Saturday, May 12, 2012

Obama's Marriage of Culture and Politics

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).


MIchael Godfrey said...

It seems to me there is an evolution, and that the community of Christ is in a sense having its (our) nose led by a movement within secular society. We are being forced to reassess our etymology of marriage, of sexuality, even of love. It hurts, but most movements of God unsettling Spirit have.

MIchael Godfrey said...

I should add my thoughts on the matter - being an egotist!

Suem said...

Ultimately outcomes are always "unknown". It is impossible to say for sure. So, for example, it might be the case that churches are given assurances that they will be exempt from having to offer a marriage ceremony to gay as well as straight couples. Nobody knows though how that will look in ten or twenty years and whether those exemptions will be considered unacceptable in the same way, for example, as landlords/ landladies can no longer place adverts saying "no blacks". So, exemptions on the ground that "it's the church/ relgious conscience" may remain to be seen as acceptable or they may not. A situation where the government says, "either offer marriage to all or not at all" might well be seen as a better alternative to compelling individuals to marry someone against their conscience. In the same way, society might become more homophobic and current LGBT rights withdrawn, You can't predict the future.

Robert F said...

A development, not evolution (a word which retains a connotation of progress, even though the very idea of progress in Darwinian evolution makes it its inherent naturalism nonsensical: what is progress? whose progress?), is taking place which will result in political pressure on churches holding to traditional values in the area of marriage to conform, at least at first, and then will develop, not evolve, into outright sanctions and persecution against these churches to the degree that they hold to their traditional positions. There never was, or ever will be, any such thing as value neutrality in the public square. We are entering a new era of widespread paganism which, although having appropriated many Christian values because of their inherent humanizing effect on society, will not tolerate values that contradict the imperatives of the sovereign self. As David Bentley Hart has pointed out, this new paganism, which is already firmly entrenched in Western society, will be much more difficult to evangelize than classical paganism was, because its true spiritual locus, the self, has stepped from behind the masks of the gods in all its naked power, and because society has inoculated itself against core Christian values, and the loyalty to Christ they demand, by imitating the values it likes and severing them from that ultimate loyalty. This is the price Christianity will pay for never having fully converted its proselytes in the West to a comprehensive loyalty to the transcendent Kingdom of God but only half converting the people and societies of Europe which in other respects went on with pagan business-as-usual. We will likely see outright persecution of Christians in the West in our lifetime, stemming from issues like gay marriage. Let's not fool ourselves.

Father Ron Smith said...

For me, personally, Narriage is always preferable to co-habitation - in whatever circumstances - straight or gay. The common enemy is unfettered serial relationships that involve an active, selfish, sexual component.

Commitment to one other life-long sexual partner can be a life-giving and spiritual experience. I'm in favour of anything that leads to the experience of God's Love through an ongoing monogamous, faithful and committed, loving relationship. If the Church can help this to happen, let's get behind it!

Some one once said:"In every act of loving there is something of God". I do believe that.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Where Charity and Love are - there is God" - Holy Thursday Liturgy.

Hatred never did anyone any good!

liturgy said...


There is irony sown in this post.

Cranmer’s advertisement you link to, in its third image, has a black man marrying a white woman (none of the other 27 images are of interracial marriages). The advocacy of “keep marriage as it is… keep the true meaning of marriage” in many places would have meant that third image would not have been possible and all 28 images would have been of couples of the same colour.

Prince Charles, the Supreme Governor apparent of the Church of England, was unable to get married in the church of which he will be the Supreme Governor; Cranmer’s church. Keep marriage as it is… keep the true meaning of marriage would mean that divorcees would be unable to get married in this country also.

Will the altering of a civil union and calling it marriage do far more to change “marriage as it was” than allowing divorce?



Andy S said...

This I think is a rebellion against God.

The rebellion has been manifesting itself in a plethora of Law suits to eliminate Christianity from the public square, whether it is saying the Lord's Prayer before high school football games in Texas or the display of the Ten Commandments in American Court rooms.

Already so called "human rights" legislation has been used to harass
Christians, for example a cafe owner in England who projected New Testament readings on a screen in his cafe who was visited after some complained when the first chapter of Romans was displayed.

In that case the Authorities, after much wavering resiled from prosecution but it is a sign of the times that the complaint was even taken seriously.

