The aftershocks of Obergefell will reverberate for a very long time, but what happens over the next few years will be critical. Here I speculate on the immediate political fallout and legal trajectory, and sketch the complexity of the necessary response from churches.
Politically, Obergefell puts the Republican party in a terrible quandary. Any candidate who soft-pedals the marriage issue will lose the social conservatives. Candidates who take a hard line against Obergefell will be crucified by the media and will have difficulty generating a majority in the general election. It won’t do for a candidate to disagree with Obergefell on constitutional grounds. Social conservatives want a candidate who actually believes in traditional marriage.
Most candidates will try to string a tightrope between unhappy alternatives. That seems to be what Scott Walker is up to—taking a strong stand against the Court while his wife, Tonette, talks to the Washington Post (!) about divisions over the issue within the Walker household. That two-step allows Walker to woo the base while displaying a kinder, gentler side. If that’s the strategy, it will only squeeze Walker out; Rick Santorum is already making hay out of it. If that’s not the strategy, then Walker’s team has lost control of his message, a problem of a different sort.
This issue threatens the GOP, not merely individual candidates. After Windsor, I started tracking “Good Republicans” who fall over themselves to scramble onto this bandwagon. There are a lot of them already, and there are going to be more. “It’s the law of the land,” many will say, feigning resignation but secretly relieved they have an out. The gap between the social conservative wing and everyone else will widen. Neither faction can win a national election without the other. If the social conservatives bolt, the GOP’s future doesn’t look bright.
Legally, the Dixie Bible Belt will mount the most resilient resistance. Alabama has been roiling ever since state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore told probate judges to uphold the state constitution and ignore a federal judge’s order to issue same-sex licenses. In some counties, courts stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether, with officials exploiting a modal verb, pointing out that the law says they “may” issue licenses, not that they “must.”
I imagine this scenario: An Alabama probate judge refuses to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He’s removed from office, and a compliant judge is put in his place. In the next election cycle, the voters have their say, and in some Alabama counties they’ll say that they want a probate judge who shares their convictions about marriage. So we start another round.
Perhaps there are enough marriage progressives in rural Alabama to fill the seats; perhaps traditionalists will eventually give up on public offices that force such choices on them. A handful will resist as a matter of principle. It may end with the state deciding to appoint probate judges. Alabama’s Senate passed a bill that would get the state out of the marriage business altogether, but the bill died in the House. The question is likely to come up again, but if it passes it will be contested in the courts. If this eventually produces a further federalization of marriage law, it will be the fruit of gay-activist Kennedy’s triumph over Federalist Kennedy.
Most important is what happens in the churches. Even before Obergefell, some churches were making peace with same-sex marriage. Now that same-sex marriage is law, the tribe of “Good Churches” will increase, and the division in the churches over sexual morality will sharpen. Many leaders, churches, and denominations have condemned the Court’s decision, and more will; but others support it, and we have no trans-denominational mechanism to adjudicate between them. There is an opportunity here to forge or strengthen local coalitions of churches. In some cities, pastors’ associations have issued statements affirming biblical marriage. That’s good and needs to happen across the country. But those statements will be most effective if they have a prophetic edge. Saying what’s right is necessary, but it’s not enough. Pastors need to be willing to say that other churches are wrong, and dangerously so.
“Bad Churches” that refuse to adjust doctrine, rhetoric, marriage rules, and hiring policies will find themselves under various kinds of pressure, much of it financial. Almost immediately after the Court’s decision, several pundits proposed removing tax exemption from all churches, or at least from churches that don’t comply with the spirit of the moment. Church exemption may be safe for the time being, but churches need to steel themselves now for the possibility of losing exemption.
Despite the cost, churches must hold firm on marriage, but we’ll fail if we do nothing but hold firm. The sexual revolution is failing and will fail. As it fails, it leaves thousands of damaged lives in its wake—children of broken homes, men and women suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, young people with deep confusion about who they are, lives destroyed by unnatural sexual practices. Churches need to be poised to receive the wounded. We must be more eager to welcome sexual sinners than we are to identify their sin.
This is a practical challenge, but it’s not rocket science and it’s not new. What is required of the Church now is what is always required of the Church: To follow Jesus in excoriating sin, while following Jesus in welcoming sinners. Jesus did it, and he gave us his Spirit so we could do it too.