The Moral Challenge in a Democratic Society: Gay Marriage as a Case Study

[This post will not be so much about whether or not gay marriage should be permitted but on the tension found within Western (particularly American) ideas of democracy itself.]

The Supreme Court is currently hearing cases involving gay marriage and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, and it’s my expectation, as it seems to be the expectation of most legal experts in the media, that they will strike it down and may just leave the matter of marriage to the states (of course, one wonders what that means for Proposition 8 of California).  In any case, this development is no surprise; even as far back as the mid 2000’s, I thought we were going to reach this point.  The cultural tide has shifted.

A former youth teacher of mine is now a pastor and has written a couple of informative articles on how this change was no accident:  Proponents of homosexual marriage have utilized a purposeful strategy over a span of two decades and have been largely successful at portraying homosexuals as victims and portraying those who disagree with their lifestyle as backwater, hateful, and uneducated buffoons who should be thrust in the same category as the KKK.  You can find his two articles here and here.  He was a Congressional aide back when DOMA was signed by Clinton, and he states that at the time, it felt like an innocuous piece of legislation because hardly anyone thought that gay marriage would be such a big issue.  How times have changed.

However, while that was perhaps the public strategy used by advocates of homosexual marriage, such an idea didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.  The two authors the above articles cite were Harvard graduates, and they most likely got some, if not all, of their philosophical ideas of morality and law from America’s most famous university, even if that was not what they directly studied.  And in our post-modern times, the freedoms of the individual are always greatly prized and the power of choice is considered, in and of itself, an ultimate good.  Even holding to absolute morals is often seen as a sign of oppression, unless, of course, it is holding to the absolute principle that one shouldn’t hold to moral absolutes, as entertaining as that is.

Still, even the rise of post-modern ethics seemed like an inevitability.  In a permissive society where the rights of individuals are steadfastly protected, people are given some voice in government (however small a voice us cynics might think that is), and “freedom” is a championed goal, it seems like the natural progression that as the nation grows, different groups will fight for their own interests, seek to define what the law should regulate, and build a society that suits their vision.  It is, after all, the power given to them by our own democratic ideals.  The problem facing any form of democracy, even in a tempered one like our own where we merely vote for figures to represent us, is to balance the freedoms of individuals and the laws that regulate society.  What informs those laws?  No matter what some people say, it is clearly some idea of morality:  Even the most nihilistic of people will still try to argue that murder should be outlawed because otherwise chaos would ensue, meaning, of course, they understand that an ordered society is good.

If people direct laws and their decisions on law are informed by their views of justice and morality, then clearly, the education of morals should be of the utmost priority.  This is, however, largely absent in most education systems because many people think, ironically enough, that morality belongs in the private sphere, and to champion certain morals is to be dogmatic and close-minded.  If anything, the moral education children get, and even college students, is to seek their own self-interests and/or self-fulfillment regardless of what anyone else says, unless, of course, it is out of step with the liberal ideologies of the university.  This dearth of moral education is easy to see because, as William Lane Craig’s debate with Sam Harris showed, without God, there are no objective morals.  Harris tried mightily to establish objective morals on materialistic grounds but came up with nothing, appealing to bare axioms that Craig showed to be contradictory.

The absence of God now in public discussion should be seen as a great historical irony.  Many secularists champion the phrase “separation of church and state” these days to make sure God stays out, but not only is that phrase NOT found in the Constitution, it misunderstands the origin of the whole concept.  First, the phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson, who in the Declaration of Independence also argued that people were granted unalienable rights by their Creator that no man-made government could rightfully take away (he also approved of Congressmen going to Chapel, and Congress also invited preachers to come speak to them back in the day).  Secularists shoot back that “God” isn’t found in the Constitution either, but if they’re going to point to what they think is a guiding principle of the Constitution, then surely, the fact that God grants rights is a guiding principle as well (if he doesn’t, where did they come from and why should we care that some random Joe claims he has them?).  Secondly, the concept originated from the Anabaptists back in the Reformation period; they were not concerned about the church corrupting the government but the other way around, and this idea was also championed by evangelical Christians during the drafting of the Constitution because they wanted no part of state-sanctioned churches like Roman Catholicism and the Church of England.  Thus, distinctly theistic and Christian ideals, even for the Rationalists like Jefferson, guided the whole idea of religious liberty and political freedom in our country.  And now, citing this so-called “separation,” as if the government needs to be free of the poison of moral musings from religion, many people now want to throw God, the very source of their idea of rights and liberties, out the window.  I will say it again:  It is a striking irony.

