civil defense, part two

It’s been an interesting week. 

I was fired by a client who said he wouldn’t work with someone who was “for gay marriage.” I was emailed by someone else thanking me for opening the door to talk about faith with people who wouldn’t have talked to a Christian about these issues before. I’ve been asked to read a lot of articles on a lot of subjects. I was texted with kudos for my bravery and with condemnations for my cowardice.

So, interesting. Because the feedback came from so many sources, it seemed easiest to reply to everyone with a second blog post. Just to review, my suggestion was the government get out of the marriage business entirely, leave the definition of marriage to religious groups, and instead legalize civil unions between any two consenting adults. Here are the objections to last week’s post and some thoughts.

Yes, it’s long—grab some coffee and jump in.

Every law “legislates morality”

One of the most compelling arguments came from SWNID, otherwise known as Jon Weatherly, who noted the role of law as a “teacher” in society. “All laws have a moral aspect to them,” he wrote, ”and the very existence of a law makes a moral statement which often has an noticeable effect on patterns of behavior.”

I suspect this is also what some other commenters meant when they said several times that “it’s not a question of IF morality will be legislated, but WHOSE.”

It’s true the connection between the law and morality is inescapable. However, I think we have to make a distinction between the role of the church and the role of the state. I believe it is the church’s role to define and promote morality and it is the state’s role to provide freedom and rights. One of these rights is the right to choose whether to affiliate with a religion and accept its definition of morality.

But I also believe these rights end when our actions directly harm another person. So the morality inherent in the law is a protection of a person’s right to have dominion over his own life and the prohibition of his right to harm the life of any one else. Or, as one of my friends puts it, “my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.

I believe this is not only a morally valid approach to the role of the state, but a practical one, as well. Actions that directly affect only the individual are difficult or impossible to legislate.

This is why we are legally allowed to drink excessively in the privacy of our homes, become addicted to cigarettes, and have extra-marital affairs. These things are very harmful to self but indirectly harmful to others and therefore legal. (It was interesting to receive a link from a man who said both homosexuality and adultery used to be illegal and even today many states have laws on the books about adultery. I think he intended this as persuasive evidence that our country’s morals are continuing to slip, but it actually proves the point that it is almost impossible to govern sexual behavior between consenting adults.)

This is also why homosexuality is legal and why I believe civil unions for all couples must be as well—we are talking about individual rights and choices that have no direct harm on other people. This is a matter for the state and within the broad “morality” of the laws it creates.

People who disagree and want the law to provide personal moral guidance to the individual based on Christian scripture find themselves in the awkward position of having to draw arbitrary lines about which of the country’s laws they want to conform to the law of God.

Do we fine the fornicating teenager? Is gay sex outlawed, and do homosexuals get community service? Is it the death penalty for the adulterer? Anorexic people are harming themselves. Should they be doing hard time?

The Bible teaches against drunkenness, but getting drunk is legal in this country because it only directly hurts the drunk. Driving drunk? Idiotic and illegal. Drunk and disorderly? Also against the law. Making a choice that wastes money and brain cells, damages one’s health, potentially harms a family and is morally wrong? Not illegal. You can behave stupidly as long as you only swing at your own nose.

I’m comfortable living in a country with this moral basis for its laws because it is also consistent regardless of which religious group may be the majority. It’s unlikely, given that their primary marketing plan is making people hide in their bedrooms and not answer the door when they appear, but what if the Jehovah’s Witnesses someday became the “moral majority” in the US? I will fight until I need a blood transfusion for my right to decide if I get one, regardless of their morality on the subject.

Great, Jen, but we’re LOSING freedoms

Another reader sent me this article by Pat Buchanan, who was fired from MSNBC this year after several of his comments were labeled racist or homophobic.

Buchanan has dug himself in plenty of graves over the years (suggesting that Nixon burn the White House tapes and questioning the need to fight Germany in WWII come to mind), and it’s certainly not the first time he’s been a headache for his network. But I agree with his right to state his beliefs and defend them.

However, the law also gives MSNBC the right to fire someone who has become a liability. Buchanan did not lose his right to free speech, he just lost his approval rating. I wonder if the real fear behind this example is not that Christians will lose the right to say things, but that they will be ridiculed or disliked for it.

