Due to an editorial error, a non-final draft of this article was initially posted. Please accept our apologies for any confusion. Ed.
Does the call for Christians to separate matrimony from government marriage mean we’re retreating from the public square? Damon Linker thinks so. He calls it an “unprecedented retreat of theologically conservative churches from engagement in American public life.”
That’s exactly wrong.
If the Marriage Pledge is a retreat, it’s a retreat from this: the illusion that the Christian view of marriage can comfortably accommodate a definition of marriage that has strayed so far from revelation and reason that it now allows men to marry men and women to marry women. We all have to live with the reality of the sexual revolution, but Christians cannot make peace with it.
And, of course, the Marriage Pledge isn’t going to be seen as a retreat by progressives, and certainly not by Christian progressives. They’ll see it, rightly, as an assault on the complacent notion that government marriage in a place like New York (which redefined marriage in 2011) is still marriage.
The Connecticut Supreme Court opined in 2008 that marriage has a “fundamental transcendent historical, social, and social significance,” even “to the degree of being sacred.” Civil unions don’t have that and are therefore unequal. Thus same-sex marriage must be allowed. Gays and lesbians have a right to the metaphysical meaning of marriage.
The clear purpose of this decision and others in favor of same-sex marriage has been to transfer the metaphysical meaning of traditional marriage to gay unions. It is very wrong to imagine that progressives won’t be angered when Christians deny the possibility of that transfer, which is exactly what happens when we take action stipulated by the Marriage Pledge.
Linker isn’t the only one call the Marriage Pledge a retreat. Some of my conservative friends think I’m retreating.
I’m not sure I understand their thinking. Retreating from what? In 2011, New York redefined marriage. We fought and lost. This was bad for the common good. We should continue to fight where we have not lost. We owe it to our neighbors to defend marriage. But at the end of the day what the Bible teaches and Church does defines marriage in far more fundamental and enduring ways than laws legislators pass or opinions judges write. We need to assert that with confidence and clarity.
This is why the Marriage Pledge is the exact opposite of retreat. We occupy the public square simply by being the People of God. Our public potency is substantial, so substantial, in fact, that it generates the transcendent significance the Connecticut judges wished to distribute more widely. We claim this potency by saying that when we marrya very public act with its own integrity, meaning, and assertion of truthwe’re not doing what the state calls marriage. I guarantee you that secularists will regard the Marriage Pledge as an offensive, arrogant Christian resistance to the supposed supreme right of the secular state to define all public realities.
I’ve heard no cultural conservatives express plans for defending marriage in New York or in other jurisdictions where it has been redefined. We’ve pivoted to religious freedom. Good. Necessary. We’ll need strong protections of religious freedom to defend the right of religious institutions to occupy territory in the public square. But defending freedom is not the same as defending marriage. To my mind, if we focus on this pivot alone, then we are retreating. For if we speak only of religious liberty, we no longer talk about marriage.
When I wrote the column introducing the Marriage Pledge, I spoke of a time to rend. As Linker rightly observes, that image, taken from Ecclesiastes, has a rich meaning. It’s a gesture of disappointment and grief. Both are appropriate responses to the way the gay rights groups have hijacked marriage.
But rending is also a gesture of resistance (not anger, as Linker suggests). In this instance, rending the close relation between matrimony and the legal forms of union now provided by states that have redefined marriage resists the conceit so evident in the Connecticut court decision: that secular power defines marriage. Government marriage in Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere may be a convenient legal device for bringing order and stability to civil unions. But it’s not marriage.
We need to state this truth clearly through not only our words, but also through actions. The Marriage Pledge is one possible course of action. I wrongly evoked conscience last week, giving the false impression that it is a moral necessity. (Edward Peters rightly criticized me.) The Marriage Pledge itself makes no such claim. It is best understood as a commitment to avoid the scandal of appearing to assent to redefined marriage. Even if the Marriage Pledge is misguided and imprudent, we need to take action to prevent this scandal. Failing to do so will undermine our ability to speak the truth of marriage to our very confused society.
So, Linker is wrong to think my support of the Marriage Pledge signals that First Things is giving up “the ambition to remake and redeem the morally polluted common life of the country in favor of a drive to preserve and protect Christian virtues and families from the corruption of an increasingly aggressive secular culture and state.”
It’s a false dichotomy. We need strong Christian virtues and families if we’re to have any hope of making a Christian contribution to our pluralistic society. And we need clarity about marriage to do both. The Marriage Pledge provides one basis (there need to be many more) for us to recover that clarity, not to possess or horde its truth, but to find a sound, honest basis for engaging our fellow citizens in an era increasingly dominated by sexual revolutionaries.
Only someone who is not reading First Things can imagine we are preparing for cultural or political hibernation.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.