Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Q&A: Why are Christians fired up about gay marriage, but not divorce?

A reader writes:
I understand that many Christians find the whole concept of gay marriage to be against God's design and plan for marriage. These Christians say that because marriage is designed to be a long-term (indeed, forever), intimate (sexual) relationship, the state should not allow anyone except one man and one woman to be married.

I see where these Christians are coming from. However, I wonder if they are consistent with this same concept when it comes to divorce.

The Bible, as I understand it, is strongly against divorce. To get divorced is to break the bond that God established, and only under certain circumstances (such as adultery) is it allowed. However, let's say that hypothetically, "Adam" decides he doesn't want to be married to "Eve" any longer because he doesn't like her nagging, so he gets a divorce, and then gets married to "Elizabeth." Adam thus has a long-term sexual relationship with Elizabeth, contrary to God's law, when he should have remained true with Eve. The question is: If Christians consider a homosexual marriage to be wrong—and on this basis declare that it should be ILLEGAL—then why shouldn't Adam's divorce and remarriage be ALSO wrong—AND ILLEGAL? Both are falling short of the ideal family unit, aren't they?

If Christians are so strongly against gay marriage and so convinced that we must "protect the family unit," why aren't these Christians—WITH EQUAL VIGOR AND INTENSITY—declaring that divorce and remarriage are wrong and SHOULD NOT be allowed? Aren't divorced and remarried heterosexual people "living in sexual sin" (and thereby offending God) just as much as gay couples are, according to the Bible? And the state is blessing the union of these divorced people! Aren't Christians being extremely inconsistent here? Because obviously, there are no Christians in the entire United States who are on a crusade to outlaw remarriages after divorces.

I personally am not necessarily advocating that remarriage should be illegal, or that gay marriage should be legal. I am just making a point about consistency. And I also believe that if Christians were REALLY concerned about "protecting the family unit," they would do everything in their power to focus on bringing down the extremely high divorce rate among heterosexual couples (even among Christians!) rather than going to extreme lengths to oppose the unions of homosexual couples that love each other.

Holly sez:
You said, “I understand that many Christians find the whole concept of gay marriage to be against God’s design and plan for marriage. … I wonder if they are consistent with this same concept when it comes to divorce.”

It's true that the church as a whole isn’t consistent. The divorce rate is the same among Christians and non-Christians, with evangelicals having a nominally lower rate of divorce (perhaps a percent less—certainly nothing to brag about). And Scripture is clear on the issue of divorce between two believers:

Matthew 5:32
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.

Here’s the thing: There are lots of folks who label themselves as “Christian” yet make no effort to act as Christ-followers. There’s a good reason that the church is seen as a place full of hypocrisy. I’d submit that few who call themselves Christians see themselves as sinful. C.S. Lewis talks about pride as “the great sin,” and I’d speculate that prideful people are particularly drawn to the church because they see church membership as proof of their goodness/superiority. And part of the problem is that church leaders often focus on the message of God’s love—which makes sense because there are tons of broken and hurting people in the church—but this hurts the church as a whole when we neglect to discuss how depraved, ugly and corrupt humans really are. I don’t think most Christians understand exactly how desperate the human situation is, and how every one of us would be doomed if we didn’t have a Savior in Jesus.

Those problems aside, I’d argue that many churches and Christian institutions do take a very strong stand on divorce. On the application for Biola University, prospective students must indicate if they’ve been divorced or if their spouse has divorced. Those who have divorced (or have a divorced spouse) must then write an essay on their view on divorce and how their own divorce might affect their future ministry. When I applied for a job at Christianity Today International, I wasn’t directly asked whether I’d ever been divorced (I think it’s probably illegal to ask about marital status), but the company definitely insisted on full disclosure among staff members. I knew very intimate details about my fellow staffers lives, and there was a high level of accountability in the best of ways. We were continually reminded that we were representing Jesus Christ (as opposed to merely being representatives of the magazines).

You might say it makes sense that Christian organizations would have internal policies on divorce—but why aren’t churches more vocal on divorce among churchgoers? For starters, I’d say the church doesn’t have a leg to stand on since so many Christian couples have divorced. In contrast, most pastors won’t perform gay unions, so same-sex marriage is a relatively “hands clean” issue for the church. That might sound hypocritical, but let’s face facts: It’s easier to take a stand on something when you don’t have to add, “Do as a say, not as I do” at the end of your statement. So while both divorce and same-sex marriage can be justified biblically as immoral, one is a lot easier for the church to be vocal about.

