Off the newswire this week one of the big stories is President Obama's announcement that his thinking on same sex marriage has evolved to the point where he supports what he previously did not. 'Evolved' is such a nice term for a change of mind, I wonder whether it ever gets applied to Republicans? I seem to recall that they are always described as 'flip-flopping' when they change their minds. But I digress. In our lifetimes we are unlikely to see any social change as fast as we have been experiencing on homosexuality. Obama's announcement, while not quite the same as a federal government law binding on all American states, is a high water mark in the marriage between popular culture and political calculation. If Obama loses the election in November we will never know whether his evolution will have contributed to that loss. If he wins the election we can be confident the announcement did his prospects - currently not that great - no harm. Incidentally, in a postscript to the Obama announcement, our own Prime Minister John Key has made a similar statement which means most leaders of political parties in NZ support the prospect of gay marriage (i.e. rather than the current possibility of a 'civil union')
From a Christian perspective, what are we to make of this kind of progress in Western culture? We could celebrate it as American Episcopalian priest Susan Russell does, we could be critical (e.g. here on Stand Firm, follow links), and we could be wondering about future implications (e.g. here on Stand Firm, follow links). We could already be experiencing pressure to conform to the brave new world of 'marriage' in which, just possibly (even probably) our public discourse will be constrained not to distinguish gender within marriage, nor to refer to marriage as between a man and a woman (as Cranmer is finding in respect of an extraordinary response to his advertising the campaign against gay marriage, in the slightly different context of Prime Minister David Cameron's United Kingdom).
I suggest that there is a simple and a complicated aspect to these developments. The simple aspect is that we have a clear affirmative or negative response: Yes I agree with Obama, Key and Cameron on gay marriage or No I do not agree with them. The complicated aspect is that the arrival of civil unions, civil partnerships and, should it come to pass in the jurisdiction where you live, gay marriage stitches into the fabric of society ways of living which challenge the church and its mission to all people. The relationships between church and society, gospel and culture have raised some difficult questions through the millennia. Polygamy, for instance, is stitched into the fabric of some societies. The difficult question for the church has not been whether or not the New Testament teaches monogamy but whether becoming a Christian in such a society means changing a polygamous family. Does a converted husband divorce all but one wife (and thus, perhaps, consign the divorced wives to penury)? Does a converted wife leave her husband and fellow wives because that is the necessary consequence of becoming a Christian? I am happy to be corrected but I understand that a widely followed response to polygamy is that polygamous Christians in such societies are not asked to leave their marriages; but they are unlikely to be ordained to leadership roles.
I do not see that the evolution happening before our eyes as Obama, Key and Cameron make their pronouncements is going to make much difference to the convictions Christians already hold about gay marriage. But is it going to make a difference eventually to the conduct of our mission in sharing the gospel with all people around us, to the kinds of guidance we will give new Christians? I recognise that some commenters here may wish to respond that the matter remains simple and straightforward: a person in a happily permanent same sex relationship, even one guarded by law through the contraction of a legal marriage, on becoming a Christian will need to leave that relationship (or, at least, become celibate within it). But is that going to be so in ten or fifty years time?
There are other complications ahead of us, I think. Cranmer's present predicament highlights the possibility that in the particular context of Western societies such as North America, the UK and Ireland, Europe and Australasia, societies that is with a propensity to zealously guard as many claimed human rights as possible while seeking a pure non-discriminatory society, certain present claims about Christian freedom will come unstuck. Those claims are that if gay marriage is made possible through law, no Christian minister will be compelled to perform such marriages and no church will be compelled to host such wedding services. On Susan Russell's site there are statements (e.g. on right hand side of page) which have a soothing effect so that we are reminded of the discrimination currently possible in the USA such as Roman Catholic priests refusing to marry divorced people and thus assured that no one will have to perform the marriage of a same sex couple. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Cranmer's predicament also highlights the possibility that unintended consequences will flow from legalising gay marriage. (Yes, I am not forgetting that he lives in Britain which does not have the First Amendment which Susan Russell, writing in America, refers to). Will one be able to advertise a church's availability for weddings if such availability is not for gay weddings? Dare one arrange without fair of prosecution, say, a public celebration of marriage service which talks exclusively of marriages between men and women, of the obligations of husbands to wives and vice versa? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Perhaps not in Britain but no problems in America? How about in New Zealand?
Whatever calculations have been involved in President Obama's announcement, he has married culture and politics to a certain degree. The marriage might come unstuck in November, or it might evolve further into a maturer, richer, stronger stitching together. The children of this marriage could bring trouble to the churches who do not share the same embrace of culture as the President.
What do you think? I welcome comments here which engage with the issues I am raising about the implication of the evolution of Obama, i.e. the question whether an evolution in Western society is occurring with unknown outcomes for the churches of the West.
I will moderate strongly, likely rejecting, without explanation, comments which (1) debate back and forth the basic biblical arguments re homosexuality (happened here many times, no need for it to happen again re this post) (2) castigate conservatives for their lack of enlightenment (not an issue I am raising here) (3) speak disparagingly of Obama, Key or Cameron, or those who comment here, or Susan Russell, or Stand Firm and its writers, or Cranmer (that would be 'ad hominem' and that is verboten here).