Marriage (and the Church) in America

I have little idea what challenges American churches (and other institutions) that refuse to recognize same-sex "marriages" may soon face in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, announced today. The Wall Street Journal's Jerry Seib says this feels like the end of a national debate, the final word on a once politically divisive issue in America. It's not that simple, but I suspect he's more right than wrong; the decision already feels a touch passé, as though the court is trying to catch up with a culture already moving on, and the news has dropped off the banner of several major news sites.

If Seib is right, it only shows just how marginalized confessional evangelical types are. But that assumes confessional evangelical types all agree that this decision is wrong. There are those who support gay marriage as a civil matter while believing the act itself immoral.

Obviously, not all immoral acts should be criminalized by the state. Although the state is constantly scalp-deep in moral issues, it lacks the competency to deal with large swaths of the moral order, such as internal acts of the heart or mind. Not even all external acts, capable of being publicly established, are criminalized. Should the state fill its treasury and prisons by prosecuting the merely rude, immodest, or gluttonous? Even the criminality of prostitution and drug use is up for debate today.

But these are not the same sorts of issues as gay marriage. Abortion, prostitution, pornography, drug abuse: these kinds of immoral acts are widely practiced while illegal. Same-sex marriage, however, was not even possible in most states in this country in 2013, now the legal entity exists everywhere. The actions of the state have, over the last decade or so, not decriminalized an immoral practice but created something new by legally redefining a divinely-instituted estate.

To the degree statecraft is soul craft this is a tragedy. It may never manifest itself in the socio-economic desiderata we pay so much attention to as a society--surely one of the reasons so many of our neighbors can't imagine how this is a bad idea--but it springs from a failure to gratefully acknowledge God and sweeps us along toward even more audacious folly down stream.

But, however terrible this error is, it's preferable to another championed by many of my more libertarian students and friends: that "the state should get out of the marriage business." I suspect this view will seduce even more Reformed folks going forward, but it turns on an even more fundamental misunderstanding of marriage. Marriage is not just a religious rite or custom, but a really existing estate established by God among all people and thus something every state needs to recognize and respect, provide for and protect.

The error settled into federal law today is grave and the practice it warrants confused and defiant. That the state still recognizes the reality of marriage and legally provides for true marriages (as well as false ones) may be little comfort, but it is a very big deal. As we lament this decision for our nation and grapple with its effects over the weeks and years to come, the libertarian line will no doubt look very attractive at times. But to adopt it would be like trying to put out a chimney fire by burning down the house. If the chimney fire isn't put out, the house may burn down anyway. But it's better to have a house with a cracked chimney than no house at all.