I’m not particularly invested in US politics, but seeing as half the country votes for the Republican party and many of those because it’s the default ‘Christian vote’, I take an interest in the role that theology and faith plays in their rhetoric. In that vein, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the recent ‘gay marriage’ issue in the presidency war.
Obama has been getting flak from the GOP for claiming that his view on the issue of gay marriage is ‘evolving’, and for eventually coming down in favour of ‘civil unions’ (I’m not sure whether he’s decided that it is right to call it ‘marriage’ just yet).
I don’t think the criticism is deserved; there is something commendable about each of these points. Firstly, it means that his opinions are open to change and that he’s actually thinking about things, rather than giving whatever his party/publicist considers to be ‘the Right Answer’.
Secondly, while conceding civil unions, he also identified his faith as a reason why he is/was unhappy calling these unions ‘marriages’. Maybe he was overtly trying to appear more centrist than the average Democrat — to appeal a tiny bit more to Christian voters — bit still, I thought that it was a risky admission and demonstrated a bit of principle. It’s probably politicking, but it may just show that he is willing to express a personal belief that may be unpopular, and also to subordinate it to what he considers best for those who don’t share his beliefs.
Romney’s Recent Speech
This morning I read that Romney had been campaigning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and had used the opportunity to take a veiled jibe at Obama, but mostly to argue that:
- Marriage between “one man and one woman” is an “enduring institution” that should be defended
- Faith in our Maker is more important that trivial things, and that differences in creed and theology can be overcome by emphasising shared moral convictions and worldview
- Religious freedom is something that needs to be protected
I agree with nearly everything that he argues here. Nearly. But the point at which we disagree seems to me to call into question the integrity of everything else he says. My issue is the supposed ‘shared moral convictions and worldview’.
Romney is a Mormon talking to a broadly Christian audience. There is a great deal of difference in ‘moral convictions and worldview’, even just between Mormons and Christians, so much so that Romney’s church would typically be defined as a cult by his audience that day. We do not share beliefs and worldview, except maybe on the broadest terms.
More importantly, this attempt at finding common ground with his audience is even more unpracticable when applied to the nation as a whole. As he tacitly acknowledges by pleading ‘freedom of religion’, there isn’t complete homogeneity, even among the religious. The US is a pluralist society where opinions on morality and worldviews vary drastically, and their right to differ is constitutionally protected.
It is freedom of religion that enables Romney to be a Mormon, and he can be one even when Christians or Atheists or Clintons are in office. Leaders who are willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree ensure that such freedom exists. Leaders who only protect the liberties that suit them are actually a danger to liberty altogether.
Someone so eager to collect on the leeway that this particular freedom offers him ought to be more sensitive to groups that consider their freedom to be unfairly restricted in other areas. Romney’s talk about protecting marriage is the positive way of saying that he plans to restrict the freedom of people outside his camp to be married. Because their different moral and religious beliefs are too different. Now he may be right, but he’s not even acknowledging the complexities involved, let alone solving them.
It is ironic for someone defending the long and venerable tradition of Christian marriage that the Mormon church spent 50 years defending their right to practice polygamy. Some factions still do. Interestingly, polygamy was outlawed in the US because freedom of religion protects what people believe. What people do is governed by law, and polygamy was considered unlawful practice, not an idiosyncratic belief. Seeing as the US does not consider the practice of homosexuality to be unlawful, I find it hard to see how lawmakers can become inflexible concerning beliefs about marriage and deny civil benefits to couples whose behaviour is perfectly legal.
Romney makes pretty speeches, but he needs to demonstrate why his message doesn’t amount to ‘Yay freedom, except for those who are too different from us’.
So Romney received a standing ovation from the 30,000 in his audience, when in reality, it seems that Obama is the one whose faith and worldview is closer to that audience, and Obama is the one who is concerning himself with protecting the civil liberties also of people with whom he disagrees, not just in the convenient matter of religious freedom, but in the more contentious areas of governance too.
It’s easy to love your friends and to protect what is yours, but what does Romney plan to defend and protect for those people who do not fit into the homogenous faith community that he tries to paint here?
A note on my own beliefs: As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I would prefer marriage to be defined in traditional ways. The trouble politically is this:
- Marriage is not Christian. It is nearly universal, and even in ‘Christian’ countries, non Christians may marry regardless of their faith. Seeing as marriage is not exclusively Christian, I find it hard to see how it can be protected on religious grounds, except if Christians campaign to protect some religiously defined marriage concept that belongs only to them (which I would support).
- Homosexuality is not illegal. If homosexuals have all the sexual and relational freedoms of marriage made available to them already, it makes the matter of calling them ‘legally married’ or not fairly irrelevant. We seem to me to be scrapping over legal status and benefits. The horse has bolted.
If gay marriage is wrong, it needs to be demonstrated more carefully. There may be some value in arguing that long-standing definitions of marriage are inherently worth protecting, but antiquity is not necessarily a sign of value. There may be some worth in arguing that there is social and psychological value in preserving the definitions of family that we do. I certainly believe that children probably benefit from growing up with a parent of each gender, but kids have turned out OK after being raised by one parent or even one grandparent, so what do I know? Point is, it’s complicated, and the matter isn’t settled by shouting ‘protect the family’ really loudly.
A friend helpfully observed the following:
You’ve alluded to something that could be made more explicit. There are two aspect to marriage, a legal and traditional part. The tradition of marriage, which is informed by a person’s beliefs, came first and because of the partnership accept to marriage and the resulting implications for society, governments have realised the need to legislate marriage. The distinction is very obvious in countries such as France but can also be observed in South Africa. In France, you get legally married before the town mayor as the agent of government. The traditional ceremony is then performed afterwards according to your beliefs. Priests, Rabbis and other religious leaders don’t have the right to perform the legal ceremony so one can clearly identify the two different aspects.
Given these two distinctions, I’ve always thought the legal partnership should be made available to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation because of the impact on society.
I see two questions, the first is: is gay marriage wrong? The answer is most certainly yes, according to God’s word. The second question is: given the reality of life in fallen world, should it be legislated? Here I would say yes, to protect the weakest person in this partnership. I don’t think one has to assume that because it’s legislated it’s not wrong.
I therefore think Obama’s stance on gay marriage says nothing about his beliefs. His stance on abortion probably says much more…