Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Thought on DOMA's Demise and the Christian Discussion to Follow

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which has blocked federal benefits to married same-sex couples. They also let stand a lower-court ruling that overthrew California's Prop 8 (which would have banned same-sex marriage in that state).

They didn't assert a fundamental right of same-sex couples to be married, but the momentum here is unambiguous and, I think, inevitable. Given the generational divide on this issue--the broad and growing acceptance of homosexual couples and relationships among young Americans--we are seeing an accelerating move towards the normalization of same-sex relationships. The traditional categorical condemnation of same-sex romantic and sexual intimacy is steadily being cast off.

Conservative Christians are likely to see this as a tragic cultural shift away from the teachings of God, and will thus double down in their opposition, calling with renewed urgency for Christians to resist being sucked in by cultural "permissiveness." But these conservative voices, while still strong in most branches of Christianity, are confronting growing opposition from within. More and more Christians are adopting a progressive stance on the topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

There has been a long tendency for conservative Christians to paint these internal critics of the traditional view as nothing but sell-outs to secular culture.
For example, a few years back, in an October 2002 Kansas City "Conference on Christian Sexuality," conservative Lutheran theologian John Nestingen framed the debate over homosexuality within the ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as a fight between cultural accommodationists and those who hold firm to Christian moral restraint of sexual practice. Here's how he puts it in the opening paragraphs to his talk, "Is There a Law? Lutheranism and Homosexual Practice":

Since cultural sexual standards began to shift in the l960s, the basic approach of Lutherans in the ELCA tradition has been accommodation.  Though proudly part of the larger Catholic consensus, our church has sometimes in official pronouncements, more often willy-nilly, surrendered standards of sexual behavior that have been definitive for the church for two millennia.  
The current presenting issue is homosexual practice.  The issue did not arise out of the larger Christian or a particularly Lutheran agenda, say for instance, a special concern for evangelism among homosexuals.  It is a cultural conflict, a part of an ongoing North American societal undercutting of what were once commonly accepted sexual restraints, the expectation being that the church will continue to accommodate.  The question is if there is anything left in our heritage that holds.  Is concession that only available alternative?  Is there something in the Lutheran tradition that we can and must say to a society bent on liberating the individual from all external restraints?
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling today, I expect that this strategy will become even more rampant among conservative Christians, as they face off against those who would see the Church move in the same direction as the country.

But this way of framing the debate within Christianity betrays either a profound misunderstanding of what is motivating Christians critical of the traditional view, or a willful misrepresentation for the sake of strategic effect. It is not rooted in attention to the actual spirit that has driven Christian opponents of the condemnation of homosexuality for decades--since long before the dominant culture was on the side of reform. It is not rooted in compassionate listening. It is not rooted in truth. 

To put it bluntly, those who portray Christian progressives on this issue as simply selling out to secular culture are either willfully lying about their progressive brothers and sisters or haven't listened closely enough to what they have to say. Whatever conservatives think about today's ruling, it should not inspire them to perpetuate an error. 

Here's the truth about where Christian progressives are coming from: They are motivated by allegiance to the law of of love as it applies to their gay and lesbian neighbors. In other words, their starting point is the fundamental moral commandment laid down by Jesus of Nazareth. They are motivated by fidelity to Jesus' demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and they can find no way to fulfill the requirements of this demand while continuing to hold fast to the traditional categorical condemnation of homosexuality. 

Progressives are unimpressed by the quick and easy declaration that we can always "love the sinner while hating the sin." While it is true that we can condemn what really is a sin while continuing to love those who commit the sin, it is not true that we can take just anything to be a sin while continuing to love our neighbors as we should. As I've noted before, anyone who holds that childhood play is a sin will, thereby, be unable to love children as they ought to be loved. And anyone who is motivated by a spirit of love will pay enough attention to children to realize that a prohibition on play would, if followed, be spiritually crushing and hence unloving.

Progressives on this issue within the Christian church have been paying attention to their gay and lesbian neighbors. We (for I am one of them) have seen the spiritually crushing effects of the traditional categorical condemnation. And we have concluded that out of fidelity to the law of love that Jesus lifted up as the very heart of Christian ethical life, we should conclude that Paul's passing remarks about homosexuality may have less to do with divine inspiration than with Paul's (predictable) cultural prejudices. In a clash between a contestable way of approaching the Bible--specifically, in terms of a rather modern doctrine of biblical inerrancy--and fidelity to the law of love, progressives are convinced that one shows greater faith in the God of love, the God who IS love, by cleaving honestly to our clearest understanding of what love requires.

Likewise, old interpretations of natural law theory, formulated by theologians long before we knew much about homosexuality, have to give way to what compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches us about the demands of love.

You can disagree with progressives, say we are wrong about what love requires or that we are wrong in our priorities (for example, in prioritizing Jesus's injunctions about love above the human doctrine of biblical inerrancy). What you shouldn't do is dismiss Christian progressives as nothing more than sell-outs to secular culture. Because then you ignore the challenge that this perspective puts forward from within the Christian tradition and its values, the challenge that relies on the very heart of Christian ethics.

I hope that, in the wake of today's Supreme Court ruling, Christian discussions and disagreements are not impeded by such mischaracterizations. Yes, Christian progressives are cheering today's ruling. But it's not because they've sold out to secular culture. It's because they are finally seeing the broader secular culture moving--on this issue, at least--in the direction that, in their judgment, the law of love demands.


  1. Fortunately or unfortunately, the church doesn't really have a choice but to respond to "culture." I'm kind of surprised that a historian like Nestingen would be so blind on this issue. The church has always had to deal with current issues of the day because they are important to people(!!), and the church is then forced to work things out theologically. Slavery, women in ministry, the role of church and government - you name it. We don't get to choose and we have to respond. Kudos to you for kindly articulating a progressive vision on this issue.

    1. C.P.O,

      Thanks for this. Responding to culture is, as you say, inescapable. And to be fair to Nestingen, I don't think he'd deny that.

      What he denies (at least implicitly) by his way of framing things is that Christian progressives on this issue might be grounding their support for gay rights and same-sex marriage on their Christian conscience and sincere theological reflection. His view is that a favorable response from the church towards growing acceptance of homosexuality is nothing but "accommodation."

      But a Christian can respond favorably to a cultural shift based on principled theological reflection as opposed to mere accommodation. And many of the most tireless Christian advocates for gay rights have been doing exactly that for years--pushing FOR a cultural shift based on their understanding of Christian ethics long BEFORE there was a cultural shift to "accommodate."

      Those of us who fall into this category want our theological arguments to be thoughtfully considered--even if vigorously opposed--rather than pre-emptively ignored using some label like "sell-out" or "accommodationist".

    2. Eric - thanks for the clarification. I think I understand where you are coming from a little better. Nestingen is saying that the impetus for this issue is not coming from the Christian/Lutheran community, but instead from the culture, and you are saying that it actually has arisen from theological reflection that preceded current cultural shifts. And I think that's a great point to make. It's something more people need to hear.