FMA as Idolatry

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It might be worth considering this post from Totem to Temple as if it's a piggyback on my 4th of July post. The argument is that a marriage amendment mistakes the mission of the church, but I think it's even worse. It confuses the relationship between Christianity and the secular government. The post doesn't go quite as far as this, but it's far enough for me to extend the argument a little bit. Seeking to mend the religious backsliding in the United States by this sort of method is idolatry. It's trying to get the government to cover over a moral problem by redefining it through political change rather dealing with the spiritual issues first. It seeks a government policy to "protect" a divinely instituted covenant relationship from those who have a better understanding of how the English language works (e.g. if you can have a marriage of minds, then you can have a marriage of two males, regardless of what you think of the morality of such a marriage). That's on the same level as deciding to have a government policy to prevent people from using the word 'Bible' to describe things that aren't the Christian holy scriptures (e.g. a TV show Bible, a Microsoft Windows NT Bible, or something like a Gardener's Bible). My Bible study group has been working through Isaiah 28-39 this summer, and this seems strikingly like when King Hezekiah's advisors recommended seeking Egypt's protection against Assyria during the time of Isaiah. If we seek a secular government, whether one's own or someone else's, as the solution to any spiritual problem, it's idolatry. Some trust in horses, and some trust in chariots...

Update: More on this at Proverbial Wife

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There�s lots of blogslinging going around in the Christian �sphere about the FMA and Christians� involvment in politics in general. Parableman has some great posts on the topic, with plenty of links to other interesing posts. Here are a small handful: Read More

In my last post I speculated a bit about the influence that theonomy played in the ministires of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Although James Dobson, with them, is one of the big three of the public face of Christianity Read More

20 Comments

I wonder if this Christian lobbying isn't some subtle way Satan is using to get us to substitute personally sharing the gospel with people, with focusing on externals at a political, impersonal level.

I'm not saying lobbying for good laws is bad. I'm just saying maybe that's all some people do anymore...

I happen to think that some sort of simple marriage ammendment would be a good thing, but, like so much else in politics, my input into the process is rather irrelevant. I think one of the problems of living in a "democracy" is that people have the illusion that they actually do get to make political decisions (beyond what they do in a ballot box). Whatever posture we take as christian individuals on an issue like this really doesn't matter. Congress will decide what they decide. If they decide wrongly that doesn't necessarily mean the church has failed.

I think studying Isaiah is wonderful on issues like this. We MUST put our hope in God alone. Putting hope somewhere else id definitionally idolatry.

Seeking to mend the religious backsliding in the United States by this sort of method is idolatry. It's trying to get the government to cover over a moral problem by redefining it through political change rather dealing with the spiritual issues first.

This is precisely why I think that legislating morality is a bad idea. (I continue to be bewildered as to why you advocate legislating morality when you support and state its antithesis so capably.)

My support for legislating morality is simply that we can't get rid of our laws based on morality, or we wouldn't have many laws worth much. Murder, breaking contracts, stealing, tax fraud, abuse of authority, maintaining a vehicle that badly pollutes, maintaining a plant that badly pollutes, polygamy, having sex with children, and racial discrimination are all moral issues. If we have to stop legislating morality, we have to get rid of all laws related to any of them.

The real tension in my views is between insisting that a religious motivation for supporting a law is perfectly fine (legally) and my claim that Christians who do so in order to achieve a spiritual purpose are seeing the state as an idol. I don't see an inconsistency. It just means pursuing political change has to be for the right reasons, it must involve an understanding that it's not the end of the world if a secular government decides differetly, and it should allow for many situations when we know our efforts won't be effective enough to accomplish what we think would be a righteous law. Those pursuing a gay marriage amendment fail all three tests.

I think what you're saying is sound, especially about the idolatry issue. When comparing OT examples, of course, we need to remember that we live in a republic, and though we would be wrong to try to make government some kind of secular clone of the Lord, we are duty-bound to participate in our government and should feel no guilt or hesitation about attempting to influence it to adopt laws that are moral and ethical as we understand morality and ethics. Kerry and others are wrong to say that adopting law that has a religious foundation, such as a restriction on abortion, is a violation of the separation clause.

