Rights Vs. Righteousness In the Marriage Equality Debate

April 3, 2103

“Supreme Court Debates Same-Sex Marriage – Should We?”   This was the title of a recent blog post by Micah Bales that has stayed on my mind.  In it, he says he strongly supports moves towards legalization of same-sex marriage and yet harbors reservations.

Concerning his reservations, he says, “I recoil from the rights language that so many advocates of gay equality have chosen to embrace. Though some of us have certainly chosen to make a moral argument for gay liberation, the overall conversation – especially from the liberation side – has mostly been cast in terms of legalities and appeals to human reason.” And so he asks, “But what about righteousness?” And he adds, “Can we imagine a society in which we would have the courage to lay down our need to be right in order to seek God’s righteousness?”

What troubles Micah Bales is a mismatch between the language of the two sides. He sees the side with which he agrees making its arguments in terms of “rights” while the side with which he disagrees makes its arguments in terms of moral “righteousness.”  “Righteousness” feels more to him like the realm where he belongs.

Perhaps part of Micah Bales’s disquiet arises from the fact that we perform marriages in both the civil and the moral realms, that is, in both the realm of rights and in the realm of righteousness. Governments perform and recognize marriages, and so do religious communities. The two have become quite entangled. Generally, marriages performed in a church are thereby also legally recognized marriages. Through our political process, we have decided this should be the case.  Ministers sign legal marriage certificates after performing a religious marriage.

But does the reverse follow? Does a church have to recognize a civil marriage?  No. The church needs to make its own decision. Whatever the political process (courts and legislatures and referenda) decide about marriage equality, we will still have the question before us about whether homosexuality is a sin. Governments cannot answer that question; sin is generally not their terrain, or, better put, not their proper terrain.  Many church communities – including Friends — are now locked in a tense struggle over whether homosexuality is a sin.

(I believe homosexuality is no sin, and have written often about why it is wrong to think it so. The only arguments that it should be viewed as a sin rest on a shallow, literal reading of a few scattered Bible passages. See, for example, the blog posts here, here, and here.)

In a comment on Micah Bales’s blog, I said “This is one of those moments where we want to affirm the separation of church and state. The state needs to make its decisions in the context of according equal rights, but those are different and lesser questions than those we face in submitting ourselves to God’s will.” I meant to agree with him: as marriage equality becomes the law of the land, we shouldn’t lose track of the moral question.  There are many common practices that are legal but athwart God’s will.

That did not seem wholly adequate to him.  He responded that my response still leaves us with this question: “How do we as Christians operate within a society where most of us have (at least theoretically) been given a small measure of political authority?” And he added, “For me, that’s not an easy question to answer. But it feels important to maintain a prophetic witness to the state, reminding our human governments that we/they are ultimately accountable to God.”

With this he poses a different large question than the one about the relationship between two arguments: the marriage equality argument taking place in the civil realm and the moral status of homosexuality arguments taking place within religious communities.  His new, large question is this: when and how should we bring our moral views – our moral imperatives – into the public arena? How do we bring righteousness to bear on rights? Neither he nor I would want to say that we can shed our moral obligations to follow God’s will when we vote or otherwise act in the legal/political realm.  But how do we carry them in?

This different, large question has surfaced often at least since the 17th century. After the Reformation shattered the religious unity of Europe, wars broke out between kings and princes, each trying to bring his neighbors to accept his view of the true faith. After considerable bloodshed that we call the Thirty Years War (1618-48), the Treaty of Westphalia decreed that rival heads of state would cease trying to impose their religious will on others. Kings and princes would accord tolerance to one another.

It was a short step and only a few decades from Westphalia to the beginnings of tolerance as a political principle within nation states.  Individuals, not just separate governments, would be the sole judge of what was moral behavior or belief.  Governments ceased to be regarded as enforcers of morality: citizens should be allowed to do as they pleased so long as they caused no harm to others. The idea of rights took shape to mark out the space within which citizens could do as they please. For those in the U.S., these rights are largely enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

In a democracy, each citizen can thus vote his or her conscience, carrying his or her conception of righteousness into the political realm. But civil and political rights largely insulate each of us from having the morality of the majority from being imposed on us. We are constantly arguing about how wide that sphere of rights should be – as we are today with the argument over marriage equality, and also with disputes over the criminalization of drugs, or the acceptability of gambling.

The realm of rights is a diminished one, no doubt about it.  I think that is what Micah Bales is expressing. It is a realm in which we are each alone with our own moral views, free to do mostly as we please. But do we want to be so separate one from another? We are thereby prevented from extending (or imposing) our view of what righteousness demands to touch others. We do that to diminish the possibility of conflict. But sometimes it can feel like failing to care about the welfare of others, or failing to minister to others as God asks us to do.

Who would want a return to governments’ enforcing morality? We can still minister by example and exhortation.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Bible, Homosexuality, Sin and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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