It is not going to get better - this is a fruitful area for undermining the Christian faith and persecuting its followers as well as leading many many people astray.

carl jacobs said...

Michael Godfrey

We are being forced ...

No, we aren't actually.

... to reassess our etymology of marriage, of sexuality, even of love.

According to what authority?

It hurts...

Well, it doesn't hurt the enlightened ones so much.

...but most movements of God unsettling Spirit have.

Now, if only there was some evidence to establish this as an 'unsettling movement' of the Holy Spirit. At all. Anywhere. As opposed to people willfully chasing after the desires of their own hearts.


Janice said...

Part of the problem of the CofE is that it's established. Fancy having politicians able to choose who is going to be a bishop!

One of the great movements of the Spirit (I think) is the slow disentangling of church from state. Jesus did say that his kingdom is not of this world.

So the state took over marriage, made laws about what marriage is and how, or whether, it could be dissolved. Church ministers became licensed by the state to perform marriages. Ever since, ministers have been marrying people who have little to no faith in Christ, which nowadays translates to little to no connection with the church and, by extension, to not bothering to get married at all.

Let the state take over legally recognised marriage-type unions entirely and let the church get out of that business altogether. It happens in other parts of the world that couples have to have a civil marriage to be recognised by the state as married. They then go and have a church ceremony if that's what they want.

So if church weddings aren't counted as part of the state apparatus of marriage, the church can then marry, or not marry, whichever couples they please, with Christian rites and without concern for what the state might do to the church in response.

As for Western culture, it's degenerate and degenerating. In combination with sinful human nature, this is an outcome of the entanglement of the institutional church with the state. It's only to be expected that people interested more in money and advancement than in their relationship with Christ could find the church an attractive career prospect when it was, in fact, an attractive career prospect. But Christendom is now just about gone and we can expect interesting times in the future.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Well, it doesn't hurt the enlightened ones so much." - carl -

Well, Carl! So you admit, you DO have your own little hotline to God?

After all that dissembling, too.

Anonymous said...

The most significan decision surely was the acceptance by some Christian Churches of contraception between the wars.As Prof Basil Mitchell, the Anglican christian moral philosopher wrote..alas the reference isnt to hand ( being retired I have sold many books and dont have the same access to academic libraries!)the RC Church's stance on this is so rigid because it knows that to change its stance on this will lead to profound rethinking in other areas ( I paraphrase from memory)What interests me as a church historian is: has anyone written a well researched book ( or academic thesis) on how the Church of England's position "evolved" from outright and outsplken opposition to contraception from the 1880's to minimal acceptance in Lambeth 1930 and more wholehearted acceptance in Lambeth 1958.. what arguments were used /church debate /cultural pressure etc. ??S Surely we could learn from this how church teaching does change in certain areas and what exactly brings it about.A case study of re-marriage after divorce would be similarly welcome.There is little point ignoring what history can teach us..Perry Butler Canterbury England.

Robert F said...

In the first centuries of the Christian church, the church did not preside over marriages or conduct marriage ceremonies. The state, emphatically including the pagan Roman state, presided at marriage ceremonies, and there was no theological objection on the part of the church to this arrangement because marriage is not something undertaken by the church of behalf of the couple to be wed; rather, it is a covenant undertaken by the couple to be wed that is witnessed by the state, the church and, by extension, the entire human community. If a marriage is witnessed in a state office only it is still considered a binding and real marriage by the church, because the church does not have the authority to refuse legitimation to the covenant undertaken, because the church is not a party to it. So there is no question of making couples who are married in a state office also have a ceremony in a church sanctuary in order that the church would be able to recognize the marriage. The issue for the church is that those of us who hold to a traditional definition of marriage do not recognize the legitimacy of any marriage between two people of the same gender no matter where the vows of the covenant are made, and up until the very recent past all states have agreed with the traditional criteria for what constitutes marriage. Now that some states have begun to change their minds about this, we are in a unique and new historical moment in which the very criteria for what constitutes marriage have changed for some states but not for most churches. The real question is this: if the current trend of states toward redefining marriage continues to gain momentum, which it will, will states attempt to coerce those churches which adhere to the traditional criteria to recognize the legitimacy of the new criteria, or will the traditional churches be allowed to act as if these "marriages" don't exist? I say that it is certain that the states will gradually attempt to force all churches to recognize the new arrangement because of the pervasive totalism of the so-called secular state.

carl jacobs said...

