Social media has been ablaze of late with sometimes calm, often manic arguments for and against same-sex marriage. The usually (more-or-less) gentle stream of such ‘discussions’ (I use the term loosely) has risen to a fast-flowing torrent in light of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing challenges against the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and California’s Proposition 8. You may have noticed those cute little pink on red ‘equals’ signs popping up all over the place in social media profile pictures.
Now, I am a Christian. Admission of this fact puts me in an interesting position because it seems, at least from the arguments I have witnessed, that my options are therefore quite limited.
I think it’s fair to say that Christians, in general, have not been very receptive to calls for same-sex marriage to be recognised. Though a few prominent Christian leaders (and apparently a significant percentage of us regular church attendees) have, to use a loaded phrase, come out in support of same-sex marriage, it remains the case that Christians have been among the most vocal opponents of any changes to marriage law (both here in Australia and in the U.S.). Sometimes this has been done gently, even gracefully; many times the opposition has been fierce and, dare I say it, quite ugly. In a few cases, there has been something approaching an obsession with ‘homosexuality’1 as, apparently, the most significant problem in the world today which threatens the very fabric of society(!).
In light of this, probably the most comfortable position for me to take (at least if I were to only surround myself with so-called ‘conservative’ Christians) would be to oppose moves to change the existing legislation which defines marriage as a legally recognised union between one man and one woman.
Alternatively, I could situate myself inside the so-called ‘progressive’ Christian camp and, like some of those prominent Christian leaders I introduced above (as well as the ‘regular’ church attendees I facetiously mentioned there too), simply agree with the calls to include same-sex partners in current definitions of marriage.
In fact, I don’t support either of these options.
For the record, I think that the Church, in general, has treated members of the LGBTQI community disgracefully, and I strongly believe that there is a desperate need both for deep repentance on this issue and for proactive work in displaying the love and grace that we should be embodying as followers of Jesus. Taking it a step further, I also, personally, maintain that there is a legitimate discussion for Christians to have around the biblical ‘position’ on committed, monogamous, loving same-sex relationships (that is, I am not necessarily convinced that a ‘plain reading’ of the biblical texts—whatever that means—is the end of the story, and that any further discussion is beyond the parameters of ‘orthodoxy’). Such complex hermeneutical discussions are, however, for another time.
I would, in light of this, like to state quite clearly that my desire is for my same-sex attracted brothers and sisters receive the same treatment from our Government as those of us who happen to be opposite-sex attracted.2
However—and it is a big however—I don’t believe the best way of doing this is simply by redefining the current definition of marriage to include same-sex partners.
Don’t get me wrong: I think, at this point, the game is pretty much over, and it is somewhat inevitable that the legislation will be changed in this way (both in Australia and the U.S.). It’s only a matter of time, as far as I can see, and the Church would do well to recognise this point and to comprehend the fact that, once again, it will be viewed as being on the ‘wrong side of history’. You know it’s over when there is a ‘theme song’ as good as this:
But simply expanding the current marriage definition to include same-sex couples doesn’t overcome the fundamental problem with the existing setup.
What I would actually like to see, taking my cue from many others who have argued along similar lines, is a complete overhaul in the way all unions are legally recognised.
We are currently in this weird situation where churches (and other recognised religious institutions) solemnise weddings on behalf of the State, and it’s something that I just can’t get my head around. For me, the whole concept is hopelessly, utterly flawed.
The reason for this is that Australia is a secular nation. While there will be many who would protest against this declaration, I think it’s fairly clear that Australia is not—and really never has been—a ‘Christian’ nation (whatever that actually means…). While the argument is a little harder to make in the context of the U.S. (even though the ‘Founding Fathers’ were, for the most part, quite clearly broadly deist in outlook rather than specifically ‘Christian’), I still think it’s clear that the essential separation of Church and State in the U.S. fits the definition of ‘secular’ that I will offer presently.
To my mind, this is actually a (really) good thing.
Church and State don’t really mix well! All you have to do is read a little bit of history to discover this fact.
At the same time, however, both Australia and the U.S. are not (and never really have been) secularist nations. And nor should they be.
I don’t know if my distinction is a legitimate one, but as far as I can see it’s an extremely important distinction to make.
For me, ‘secular’ simply means that our government is not controlled by one particular religious group. We are tolerant of (or perhaps, more positively, we are able to embrace) a range of beliefs—or no belief at all—and we are able to freely elect representatives to stand on our behalf in the legislative bodies. Essentially, the definition of ‘secular’ is about defining negatives: the State is not overtly or specifically religious. ‘Secularist’, on the other hand, concerns the active opposition to or rejection of religious belief. This mindset pushes ‘religious’ worldviews to the periphery, and promotes the nonsensical idea that religion is purely a private matter that really shouldn’t make it into public (religion-free) spaces. This sort of idea is currently seen in much of the militant ‘new atheism’ some of whose advocates, somewhat ironically, can best be described as fundamentalist missionaries in their zeal.
