Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gay "marriage", the theological dimension of civil law, and the legitimacy of government

From a recent discussion with a friend on the topics of gay "marriage", the theological dimension of civil law, and the legitimacy of government:
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Dear Robert,
This image has hardly anything to do with the topic. But it's great.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. Yes, I am the author of that particular piece, and "pseudepigrapha" in the comments. Some friends of mine and I kept that blog up for awhile, but no one has posted in over a year. Still, we had some good conversations there that I like to revisit from time to time. I'm glad you found what I wrote helpful; however, I want to make sure that you didn't misunderstand me. Did you read the linked piece by Christopher Oleson? You should. It will help set the context for my thinking on this issue. In a way, I was reiterating his basic point in the paragraph in which I wrote that "there is no purely civil libertarian argument against gay 'marriage.'" However, to say this is not to say that there is no argument at all against gay marriage. There most certainly is, and there needs to be.

I do not agree with your liberal friend, whose point you summarized thusly:

Her point was that someone who is gay is sinning against God, but isn't hurting anyone, and that laws against gay marriage wouldn't change the hearts of those professing to be gay. It would only make them angry, and they would go right on living together. However, she is in favor of laws against abortion because she thinks it is important to protect the life of the unborn child.
The argument that one leading a homosexual lifestyle "isn't hurting anyone" is just not true. It's a very libertarian argument: as long as you're not "hurting" someone, you're fine. In truth, though, there are more, and worse, ways of "hurting someone" than merely taking that person's life. The propagation of lies regarding something so fundamental to human nature as sexuality is a slow poison which spreads throughout the body politic, killing as it spreads. I do not hold out much hope for slowing the spread of this poison in any lasting or widespread way, but that does not mean that we should capitulate or be complicit in the Lie.

What is marriage? In sociological terms, it is the means by which individuals are joined together to form families, which are the building block of society and the means of its perpetuation. Over the years, I have become convinced that if a country's laws do not reflect the natural ends of human sexuality, that country's "unwritten constitution" will be steadily dissolved. Think of a drop of acid on a piece of parchment: a hole is burnt from that point which dilates and expands outwards. The metaphor is insufficient, however, because human sexuality is not just any old point on the parchment: it is fundamental (I am convinced) to all morality because it concerns that which makes us human, i.e., our likeness to God.

In theological terms, then, the integrity of marriage is about so much more than just the formation of society. It is a holy, angelic vocation. At the beginning of all things God tells Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," and in so doing, issues a sacred call, a sacred vocation, for man to participate in the awesome task of bringing new souls into being. God made man and woman subcreators with Himself, co-participants who share in his Divine procreativity. Martin Luther wrote of the calling in this way:

For this word which God speaks, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' is not a command. It is more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore. Rather, it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it. Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but created them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice.
I first encountered the foregoing in the comment feed of this piece, written by Rev. Fr. Richard D. Stuckwisch. The conversation in the comments is fascinating, by the way, if you have the time to read them. His latest post is comprised of quotations by Luther on the topic of celibacy and marriage. Good stuff.

The broader and more important point to be made here is this: civil law exists for the maintenance of justice and good order in the City of Man. It does not -- nor can it -- make people holy. Theologians speak of the Law as having three uses: curb, mirror, and guide. Civil law is primarily a curb. Laws against murder and theft are not intended to change people's hearts. They exist as a curb on man's sinful nature. They embody what St. Paul describes as the primary vocation of "the magistrate" in society: "he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil." The civil law doesn't need to change men's hearts -- at the end of the day, I don't think it is even capable of doing so. It is simply a curb erected against man's sinful nature. In this sense, all civil law must "extend into enforcing morality." Indeed, it can do nothing else! People often say that government shouldn't legislate morality, but that is a completely self-defeating statement: morality is the only thing you can legislate! You cannot change people's hearts with the Law, but you can control their behavior. As a teacher I have seen this very clearly on a microcosmic level: obviously, I am seeking to inculcate good habits in my students when I hold them accountable to rules, exhort them to good behavior, and punish bad behavior. But, barring that, they are going to do what I say, even if grudgingly, or suffer the consequences, because the rules are nonnegotiable and exist not just for them, but for the sake of the other students who are members of the same academic community. And for the sake of their poor teacher who must put up with them. Let's not forget him. "Manners are more important than laws," Edmund Burke once said. Yes, but be that as it may, I will take grudgingly good behavior in my classroom, even if it doesn't come "from the heart"; though it is a lesser good, it at least tends towards the maintenance of good order. Who among us consistently does the right thing for the right reason, anyway? No one.

How this principle works out in practice is a more difficult matter. I would fully support anti-sodomy laws of the sort that were struck down in 2003 with the infamous Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case. Such do not exist anymore, at least not to my knowledge. I really have no interest in a federal Defense of Marriage-type act -- if things have gotten to that point, the more important battle has already been lost, and it's just a matter of time before a majoritarian sea-change redefines marriage again. If we're asking "should deviant sexual practices be given state sanction," something has already gone terribly wrong. When I say that there is no civil libertarian argument against gay marriage, what I am saying is that the only argument against homosexuality marriage that holds water -- the teleological argument from natural law -- is not being used. Why? Because this argument indicts heterosexual deviancy -- perhaps most notably, contraception -- just as much. For this reason, ostensibly conservative types attempt arguments from natural revulsion. The only problem is that this is no argument at all, but simple bigotry. A bigot and I may both object to something, but that doesn't mean that what we both espouse is bigotry. There are innumerable ways to disagree with any given false proposition, but some of those ways are as disagreeable to the truth as the original false proposition. A is contra B; C is contra B; but A is not necessarily pro C. Again, see Oleson's piece. It's fantastic.

When I said that no government is perfectly legitimate, I was saying that the various proofs and criteria that political philosophers have come up with over millenia are everywhere at war with one another. I am bound to obey the U.S. government, regardless of the fact that the American Revolution was a rebellion against the God-ordained rule of George III. Why? Because the authority of the state as outlined in Romans 13 is what has been ordained by God, not one or another particular governing power. Among other things, this means that we do not get to pick and choose which governments are legitimate -- for example, America, from her exalted point of view, does not simply get to unseat a sitting sovereign power in another country -- say, Iraq -- simply because that power wasn't democratically-elected. Nor is there any "right to revolution." Sorry, Declaration of Independence. What I take away from this is that Christians are not to foment or even participate in violent overthrow of the government. Ever. That just shouldn't be our concern. On the other hand -- and this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently -- all government is bound to become enamored of its own idiosyncratic claims of legitimacy, arrogating to itself an authority greater both in degree and kind than that which God has given it to wield. This bit from C.S. Lewis's essay "Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State" sums it up quite nicely:

I do not like the pretensions of Government – the grounds on which it demands my obedience – to be pitched too high. I don’t like the medicine-man’s magical pretensions nor the Bourbon’s Divine Right. This is not solely because I disbelieve in magic and in Bossuet’s Politique. I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies, and lies dangerously.
Even though the government's power to administer the Law and enforce morality is God-ordained, it has no power to add to the Law or invent a new morality. When governments play God and demand the kind of allegiance that should be rendered unto God alone, they become corrupt and must be disobeyed. There are situations in which the commands of God and the commands of men are at odds; in such a scenario "we must obey God rather than men." But one can civilly disobey the government without overthrowing it or rebelling against it. Even evil governments are used by God for the maintenance of earthly order and peace.


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