I think a convincing argument can be made that the FMA is in the government's interest because it strengthens the family unit and creates a healthy environment for the raising of children, thus contributing to the common good, to domestic order and to a healthy and strong society. There is strong evidence that a traditional marriage is good for the well-being of children, and that single-parent families, cohabitation, same-sex marriages and other social experiments create poorly adjusted children. It is possible to pursue the goals of the FMA for sound and purely secular reasons, which is why I strongly support it.

I just have questions about the empirical claims. I can't for the life of me see how prohibiting single-sex couples from getting married will improve the marriages of opposite-sex couples. It won't make more people get married. It won't make anyone a better husband, wife, or parent. It won't keep people from getting married before they're ready. It won't lower the divorce rate. How is it supposed to strengthen traditional marriage?

I don't think anyone who knows the data will argue that homosexual parents will provide an environment that's as ideal as a traditional family. Having a male and a female parent is clearly better for psychological development. Having them married (and staying married) is even better. Still, having two parents of the same sex (whether they're married to each other or not, whether they're even having sex with each other or not) is better than having one. I think that's obvious, and the only people who deny it are those who pick out their pet sin that they're not tempted toward and then say that that sin is somehow more twisted than anything else that we don't use to prohibit people from having children. There are a lot of awful things people do that doesn't stop us from allowing them to have children.

So I don't think any of those secular reasons are even good ones.

Jeremy--assuming we're not placing our trust in the government to reform the hearts of Americans, and not seeking for them to solve any spiritual problem, wouldn't it still be a good thing to use the power of government to restrain sinners? We can't hope to change their hearts (or ours) through this sort of external contraint, but we can perhaps prevent them from being as bad as they could be. Knowing my own depravity, I'm glad that there are laws against certain actions in order help me not do those things.

That's why I don't think it's morally wrong to institute laws like this. I don't think the people pushing for it now have the kind of motivation that I would find unproblematic. I certainly don't think there's any reasonable chance of success, and the consequences of trying and failing are disastrous enough that it's not worth it in the current context. This isn't a central gospel issue, but so many Christians seem to be placing it as more important than meeting gay people, demonstrating the gospel in action by getting to know them and sharing their lives with them, and focusin on the truth of the gospel. In this context, with so many complaints against Christians for hating gays, I think it's damaging to the cause of the gospel to align oneself with such people. That's why I take such a strong stance against it.

The studies are in and the fact is (even if you don't like the results) that children of traditional homes stand a better chance of success in life than those of non-traditional homes.

But I neglected the most pressing reason why the FMA is in the government's interest -- procreation. The birth rate in first world nations is dropping rapidly below the replacement rate, which jeopardizes the ability of governments to pay for a host of social programs predicated on the expansion of the tax base. Italy, Germany, France, Sweden and others are begining to consider the need for programs and tax incentives (as the US already has) to encourage families to have children, especially more than 2 children. Although science may provide some help, homosexuals generally fail to procreate.

having two parents of the same sex ... is better than having one. I think that's obvious, and the only people who deny it are those who pick out their pet sin that they're not tempted toward and then say that that sin is somehow more twisted than anything else that we don't use to prohibit people from having children. There are a lot of awful things people do that doesn't stop us from allowing them to have children.

There are many people like me who do not think that homosexuality is "more twisted than anything else" but who believe that the strongest argument for normal marital/sexual relations is that God continually holds up male/female covenants in Scripture as normative, and other arrangements as non-normative. In a fallen world, no human relationship will ever be free of sin and failure. Divorce, adultery and other sins do not lessen the value of the ideal, even if the ideal is seldom achieved in our world.

No doubt at all that there are and will be some wonderful, loving homosexual couples who will raise well-balanced children. God is in the redeeming business, after all, and he is able to create good out of all manner of less-than-ideal situations. Do we therefore just say nothing matters and let people live as their hearts tell them to live? Or do we have a duty (part of "making disciples and teaching them to obey all that I commanded") to acknowledge before men and women that God may know a thing or two about relationships that we don't, and that the monogamy, heterosexuality, faithfulness, celebacy before marriage, etc. are intrinsically superior to the alternatives.