Australia, I think, is thus a secular nation (and I would make the same argument for the U.S.). What this means, at least to me, is that matters of legal recognition should therefore be taken care of by representatives of the State.
As such, I would suggest that all “marriage” in Australia should essentially be the job of the State, and the State alone. Couples wishing to have legal recognition for their union should be required to attend a meeting with a designated representative of the State to formally recognise the legally binding union, from which all rights and responsibilities of a legally recognised union are put in place (‘next of kin’ decision-making, taxation, etc.).
What this would mean is that the secular State could therefore recognise with these ‘civil unions’ whatever types of partnerships they wished to recognise (including same-sex unions)—based on the support (or otherwise) of the voting public.
If, after obtaining this legal recognition of their relationship, a couple wished to have a religious element included (as would be their right in a nation that accommodates a range of belief systems), they could attend whatever church, mosque, synagogue, temple, garden, beach, or living room they liked to have religious blessings of whatever kind offered over their union. This means that hetero couples who wanted their union recognised “before God” could do just that. It also means that same-sex couples who wished to have their union blessed in the sight of whatever god they worshipped could do the same, by finding a religious organisation willing to do so. (My assumption here, of course, is that same-sex couples would only really want to be part of a religious organisation that welcomed them, so conservative religious groups could still refuse to add blessings to such unions—and they should be free to do so—if they so desired, and deal with the subsequent issues pertaining to how they are perceived by society accordingly. I’m pretty sure this works for such religious groups and for those who want to debate them, so everyone’s happy!)
To my mind, this is exactly the sort of thing that the Church and other religious organisations should be doing. We have no place acting on behalf of the State in these matters, and the sooner we recognise this fact the better. So many of our problems in this debate stem from the fact that we have allowed this blurring of the lines between Church and State. Conservative Christians (and others) are now in the terribly uncomfortable position of trying to defend a theological position which is (sort of, though certainly not perfectly) bound up in current legislation, while at the same time trying to protect against the State ‘over-reaching’ into the affairs of the Church in regards to changing the legislation and, perhaps, forcing religious organisations to recognise (or even be required to perform ceremonies for) same-sex unions. Our task, however, is to offer the blessing of recognition ‘in the sight of God’ rather than legal recognition ‘in the sight of the Government’.
Of course, at this point some are going to accuse me of contradicting myself. Above, I made the point that any suggestion that religious belief is purely a private matter is simply ridiculous. Humans approach the whole of their lives from whatever basic philosophical outlook they have adopted, unless they are a hopeless mess of contradiction. This basic worldview informs the way we think and the things that we do. I am a Christian in my private devotion as much as in my public statements and actions, and vice versa. I cannot ever be a Christian only in the privacy of my own home and something else entirely when I interact with others; it just doesn’t work that way.
But I need to recognise the fact that, as an Australian citizen, my voice is one of many. I count it a blessing to be able to vote for my political representatives, but I must realise that my vote goes in with many others in the choosing of these representatives. I also am able to make time to meet with my elected representatives and speak to them about issues that concern me, but I must understand that, for the most part, they are going to act in the interests of the majority of their constituents and not just on my recommendations alone. I can, and will, use my vote towards those who represent best, in my mind, the values that I hold to, but I also recognise that none of the political parties represent the fullness of my belief system.
So, I use my vote, but I must also try to live out my faith in a way that causes others to recognise the God I follow. Basically, the idea is that non-Christians should look at the way we Christians live and say, “I’ll have what s/he’s having!” I’m not arguing for faith to be privatised, but rather that we should recognise that we can’t legislate Christianity. We must embody it. In our secular nation, we are free to do just this.
In regards to marriage, I guess this should mean that, once we have our relationships blessed ‘in the sight of God’, those relationships should be so packed full of love and care and faithfulness and respect and mutual submission, and so free from all forms of domination of the other and control and lack of respect, that others should look at these relationships and take notice. This is our witness. Trying to rely on legislation to define what true ‘marriage’ looks like is a hopeless waste of time and, ultimately, it completely devalues the theological concept behind it.
Personally, I can’t see any justification for defending ‘marriage’ as it currently stands. We should voluntarily (and with a posture of grace and humility) renounce in full any part that we have in the current process, and ask simply for the freedom to ‘value add’ to any State-recognised civil union as we see fit.
At the very least, it would allow for our (secular) Government to quite easily legislate for full equality for same-sex couples under the law (which has, it seems, majority support in the voting community), and this is long overdue.
Whether the LGBTQI community can find that same equality in the Church is for another time.
(1) Personally, I don’t believe that the simple categories of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ do justice to the reality of the spectrum of human sexual identity, but I recognise the currency that these words have at this point in time.
(2) It is necessary to note here that, thanks to the Rudd Labor Government, since November 2008 nearly all inequality for same-sex couples has been removed from Australian law. The same-sex law reform package means that same-sex couples in this country have the same essential legal recognition as opposite-sex de facto couples, in regards to taxation, superannuation, social security and family assistance, immigration and citizenship, child support and family benefits, and a range of other important areas. This was a very important step forward, and it should not be overlooked in these discussions.