary biology. To the extent that this modern secular doctrine of a complete severance of sex from procreation is accepted, it becomes more difficult to defend the understanding of traditional marriage as the proper and best setting for procreation and rearing children.

Joseph B. Stanford
salt lake city, utah

Ron Sider replies:

One minor clarification and one longer argument.

Minor point: My argument for ending no-fault divorce is focused on situations where there are minor children.

Longer argument: I was surprised, although perhaps I should not have been, with the many letters arguing that acceptance of contraception by married couples is the deeper problem. I disagree.

My article deals with only one aspect of my view of marriage”namely, what the state has at stake in marriage law. If I had been talking about a comprehensive Christian understanding of marriage, I would have said that both procreation and intimacy are fundamental purposes of marriage. And contraception enables faithful married couples to enjoy the God-intended delight of sexual intimacy even when they do not choose at that time to have children.

Almost all Christians”including conservative Catholics who use natural family planning”consciously choose not to have children at certain times in their lives and still enjoy intercourse. There is no necessary connection between use of contraceptives and sexual permissiveness of any kind. Obviously, the availability of contraception makes sexual permissiveness easier and “safer.” But so do the backseats of cars and the Internet. We rightly call for the responsible use of cars and the Internet, not for their abolition.

A final point: Catholics and evangelicals do disagree on contraceptives. But surely this is not a sufficiently major disagreement that we cannot work together on a long list of other, more urgent issues.

If you compare the National Association of Evangelicals’ “For the Health of the Nation” (the unanimously endorsed public-policy document of the NAE, which represents thirty million evangelicals) with the official Catholic teaching on faithful citizenship, you find enormous common ground: Both are pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-peace, pro“sexual integrity and pro“creation care.

Furthermore, both Catholics and evangelicals agree on the most basic theological issues: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Jesus is true God and true man; Jesus rose bodily from the dead; Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection are the only way to salvation; and the Bible is God’s unique, fully reliable special revelation. I know we also have some major theological disagreements (the papacy, tradition, the Mass, etc.). But especially at a time when there are both Catholic and Protestant theological liberals who deny many of these historic theological truths”truths confessed by most Christians for almost two millennia”surely we ought to emphasize our agreements more than our disagreements.

Given the vast common ground between evangelicals and Catholics in both basic theology and public policy we ought to focus much, much more on how we can cooperate in a vast new way to shape culture and politics.

no arguments from green authority

Instead of sarcastically calling on “the green movement” to “establish some magisterial authority to explain to us exactly what it is we should do” on matters of life and death (While We’re At It, December 2010), perhaps the editors of First Things should take advantage of the magisterial authorities readily at their disposal. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate , Pope Benedict says, “If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death . . . the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology . . . . Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.” In other words, uphold the life of the person and the planet”and mock neither.

In Blessed Unrest , Paul Hawken sings a song quite similar to the pope’s as he assesses the “core” of the secular environmental movement as being “the Golden Rule” and “the sacredness of all life.” In a world of increasing disconnections between traditional religion and postmodern wanderers, concern for the environment offers one of the few linking opportunities. Certainly, caution and prudence are needed on the journey across, but why First Things seems repeatedly intent on smugly sabotaging this bridge remains beyond me.

John Murdock
falls church, virginia

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