Behind Closed Doors

There are people who might argue that a discussion of the same-sex marriage issue does not belong in Liberty magazine–a journal devoted to the freedom of religious expression and the constitutionally mandated principle of a separation of church and state. Of course they would have to be willing to restrict that very religious expression and resort to the sort of "religion-free zone" argument that antireligionists have sometimes revealed in overzealous separationist talk. No society was ever free of moral values, and every society's moral values tend to gather from its shared cosmology (see religious values).

As I look back over the years of Liberty coverage I am struck by the enthusiasm this magazine brought to the temperance cause—that is, the social activism that resulted in the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. For many years this magazine listed 10 declarations of principle on the inside cover. The first declaration was a belief in the separation of church and state. Number 10 (taken verbatim from our first issue of 1927) stated, "We also believe in temperance, and regard the liquor traffic as a curse to society."

Well, consistent with that principled stand, I say, "We also believe in marriage, and regard all challenges to it as curses to society." And those who see no threat to religion in recent moves to legalize same-sex marriage don't understand the movement's long-ago articulated intention to dismantle religious values. And those who think gay marriage just another option for a secular society have thought little about how we got the society we have.

For much of the world, Abu Ghraib will be a lingering symbol of Western bestiality for quite some time. We can only hope that time will somehow reveal that it was truly not "us" at work in those midnight scenes of torture and humiliation. A comment made several times by the media soon after the acts at the prison became public startled me as much as the visuals. It was something to the effect that the sexual mistreatment of the Iraqi men was particularly humiliating to them because of Islamic prohibitions against homosexuality! But what about Christian prohibitions? What about Western norms that still linger in spite of unprecedented efforts to change them? What about the near universal taboo status that societies assign to the practice–notwithstanding the Greek and Roman debaucheries in their declining imperial moments?

We give away too much by allowing the homosexual agenda to be framed as a civil rights argument (a vastly flawed syllogistic argument that is demeaning to the great battle for civil rights waged by racial minorities; see the article by Jonathan Sorum, page 8). We give away too much by debating whether or not same-sex marriage actually harms heterosexual marriage; as though its nuisance value is the real issue. We are actually talking about a radical restating of society—not in the form of a secular utilitarian model, but a calculated rejection of civil and religious norms. And while the expressions of this shift are many, the present marriage debate tends to crystallize the decline.

Listening to early Senate debate on the constitutional amendment to protect marriage, I was struck by the weakness of the argument in its favor—weak because of the way the issue has been framed, most of the senators seemed unwilling to speak to the real issue.

Our society has indeed traveled light years beyond medieval constructs that ascribed mental illness to demon possession, and poverty to moral depravity; that allowed the state to persecute the questioner of church dogma, however unbiblical it might have been–and we have created a civil construct that recognizes the dignity and rights of others, even as they live and act differently from us and out of a norm. Much is good in this social journey. Racism and intolerance are removed from state and church protection, for example. However, our continuing social journey proceeds apace, oblivious to or denying some larger realities.

The elephant in the room that no one wants to truly acknowledge for fear of appearing retrograde is a moral construct for our shared activity. The ambiguities are manifold, but nowhere more stark than in the issue of human sexuality and marriage. Some Christian churches have, in contradiction to the plainest of biblical directions, incorporated condemned lifestyles into the very structure of their organizations. And in our secular social discourse we simultaneously battle the worldwide scourge of AIDS while empowering the very lifestyle behaviors that feed it—surely if there were more real concern for people, we might act differently as a society, rather than using the bad parenting approach of indulging harmful demands.

The temperance movement this magazine so unambiguously supported is, I hold, a good model for how we might respond to this
present crisis, which includes the debate over same-sex marriage.

First, it is a model of an appropriate way for people of faith to project their views in the public sphere. The movement advanced in broad coalitions of churches and secular organizations. They put aside differences for a shared view of the need to protect society from the self-evident breakdown of family and public behavior. Something analogous to the depredations of alcohol within Native American populations was developing in American society at large, and a morally fueled concern bred the temperance movement.

The separation of church and state was under no threat by the movement, in spite of a lingering charge that it was led by "wowsers" (puritanical individuals). It was social concern by people of faith, working through democratic means that won out—not any doctrinal imposition on society or an improper support of churches by the state. For people of faith it was a true "faith-based initiative," fueled by their love for their fellow human beings. The illustration with this editorial captures that spirit beautifully: Christian women praying outside the closed doors of the saloon. It was theirs and society's concern what happened behind those closed doors.

Unfortunately, the temperance movement and the amendment to the Constitution that followed also illustrate the limits of a movement unless it finds a continuing commitment from society. This present marriage amendment bid is foundering early because of lackluster commitment–even as a majority of the nation clearly supports the intention of the proposal. There is a rather supreme irony that much of the recent progress toward legitimizing same-sex marriage has come about as laws have been flouted and licenses issued–and now we wish to resort to a supralaw to stop it! The need is less for laws than informed debate and social action.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."