One could become wistful about the time in history when marriage was a settled affair, when everyone agreed on what it was, when no nation on the planet would have entertained the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage. But wistfulness is usually reserved for times long ago and places far away—not for a state of affairs that existed less than a decade ago.

In December 2000, the Dutch parliament became the first to pass legislation that gave same-sex couples the right to marry, divorce, and adopt children. On April 1 of the following year, the mayor of Amsterdam officiated, for the first time in human history, at the ceremonies of the first four gay couples. In the ensuing eight years, Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), and Norway (2008) followed the Netherlands' lead, and Sweden may now not be far behind.

While we shake our heads at those libertine Dutch, traditional marriage was challenged in the U.S. even earlier, in 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state's prohibition of same-sex marriages amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex. For the first time in U.S. history, a state supreme-court ruling suggested that gay couples may have the right to marry.

Social conservatives were galvanized into action and enacted a series of protective measures. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (doma) in 1996. Three states soon adopted constitutional same-sex marriage bans: Alaska (1998), Nebraska (2000), and Nevada (2000).And in a few years, 42 states enacted statutes similar to doma (although three of those bans have since been overturned).

Gay marriage advocacy was given new life with Massachusetts's historic 2003 high court ruling, which said that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. It became clear that statutory bans were not enough; judges could throw out the laws if they felt the bans violated state constitutional rights. Over the next three years, voters in 23 states immediately amended their constitutions to limit marriage to heterosexuals.

Since then, the issue has ebbed and flowed, like trench warfare, with each side gaining only yards of territory with each new legislative or judicial assault. When the battle of Election 2008 had ended, it appeared that social conservatives had the momentum when constitutional amendments banning gay marriages passed in three more states.

But seemingly out of nowhere, gay marriage advocates have won stunning judicial, legislative, and social victories. Connecticut began granting marriage certificates to spouses of the same gender in November 2008. In April 2009, Iowa's high court ruled that banning gay marriages was unconstitutional, and gay couples began lining up at Iowa court houses.The Vermont legislature legalized gay marriage that same month, while Maine and New Hampshire legalized gay marriage in May.

Article continues below

All the while, Rick Warren and Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean were hit hard for their public statements against gay marriage. To be against gay marriage now carries a social stigma. A recent poll of Massachusetts residents revealed that 36 percent of voters who oppose gay marriage agreed with the statement, "If you speak out against gay marriage in Massachusetts you really have to watch your back because some people may try to hurt you."

In short, traditional Christians feel like the armored tank of history is rolling over them, crushing traditional marriage under its iron treads, impervious to argument, the ballot box, or judicial logic. Even more disheartening has been to witness how, in each mainline denomination, and even in some evangelical seminaries, fellow Christians lobby hard for gay marriage.

The depressing feeling of inevitability is precisely what advocates of gay marriage want to instill in their opponents. But relying as many do on historical determinism—"Side with us because we're going to win"—suggests that gay marriage advocates have run out of arguments. It also demonstrates historical amnesia. Arguments from historical inevitability have often been assumed by millions—to take two examples, the inevitability of Communism and the death of religion—and yet have proven to be wrong.

Still, we are at our wits' ends about what to say next, impervious as the gay marriage juggernaut is. We know biblically and instinctively that "male and female he created them," and that these complementary sexual beings are designed to become one flesh. We know that this spiritual instinct and biblical argument will not make much headway in the public square. So what do we say?

We can make secular arguments, of course, but the more we look at the strongest secular arguments we can muster, the more those arguments cut two ways. And one of the edges of those arguments will make evangelicals bleed, I'm afraid.

The Nonreligious Case

One way to get at the heart of an argument is to listen to allies who take the opposite view on this issue. There are some social conservatives, for example, who argue for gay marriage on conservative grounds.

Article continues below

Take The Atlantic's foremost blogger, Andrew Sullivan, a Roman Catholic. He also happens to be gay, but his argument does not rest on his sexual preference. His case, as he asserted in a 2003 Time essay, is "an eminently conservative one—in fact, almost an emblem of 'compassionate conservatism.'" He says the institution of marriage fosters responsibility, commitment, and the domestication of unruly men. Thus, "bringing gay men and women into this institution will surely change the gay subculture in subtle but profoundly conservative ways." Growing up gay, he realized he would never have a family, and that it's "the weddings and relationships and holidays that give families structure and meaning." And thus, "when I looked forward, I saw nothing but emptiness and loneliness. No wonder it was hard to connect sex with love and commitment," Sullivan wrote.

