On June 26, 2015, in a five-to-four decision, the United States Supreme Court declared that states cannot deny homosexual couples the right to marriage. NPR’s Nina Totenberg summarized the significance of the decision: “This is probably right up there with Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade – if you like it or hate it – and today, Obergefell v. Hodges. This was a historic moment.”
“A historic moment” appears to be a refrain in the news media. So-called ‘same-sex marriage’ is indeed part of a historical trajectory and serves as a fixed-point within that trajectory. But few seem to be asking the question, for whose history is this a historic moment?
If Christians committed to the biblical faith are going to weather this secular storm faithfully, I believe it is essential for us to understand the historical and social dynamics behind the rise of so-called ‘gay marriage,’ lest we perpetuate inadvertently the very beliefs and practices that give rise to such a permutation in the first place.
Microcosms and Social Order
First, we need to realize that so-called ‘gay marriage’ is a symptom of a more fundamental or foundational cultural shift which we will have to understand if we are going to adequately address this marital change.
For example, think of a Marine soldier in uniform; in putting on such items as insignia, chevrons, corfam shoes, etc, the body of the marine transforms into a symbol of this larger social unit known as The Marines. The important point is that everybody, by virtue of mannerisms, clothing, haircuts, spoken language, etc, exemplifies the norms and cultural codes of larger social orders.
And so, the question before us is: What is the larger social order that so-called gay marriage exemplifies?
I want to argue that same-sex marriage is in fact the result of a social order that has undergone three redefinitions. While the issue is certainly more complex, I do believe that these three permutations play a significant role in creating the historical context for this ‘historical moment.’
1. Redefining the Individual
The social order that dominates contemporary society in the West revolves around the secular conception of scholars call ‘civic individualism,’ which reimagines society and social accountability in terms of the individual and self-responsibility. Civic individualism developed out of eighteenth-century Enlightenment science, which increasingly redefined knowledge in such a way so as to exclude any divine moral order. This new knowledge entailed a redefinition of religion, ‘knowledge’ was reduced to the understanding of biological, chemical, and physical causal laws, and had nothing to do whatsoever with theology or ‘religious’ dogma. As a result, the church’s cosmic vision of divine creation mediated by clergy was replaced with impersonal nature mediated by scientists.
And so what this entailed was quite literally the birth of the individual, or more specifically, the birth of the sovereign individual. While historically Christian societies affirmed that each person was born into a world of divine obligation (as summarized in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount), Enlightenment societies affirmed that each person was born into a world devoid of any ultimate moral obligations apart from that which the individual chose to impose upon his or herself. Instead, they advocated civic individualism, which in effect affirmed a common good among sovereign individuals so as to maximize individual freedom but without any direct appeal to the divine. Indeed, divinity is now whatever one wants it to be.
2. Redefining Marriage and Sex
And it is this shift from Christendom to civic individualism that underlies significant shifts in attitudes toward marriage and sex. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the state began to replace the church as the primary social institution that defined and certified marriage. For example, the 1836 Act for Marriages in England transferred the legal recognition of marriage away from the Anglican Church and to the civil magistrate. From this point onward, the modern state increasingly replaced the church’s legal jurisdiction over the family.
One of the most prescient voices opposing the Act for Marriages was the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, who wrote in The Times that the bill was
a disgrace to British legislation. (It) is pretended to be called for to prevent clandestine marriages, but I think it will greatly facilitate such proceedings. Not solemnized by the Church of England, may be celebrated without entering into a consecrated building, may be contracted by anybody, and will be equally valid, whether it takes place in the house of God, or in the house of a registering clerk, one of the lowest functionaries of the state. The parties may take one another for better and for worse, without calling God to witness their plighted troth. No blessing sought; no solemn vows of mutual fidelity; no religious solemnity whatever …
In short, Bishop Phillpotts argued that the Marriage Act in effect de-sanctified marriage; by separating matrimony from the social frames of reference specific to the church, the state was engaged in nothing less than the redefinition of marriage from the original Christian redefinition.
But it wasn’t just marriage that was experiencing change: sex and sexuality were increasingly amputated from marital and familial structures through the advent of modern contraception. Indeed, this amputation was integral to the rationale behind the Roe v. Wade decision: abortion is simply one among many options constitutive of modern birth control. And as contraception has amputated sex from fertility, so in vitro fertilization has amputated fertility from sex. This divorce between sex and marriage has had the effect of de-sanctifying sex, such that pre-marital sex is now considered the social norm. [In fact, I typed ‘sex’ in a Google search, and the first automatic entries were: ‘sex and the city,’ ‘sexting,’ and ‘sex offender registry.’ Welcome to the modern age!]
Thus, with the de-sanctification of marriage and sex, the marital relationship itself goes through a radical redefinition: marriage is now interpreted as a legal contract that satisfies the needs of intimacy between the attracted persons. Marriage simply no longer has any objective or traditional definition, but is rather defined by those in relationship with one another according to their personal beliefs and values. This is marriage in the age of civic individualism.
The final piece to this puzzle is how civic individualism provided the social context for what has been called political normalization for homosexuality. But that will be the subject of our next post.
For a fuller treatment of the rise of so-called same-sex marriage and the church’s effective response, download the free eBook: A Match Made in Heaven: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Win the Battle over Marriage.