I have to point out that when we Christians take a critical look at the church, we tend to condemn the sin we aren’t participating in. For example, I have some Christian friends who are environmental and social activists, and they often ask, “Why doesn’t the church pay more attention to the poor and sick? Why don’t more churches do simple acts like recycling?” It makes sense that these activists are the ones speaking up about these issues: A person who drives an SUV probably won’t be the one to say, “Christians need to do better at taking care of the planet God entrusted to us.”

So I think your argument illustrates how it’s easier to take a stand on a “hands clean” issue: Since you love your wife and care about your marriage, it’s easier (and appropriate) for you to pose this question about divorce. It’s very difficult for someone like my pastor. After my pastor found out he was unable to have children, his first wife had an affair, got pregnant (which was her intention), and left him. Despite his attempts to reconcile, she divorced him. While he was clearly “hands clean” from a biblical perspective, nearly 20 years later it’s still difficult for him to counsel people about divorce because they reply, “Well, Pastor, you got a divorce!”

But there’s a far more important, practical reason that keeps Christians from taking a stand against divorce: There’s no public discourse on the topic right now. It’s very difficult for someone to take a strong position on something that isn’t in the public mind. In comparison, same-sex marriage is discussed on TV, in Washington, and it’s been up for the vote in several states.

Here’s an example: Say I wanted to take a stand against adultery. The majority of the public would probably agree with me that adultery is a bad thing. Yet I probably wouldn’t get very far in my campaign because adultery isn’t an issue on the public mind right now.

But say a study came out this month that showed the financial toll that broken marriages take on the economy. And say in this study, it’s shown that the most litigious, expensive divorces occur due to adultery. When this study is announced on the evening news, that’s my cue to get vocal. At that point, I could post on the web, send letters to Congress, write editorials, and get a petition going to put a proposition on the ballot—and people would probably listen to me. It’s like how reporters have to focus on certain stories and pass on others because of the public’s interest (or lack thereof).

This is not to say that Christians take every opportunity to discuss divorce. I think a huge one was missed during the presidential election: marriage/divorce among the presidential candidates. There were little murmurs about it, but someone who deeply cared about divorce rates could have jumped on that one.

Another problem is that folks in the church don’t talk about their sins. I’ve found that many Christians are extremely secretive about their lives because they’re afraid of being judged by other Christians. With good reason: There are jerks in the church who do judge and condemn. This goes back to the masses of folks who join churches so they can feel superior to others—and they don’t want any “sinners” ruining their holy clubs.

Meanwhile, other Christians are terrified of sounding judgmental because they know the church is seen as hypocritical. So they keep mum on topics like divorce.

And lest I sound like I’m just listing excuses for why Christians don’t discuss divorce—I’d add that my personal writing and discussion about same-sex marriage has consistently included the topic of divorce. I took a hard line on divorce in the church last June:

“The gay community is blameless for the current state of marriage. Heterosexuals—including us evangelical Christians—are solely responsible for damaging God’s holy union. We must admit our guilt, and our selfishness at the root of divorce and infidelity. If we Christians really want to restore God’s plan for marriage, we need to channel some of the energy that’s gone into fighting same-sex marriages into working on our own marriages.”

As for my own stance on same-sex marriage … perhaps six or seven years ago, I watched a documentary on the topic (it was pro-same-sex marriage). To be honest, my thoughts as I watched it were, “Why not let gay couples marry and have equal rights? What difference does it make to me if they get married?”

And then something deeply troubling was said on the documentary by one of the primary gay-rights activists. He said that what the gay community really wanted wasn’t marriage, but rather the right to divorce—gay couples needed a way to have their interests protected when they divorced, he said. I’ve since read similar statements on gay-rights websites, albeit not quite as blunt. This motivated me to start digging into the movement for same-sex marriage. What I found was a lack of interest in commitment and a focus on social status.

Marriage has taken a beating from divorce. Those who believe marriage is a vow made before God to enter into a life-long commitment should be sickened that the term has deteriorated into meaning “relational legitimacy.” It’s like one step above “going steady.” Relational legitimacy is really what the gay community is fighting for in California, because it’s clearly not a rights issue. Couples who register as domestic partners have the same rights/benefits/responsibilities as couples who marry. California’s Prop. 8 was a fight over a word that means a lot to people on both sides of the issue.

Let me circle back a minute. Why do heterosexual Christian couples enter into marriage if they don’t intend to keep their vow to God? Probably for the same reason folks call themselves Christians without ever intending to follow Christ. People want the status that gives them a feeling of superiority. Gay couples want the status they feel is conveyed by the label “marriage.” People are very interested in getting the rights and benefits of both Christianity and marriage. But many don’t want the responsibilities that go along with the commitment.