Or take the argument from the street, so to speak, from a common blogger in Algonquin, Illinois. He is a heterosexual who lives with a woman, and a political conservative who supports legalizing gay marriage. He says we must accept the fact that American society has moved on and "embraced different ways people choose to live and love." And "when you take away all the legalisms, the moral quotient, the religious implications, and the needs of society," he writes, "what we are left with is nothing more than how people choose to define their relationships where they feel love for another human being."

These two writers—one from the center of American culture and the other from the heartland—summarize a privatized view of marriage. Marriage is about the fulfillment of the two people involved. It will help them to mature as human beings and to express more deeply their love for one another.

Marriage is inescapably connected to children and thus family, and family is inescapably connected to society.

This, of course, strikes at the heart of how Christians have traditionally understood marriage. David Blankenhorn, president of the New York–based Institute for American Values and author of The Future of Marriage, argued this in a nonreligious way in a September 2008 Los Angeles Times op-ed. There is one constant in the constantly evolving understanding of marriage, he says: "In all societies, marriage shapes the rights and obligations of parenthood. Among us humans, the scholars report, marriage is not primarily a license to have sex. Nor is it primarily a license to receive benefits or social recognition. It is primarily a license to have children."

Article continues below

Further, he says, "Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. Marriage says to society as a whole: For every child born, there is a recognized mother and a father, accountable to the child and to each other."

The argument is nuanced, and goes on to take into account heterosexual couples who will not or cannot have children. But he grounds marriage not in two people, but in two communities: the family and the state.

McGill University law professor Margaret Somerville, in a 2003 brief before Canada's Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, argued in much the same way. She says that to form a society, we must create "a societal-cultural paradigm." This is a constellation of "values, principles, attitudes, beliefs, and myths" by which a society finds value and meaning, both individually and collectively.

"Reproduction is the fundamental occurrence on which, ultimately, the future of human life depends," she says. "That is the primary reason why marriage is important to society." Thus, it is crucial that societies protect marriage as a fact and as a symbol, as that institution that fosters human life, doing so in the context of family and society. "Even if a particular man and woman cannot or do not want to have a child, their getting married does not damage this general symbolism."

Again, the argument is involved and nuanced. Both Blankenhorn and Somerville ground marriage in something larger than two selves who wish to find fulfillment. Marriage is inescapably connected to children and thus family, and family is inescapably connected to society.

In a highly individualistic culture, this argument swims upstream, but conservative Christians recognize that it corresponds to their basic theological instincts. The narcissism of mutual self-fulfillment will never be a solid foundation for a particular marriage, let alone for the most fundamental institution in society. This is an argument we can press publicly as the opportunity arises.

We'll have to press it humbly, however, because as it turns out, we are very much complicit in the unrighteousness we decry.

Evangelical individualism

The thrust of the pro-gay-marriage argument rests on the assumption that the happiness of the individual is paramount, and that the state's responsibility is to protect the rights of individuals to pursue whatever they think will make them happy, as long as no one gets hurt. The irony of radical individualism is that it will eventually hurt somebody. In practice, the happiness of one individual always runs into the happiness of another, and then only the strong survive. The weaker individual is no longer treated as fully human, and thus his or her right to happiness is compromised. In our nation, we see this in the way we treat individuals at both ends of life, in how expendable they are if they interrupt the happiness of the fully functioning—take the increasing acceptance of euthanasia, and the on-the-ground fact of abortions in the thousands every day.

Article continues below

Evangelicals are sensitive to this reality, but are less aware of how much we proactively participate in the culture of individualism. While stopping short of abortion, we have not given much thought to our easy acceptance of artificial contraception. I'm not arguing for or against contraception here, only pointing to the reality that contraception has separated sex from procreation. That, in turn, has prompted most couples, evangelicals included, to think that sex is first and foremost a fulfilling psychological and physical experience, that a couple has a right to enjoy themselves for a few years before they settle down to family life.