So with no God in the picture, it is hard to bring forth arguments on objective morality and ontology; instead, cultural convention dictates morality.  “Feelings” do.  And in doing so, we get very bizarre occurrences where the most liberal of folks demonize their opponents, resort to censure, and even appeal to “natural rights” to show how they are more right then others (again, where the heck did those “natural rights” come from?).  The inconsistency would be amusing if it wasn’t so glaring and sad.  This is the danger of democracy:  It may be the best form of government we’ve come up with yet, and it has served this country well for many years and helped it correct many of its prior mistakes such as slavery, but it is still run by fallen people.  And when those fallen people are divorced from ideas of God and objective morality, it is not hard to see where that will take a nation.  Something has to take God’s place, and right now, that is clearly political ideology made by, well, sinful human beings.  That’s going to go well.

What does this have to do with gay marriage?  Think about it:  Proponents of traditional marriage often argue that marriage just is a union between a man and woman, just like a triangle is a three sided polygon.  It’s an ontological statement, so “gay marriage” is a bit like saying some other contradictory notion like “reptilian dog.”  Because it goes against what marriage truly is, it is a distortion that can have serious societal ramifications.  However, with God out of the picture and more relativistic ideas of morality and reality at play, proponents of gay marriage have instead sought to redefine marriage as simply a legal union between two consenting adults, so how dare traditionalists take away their “right.”  Who’s right?  Is it simply a voting matter?  In some ways, gay marriage proponents want it to be because they know the tide is shifting to their side, but they also don’t because Proposition 8 was a constitutional amendment voted on by the very people of California.  They will define marriage and rights, and others are wrong.  Based on what, if God has no say?  Beats me too.  It’s hard to see how we could stop others from redefining marriage as well who employ the same strategies.  People bristle at the fact that others argue that if we legalize gay marriage, polygamy would soon follow.  “That’s so far off,” they argue.  But gay marriage was “far off” just twenty years ago, and 100 years ago, it would have been utterly unheard of.  What’s to stop people who want polygamous marriages from using the same exact arguments?

Choice in and of itself is not an ultimate good; it is a good and necessary means to good.  Nazi Germany was a product of voters; while they became a dictatorship later and also did not receive the absolute majority, they won by far the most votes of any party in the 1933 elections, which eventually allowed Hitler to consolidate power.  We fool ourselves into thinking that freedom is the highest good.  Freedom is good because without it people cannot be genuinely virtuous people, but freedom can also be abused, distorted, and used for bad ends.  Does that mean the law should try to micromanage everyone?  No; that is impractical and every society must decide how much immorality they will tolerate before it becomes too damaging to them.  However, what it does mean is that the teaching of morality and the right thinking of morality should be one of the highest priorities.

That is where the church should come in… and should have come in.  But she largely did not, or at least, she did not teach morality in relation to God’s character.  Instead, distortions of marriage and sexuality were rampant within the church at large and often handled poorly in extremes:  Sometimes, they were glossed over, and other times, they were met with a completely ungracious fury.  Neither helped anyone learn a proper view of sex and marriage, and now the church has been caught sleeping as marriage is being redefined around them.  We didn’t help the situation, basically.  Would biblical teaching on sex and marriage have guaranteed the stoppage of the gay marriage movement?  No; there are many Christians who know that gay marriage is a distortion of God’s design but still think that people should be allowed to marry as they please, much like how we would disagree with Hindus but would still believe they have a right to worship peacefully as they see fit (I too still struggle with this).  At the very least, however, God would still be a relevant person to talk about in matters of policy, and with him, objective morals, but to bring God in now is to invite insults of intolerance, hatred, and bigotry.

This is a long-winded way of saying this:  Democracy only truly works well when the voters are virtuous and knowledgeable, and they can only be truly virtuous with a right understanding of God and morality.  But the very ideal of democracy, which comes from theism, is to grant people some measure of religious freedom, which means they are free to reject God and vote in a not so virtuous way.  It is, basically, a very imperfect system, however much better it is than others.  The only perfect one?  My philosophy professor said it best:  A benevolent monarchy with a perfect king, and that ain’t happening until Jesus comes back.

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