For now, I’d submit that the majority of Americans define marriage as a life-long vow made before God between a man and a woman. Every law is a moral value judgment of human beings, and every American has the right to weigh in on what the law should be. I seized the opportunity to weigh in on same-sex marriage. If I get such an opportunity to weigh in on divorce, you can bet I’ll do so.

I hope you’ll keep asking this question to a lot of Christians. Puts it on their radar. It reminded me that I need to always discuss divorce—and acknowledge the failings of Christians—whenever I’m writing or talking about same-sex marriage.


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog you got here. Is this, then, an admission that you would actually support an initiative to take away the rights of married people to get divorced? Certainly you can see that such a retrograde notion is precisely the analogue of Proposition 8.

Your argument goes like this: The Bible says homosexuality is wrong. I believe the Bible is the word of God. Therefore I will support the movement to take away the legal ability for gays to marry, even though I'm aware of and regret the fact that this will necessarily serve to marginalize my homosexual friends. (Sorry, friends, but God is great.) Then why don't you take arms against divorce, which is also enjoined in the Bible and which affects many more marriages than gayness does - half I think is the current estimate? I think we both know the answer - because nobody would ever take you seriously. It's easy for Christians to hew to tradition when it deprives others of hard-won rights but when it comes to sacrificing their legal rights, whoa Katie, bar the door.

I applaud your willingness to acknowledge the hypocrisy of Christians acting against gays while leaving unruffled the huge masses of people who would rise to denounce as medieval any effort to outlaw divorce. But I don't think you're being intellectually honest. The fact is that this is pretty baldly inconsistent. If homosexuality is wrong but is a far less serious problem than divorce why are you targeting first? Why not go after the real rot in the underbelly of society? Why dust a room that is covered in mildew?

I believe the answer lies in your recognition of the political reality: "Yet I probably wouldn’t get very far in my campaign because adultery isn’t an issue on the public mind right now." But I have to ask, so what? If it was so important to deprive gays of their legal right to marry, let's get on the stick and deprive married folks of their legal right to divorce. Was it simply that there was a popular movement (never mind that it was rank with bigotry, ignorance and fear) that made it all easy?

Maybe that's it. It is easy to pick on a marginal group of people. Less so today than, say, in the 1950s or 1940s but still possible unfortunately. Just as it was easy maybe to make fun of the sissy in school, not that you did or even would, but many did and do simply because they can and it lets them belong or at the very least avoid being treated like the sissy. Such dark aspects of our nature can certainly turn malignant, even more easily when the law treats says "they" are different from "us." Just ask the friends of Matthew Shepard. Alas, we can't ask him. But I have a feeling that I know what he would say.

Holly said...

Hi Anonymous,

Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. Just started the semester at school this week, so I haven't checked my email in a few days (I moderate comments, so's I can delete spam with links to buy encyclopedias and whatnot.)

Thanks for taking time to write thoughtful, diplomatic comments with fair questions. On my other blog (I also blog for a major Christian publication), I get (too) many un-thoughtful comments—from Christians—that I'm narcissistic, heretical, that I need to repent, that I'm giving voice to Satan .... I wish more people would take time to think about what they want to say and attempt to articulate a question instead of taking swipes at my character (or, apparently, lack thereof!).

I will take some time to consider your comments, and will hopefully be able to respond this weekend. I might also ask a guest writer to offer their thoughts on Prop. 8, to get another fresh voice on this.

A bit about me: My family attended a Christian church when I was growing up, but I haven't always been a Christian (I was a New Ager for about six years after college, and dabbled in other major and minor religions for about four years). I've read a bit of the writing you'd mentioned in your other comment (The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation). I don't have a philosophy background, but I've read bits and pieces of all the philosophers you’d mentioned. Last year, I attended a debate between Peter Singer and Dinesh D’Souza—and while I found Singer’s arguments at that exchange to be weak, D’Souza still got pummeled, in my opinion. I plan to attend a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig this April, and the topic is "Does God exist?" That will be a hot time in the ol' town.

You sound like you’ve made a solid decision to hold an atheistic position (as opposed to claiming ignorance due to lack of empirical evidence either for or against the existence of God, as agnostic folks do). I appreciate that you’ve noted we probably won’t convince each other to change our beliefs. Actually, I don’t pretend that I personally can convince anyone that there’s a God—I leave that work up to God’s Spirit. So, since you don’t believe in God, I guess you’ve got nothing to worry about. (Me make Christian-to-Atheist joke.)

But seriously, I do appreciate your willingness to discuss these topics. I always appreciate a good exchange—helps me contemplate my own beliefs and to better understand the positions of others.

Anonymous said...

Annoymous said, "If it was so important to deprive gays of their legal right to marry, let's get on the stick and deprive married folks of their legal right to divorce."