“Eventually it will be against the law to simply read the Bible in a public forum,” said this reader who shared this piece, ”and they will MONITOR and attempt to destroy churches, pastors and organizations.” I understand the bigger point; we have deteriorated into a divisive culture that is quick to label people as homophobic or intolerant if they express an unpopular view, and there is concern that eventually discussions of morality won’t even be tolerated in the public sphere. But I don’t think banning (or allowing) civil unions is going to make a difference about the bigger problem of people from every religious and political camp in our nation becoming more polarized and suspicious of the others.

More concerning was an article sent by a different reader about a United Methodist group in New Jersey forced to allow its property to be used for the civil union of two women because the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.”

My suggestion was that homosexual couples be afforded all the rights of any other couple without interference, and that faith groups be afforded the right to practice their own religion without interference. In my opinion, the church should have the right to determine which ceremonies it performs in its buildings and the state should have the right to determine which legal procedures it conducts in its own. This church was not arguing that the women should not be allowed to have a civil union, only that they did not wish it to take place in their building. This is reasonable and I agree with the reader who submitted it as a cautionary tale of how both “sides” in this debate can overstep their bounds.

Another reader argued that legalizing unions between consenting adults supports the future creation of unions between people and animals (bestiality), adults and children (pedophilia), and more than two adults (polygamy). Just as homosexuality used to be illegal because it was seen as immoral, these other sexual behaviors that we now see as immoral are on their way to being legalized. Pushing for civil unions only speeds up the day in which our country legalizes these things, as well.

My first argument in response goes back to the ideas about consent mentioned earlier. Whereas homosexual civil unions involve a) legal sexual behavior between b) two people who agree to participate, “marriages” between adults and animals or adults and children would be involuntary unions involving illegal behavior. The right of the adult would end with the animal or child, who also has rights that must be protected by the state. So legalizing one kind of relationship does not mean we’re just steps from legalizing other, very different, ones.

As for polygamy, if some guy is stupid enough to want more than one wife, and those women are stupid enough to go for it, they all deserve each other.  As far as I’m concerned, polygamy could be legal if it weren’t for the children involved, who are brought into a situation with lots of competition for the attention of a father. Then again, you could say the same thing about the Duggar kids.

Speaking of children, some people are arguing kids CAN give consent and therefore those sexual relationships should be legal.

This is much more concerning. I spent some time with the articles sent my way, and even gave a few stomach-twisting moments to the NAMBLA website. It’s a huge stretch to say the “freedom of consenting adults” argument will lead to people taking their pets to the courthouse, but it is reasonable to say it falls apart if our society agrees to lower the age of consent for people.

I would fully side with any group standing up for the rights of those who can’t stand up for themselves, and no matter how many “scientific” articles NAMBLA wants to produce arguing the opposing view, that includes young children. To me it’s a matter of common sense that a young boy or girl which the law trusts with no other decisions (voting, driving, drinking, etc.) would also not be trusted to consent to a civil union. But I admit the appeal to common sense is a weak argument in a nation where as much as 20% of the population believes the moon landings were faked.

I don’t think there’s a direct connection with the push for civil unions (after all, the NAMBLAites have been trying to gain support for their cause since 1978) but it’s still disturbing.

This kind of thing just proves that Christians have not only a right but an obligation to influence the laws that are made. It is part of our responsibility as Christians to get involved and change our culture through legislation.

One commenter from this school of thought wrote, in response to last week’s post, “What would Jesus say?” To which I would answer, “What DID Jesus say?” Throughout his time on earth, Jesus had every opportunity to seize political power and make HIS agenda THE agenda. Yet he consistently chose not to. He was much more concerned with constructing a spiritual kingdom than he was building or even influencing an earthly one.

He did not choose to save the world by making laws. Should we? He also did not come to establish a Christian nation. Instead, he came to establish a church—a church which is consistently more effective and more attractive when it’s not the majority.

I don’t care what fancy arguments you want to put on it. We have to fight it.

Surely you must know that within the next 10 to 15 years gay marriage will be legal in all fifty states. It’s not a matter of if but when. So we can have a situation where pastors of every faith are required to marry gay people and those couples can have a legally-accepted union, or we can have a situation in which pastors can follow their conscience and refuse to conduct ceremonies for gay people and those couples can have a legally-accepted union. I still think my suggestion of “divorcing” the church and the state is the best shot our country has at upholding legal and civil rights while preserving freedom of religious expression for all.

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