In our last post, we explored two of three social redefinitions that provide the historical trajectory for the Supreme Court’s ‘historic’ decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. We found, first, that the eighteenth-century redefined the individual as ‘sovereign,’ that is, we are all born into a world devoid of any divine meaning or purpose apart from that which we individually choose to impose upon ourselves. This developed into what scholars call ‘civic individualism,’ which affirmed a common good among sovereign individuals so as to maximize individual freedom but without any direct appeal to the divine. Secondly, we found that marriage and sex were redefined in accordance with this novel secularized civic individualism. Marriage was increasingly certified by the secular state apart from the church, while sex and sexuality were increasingly amputated from marital and familial structures through the advent of modern contraception and abortion.
We come now to the third of our three social redefinitions.
3. Redefining Homosexuality
The final piece to this puzzle is how civic individualism provided the social context for what has been called political normalization for homosexuality. Historically there were two major homosexual movements. The first, which emerged in the 1950s, was the so-called gay liberation movement, which was prone to radical extremism. This movement transformed in the late 1960s into a quest for normalization within a society dedicated to civic individualism. Rather than focus on the radical overturning of a supposed homophobic society, the strategy here was simply to demonstrate that homosexuals were no different than any other American who was trying to get ahead and build the best life possible for himself and others.
With the recent Supreme Court decision, it is difficult to argue with the assessment that this strategy has worked; homosexuality and its participation in modern marriage is now widely accepted within Western secular society. A recent Fox News poll found that 49 percent of voters favored gay marriage, up from just 32 percent a decade ago, represented nearly a 20 point swing. And even among self-described conservatives under 35, the Fox poll found support for gay marriage at 44 percent.
Now the takeaway from all of this, I believe, is that NPR’s Nina Totenberg is correct: the Court’s decision was certainly historic, but its historicity is itself an extension of the historical rise of modern marriage. And modern marriage is an extension of the sovereign individual who inhabits a world totally devoid of any divine meaning or obligation apart from that which the sovereign individual chooses to impose upon him or herself. It is within this world that marriage and sex are de-sanctified and thereby radically redefined.
Our Own Sin Writ Large
We must as Christians reflect on the extent to which we have legitimized these frames of reference basic to the rise of so-called same-sex marriage. Are we sending our children to schools that perpetuate a secular vision of knowledge, that teach them to view religion as person-relative while math and science are hard ‘facts’? Do we see ourselves as sovereign individuals who have no divine obligations apart from those we impose on ourselves? Do we rely on the secular state as the primary certifying civil agent for marriage? Indeed, do we perpetuate the idea that the secular state is the legitimate center of economic, political, and social life? Do we not merely accept but actually defend the privatization of Christian faith in society? Have we forgotten the biblical and cosmic significance of Christian marriage? To what extent have we accepted the normalcy of divorce in the church? Are our contraceptive practices rooted in a secular flippancy and cynicism towards children? Have we become complacent with abortion and infanticide?
I believe that we as Christians must come to terms with the fact that we have allowed this secularizing historical trajectory to develop relatively unimpeded. Indeed, we find ourselves all too often rather eager participants in these trajectories. In his The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis summarizes well our corporate flaw:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this is that this ‘historic moment’ is in large part due to the secularized complacency of the church. The Supreme Court decision is our own sin writ large.
If the Court’s social redefinitions are to be eclipsed by a full-blown renaissance of classical Christian marriage and culture in our day, we are going to have to live out our lives as postures of penitence, continuously seeking the forgiveness of the world around us for our infidelity in being far too easily pleased, in failing to embody corporately the true way of being human revealed in the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. So-called gay marriage is not what liberals do to marriage, but what sinners do to it; not what others have done, but what we have done.
And so, let us commit ourselves anew to repent, to turn collectively away from merely reflecting back to the secular world its own social complexion sprinkled with a little privatized Jesus here and there. Let us live in such a way that remakes and renews history as radically as the resurrection, which recalibrates the totally of demographic, economic, social, and political life back around the shared lifeworld of the church, centered on Word and Sacrament, and behold the dawning of a Narnia-like Spring tide in the midst of our secular winter.