Bracket Analysis (No, not the Final Four)

Carlton Wynne

In a recent article, Albert Mohler has accurately and astutely observed the widespread bracketing of public moral arguments by those seeking to defend the traditional and conjugal view of marriage in America. It's true, from attorneys defending Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the Supreme Court to the most articulate proponents for heterosexual marriage from a natural law perspective, those who publicly stand against same-sex marriage treat moral arguments like sandcastles before a tidal wave. 

As one of the most capable diagnosticians of today's moral insanity, Mohler points out morality's indispensable role for society ("The idea that our laws can stand independent of moral foundation is senseless"); but aside from mentioning misplaced boundaries dictated by "the current intellectual environment," he does not venture an explanation for why moral arguments that are so obviously pertinent to the same-sex marriage debate have been ignored in that context like an embarrassing uncle. Surely the mind-numbing secularization of the intellectual and media elites plays a part. But my guess is that secularization plays a greater role in the embrace of homosexuality in parts of Europe, where secularization is more thoroughgoing, even in countries where that embrace has been relatively slow in coming. So why does morality get the squeeze here in the U.S. when it comes to same-sex marriage? 

To answer this question it may be helpful to note that while moral arguments have been largely absent on both sides of the debate, the use of moral language is quick in coming from those favoring same-sex marriage ("What's wrong with allowing people who love each other to get married?"), though such language is, to be sure, often only thinly disguised preference and sentiment ("Don't you want people to be happy?"). The use of moral language becomes most hard-edged in the rampant denunciations of those who refuse to sanction homosexuality as not only unkind, but bigoted, oppressive, and now (as Mohler himself has pointed out) beneath the standards of basic human decency.     

I think one reason for the fact that the cultural right has bracketed moral arguments in the marriage debate (even as they are bludgeoned by moral language from the left) stems from the dominant excesses of classical liberalism and distorted moral ideology such excesses cultivate. To be sure, individual rights, property ownership, and a common "live and let live" mentality have been American staples since its founding. But the way in which various liberties are calibrated and promoted in a society is often shaped by an agenda, an agenda that, absent a coherent and stable moral vision, pushes self-identified and majority-backed "rights" (read: instincts and preferences) into the mainstream, blowing right past the boundaries of genuine tolerance, impartiality, mutual respect, and fair play while still touting the moral high ground. Some are coming clean regarding this new moral "my tribe's way or the highway" ideology, announcing that such partisan agendas--whether in the courtroom, the boardroom, or the playroom--are inherently virtuous. The bad news of the trend, especially for Christians in the marriage debate, is that the minimum price of admission into the public cultural conversation on marriage is not only the total sacrifice of the relevance of the revealed Word of God; it now also includes the willful surrender of any derivative moral argument that does not comport with the reigning majority's notion of rights. 

The acceptance of this reality, perhaps even sympathy for it, by traditional marriage backers is the real reason why, I believe, moral arguments are absent on one side of the debate even as warped moral language flourishes on the other. The proliferation of the "rights" of a self-identified oppressed minority, like nuclear arms, can imperil a society that has long left its moral and religiously-minded roots behind. Maybe this is why John Adams said, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net." 

My interest here is far from recapturing an idealized era of the past, much less advocating for a transformed culture as an entailment of the gospel. But the question still remains: what should we, as followers of Christ, do now? Might I suggest three things: 

(1) Keep a pilgrim's perspective. Recognize that the public debate over marriage merely confirms the divinely constituted fact that Christians, even those who admirably promote what I believe to be healthy public policies, are pilgrims in a foreign land. I am thankful for the role Christians play in public institutions, and I sympathize with them in the battles they must often wage. But even they must remember that God counts faithfulness to Him, not ballot boxes or cultural swings, as the highest prize of Christian living (Phil 3:12-14). Christians who keep that in mind will, I think, serve their societies well.  

(2) Keep a historical perspective. We will all face the new tolerance buzz saw if we haven't already, but saints of old (and saints around the world) faced the real deal (Heb 11:37). Even still, whatever hardship the church in America may endure, God may yet use it to promote his kingdom in the earth. That seems to be a way he works.

(3) Keep a global perspective. As a professor mentioned to me yesterday, even as the light of Christ may appear to grow dim in some regions of the world, it often begins to blaze in others. Missiologists tell us we have good reason to think this is the case today, for example in places like China, Brazil, and elsewhere. This fact should remind us of the unfailing promise that Christ will build his church (Matt 16:18); a promise that will never be cast into the dustbin of history, precisely because its realization is the central purpose of history, itself.