This morning, the United States reached a bridgehead on the issue of gay marriage. It was a close vote. But that wasn’t entirely a surprise—though the majority of U.S. citizens now agree that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, it isn’t that strong a majority. 5-4 is a pretty accurate representation for how the percentages play out in public opinion. To an extent, it’s fitting that the court voted the way they did. And in the wake of the decision, I can say I’m proud of this country, but it’s not for the reason you may think.
It has been extremely refreshing to watch this morning as people of varying opinions on the SCOTUS decision expressed themselves on social media. Of course, there have also been hostile comment wars and a fair amount of vitriol from (it has to be said) the Conservative side. All the same, it’s nothing like I’ve seen in the past. And furthermore, because I’m me, I can’t just accept this for what it is. I want to know why it’s happening. Why has the tide of public expression changed on this issue? Why now?
I can come up with several theories.
People were recently killed over a social issue
Before Obergefell v. Hodges started taking over news feeds this morning, the most pressing story in the nation was the massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. As we all know by now, this act of domestic terrorism was carried out by a white supremacist on a historically black church, and all nine of the people killed were black. Dylann Roof now faces nine counts of 1st-degree murder plus pending, and likely, hate crime charges on top of that. These are all things we know.
Another thing we know is that this atrocious act instigated a (needed) discussion into the morality of flying the Confederate flag. This started to become more of an issue when media coverage began looking more and more into Roof’s apparent racist manifesto and the Rhodesian & Apartheid South African flags on one of his jackets. We know now that South Carolina, along with other southern states, has since moved to overwrite legislation requiring the Confederate flag to be flown, and that several large retail stores have banned the sale of merchandise that displays it. This is because while the Confederate flag might be a “symbol of heritage” for the South, it is also a racist symbol. And while its defenders maintain that the South seceded over issues of states rights, the reality is that the foremost “state right” they were acting to preserve was slavery, and arguing anything else is (to risk a Hitler fallacy) akin to denying the Holocaust.
How in the world does this relate to this morning’s decision, then? Simple. Over the past few days, much of the United States has been strengthening the status quo against what is commonly understood to be a symbol of the bigotry that motivated Dylann Roof’s attack last week. It hasn’t really been “okay” to be openly racist in this country for a long time—not that that stops people (or institutional racism), but it’s a pretty widespread consensus. And in light of the fact that nine people died, the country as a whole was made more receptive to taking down public displays that could, in any way whatsoever, be construed as racist. This is the right thing to do. And in light of the very recent display of how far some people are willing to take their dissent, it is perhaps fitting that those who disagree with the opinion are proceeding a bit more graciously.
It came through a Supreme Court decision
There are two lawmaking bodies in the United States of America: Congress and the Courts. Strictly speaking, only Congress technically makes laws – the courts operate by stare decisis, meaning “according to precedent.” While it’s in Congress that laws are written and unwritten and the like, the legality of Supreme Court decisions is its own thing. Only a new precedent—a new ruling—can undo a previous decision.
Obviously, there are nuances to the mechanics of this that a piece of this length can’t cover. However, the, in a sense, isolation of Court decisions is why things like Roe v. Wade have stayed firmly in place no matter how conservative the executive and legislative branches get. This is also why one of the things a U.S. president most wants to do in office is appoint Supreme Court justices. These people sit for life; Anthony Kennedy, the “swing voter,” is one of the most powerful people in government.
In this case, it seems like the fact that same-sex marriage came through a SCOTUS decision has been partly responsible for the responding tone of the Christian Right. While there is some lamenting being done over the usual “America is going to hell in a handbasket,” the loudest voice has been one of, “We do not agree, but we respect this decision, and we will continue to speak in favour of Biblical principles and the teachings of Jesus.” That is exactly the right response. The fact is, whether or not you think the United States was founded as a Christian nation, few in the church can deny that it’s losing its political voice. And maybe that isn’t as “end of the world” as it seems—or maybe it is, and as a result, we need to look for avenues other than the state through which to shine our light on the world.
This decision was inevitable
This is perhaps the most important reason. What started as the Gay Rights Movement and is now known as LGBT+ is not new. It started rapidly in the middle of the 20th century, slowly gathered steam for about four decades, then took off quickly again in the early 2000’s. Since then, LGBT+ issues have been occupying a bigger and bigger segment of the public square and bringing about a huge wave of cultural change in their wake. Ten years ago, same-sex marriage was a far Left issue, and less than half as many people as currently were in favour of it. This most recent wave of the movement is kind of like women’s suffrage was after WWI and Civil Rights in the 60’s. Once public opinion shifted past a certain breach point, the decision was inevitable.
Accordingly, same-sex marriage has been compared by many to the legalization of interracial marriage in Southern states in the Civil Rights era, a comparison many in the church disagree with. Without levying my personal opinion one way or the other, I would say it’s actually quite fair. The disagreement is usually made on the grounds that race is inherent and immutable and sexual orientation is not. In reality, both of those statements are untrue: race is a social construct, and sexual orientation is not prescriptive.
Where I do draw the line, however, is this: according to Scripture, the Biblical institution of marriage is between one man and one woman. I honestly don’t have a problem with the state granting the same rights to same-sex couples as different-sex ones; in fact, in the interest of fairness, it probably should. But asking the Church to change its definition of marriage is impossible. Since we can’t change Scripture, we can’t change what is considered marriage before God. While the State will do what it will, it’s worth remembering this: where Scripture and law diverge, we follow Scripture. And in this day and age, it’s more important than ever to pick our battles carefully.