This article was originally published as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project. It was also published in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice.
Our first step toward considering the question of gay and lesbian relationships as a matter of public policy is to remind ourselves of the proper differentiation of society. Modern American life contains a multitude of different areas and responsibilities: schools, churches, states, dorms, families, businesses, clubs and more.
This is something we can recognize intuitively. Christians are very familiar with the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself, and the Sermon on the Mount contains some very dramatic examples of how this might be done. But most of us recognize that in different areas of life we carry out the love command differently: the way we love our parents looks different from the way we love our roommate looks different from the way we love a hurricane victim.
In all these cases, we seek to love our neighbors, but the way that love is demonstrated will be different, according to the nature and character of that area of life. From a Christian perspective, politics is fundamentally concerned with public justice, which means that politics is that area of life in which we love our neighbors by seeing that justice be done for them.
What does this have to do with same sex marriage? In my experience, when Christians consider same sex marriage as a public policy issue, we often approach the subject as if we were in church. If we believe homosexual relationships are not part of God’s design, we say that governments should not recognize these relationships because they are sinful. Similarly, if we believe that the church should embrace homosexual Christians who make public commitments to each other, we conclude that the legal definition of marriage should be revised to include these relationships.
These arguments may be beside the point. Consider that of the Ten Commandments, only two (murder and theft) are declared crimes by the government. Not many people today argue that government should criminalize possession of a graven image, for example. In this way, Christians readily distinguish between ecclesiastical and political spheres of life. By doing so, they are not suggesting that Christian principles are inappropriate in politics; rather, Christian principles are introduced into politics in a way that is appropriate to the political sphere of life.
So perhaps when examining same sex marriage as a public policy issue, Christians should instead ask: What are the justice concerns in marriage in which the state might have an interest?
Because the state has an interest in the ordered reproduction of society, government will seek to encourage stable relationships, especially because the state is concerned that children be raised in loving environments.
The protection of the people within marriages and families will also be a concern for the state. Governments will seek to ensure that people in families are not abused, that partners and children be protected in situations of divorce and that they be treated justly with regard to access to health care and inheritance laws, for example. On the other hand, the interest of the state does not go so far as to ensure that the marriage be Christian, even if the majority religion of the population is Christian.
Taking these points together, I conclude that justice demands that states offer recognition to same sex relationships, for the same reason that it recognizes heterosexual relationships: because the state has an interest in supporting stable familial relationships and in providing the parties with the legal care that justice demands. Once again, we need not come to this conclusion because of a reluctance to introduce Christian principles into politics: indeed, we can support state recognition of same sex relationships precisely for Christian reasons concerning the task of the state to administer justice, regardless of what we might believe concerning the biblical normativity of these relationships.
Should the state apply the label of “marriage” to these relationships? I don’t think it should, to avoid the implication that marriage is somehow a creation of the state. As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Homosexuality states, “Public law does not create marriage or the family, which originate outside the political bond.” However, if the state continues to reserve “marriage” for heterosexual relationships, it will need to justify how the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual relationships can be maintained in terms of the state’s interest in promoting justice. This will be challenging because the state does not currently make a distinction between Christian marriages and those of other faiths.
Instead, it might be more straightforward to reserve to other spheres of society the authority to decide for themselves what is and what is not a “marriage,” since governments have an interest in protecting both those who agree and those who disagree with same-sex marriage. Neither side should seek to use government power to enforce its view on the whole of society: governments should not seek to prohibit homosexuality in every area of life; neither should they seek to remove all barriers to homosexual practice. Both sides in this debate need to respect the jurisdictional limits of the state, while also supporting and protecting the authority of other social institutions to exercise their own social responsibilities.
—Paul Brink is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.
Photo courtesy of Sara Bissig, Center for Public Justice Intern