Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The GOP, Evangelicals, and the Politics of Gay Marriage

The Grand Old Party is in a pickle.  With Republican luminaries like Sen. Rob Portman, Ted Olson, and Ken Mehlman advocating the approval of gay marriage, and political guru Karl Rove suggesting that the GOP could well change its stance on the issue, it is clear that the times are changing.

Reasons for this are not hard to discern.  The GOP has lost the last two presidential elections decisively, and demographic data suggest that it is only going to get worse.  Republican strategists know that winning elections is all about cobbling together majority coalitions, and that the nation is trending toward support of gay marriage.  According to a recent Pew Research Center study, more Americans now favor gay marriage than oppose it, and this direction may soon be sealed judicially as the Supreme Court hears challenges to California Prop 8 and DOMA.

At the same time, the culturally conservative wing of the party is unlikely to budge on this issue, and thus we may well be seeing the decisive unraveling of the Reagan-era alliance of Main Street business and the Religious Right.  In other words, the GOP is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, and conventional wisdom suggests that it is doomed to minority status for the foreseeable future.

Particularly striking is the support for gay marriage among the young.  According to the Pew Center study mentioned above, seventy percent of adult millennials (those born after 1981) endorse gay nuptials.  Reasons for this trend are no doubt complex, but let’s mention three of them.

First, this is the generation raised on Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate.  The drumbeat of pro-homosexual messages sent by the educational apparatchiks of the nanny state and the culturally influential is hard to miss, and such messages have an effect.

Second, this generation has experienced the fallout of the sexual revolution and the unfortunate and often destructive decisions of their parents.  In other words, they are the children of the divorce culture, and, not surprisingly, many of them are pessimistic about their own chances for successful marriage.  For them, heterosexual marriage is not sacred—in their experience it hasn’t worked particularly well, and thus they see little reason to protect it and to deny the label to other forms of relationship.

Third, they are Americans.  That is to say, they reflexively view such issues through the lens of “individual rights” language.  This conceptual apparatus, of course, is as old as the Founders, but when it is divorced from any notion of natural law as setting limits on such rights it tends to veer to the left into permissive individualism.  In a 1992 First Things essay, sociologist J. D. Hunter insightfully observed, “The cultural impulse that animates secular modernists (in the arts, in the gay rights and domestic partners movement, in multiculturalism, in euthanasia, in the more frenzied expression of feminism, and so on) is built on precisely the foundation of individual rights.”  Thus the very terms of debate tend to overshadow other more communitarian considerations such as the intrinsic nature of marriage itself, the needs and interests of children, and so on.

Nevertheless, there are at least three reasons that go well beyond crass political calculus why the GOP might want to think carefully before jumping on the gay-marriage bandwagon.

First, there are other ways of looking at this issue.  As a case in point, let’s look at France (for an interesting analysis of the French situation by Matt Tuininga see this).  With current French President François Hollande ramming gay-marriage provisions through the French Parliament, Paris has been rocked by massive popular demonstrations against gay marriage.  Particularly striking is how young the protesters are in the media photos—a lot of young French apparently think gay marriage is not a good idea!  To be sure, there are profound differences between France and the U.S.  France doesn’t have the tradition of individualistic rights language that America does, and the French are famous for doting on their children.  Thus the argument that gay marriage might be “bad for kids” gets traction there in ways that don’t obtain here.  I should add that in light of this it is not surprising in the least that secular France has more restrictive abortion laws than the U.S.  Nevertheless, this should at least give the GOP pause.

Second, the social science on the issue doesn’t offer much support to the proponents of gay marriage.  As University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass and Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield have demonstrated in their recent amicus curiae brief before the high court, social scientists have continued to embarrass themselves with ideologically driven “research” that fails to meet rigorous scientific standards.  Moreover, while we don’t currently have enough longitudinal data for definitive comparative studies of child development in gay-marriage as opposed to heterosexual-marriage contexts, there is plenty of evidence, as Ryan Anderson notes, that children do better in two-parent homes and that the roles of father and mother are not interchangeable.

Furthermore, as Andrew Ferguson recently contended in The Weekly Standard, approval of gay marriage inevitably devalues traditional heterosexual marriage:

We do know, however, that if the state suddenly creates the institution of gay marriage by fiat, the result will lack most of the features that make marriage unique—and uniquely beneficial. It will not be the same institution that has won the unanimous endorsement of social scientists. It will be a novel and revolutionary institution owing its existence to the devaluation of an old and settled one.

Third, the notion of gay marriage is fraught with difficulties, among them the fact that such relationships tend not to last, while marriage is supposed to be “till death do us part.”  Just to be clear, I’m not saying that gay and lesbian relationships cannot last for decades.  I’ve seen some that have.  Rather, the overwhelming statistical fact is that they tend not to.

Relevant psychological reasons for this have been explored by Robert Gagnon, author of the magisterial The Bible and Homosexual Practice, and others.  As the arguments go, lesbian unions often run aground because of relational overload, the heavy relational expectations women tend to have.  Conversely, gay relationships often fall victim to sexual overload, as any pretense of monogamy collapses under the adventurous sexuality that men often bring to homosexual relationships.  After all, men and women are both different and complementary in those differences in ways that traditional marriage is adapted to handle, but homosexual “marriage” is another matter.

But what about Evangelical Christians and this issue?  It seems to me that there is a lot of soul-searching to be done.  To be sure, at this point even a low-key statement of biblical morality comes across as narrow-minded and intolerant, and there is probably not much that can be done about that in the short term.  But the problems are more complicated than the substance of biblical morality.  First of all, we have come across as hypocritical.  American Evangelicalism is, by and large, thoroughly compromised on the issue of heterosexual marriage.  In some portions of the country, self-identified Evangelicals are more likely to divorce than the national average, and the number of morally fallen Evangelical leaders is, at very least, embarrassing.  The world has rightly concluded that we don’t have much credibility on the issue of marriage in general, let alone same-sex marriage.

Along these lines, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in his recent book Bad Religion (see my review here) makes the following trenchant observation:

[T]he Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitably seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases—on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond.  It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists.  The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.

Second, we are often perceived as majoring on condemnation rather than compassion.  Having lectured every year to undergraduates on the Apostle Paul’s view of homosexuality, I’m convinced that many Evangelicals have tended to misread him in two ways—on the moral status of homosexual behavior and the appropriate response of the church.  For example, if we look carefully at the larger context and rhetorical strategy of Paul’s references to homosexual behavior in Romans 1:26-27, it is rather clear that the Apostle’s intent here is not to portray homosexual behavior as especially heinous or as an unforgiveable sin.  Nor is he trying to explain the psychology of homosexuality and how a particular person comes to desire and behave in this way.  Rather, he presents it as emblematic of a sinful condition in which all people participate, as a particularly telling instance of the way that human sin results in the distortion and misdirection of God’s good creation.  It is yet another example of how all creation groans with sadness in anticipation of its deliverance (see Romans 8:20-22).  The upshot of all this is that if we happen not to struggle with this particular form of sin our response should be one of compassion for those who do.

If my reading of Paul is correct, the Evangelical church’s response to homosexuality in the broader culture has also been problematic.  Recall Paul’s treatment of sexual sin in 1 Corinthians 5.  There he tells the Corinthian believers both that they are to maintain standards of sexual purity within the church and that they are not to judge outsiders (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).  In other words, Paul warns against precisely the sort of public hectoring that Evangelicals have often engaged in.  While a comprehensive reading of Scripture certainly indicates that Christians can and should make publicly accessible arguments regarding issues of basic morality, this text indicates that they must also be wise and careful in doing so.