In essence, we have already redefined marriage as an institution designed for personal happiness. We see ancillary evidence of this at the other end of marriage: Though it is a difficult thing to measure, the rate at which evangelicals divorce is hard to distinguish from the larger culture's, and the list of reasons for divorce seems no different: "We grew apart." "We no longer met each other's needs." "Irreconcilable differences." The language of divorce is usually about the lack of self-fulfillment.

Add to that our penchant for changing churches, usually because "I just wasn't being fed," as well as our need to test every church and pastor against our personal reading of the Bible—well, you can see why Protestants have managed in 500 years to create out of two traditions (Orthodox and Catholic) some 30,000 denominations. While the Baptists are known for their doctrine of "soul competency," a version of the doctrine is woven into the fabric of broader evangelicalism, though it has morphed into sole competency. Thus, the death of mutual accountability and church discipline in our movement. Thus, the exaltation of worship in which the personal experience of the worshiper so often becomes more important than the object of worship. Thus, the continual proliferation of churches, parachurches, and movements because the group we belong to just doesn't do it the way we think "the Lord is leading me" to do it.

Article continues below

We are, of all Christian traditions, the most individualistic. This individual emphasis has flourished in different ways and in different settings, and often for the good. It has challenged moribund religion (Reformation), prompted revival (Great Awakenings), ministered to the urban poor (Salvation Army), abolished slavery (William Wilberforce), and led to explosive worldwide church growth (Pentecostalism). But it is individualism nonetheless, and it cuts right to the heart of one of our best arguments against gay marriage.

We cannot very well argue for the sanctity of marriage as a crucial social institution while we blithely go about divorcing and approving of remarriage at a rate that destabilizes marriage. We cannot say that an institution, like the state, has a perfect right to insist on certain values and behavior from its citizens while we refuse to submit to denominational or local church authority. We cannot tell gay couples that marriage is about something much larger than self-fulfillment when we, like the rest of heterosexual culture, delay marriage until we can experience life, and delay having children until we can enjoy each other for a few years.

In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on this issue. Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion.

Witnesses to Another

This does not mean we should stop fighting initiatives that would legalize gay marriage. Gay marriage is simply a bad idea, whether one is religious or not. But it's bad not only because of what it will do to the social fabric, but because of what it signals has already happened to our social fabric. We are a culture of radical individualists, and gay marriage does nothing but put an exclamation point on that fact. We should fight it, because it will only make a bad situation worse.

That being said, we are as compromised as the next gay couple when it comes to radical individualism. This means that alongside our call to maintain traditional marriage, we should "bewail our manifold sins and wickedness," as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We should acknowledge how much Protestant culture has shaped American culture, how much we've collaborated in the flowering of individualism, and how we continue to do so even when the flower has become a weed that is choking off life.

Article continues below

We well may lose the marriage war. But we are called into the battle not because we are promised victory, but because we're called to be witnesses of a greater battle. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has famously said that "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts." In our time and place, it is a battle with the original temptation: to imagine we are gods, captains of our own souls and masters of our fate—a habitual unwillingness to submit to anything bigger than the self.

As we contend with gay marriage proponents, then, we contend as both prophets and penitents. Like Isaiah, we can announce to our culture the poisonous fruit of immorality, while saying, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5, esv). Like Paul, we can forthrightly warn others of the horrific consequences of sin, but in the next breath acknowledge that we must admit we are "the chief of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15).

What we bring to the public table, then, is not our righteousness or even our humility. We come in the name of the One who came into the world to save sinners of all political and social persuasions. We raise our voices on behalf of righteousness not in a way calculated to win the culture—for sometimes we will, sometimes we won't—but as witnesses to the only Righteous One. We live in a culture that by all accounts is descending into darkness, and our job is to reflect the light of Christ. We speak for what he says is right, using the lingua franca of the culture to argue that as best we can, using the political and social instruments at our disposal to the best of our ability, acknowledging our own complicity in the sins we decry, and pointing to the One who must save us all.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has a special section about Same-Sex Marriage on our site, including:

Iowa Churches: We Need to Be Clear on Same-Sex Marriage | But pastors disagree whether last week's court decision should mean more activism on the issue. (April 14, 2009)
Looking for a 'Serious' Conversation | The Newsweek religious case for gay marriage is mostly an attempt to marginalize the opposition. (December 9, 2008)
Up for Debate | Publicly arguing for traditional marriage is worth it even if I don't change many minds. (December 8, 2008)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.