Humbled Christianity

Gay marriage won on Friday.

I thought I’d give some preliminary thoughts as I mulled this over. This isn’t wholly coherent, but I had to put something down or I thought I’d lose my mind.

Nearly every conversation I had over the weekend, nearly every article or post or photo I came across on the internet, nearly every waking moment was consumed by the Supreme Court’s decision. It was monumental, momentous, incredible, exciting.

At least, if you were on one side of the debate.

For nearly forty percent of Americans, the decision wasn’t a victory; it was a defeat. And I’m willing to bet that those who oppose gay marriage are, like me, Christians. But the defeat over orthodox Christianity wasn’t just on the battlefield of gay rights. That defeat extends far and wide, and the momentum against religion is going to pick up speed.

For nearly all of American history, the centrality of Christianity to American public life was simply a given. Read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to find one of the most profound Christian meditations on justice, or more recently, consider any of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many speeches that invoke the special dignity of humankind to argue against oppression. But far more general and universal, just consider the very character and nature of American society, which was (and in some ways, though less explicitly, remains) fundamentally Protestant Christian.

And yet, beginning in the 1960s and continuing on until today, Protestant Christianity declined precipitously. With it declined a general American conservatism (Puritanism, perhaps?), and in its place, a new language and ethic of rights has grown into place. The same mad dash towards salvation that animated our Protestant forefathers animates our lives and policy, but the goal is no longer celestial Jerusalem, but a Heaven on Earth.

True, much of Protestant America’s history was undoubtedly shameful: slavery in the South and hatred for Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the North stains much of religious history in this nation. Of course, no story is black and white: American Protestantism was there to comfort as much as it was there to wound. But what was unique was the focus of the religion on paradise, on utopianism. America was the city on the hill; just what city and what hill was up for debate.

Perhaps then, the hill was Manifest Destiny, and the city was one built out of factories and brick and iron. Now, the hill is “equality,” and the city is the inclusion and integration of all persons into one well-functioning whole.

Gay marriage was never just about the rights of gays and lesbians to freely marry with each other. It was about the acceptance of a kind of morality, an explicit rejection of orthdox Christian morality and strictures, a full embrace of a new American project that began in the 1960s and continues on to this day. Ross Douthat refers to this as “libertinism,” which I suppose is as good a word as any. I think “naive utilitarianism” is a less catchy but more accurate label.

Only that I mean this: gay marriage essentially represents the victory of “do what you will, save that you harm no one” as the dominant American ethic. What’s so wrong with two people getting married? Does it hurt you? The traditionalist is usually baffled when these questions are asked, because the questions themselves sound strange to someone whose morality is based not on individual fulfillment, but on devotion to God.

Thus, gay marriage was not just standing alone, as a proposition that could be evaluated independently. Rather, its acceptance was always based on the wholesale rejection of traditional morality. Gay marriage is obviously not compatible with the Christian morality, but worse, it cannot even comfortably coexist alongside it (all apologies, now, to fellow Christians who love Christ and think it is possible to support gay marriage, as well). This was, of course, partially the justification for the reprehensible way gays have been treated at the hands of Christianity both in America and elsewhere, both yesterday and (in some parts of the world) today.

Now, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. The simmering discord that erupted into full view in American society beginning with abortion and culminating with a victory for gay marriage suddenly looks like it will only continue apace.

Some say that gay marriage will not, in any way, affect religious liberty. They are wrong. One only need read the headlines from this past spring concerning Indiana’s RFRA to know that the idea that gay rights and religious liberty are not currently in conflict is wishful thinking. And it’s not just the grant of statutory religious liberty that was attacked: already, a major American magazine is publishing columnists calling for an end to tax breaks for religious institutions.

Given Justice Kennedy’s holding that substantive due process (not equal protection) demands that marriage to two people (for now) be recognized as a fundamental right, there will be inevitable legal challenges against churches that refuse to hold services or rent spaces to gay couples for wedding ceremonies. Less drastic, but more fraught, is the problem of public and Christian service providers who would wish not to sell services to gay couples for wedding ceremonies.

The legal questions are murky and probably somewhat overblown. Then again, even ten years ago the argument that gay marriage is a fundamental right would have been laughed out of court. So is it all that far fetched to believe that courts could begin ordering churches to provide spaces (if not services) to gay couples? Is it strange to imagine that a legislature might vote to strip churches of their tax-exempt status, forcing some churches that support state policy to surrender much-needed funds if they do not support the state?

Maybe not tomorrow. But in ten years? Twenty? It is plausible. Suffice it to say, Christianity is on the ropes.

So what is a Christian to do? What are we to learn from all this?

First, I think it is clear we need to learn one thing above all: much of the anger and vitriol directed towards Christians is, frankly, deserved. For many years, we treated gay people as if they were subhuman. We deserve the anger, and the only thing we can do is to ask forgiveness and try to become, as always, more like Christ.

Christians must, and deserve to be, humbled. Christianity in 21st Century America may not look like (and in some ways, we hope will not look like) Christianity in the past. It may be significantly marginalized: Christians may live more at the periphery of society than at its center. Christians may have to accept some indignities and suffer some injuries.

But all of this can only make Christians’ faith grow stronger. And it should. And it should make us realize that as we move forward into a new world, that though the battle against libertinism is worth fighting, we can’t fight it simply through hatred. We must instead do what God did: be prepared to sacrifice ourselves through loving embrace of those who hate us.

And maybe then, June 26th won’t just be a victory for gay marriage, but for all of us.