>>>I just have questions about the empirical claims. I can't for the life of me see how prohibiting single-sex couples from getting married will improve the marriages of opposite-sex couples. It won't make more people get married. It won't make anyone a better husband, wife, or parent. It won't keep people from getting married before they're ready. It won't lower the divorce rate. How is it supposed to strengthen traditional marriage?

Perhaps the reason that you have questions about the empirical claims is that you do not understand how they apply to the issue.

The reason that I say that is because of how you phrased your response. You say "How is it [the prohibition on gay marriage] supposed to strengthen traditional marriage?" The answer to your question is: it is not supposed to strengthen traditional marriage, it is supposed to prevent the institution of traditional marriage from being weakened further. Preventing an institution from being weakened by changes is not exactly the same as strengthening it. If I prevent you from chopping the short leg off of a wobbly chair, I have not strengthened the chair or even made it less wobbly, but I have certainly prevented you from making it weaker. Likewise, if I prevent someone from striking you with their fist, I have prevented you from being hurt, but I have not in any way "strengthened" you.

One mechanism by which the gay marriage prohibition prevents the weakening traditional marriage is by reducing the social pressure to accept that traditional marriage is merely one of many equally beneficial social arrangements. Look at the pressure now to accept (more accurately, endorse) homosexuality as a healthy and normal lifestyle. Imagine how much greater that pressure will be when homosexual marriage is condoned and commonplace. Can you imagine a "sex ed" (excuse me, "health") high school textbook ommitting homosexual marriage as an equally valid and normal lifestyle decision after homosexual marriage becomes officially legally condoned? Can you imagine how quickly the civil rights law suit against the school district will be filed if said text doesn't? After offical legal recognition, there will be thousands of such small changes in the way that society views, talks about, and teaches about traditional and homosexual marriage. And these changes won't just happen, they will be legally required. You won't have the opportunity to swim against the tide, because if you you attempt to you will be censured and/or fined.

And really, that is exactly what the advocates of gay marriage are hoping for. It is their biggest and most persuasive argument FOR homosexual marriage. It goes something like: "You are denying us official legal recognition and societal approval for our loving union. Aren't you bigots?" It's the guilt trip that they plan to (and will) ride all the way through the judicial system. The word "bigot", applicable to a situation or not, has become a word to conjure with in post-60s America.

The argument you are making is essentially the same as the argument, especially popular among Libertarians, "How does gay marriage hurt your marriage?" The question, while valid in another context, is just a straw man when used in this manner. My argument, and the argument of most secular opponents of gay marriage, is not that MY traditional marriage will be hurt, it is that traditional marriage as the institutional backbone of society will be hurt and that further weakening the institution of traditional marriage is a bad thing.

Terry, your sex ed argument doesn't move me at all. I don't see how a gay marriage amendment is going to stop those changes from making it into the textbooks. I'd be surprised if they're not already there. The culture is changing on this issue still, and you might think you can slow it down with making certain things illegal, but that isn't going to stop it, and I don't think it's even going to slow it down very much. The real reason I don't think it's going to prevent what you're saying is because what you're saying has already happened. I don't know more than a few people against homosexuality in any sense who don't consider themselves Christian. I know a lot of people who don't consider themselves Christian in any sense. The only way they're going to see such an amendment is as Christians' attempts to force everyone else to pretend they follow Christian morality.

I don't think this argument should be as effective with other things that could be described as legislating morality, but I think Christians have underestimated how signficantly this change has already taken place (whereas with abortion, for instance, most people don't like it even if they think people have a right to it). The vast majority of my students, probably around 80-90%, aren't disgusted or unnerved by the thought of homosexuality. It isn't any government action that brought this about. It's that they've come to know people who are gay and realized that they're normal in every other way than their sexual orientation.

