Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Gay Marriage and the Christian Conscience: What is that Kentucky Clerk Doing in the First Place?

A Christian woman is refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. “Kentucky Clerk Is Wrong to Deny Gay Marriage Licenses, Says Same-Sex Marriage Opponent” is the headline of a recent article in The Christian Post. When many people want to respond to the case of this Christian womanwith empty statements like “get to work,” “do your job” or “do your job, bitch!,” it is encouraging to see that clear and independent thinking is being done. As with many things, behind the dumb-gut reactions on either side is a more complicated—and even philosophically interesting--situation. 

The opponent says that the woman is justified in personally exempting herself, but that she has no basis for making a policy for the whole office. I personally am skeptical of having religious exemptions for things. Pacifist though I am, for example, I would not require the state to protect me from military service if it were required. I would take my legal consequences. The early Christians were martyred; the least I could do is endure fines and jail time.

This is what the Kentucky clerk is facing right now. Unlike the marriage opponent of the article, I see no need to protect her legally. Yet I also do not see a need for ad hominem arguments. In the meme below, the answer “because Jesus” is indeed sufficient. Those who are on the side of compassion—which generally include the progressive people who support gay marriages—should not argue with the Christian idea of forgiveness. Indeed the woman has been married 4 times, and there is evidence of adultery in her past. Nonetheless, her subsequent conversion to Christianity is important, or else we do not ultimately believe in Christianity. Sure, one should judge not lest you be judged, but I also believe we should judge not those who judge--lest we be judged for that judging! Let he who is without hypocrisy throw the first stone.

And there is no hypocrisy here. Her statement to those demanding licenses is that God is giving her authority (presumably through her interpretation of the Bible) and she will face her worldly judgement just as the gay marriagers will face their otherworldly judgment. If any homosexual came to repentance, gave up homosexuality and the desire to marry, then she would (we hope) have no problem with them. Perhaps she would even be happy simply with a homosexual couple who repented only from the desire to marry.

In this case, you have to admire her. This is, in her mind, part of Christian civil disobedience, and we need to quarrel with her politics rather than her principles. What can we learn from her? As I argued before we can learn something even from Westboro Baptist Church (see January 2015 post here). In the case of the Christian clerk, we are forced to consider this question:

Why is the government involved in licensing marriages in the first place?

Marriage is a paradox. When people decide to get legally married, they are saying that they love each other so much that they must legally coerce each other into staying together. This is indeed odd, since marriage I think we are often confused about the concept of marriage to begin with. The idea of love in marriage is relatively new to human history. The essence of marriage is found in ancient ideas of possessing people.

In order to possess someone now, we think of contracts. The philosopher and lifelong bachelor Immanuel Kant talked about marriage—without any kinkiness, we presume—as the mutual ownership of each other's sexual organs. We have more romantic notions, however. For us, marriage is about two things: love, and a legal relationship. But this is a confused idea. Love shouldn't be about the sanction of the state. At most it should be an affirmation of the community, and not just the couple. But this is not a legal matter as much as a communal matter.

So here is what we should do: Instead of worrying about who should be considered married according to the state, and who should not, we need to get the state out of the concept of “marriage.” To protect people's rights when they are sharing property, we should have domestic contracts covering anything we would like regarding what we previously regarded as marriage. Gay or straight should be able to enter into such contracts. All of the other mystical union-of-bodies stuff we should just leave to the churches, and all of that sentimental love stuff we should just leave to the greeting card industry.

--Tadd Ruetenik


  1. Great work. Also, I'm convinced Tadd just loves to turn our smug expectations on their head.

  2. I have always pondered why marriage is so "moral". It seems like a complete contradiction on the word "love".
    I enjoyed your thoughts.

    1. Indeed. I think the morality of marriage--or at least the spirituality of it--are not bad ideas. The state is just not suited to promote that. If she wants to think of it as a spiritual union between only man and woman, she is free to do so, and fight homosexual marriage in a church setting.

      On the other hand, one can almost see the legitimate part of the Christian anxiety about gay marriage here. If a private baker can be compelled to bake a gay wedding cake, then shouldn't a priest or pastor be compelled to perform a gay wedding? Should civil rights be enforced in the private sphere as well as the public? There are reasons for each answer, it seems to me.

  3. You're right, Tadd. It seems that the legal difference between the forceable gay wedding and gay wedding cake might be that one establishment is a church that requires no public license, while the other requires a public license to sell cakes.

    I've been very hesitant to condemn conscientious objectors since the implications are wide-ranging. On the other hand, the issue is somewhat analogous to the civil rights era: it would put a group of people into a permanent subclass even though our law (technically) forbids such things. I write "technically" because we both know that in practice our laws create many subclasses, and I worry that part of the success of the gay rights movement is power and appeal, whereas anti-poverty movements just don't have that to the same extent.

    It's a mess, I say, whereas many in the debate think it's clear. I would defer, and I'm getting that sense from you.

    1. I didn't consider the matter of the public license. That certainly makes a difference legally. Perhaps the tax exempt status could be used against churches, but that seems a stretch.