The Marriage Debate: Is
by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
October 29, 2003
battle over homosexual marriage has taken a number of interesting
turns, and one of the most fascinating of these has landed on the
opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal. Commentators Andrew Sullivan
and David Frum, both well known to readers of the Journal, presented
articles taking opposite sides on the issue of homosexual marriage.
Both argued from secular premises--and this presents Christians
with an important lesson on the issue of marriage.
Andrew Sullivan is one of the most eloquent homosexuals
in the media. His homosexuality is not incidental to his identity,
for he has placed sexually at the very center of his work and cultural
philosophy. Senior editor of The New Republic and columnist for
Time, Sullivan is a writer of considerable style and ability. His
internet-based writings are among the most often quoted on issues
Sullivan also considers himself a political conservative.
Indeed, the articles by Sullivan and Frum are presented in a series
entitled "American Conservatism." But, to Christian conservatives,
Sullivan's conservatism appears very hollow.
This past summer's landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision,
Lawrence v. Texas, sets the stage for Sullivan's argument. Now that
sodomy has been legalized, he argues, everything about sexuality
in marriage is changed. "Whatever you feel about the reasoning
of the decision, it's result is clear: Gay Americans are no longer
The essence of Sullivan's argument is that homosexual
activity, now decriminalized, deserves and demands to be fully accepted
in the larger culture. "The term 'gay citizen' is now simply
a fact of life," Sullivan argues. The decriminalization of
homosexuality means that an entire social transformation on the
issue of sexuality is inevitable. "For if homosexuals are no
longer criminals for having consensual private relationships, then
they cannot be dismissed as somehow alien or peripheral to our civil
society," he asserts.
Writing as one who claims to be a conservative,
Sullivan argues that his fellow conservatives are woefully behind
the times in dealing with homosexuality. Conservatives, he laments,
are living in a state of cultural denial.
Sullivan depicts this denial in stark terms: "The
majority of social conservatives oppose gay marriages; they oppose
gay citizens serving their country in the military; they oppose
gay citizens raising children; they oppose protecting gay citizens
from work place discrimination; they opposed including gays in hate-crime
legislation, while including every other victimized group; they
oppose civil unions; they oppose domestic partnerships; they oppose...well,
they oppose, for the most part, every single practical measure that
brings gay citizens into the mainstream of American life."
Ever ready to push his arguments, Sullivan seeks
to rescue conservatism from homophobia. Conservative opposition
to homosexuality is, in a post-Lawrence world, "simply bizarre."
He presses his case with the following question: "Can you think
of any other legal, non criminal minority in a society toward which
social conservatives have nothing but a negative social policy?"
This is the new thrust of Sullivan's argument for the normalization
of homosexuality and the legalization of homosexual marriage.
In the past, Andrew Sullivan has argued that homosexual
marriage should be embraced by conservatives, precisely because
true conservatives will seek stability over disorder. Given the
promiscuity common to the homosexual male population, Sullivan argues
that conservatives should see homosexual marriage as a helpful and
healthy institutional barrier to rampant promiscuity.
In his article in The Wall Street Journal, Sullivan
shifts his argument in a subtle but very important way. He now moves
to the decriminalization of homosexual behavior as his trump card
in the debate. He clearly calls for conservatives to acknowledge
that homosexuality is now fully legal, and therefore homosexuals
cannot be subjected to discrimination on any basis related to their
sexuality. This means not only the legalization of homosexual marriage,
but the complete elimination of all legal, cultural, political,
and economic barriers to homosexual activity and relationships.
Domestic partnerships are not enough, he argues.
Anything less than the institution of marriage is deficient and
discriminatory. Sullivan, speaking on behalf of the proponents of
homosexual marriage, demands that conservatives get with the program.
In his article responding to Andrew Sullivan, David
Frum argues correctly that the gay marriage debate is not really
about homosexuality, but about marriage. As he notes: "As always
seems to be the way, we've come to understand the importance of
marriage at exactly the moment that the institution is approaching
the verge of collapse."
Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute, presents a powerful argument against Sullivan's call
for the legalization of homosexual marriage. Nevertheless, Frum
concedes a great deal of territory when he fails to argue against
the normalization of homosexuality itself.