I think you're right that it's a bad argument to assume that a government has an obligation to provide societal approval of any lifestyle, but I think you're wrong about their moral obligation to treat people fairly. If two people who are living in such a way that everything legally significant about their relationship is just like that of a heterosexual married couple are not treated in the same way by the law, there's an argument that it's unfair. There's no constitutional reason not to discriminate on these grounds, but a lack of constitutional prevention doesn't make a lack of moral obligation.

I'm fully aware of how the popular notion of marriage will undergo its last migration into a totally new concept from the original one that was much closer to the biblical one. I don't think this last step is very significant in terms of how far it's already come, which is like night and day. That's why I don't see the need for the kind of rhetoric I keep hearing. No one is trying to undermine marriage, and anyone who says so is lying or extremely deluded. People just want to be able to get health insurance, inheritance rights, and visitation in the hospital for someone they see as part of their family. They don't understand the biblical notion of marriage, because it's already gone from the popular notion of marriage in American society. I spent more time arguing this here in January, which more recent readers of this site may not have read.

Charlie, I've already agreed that children tend to stand a better chance in traditional homes than in non-traditional homes. What I'm saying is that children in good non-traditional homes stand a better chance than in no homes or in bad traditional homes.

The procreation argument won't work. Homosexuals don't procreate (unless they use surrogate moms or sperm donors). So the existence of homosexual marriages doesn't increase the level of procreation. Your argument, though, requires that the existence of homosexual marriages will descrease the birth rate, which I find hard to believe. If gay people who are living with their partners are now able to call it marriage, that won't change anything.

I don't think there's anything wrong with emphasizing how God intended sexual relations and marriage and what that all amounts to. I don't think it should be emphasized in a way out of step with the level of emphasis it gets in the scriptures (which isn't all that frequent compared to, say, social justice, something all but ignored by most of the religious right who think homosexuality is one of the biggest problems in the U.S. today). I don't think you need laws to point any of this out, and I think the main problems with how this culture views marriage have little to do with homosexuality.

I pretty much agree with your last paragraph, and my basic position as a Christian is that no matter what happens about the FMA, society as a whole will continue to keep defining deviancy downward, to use Bill Bennet's phrase, and Christians will do far more by living differently (and talking about why they live differently) than by using the political system to enforce our values.

My only point about procreation (and I am aware that homosexuals don't generally procreate -- got an A in biology) is that western governments already face a problem of low birth rates because childless or single-child marriages are becoming more normative. Calling homosexual unions "marriage" reinforces the idea that marriage is about something other than childbearing, and probably further weakens our social commitment to have children. I see it as a message thing, like legalizing drug use. It may be the pragmatic thing to do, but in the end it sends a message that will have unforeseen (and mostly negative) consequences.

Jeremy, great post and thread. Thanks for linking to me. I agree with so much of what you have articulated in your comments. I'm not sure I want to continue with this subject on my blog, but I am tempted to do so just to link back to you and to explain another factor I think is totally relevant to this controversy (among Christians), so we'll see...

I still don't see the procreation thing, Charlie. If the definition of marriage doesn't involve childbearing, people who want children won't necessarily attach the word 'marriage' to their union. They'll still have kids. If the defition of marriage requires the attempt to have children, those who don't want children won't get married. I'm not sure how either would have a huge effect on the amount of children. I think it would be better to have good homes for the children there already are than to have more children in homes with bad parents by encouraging those who don't want kids to have them anyway. If we aren't having enough kids, the way to have more is to encourage good parents to have larger families.

