Perhaps you saw the full-page advertisement in the Washington Post this past Monday (June 15) — or USA Today or another national news outlet. The sponsors of the ad, defendmarriage.org, fear that the impending decision by the Supreme Court over whether the US Constitution protects the rights of all adults to choose their partners in marriage will infringe upon radical right-wing Christians’ right to impose their understanding of marriage on others. On this question, the jury is out.
But, as is surely the case with most pronouncements based on fear and ignorance, the advertisement is incoherent.
First, it is simply silly for anyone to claim that they hold the US Constitution above his or her highest ontological principles. Even those who believe that the US Constitution embodies the highest and most universal legal, moral, or ethical principles must have come to that judgment based on their own legal, moral, or ethical principles. So, although defendmarriage.org might like you think they are teetering on the edge of extra-constitutionality, so are all of the rest of us. Get over it. The only difference is that our highest principles tell us that republican institutions and values and democratic process are good things to preserve. Defendmarriage.org, on the other hand, believe that the freedom of marriage is the litmus test over which republican institutions and values and democratic process should be scrapped. (As I have mentioned before, this is not new. The anti-federalists hated the 1787 Constitution; as, of course, did the seceding states in 1861. Nothing new here.)
Second, even should the Supreme Court support the right to marry, this only means that everyone will have the right to marry whomever they wish. Nor will the law compel anyone to perform a marriage they feel is unviable. Ministers reserve the right not to perform marriages for a variety of reasons.
Third, evidently the signatories to the Open Letter have removed huge swaths of text from their Bibles. Hrafnkell Haraldsson identifies several of these texts in his Politicususa.com article. He identifies several standards of biblical marriage that the US Supreme Court has failed to enforce:
Man + woman where bride proves her virginity or is stoned to death (Genesis 2:24); we have man + woman + concubines (Judges 19:1-30); we have man + woman + woman, the most common form of biblical marriage – polygyny (Deuteronomy 21:15-17); we have rapist + victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); we have son-less widow + closest male relative (Gen. 38:6-10); we have male soldier + prisoner of war (Numbers 31:1-18, Deuteronomy 21:11-14; we even have male slave + female slave (Exodus 21:4) and man + woman + woman’s female slave (Gen. 16:1-6, Gen. 30:4-5).
No doubt there are probably some religious people who would like the Supreme Court to uphold these biblical standards as well. Yet, the crux of the issue is whether religious individuals are obligated to uphold laws and rulers that are fundamentally at odds with their religion. For we can well imagine a form of religion that required religious practitioners to demand absolute orthodoxy and orthopraxy from civil authorities. Not only is this the current position of radical Islam, it was a heated issue in late medieval/early modern Christian Europe as well. For biblical Christianity, however, this form of religion is hugely problematic. Here’s why.
To begin with there is a long list of references, mostly from the pastoral letters, commanding Christians to obey civil and domestic authorities: not only wives their husbands, or children their parents, but also slaves their masters and subjects their rulers. These commands are entirely consistent with first century popular Roman Stoic ethics and metaphysics, which held that anyone who enjoyed power did so only because the highest power, God, had made it so. Those who held power could not hold power without God’s will. That, after all, is the significance of Romans 13.1-4:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
By the late middle ages, most scholars had forgotten precisely who these passages were talking about — the secular, pagan rulers of Rome who were anything but good Jewish or Christian rulers. Yet, late medieval and early modern Christian thinkers imagined — as John Calvin imagined — that the authors of Peter’s and Paul’s letters were referring to “Christian magistrates.” Well . . . no. Because in 70, 80, and 90 CE such a thing as a “Christian magistrate” didn’t exist. The pastorals were counseling Christians to obey laws and rulers who were thoroughly secular and pagan — you know, goddess cult stuff, temple prostitution and the like. Indeed, as a kicker, Paul even counsels the Christians in Rome to pay taxes, presumably to support policing the local Jewish population, upkeep and supply of pagan temples, supplying Rome’s soldiers who at the time were engaged in anti-Christian and anti-Jewish campaigns. That, Paul says, is why we pay taxes. “Because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due;custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13.7).
Herein lies the leading incoherence to defendmarriage.org’s statement. Not only is there no single set of rules governing marriage in the Bible — as though the Bible were a How To guide for believers. Where the crux of their argument lies — in whether Christians should obey laws and rulers who are fundamentally at odds with their beliefs — the New Testament is crystal clear. Yes you should (Romans 13.7). So, defendmarriage.org even has the details wrong — as though paying taxes that end up funding abortions or supporting pensions for elderly gay couples rises to the level of supporting temple prostitution or martial villainy of Roman soldiers, which is where the taxes paid by Rome’s Christians would end up.
So, how could defendmarriage.org get it so wrong? My guess is that their real god has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, Sarah, or Rebecca, or Miriam. My guess is that, as is so often the case, their real gods are local pagan gods, the god of America or the god of the Marines or the god of money. That’s ok. I’m fine with local gods, cultural gods. That’s simply where most Christians live. That’s where their religion comes from. What I find problematic is when, in order to defend their purely local, pagan, cultural deities, they pose as defenders of the God of the Christian and Jewish bibles, a God with whom their pagan deities have nothing in common.
Who knows how the Supreme Court will rule. They could rule on behalf of these faux Christian pagan deities. They could rule to eliminate the difference between the rule of these local pagan deities and the rule of law. Or they could rule to uphold the integrity of religious freedom and the rule of secular law, which is clearly where the Apostle Paul stood. In either case, however, no one is infringing on the freedom of these pagan Christians to choose whichever partners they like in marriage. No one is forcing them even to uphold the US Constitution. But, so long as they remain citizens, they will be held responsible for obeying the laws of the land. That’s how it worked in the first century and that’s still how it works today.