Religious Thinking in the Public Square, Same-Sex Marriage Edition

The Supreme Court recently issued their ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, recognizing same-sex marriage as a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The reactions from Christians have ranged all across the spectrum from celebrating this decision as God’s will to fearing this decision will only invite God’s wrath against the U.S.

Perhaps the most fascinating response has come from those who wish to separate the Christian and civil definitions of marriage. This position essentially says Christians and churches are free to define marriage as they wish, but the state is also free to define marriage as it wishes. These definitions need not overlap so long as the state does not force churches to endorse types of marriage they find objectionable. Just as importantly, Christians of a certain view should not force their definition of marriage on the broader public. These Christians, the argument goes, should respect their neighbors’ free expression of religion, namely, their neighbors’ right to define marriage differently than they do. Writers have taken different approaches to reach this point. Some of the reasoning has been better than others, and I’d like to address some of the reasoning that I find lacking.

Take, for example, the writing of Kristen Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan. I find her reasoning wanting with regard to the role of faith in the same-sex marriage debate. I refer to Howerton not to single her out, but because she writes very well and offers a paradigmatic picture of a certain type of reasoning. (She writes exceptional posts on adoption and race—it’s a blog well worth your time.)

In her most recent post, Howerton goes to great lengths affirming an individual’s right to believe whatever he wants about marriage. She also offers a good example to make a point: Christians can believe the Bible’s teachings about God and still respect the freedom of Buddhists to practice their religion as they wish without diminishing the Christian understanding of God, or threatening the Christian’s ability to worship. With regard to civil rights, Howerton says an individual’s beliefs should have no bearing on the rights of others. Howerton and others making this argument come dangerously close to saying faith is a purely private matter and religious reasoning is not welcome in the public square. Howerton writes:

The relevance of your biblical beliefs on homosexuality in regards to marriage equality? THEY AREN’T RELEVANT. So stop talking about them in relation to civil rights. And stop acting confused when your Christian friends express happiness that our homophobic laws have been overturned.

In a pluralistic democracy, citizens are free to not only believe what they want, they are also free to reach those beliefs however they wish. Further, they are free to bring those beliefs and reasoning into the public square. Other people do not have to accept these positions or the reasoning. If folks of one religious tradition cannot convince other people outside their tradition of their position, then they have to find new ways to communicate their values. If I were to speak for anti-human trafficking laws, I would do so because of my religious convictions, but I would use different reasoning and language depending if I were speaking to atheists or to Methodists.

I don’t think any of us fault Martin Luther King, Jr. for using religious reasoning and language as he called for civil rights for African Americans and others in the 1960’s. His public speeches all dripped with religious reasoning, not merely his sermons delivered in churches. His religious conviction that all people bear the image of God shaped his interpretation of the political claim that “all men are created equal.” The call for civil rights from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was rooted deeply in religious convictions and biblical beliefs. Was King, a Christian pastor who spoke out of his religious tradition, imposing his religious views on atheist Social Darwinists, or even Christian segregationists who disagreed with his theological interpretations?

Or take the example of Bree Newsome, who recently climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to take down the Confederate battle flag flying there. Newsome responded to the police ordering her to come down, “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. We come against hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” Was Newsome not imposing her religious beliefs on others as she made a stand for justice?

Trying to remove religious thinking from the discussion of civil rights is not only undemocratic, it is also historically inaccurate. The development of civil rights in America owes much to religious thinking. As noted above, many of the leaders and activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s were largely motivated by religious convictions. Abolitionists in the 19th century called on the U.S. to outlaw slavery, often using extremely religious reasoning and quoting from the Bible. Many of those who advocated for women’s rights, including suffrage, allowed their religious convictions to shape their vision of what American society should look like. We have been made better as a nation because of people bringing their religious convictions into the public debate concerning civil rights. To be sure, in each of the areas I mentioned, there were also people using religious reasoning to stop the expansion of civil rights. Then it becomes a matter of debate and decision, that is, we engage in democratic practices. We discuss, we try to convince others of our position, and we vote. (In the case over the abolition of slavery we also went to war with each other, but thankfully we have been otherwise able to avoid that evil.)

The type of argument Howerton offers would be made stronger if she did three things.

First, move away from the idea that religious thinking has no place in the discussion of civil rights. It is uncharitable and unrealistic to demand people leave their most cherished convictions at the edge of the public square. We do not demand a democratic socialist keep the philosophical commitments that shape her socialism out of discussions of civil rights. Not everyone is going to share the same core convictions. Let us hash out our differences in the light of day.

Second, Howerton’s example of Christians respecting the rights of Buddhists to worship as they wish is one of her strongest points. She should similarly demonstrate how the issue of marriage is another example where Christians ought to restrain themselves. Show how the state’s understanding of marriage is different from a religious understanding. Then argue why we ought to allow the state to sanction these marriages even when we find they go against our religious views.

Building off the previous point, some Christian thinkers have argued respecting the freedom of others to worship as they see fit is a deeply Christian act. That is, we do not set aside our discipleship to Jesus Christ when we support the religious freedom of others to worship something other than Jesus (or nothing at all). In fact, we deeply engage in our discipleship as we extend this freedom because Christ calls people to follow him, but he does not coerce them. The third way Howerton’s argument could be made stronger would be to follow a similar tack. Speak to Christians from within their tradition. I do not mean she should enter the debates of whether churches should bless same-sex unions. Rather, she should show how it is a Christian act to support or merely allow for a state-sanctioned marriage even if it does not resemble the definition of a Christian marriage.

My concern with this post is to address a dangerous tendency that says religious thinking is not welcome in the public square. It’s perhaps one of the most commonly held understandings of the social contract, but I find it deficient. We have benefited greatly as a nation from people bringing religious thinking into the discussion of civil rights. I use the example of same-sex marriage because it is one where this sort of restriction is often called for. Not everyone will agree with the religious convictions or reasoning of their neighbors. They are free to reject this reasoning and offer arguments of their own.

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