Frum thinks that American conservatives have very
mixed evaluations of homosexuality. When pressed for his assessment,
Frum admits, "I'd guess that the very large majority of American
conservatives have for many years regarded homosexuality as something
that just is, and that should be tolerated in the spirit of live-and-let-live
with which they tolerate all the other variations of the human species."
The exchange between Sullivan and Frum demonstrates
the limits of an essentially secular argument, even among those
who consider themselves conservatives. Secular conservatives place
the greatest premium upon the continuity of forms, institutions,
and moral principles in the society. During a time of social change,
secular conservatives tend to fight over the institutions rather
than the principles or morality at stake. In this exchange of articles,
both Sullivan and Frum are playing true to form.
Frum counters Sullivan's argument by pointing to
the confusion found in jurisdictions where something like same-sex
marriage has been attempted. In particular, Frum points to the nations
of Denmark, France, Hungary, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden,
and Canada, each of which has legalized some form of same-sex relationships
in an institution with many, if not all, of the privileges of marriage.
He also points to the fact that many of these domestic partnership
laws are open to both homosexual and heterosexual couples. The Pacte
Civile de Solidarite has been enacted by the French government in
order to offer any couple, regardless of gender, an opportunity
to share rights and responsibilities.
True to his conservative philosophy, Frum is concerned
about this undermining of the institution of marriage. "Today,
in France and Canada and other places, marriage is a continuum,
a series of gradations between true single hood and formal matrimony.
A woman who is cohabiting with a man in Canada or is pacted in France
might well be deceived into thinking that her family situation is
stable enough for her to have a child. But she would be wrong. The
average cohabitation in Canada lasts only five years. Her government
has told her that she is the next-best-thing to married; but from
the point of view of her children, the next-best-thing is no good
Frum argues that the distinction between married
and unmarried relationships should be "a bright clear line."
Homosexual activists, he acknowledges, want to restore that bright
line, but with gay marriage on the side of the law. Frum then suggests
that the most likely outcome in the United States is a "crazy-quilt
of differing systems of 'marriage-lite' across the country."
The states could pass very different models of domestic partnerships
and marriages, all adding to a basic confusion about what marriage
This would have a devastating impact among young
people, Frum argues. "The result of the national trend toward
same-sex marriage will be that the young people of the country would
be presented with 50 different buffets, each of them offering two
or more varieties of quasi-marital relationships. In such a world,
the very concept of marriage would vanish."
Conservative Christians will recognize a great deal
of wisdom in Frum's argument. Like the secular conservatives, Christians
are very concerned about the continuity of human institutions, especially
the institution of marriage. But the Christian commitment to marriage
goes far beyond common ground shared with secular conservatives.
We do not see the most important function of marriage as limited
to human happiness and social stability.
To the contrary, the Christian commitment to marriage
is based on the Holy Scripture, which points us to marriage as a
unique arena of God's glory on earth, where His good pleasure is
demonstrated in the right ordering of creation. In other words,
marriage, as established by the Creator, becomes the culminating
picture of creation's goodness, with a man and a woman entering
into the holy covenant of marriage and enjoying all the joys of
marital life, even as they assume together all of the rights and
responsibilities the Creator invested in this most important of
For this reason, Christian conservatives cannot
accept either of the arguments presented in The Wall Street Journal
as adequate. Andrew Sullivan's argument for the comprehensive normalization
of homosexuality--based upon it's decriminalization by the US Supreme
Court--runs in direct conflict with the clear teachings of Scripture.
Christians are bound by the authority of God's Word, and cannot
accept the verdict of a secular court as a substitute for the verdict
of Scripture. Sullivan's argument should remind Christians that
the secular law is to be judged by the Scripture, for the Scripture
will refuse to be judged.
But Christians must also beware, lest the argument
presented by David Frum be accepted as our own. We share Frum's
concern for the social stability of our culture and we recognize
with him the vital importance of marriage to that stability. Nevertheless,
our concern must be addressed to a much higher dimension than social
stability. Marriage is most fundamentally God's institution given
to men and women for our good, but ultimately for His glory.
This fascinating exchange in The Wall Street Journal
should prompt American conservatives to further thought and reflection.
More urgently, Christians should take a close look at these arguments,
in order to be reminded that "conservative" just isn't
In the end, the Christian church may be the
last institution on earth that remembers what marriage really is--and
whose it is.