The problem is that homosexuals don't have a "legal right to marry," so we are not depriving them of something that they already had. Whether they should have a legal right to marry is what the debate is all about.

Legal and illegal are defined by the laws of the land, and the laws of this land are determined by the people (governement "of the people, by the people, for the people").

In a legal sense, the definition of marriage is up to the people. I cannot marry two men, no matter how much I may love them both. I can't marry my brother, even though he's a great guy. By the same laws, I can't marry a girl, even if she's perfect for me.

I can claim that my rights are being infringed in all three cases. That's pretty much what laws are, infringments of rights. Society says I don't have the right to steal your car, or go the wrong way down a one-way street, or a hundred other things I may otherwise have the perfect right and ability to do.

If they people vote to define marriage as between one man and one woman, then that is the only legal form of marriage.

One of the problems with this whole debate is that the people did vote to keep marriage between one man and one woman, and a few judges decided that the people were wrong; which by definition is ridiculous.

The people could vote that purple shirts are illegal on Thursdays and a judge would have to find a person who wore a purple shirt on Thursday guilty no matter how ridiculous he personally thought the law was.

That's what separation of powers is all about; why we have judicial, legistlative, and executive branches of government. Judges can't make laws, or decide that laws the people vote on aren't really laws after all; their job is simply to decide if a particular person has acted in accordance with the laws the people have made.

Anonymous said...

I think I misspoke in my previous comment (and as it hasn't been posted yet, I can't check it to see)...

Homosexuals do have the right to marry, they simply can't marry each other, any more than siblings can marry each other. They can marry members of the opposite sex, just as siblings can marry non-family members. That may not be who they would most like to marry, but when you're talking legal/illegal, you have to be specific.

Anonymous said...

Yo Adrienne...(just a little levity here...)

Anyway, it's interesting that you should mention separation of powers and be so uninformed about how that system works. In fact until Proposition 8, people could marry someone of the same sex and it was a court decision that rendered unconstitutional past laws restricting marriage to (the ever so more godly and deserving) heterosexual couples. That gays only had this right for a short window of time is not irrelevant.

The 2008 Ca. Supreme Court case known as In re Marriage Cases was precisely a decision made through the system of checks and balances that you reference. However you might wish to look at it, it gave gays the right to marry. And of course that's what thousands were doing.

Here are some True Facts: On May 15, 2008, the state's highest court ruled in a 4–3 decision that gay laws are subject to strict judicial scrutiny and that marriage is a fundamental right under Article 1, Section 7 of the California Constitution, thereby holding unconstitutional the previously existing statutory ban on same-sex marriage embodied in two statutes, one enacted by the Legislature in 1977, and the other through the initiative process in 2000 (Proposition 22).

Just as courts had done before, the supreme court decided laws that were on the books were not in accordance with our constitution and overturned them. The history of white restriction of black rights is entirely analogous. For example, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the system of "separate but equal" - that means separate drinking fountains and schools and urinals and stuff like that - for blacks and whites, which had been on the books since the case of Plessy v Ferguson established it in 1896.

Just as you say gays have no "right" to marry, white racists said Plessy (a man of mostly white ancestry who today would not be recognized as black) did not have any "right" to sit in a train car where he wanted. And yes the decision that established that he had no such right provided a legal framework for the system of apartheid that was then set up in the south. Now of course, the system that deprived gays of the right to marry is far less oppressive than the one that deprived blacks of their own control over their movements. Lynchings of uppity gay men are thankfully extremely rare (though not entirely unheard of). But gay people are faced with a certain kind of violence, the contempt and disgust in which certain quarters of our society hold them. It is precisely in that ugly bitter spirit that Proposition 8 was passed. And it is precisely in the spirit of Brown v. Board of Ed that it will most certainly be struck down.

Your point about laws being restrictions of rights gets only part of the story correct. You can likewise view our system as one in which rights are established and protected. While I have no right to speed in my car, you have no right to endanger my life by speeding in yours. In essence of a "right" to a free safe use of the roads that you are enjoined from taking away.

I guess it depends on whether you see the purpose of the state as protecting our right to safe roads or taking away our right to drive dangerously. I see it as the former.

Anonymous said...

"This motivated me to start digging into the movement for same-sex marriage. What I found was a lack of interest in commitment and a focus on social status."

Why fight to get married if all you want is a divorce?

These provisions are for the protection of both members of the union, whose validity is derived from heterosexual marriage precedents. YES, of course marriage is about "social status," which is your sugar-coated term for "civil rights."

Please let's not get into the ethics of interracial marriage in a biblical context, because anyone who brings that up is clearly bigoted. Let the gays benefit from the same spiritual terminology you do (in matrimony), and only those who question the strength of their own marriage will be offended.