President Obama's support for same-sex marriage is making headlines but not news. That's probably because he was in favor of same-sex marriage before he was against it and now in favor of it again. Campaigning in 1996 for state senate in Illinois, Obama said in a typed statement, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Running for statewide and then national office apparently changed his perspective, at least temporarily.
But there's another reason much of the country has shrugged off no-news headlines about the culmination of President Obama's "evolution": 50 percent of Americans now agree with him. In the last 16 years, support for same-sex marriage has nearly doubled. Gallup shows an increase in support from just 27 percent in 1996 to a high of 53 percent in 2011 and now 50 percent in 2012. Since 1996, Christians have debated homosexuality almost non-stop, and several Protestant denominations have reached the same conclusion as Obama. He told ABC's Robin Roberts today:
In the end the values that I care most deeply about, and [Michelle Obama] cares most deeply about, is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians, and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.
We could recognize a number of causes to explain this revolution in religion, politics, and culture. As Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday, television shows such as Will & Grace, Modern Family, and Ellen have normalized same-sex relationships. Nearly everyone knows and loves someone who lives openly as a homosexual or fights same-sex attraction. And a powerful gay-rights lobby has gained leverage over the Democratic Party through fundraising. Christians defending biblical teaching rarely match the passion and political will of homosexuals who see same-sex marriage as today's great civil rights struggle and key to validating their very identity. They might be 0 for 32 since 1998 in states where the people vote on same-sex marriage, but gay-rights activists believe time will inevitably reveal the justice of their cause and the bigotry of their opponents.
These contributing factors tempt Christians to heap all the blame on crafty, malicious "others" for redefining the divine institution of marriage. But political strategy and tactics alone don't explain such a pronounced shift in public sentiment, especially among younger generations of Americans. Indeed, regaining the ground Christians have lost on homosexuality will require widespread repentance, painful self-examination, and new resolve to pursue self-denying holiness. Most of all, we need the life-giving power that comes from Jesus alone.
Our Culture's Confession
Same-sex marriage doesn't radically depart from modern morality; it makes perfect sense according to contemporary mores. Blogger Rod Dreher writes:
The reason gay marriage is so widely accepted by young Americans is not because the media have propagandized them (though it is certainly the case that the media have played a significant role in normalizing it), but because same-sex marriage follows naturally from what young Americans already believe about sex, intimacy, love, liberty, and the nature of the human person.
The sports world recently illustrated Dreher's point. Last week ESPN's Rick Reilly, one of the most influential sports columnists in America, joined the fray over Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown's statements critical of homosexuality. Reilly profiled "Ron Brown's top recruit," a 24-year-old man named Brett Major who decided he wanted to be a Christian after hearing Brown speak 13 years ago. Then 11 years old, Major remembers thinking, "Wow. He's cool and he's Nebraska football and he believes in God. And that's all it took for me."
Reilly describes Major as the guy next door who loves football and family, as illustrated by the friendly photos accompanying his column. He's a responsible citizen and gifted student working on a master's degree in psychology at Wake Forest. He remains dedicated to the church. And he's gay.
"I know God doesn't make a mistake," Major told Reilly. "He didn't put me on this earth to be banished to hell. . . . I don't have to report to Ron Brown at the pearly gates."
Look no further for our culture's confessional statement in three points:
1. God made me this way.
2. He wouldn't deny my natural desires.
3. And I don't have to explain myself to you or anyone else.
You won't understand the challenge facing Christians regarding homosexuality until you see how these three points permeate our culture. On the surface, we appear to be locked in a battle of rights we can't win. Christians declare our right to speak out and legislate according to religious conviction in defense of traditional institutions. Gays pursue their right to life, liberty, happiness with regard to their sexuality. But homosexuality fronts a much bigger challenge that threatens us all.
As columnist Ross Douthat argues in his recent book Bad Religion, "Ultimately, the Christian sexual ethic asks more of people with same-sex attraction than it does of straights—a far greater self-denial, a more heroic chastity." Whether you've struggled with same-sex attraction yourself or counseled anyone with these inclinations, you know the agony Douthat describes. Problem is, gays don't see us as agonizing over our acceptable sins. The pursuit of self-fulfillment covers a multitude of adultery, divorce, and pornography in our churches. Why shouldn't it also cover homosexuality?
Consider the case of "Reggie," described by the team of sociologists led by Christian Smith who researched and wrote Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Reggie lives at home with his mom while studying business administration at a nearby state university. He works part-time as a youth leader in the church of his own youth. And he spends his free time seducing women. Following hundreds of interviews, the sociologists regard him as typical for his generation except in one way: Reggie believes the Bible teaches sex outside marriage is wrong. He just doesn't think it makes any difference, because we can't control our urges. In the stories of Reggie and many others, we see echoes of Major: God gave me these urges, so he won't deny my enjoyment of them, and you can't tell me they're wrong.
It's so easy for us to look up Romans 1 and observe the obvious gap between biblical teaching and homosexuality. We think if they only recognized biblical authority, the gap would shrink and possibly even disappear. But rebellion against biblical authority may not sufficiently explain the problem in our day. Observe what Brett Major's parents wrote to the administrators at the University of Nebraska.
Gays can be raised in the "perfect" family environment with parents active and nurturing, raised in the church to become lovers of the scripture. They are Christians—Brett is such an example.
We're fighting today over authority, yes, but it's not straightforwardly biblical. Many gay-rights advocates have excused themselves behind a professed love of God's Word. You won't likely win a debate with them by citing Bible verses they've been trained to explain away. Rather, we're losing a more fundamental struggle over the very definition of God. Straight or gay, Reggie or Brett, we're not satisfied with a God who calls us sinners. Who calls on us to deny ourselves. Who calls our gaze heavenward to receive his blessing: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
Romans 1 reveals the horrifying outcome of this idolatry, when we deny God his divine right as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and Judge. God can do nothing worse to sinners than grant their desires. So Christians do not so much fear the hostile imposition of gay marriage as its so-called flourishing. In this world God created, such idolatry produces neither life, nor liberty, nor happiness (2 Peter 2:19). It will only spread the regret and frustration "Reggie" and his generation of sexually liberated young adults confessed to Smith and his fellow researchers. So why hasn't freedom resulted in happiness?
Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24; see also Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). These hard words point us toward the only source of abundant life: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24; see also Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). For presidents and paupers, gays and straights, there is no other way to true happiness than the one Jesus traveled, the way that ended in the agony of the Cross and the ecstasy of the Resurrection.
To deny ourselves is to welcome the God who delights in giving every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), especially freedom from the vain pursuit of self-fulfillment.