Tonight I attended a panel discussion titled “Marriage: Who’s Allowed and Who Decides?”, hosted by the Parr Center for Ethics. The panel consisted of UNC professors Philip Cohen (Sociology), Erica Roedder (Philosophy) and Randall Styers (Religion), as well as Terri Phoenix of the UNC LGBTQ Center and Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Family Policy Council. However, the star of the panel was Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous theologian and philosopher Frank Schaeffer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back.
As Schaeffer himself describes it, he grew up “evangelical royalty” in the world of his father’s work. However, as he grew older he became more distant from the evangelical movement and later joined the Greek Orthodox church. While Schaeffer is still a Bible-believing Christian, his views on many issues have changed.
Although Schaeffer personally believes that homosexuality is immoral, he argues that his personal views should not be imposed in the public sphere. Because America is a pluralistic democracy where people hold many different religious views, “no one can claim they own America.” Hence, law should not be based on one group’s beliefs, but on what is fair for society. Schaeffer argues that gay marriage should be allowed in the name of fairness for homosexual couples. The law, he says, should not discriminate. However, Schaeffer is also a strong proponent of religious liberty. Religious groups should not be forced to recognize relationships which go against their teachings, just as his own Greek Orthodox church is not required to give Communion to a non-member.
Schaeffer also takes evangelicals to task for their unfair and often hypocritical treatment of homosexuals. According to Schaeffer, evangelicals have singled homosexuality out as a sin worse than other sexual sins such as adultery and divorce. He says this was easy to do because homosexuals are a very small minority, instead of, for example, the 50% of Christian marriages that end in divorce. This, Schaeffer says, is costing evangelicals much of their credibility as a moral voice.
The rest of the panelists presented a variety of views on the topic.
Terri Phoenix, who married her lesbian partner in Massachusetts, argued that opposition to homosexual marriage was based purely on religious grounds and that the Constitution prevents discrimination. She went so far as to argue that all relationships between consenting individuals, including polygamous ones, should be recognized so long as they are consensual, however she agreed that religious groups should not be forced to recognize these relationships. Dr. Cohen argued for gay marriage based on equality. However he also argued that modern social services have eliminated much of the need for marriage as a bedrock of society, saying “do we want a society that relies on pairs of people to care for each other?”, but added that he was unsure if he supported legal polygamy. Dr. Roedder argued that better maternity and paternity leave as well as pre-marriage counseling are better ways to protect marriage than not allowing gay marriage. Tami Fitzgerald provided a counter-weight to their arguments, strongly opposing gay marriage and arguing against it on both moral and practical grounds. She stated that marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of the family system which has served humanity well for millenia. Therefore, it makes little sense to change a working formula. She countered arguments about discrimination by saying that “every law is about discrimination: and that we have some protected classes such as age, sex and race, but “who you choose to have sex with is not a basis for special rights.”
I had a chance to speak with Frank Schaeffer following the discussion and got to ask him a few questions. First I asked, what about Christians such as William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe who were driven by their religious views to take part in politics and became forces for good in the world? He replied by saying that they lived in a different day and age, when a higher percentage of the population of their respective countries were Bible-believing Christians, and therefore they were able to be effective through politics whereas such tactics will not work today and are also unfair to the large percentage of American society which does not follow Christianity. I also asked him about how we determine law, since all laws are based on morality. He agreed that all laws are based on morality, but said that the moral code that governs state conduct is different from the morality that governs everyday life. What Christians need, he says, is a shift in method from engagement in politics to engaging people. Rather than forcing change from the top, we should work at changing people’s opinions.
My own take on this debate is somewhat nuanced. I agree with most of what Frank Schaeffer says about evangelical Christianity being too fixated on and hypocritical about homosexuality. And I agree that this has hurt evangelicals. And I definitely agree that Christians should engage the people instead of trying to enforce change from the top. However, I don’t agree with his argument that gay marriage should be legalized because not allowing it is unfair.
The truth about life is that everything is about interest and incentives. Democratic government has an interest in being fair to its citizens, because citizens control the government.
The reason I don’t agree with allowing gay marriage is because the current marriage policies of most US states are not unfairly discriminatory. Unfair discrimination occurs when a group is denied something for no reason other than their identity. No one in the United States is discriminated against when getting a marriage license. Any person, regardless of sexual orientation, can marry any other person so long as that other person is of the opposite sex. Now, some people might not want to marry someone of the opposite sex, but that is not the law’s problem. Some people might complain that this discriminates against them by keeping them from marrying the person they love, but a lot of heterosexuals don’t get to marry the person they love either. The idea that having heterosexual-only marriage is unfairly discriminatory is based on the idea that the love between a homosexual couple creates discrimination in the law, but laws are based on logic, not emotions.
In short, it is not in the state’s interest to upend its current, fair, policy and base new legislation off of emotional attachment. Since the current policies are not discriminatory, there is no need to change them.
With that said, most segments of the church have tragically failed to minister to the homosexual community. We have pursued opposition to gay marriage for the wrong reasons, and have linked the issue to closely to the Christian message in a tragic way. This has resulted in the gay marriage debate becoming a microcosm for battle over a whole host of cultural issues, which leads to two sides which are spectacularly unable to consider other views. Hopefully, more panels like tonight’s excellent discussion will go a long way towards changing this.