The controversy surrounding the refusal of a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, to issue marriage licenses so that she can avoid sanctioning same sex unions raises a whole host of issue which will be debated for some years to come. While sympathizing with her position on marriage, I also find Ryan Anderson’s argument, that religious liberty is not in itself absolutely decisive in such a case, to be compelling.
Of course, the situation also highlights another aspect of the struggle over same-sex marriage. The woman concerned is apparently on her fourth husband and thus her critics ask the obvious, and legitimate, question: How high a view of marriage does that indicate? Her response is that she has only been a Christian for a few years and that her broken marriages are part of a life which she has left behind.
I have no reason to doubt her sincerity or the significance of her conversion. But the fact that she has only been a professing Christian for a few years scarcely defuses the power of the question. The politics of sex is the politics of aesthetic and rhetorical plausibility, and a multiple divorcee understandably lacks such plausibility on the matter of the sanctity of marriage. The only way in which her defense could be deemed plausible would be if the church in general had maintained in practice, not just theory, a high view of marriage. Then the move from outside the church to inside the church would perhaps have more rhetorical power. In fact, at least as far as Protestantism goes, the opposite is the case. The supine acceptance by many churches of no fault divorce makes the ‘I have become a Christian so it is all different now’ defense appear implausible, even if it is actually true in specific cases.
The church did not lose the wider cultural argument on sexual identity. No argument against traditional marriage was ever really made. I have noted before that the culture shifted because soap operas and sitcoms seized the political initiative and made the case for change via emotive narratives and shameless pulling at heartstrings. Thus, there is little point in arguing the case for traditional marriage in the public sphere. If there is hope for traditionalists, it can only come by demonstrating good marriages and families in action.
If the ‘I am a Christian' strategy is to carry any force at all, churches need to start taking marriage seriously. They need to start taking pastoral and, if necessary, disciplinary action against adulterers, against spousal abusers, against trivial divorces. Only then will the statement ‘I am a member of a church so have a high view of marriage’ start to appear plausible to the outside world. And in a week where an evangelical superstar is back in a role of ecclesiastical influence within weeks of being defrocked for adultery and filing for divorce, and others have fallen after playing with fire on the Ashley Madison site, it is clear that churches find it a lot easier to talk about the importance of marriage and fidelity than to uphold them in practice.
We already have nothing to say to secular people on this issue because they are not listening anyway. If we continue in practice to treat marriage abuses and breakdowns as of little more moral significance than a parking violation or a spot of jay-walking, we will continue to have nothing to show them either. The world is no fool. It knows cant when it hears it.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.