>>>Terry, your sex ed argument doesn't move me at all. I don't see how a gay marriage amendment is going to stop those changes from making it into the textbooks. I'd be surprised if they're not already there.>>The culture is changing on this issue still, and you might think you can slow it down with making certain things illegal, but that isn't going to stop it, and I don't think it's even going to slow it down very much. The real reason I don't think it's going to prevent what you're saying is because what you're saying has already happened.>>I don't know more than a few people against homosexuality in any sense who don't consider themselves Christian. I know a lot of people who don't consider themselves Christian in any sense. The only way they're going to see such an amendment is as Christians' attempts to force everyone else to pretend they follow Christian morality.>>I don't think this argument should be as effective with other things that could be described as legislating morality, but I think Christians have underestimated how signficantly this change has already taken place (whereas with abortion, for instance, most people don't like it even if they think people have a right to it). The vast majority of my students, probably around 80-90%, aren't disgusted or unnerved by the thought of homosexuality. It isn't any government action that brought this about. It's that they've come to know people who are gay and realized that they're normal in every other way than their sexual orientation.>>I think you're right that it's a bad argument to assume that a government has an obligation to provide societal approval of any lifestyle, but I think you're wrong about their moral obligation to treat people fairly.>>That's why I don't see the need for the kind of rhetoric I keep hearing. No one is trying to undermine marriage, and anyone who says so is lying or extremely deluded. People just want to be able to get health insurance, inheritance rights, and visitation in the hospital for someone they see as part of their family.

This is the second time that you have attributed thoughts to me that are not my own. I don't think there is an evil homosexual conspiracy to undermine marriage. I agree that anyone who thinks so is deluded. That doesn't mean, however, that I am some sort of conspiracy theorist when I argue that the tactics that are being used and the way that the change is being imposed will result in undermining traditional marriage. I think that what is happening is much more along the lines of the "Law of Unintended Consequences" than some idiotic idea that there is a secret cabal of gays that are attempting to destroy society as we know it.

We seem to be very far apart on this issue and may never agree on it, but thank you for the thoughtful discussion (and the excellent website, which I have only just discovered and started to explore through one of your comments on Stuart Buck's blog).

Of course it is not going to "stop" it or even, by itself "slow it down." What it will do is prevent it from becoming actively illegal to oppose it.

Now you seem to be changing your position. You first said, in response to my claim that the FMA won't strengthen traditional marriage, that all you think it will do is prevent further weakening of traditional marriage. Then in response to this argument, you've moved your position further. The FMA won't even prevent the weakening of traditional marriage. It just won't allow that weakening to prevent anyone from opposing traditional marriage. But now we have a very different situation. The FMA goes way beyond safeguarding those who want to have a traditional marriage. It prevents those who choose to have another kind of marriage from doing so. So we're back to my original point that the FMA is the wrong approach to address the problem in question.

As for the change in society issue, I refuse to believe those who think the numbers of how many people accepting and not accepting homosexuality has anything to do with the direction of the culture. The northeast and west coast are clearly the movers and shakers. When some trend is observable there, it's fairly safe to assume that it will affect the relatively delayed culture changes in the south and midwest. So even if the larger number of people opposed to gay marriage right now seems to indicate a majority, it's not a majority that's relevant to the question of where things are headed.

I don't see how wanting to be able to get visiting rights in the hospital, health insurance for a life partner, or custody rights over a life partner's kids is tit-for-tat in the sense of socialist requiring everyone to be on the same level. It simply is a matter of fairness of opportunity. There's something to be said for the claim that it's not discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to prevent gay marriages, but the very reasoning there opens up the argument that it's sex discrimination! See here for my argument for this.

When you said I attributed thoughts to you that were not your own, you were attributing thoughts to me that were not my own. Look back to what I said. I never said you held those beliefs. I was simply addressing those beliefs. There's a big difference. Also, I think it's fairly clear that what we disagree on here is fairly small. Almost every point I've made has led you to say something closer to my position than I had believed you to be saying. We just take the consequences of that agreement to be pretty different.

Wow.

The preview button showed everything perfectly.

Then the post dropped every single bit of text except for the ">>>" that I typed.

That is incredibly irritating.

I checked the HTML for the comment, and it didn't show anything that wasn't showing up already, which was just my text with the carrot marks. So I figured I'd might as well delete it. I'm assuming the carrot marks are yours, and I think that's what caused the problem, since they usually signal HTML. The only good way to set off someone else's words in comments is to use HTML code yourself and italicize it or simply to put it in quotation marks. I'm not sure why it would preview ok, though. Whatever it was, it's lost now. Sorry about that.

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