Father Ron Smith

Well, Carl! So you admit, you DO have your own little hotline to God?

The sentence you quoted was seasoned, marinated, basted, fried, and dipped in sarcasm. Here, let me elucidate. When someone says that "we" are experiencing "pain" from a movement of "the Spirit" he is including himself (at best) in the past tense. He is referring to the pain the results from this experience of alleged 'enlightenment.' Since he considers himself already enlightened, he isn't experiencing any pain. He is demonstrating sympathy for those who have yet to experience the painful transformation.

I would never refer to myself with the self-aggrandized, self-important, self-appointed title of 'enlightened.'


Anonymous said...

The overwhelming evidence from parts of Europe is that this will be bad for the independence of the Church. Already there have been numerous cases of both churches and individuals being hauled before the courts for various "crimes" against the prevailing cultural Marxism. Everything from "racism" to "homophobia" (defined of course by liberal cultural elites according to their own agenda) is now a crime.

The politicisation of the courts and the police has been happening here in NZ as well. And even some church members have argued that the Church should be subject to the so-called "human rights" act.

So we are in for a rocky ride, and certainly in for state sanctioned persecution.

But there is reason to be hopeful. Social liberalism is unsustainable in the long term. Already much of society is exhausted by the pace of change, and the destructive effects of social liberalism are becoming more and more apparent to more and more people by the day.

The mission of the Church in these times is to stand firm (no pun intended) and to witness to the Truth of God's Word, no matter how difficult this becomes.

However, I don't think this last part will be as difficult as you hint at Peter. I suspect "Gay marriage" will, like civil unions, be a flop, with very few people identifying as homosexual actually taking it up. It is not being advanced because there is a genuine need, but because of its token symbolism for Liberals.

As far as New Zealand is concerned it may not happen here any time soon. The PM's unfortunate position will be tempered by the fact that he has bigger fish to fry, such as the global economic situation, and the fact that if he wants a third (or fourth?) term he will almost certainly be dependent on the Conservatives, which will likely enter Parliament at the next election, given its strong showing at the last election, and given the demise of ACT and the unofficial "anointing" of the Conservatives by Nation as ACT's replacement.

Father Ron Smith said...

"will the traditional churches be allowed to act as if these "marriages" don't exist?"
- Robert F -

As a matter of fact, the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps the most moralistic of all Churches) still does not 'accept' the re-marriage of a divorcee. This fact, however, does not seem to hamper other Churches - even the most 'conevo' Churches - from accepting the inevitable movement of the goalposts on this one.

Also, the R.C. Church does not accept the inevitable need for a change in its attitude towards contraception. But that doesn't mean they're right.

Teri said...

I came across this article today which I thought was quite interesting as it discusses the concept of marriage and possible effects on society of redefining this.

You can download the article "What is marriage?" from this site (be warned it is quite wordy).


Bryden Black said...

Liturgy aka Bosco Peters and Anon aka Perry Butler.

You are both right to address the matter of remarriage in church as a possible parallel to the current issue of claiming the possibility of same-sex couples’ access to ‘marriage’. As for the rationale of the former (remarriage in church), the best resource I know of is the CoE’s Winchester Report of 2000, Marriage in Church after Divorce.

The blurb from Church Publishing House goes as follows:

Prior to the historic decision of July 2002 (on which see GS papers 1449, 1449a and 1449b) the Church of England was actively engaged for many years in trying to reach a common mind on the question of whether a divorced person with a former spouse still living should be able to marry again in church.

This discussion document came from a Working Party commissioned by the House of Bishops, under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Winchester. Published prior to July 2002, for discussion in the dioceses, its aim was to take the debate further.

In this report, the reader may find the key to the greater coherence and consistency now present in the Church's pastoral practice, and see the initial proposals regarding the procedure under which further marriages might take place in church.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that in the C of E there is no greater coherence and consistency in the matter of the re marriage of is still largely the ecclesiastical equivalent of the post code lottery dependent on the views of the incumbent. The number of divorcees being remarried in Church has increased im sure.How far clergy go through the proceedures and how they interpret them differs enormously.From my point of view the appendix by john Bowker in an earlier report ( 70's) looking at how theological and sociological approaches interact was very interesting,if little understood. Alas another report no longer on my bookshelves post downsizing in retirement!perry butler