Choice, repentance and the gay marriage debate

By Alan Bean

If national support for gay marriage hovers just north of 50%, why did voters in North Carolina just show overwhelming support for a measure writing opposition to gay civil unions into the state constitution?

As the chart above shows, the gay marriage issue breaks down by region, with the Yankee Northeast showing strong support for gay rights and the old Confederate South standing foursquare for traditional marriage. 

The issue separates the men from the boys . . . and the women from the girls.  The great divide on this issue is as much generational as regional.  When both generation and region are factored into the equation, dramatic differences appear.  Fully 73% of Massachusetts residents between 18 and 29 think gay marriage should be legal.  At the opposite extreme, only 10% of Alabama residents over 65 take the liberal view. 

If you add race and religion to the mix, you would see even greater variations.  How many retirement-age white evangelicals in Alabama think gay marriage should be forever banned?  Two percent?  One percent?  Hardly anyone.

On the other end of the spectrum, it would be hard to find a twenty-something voter in Massachusetts who doesn’t support gay marriage.

In Alabama, only 37% of residents in the 18-29 age group favor gay marriage; approximately the same level of support you find among the over-sixty five sector in Massachusetts.

In North Carolina, a state Barack Obama narrowly carried in 2008, overall support for gay marriage is about ten points higher than in Alabama, but that only represents a jump from the low 20s to the low 30s.

This explains why opinion leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, have no choice but to oppose gay marriage.  Silence on the subject is not an option.  Conservative politicians in the Northeast, on the other hand, take a stand on the issue at their peril. 

Two things can be said with certainty.  First, the fact that support for gay marriage just reached the 50% mark is practically meaningless in the South, which explains why Barack Obama is dodging the issue and why Joe Biden could embarrass the White House simply by saying what everybody knows.  The president’s views aren’t “evolving”; there is a wide gap between his private inclinations and his public position.  For the forseeable future, some states will make headlines by legalizing gay unions while others make headlines by banning the practice in their constitutions.

Secondly, support for gay marriage will increase over time.  In 38 states, a majority of young voters believe gay marriage should be legal, usually by overwhelming margins.  In ten years, it is likely that gay and lesbian Americans will be free to marry in most states in America.  Eventually, the states saying “not in a thousand years” will all be in Dixie.

For the most part, Southerners don’t hate gays and lesbians, they simply believe that gay marriage is contrary to the Christian scriptures and that the practice undermines traditional marriage. 

Frankly, I have never understood the latter argument.  Gay marriage can only undermine heterosexual marriage if homosexuality is viewed as a fad or a contagion.  Ultimately, this argument is tied to the untenable belief that sexual orientation is chosen. 

The most outspoken religious conservatives in the South have argued that gay men are too promiscuous for marriage.  But if the goal is to encourage responsible sexuality, shouldn’t we want to extend the marriage covenant to the gay and lesbian community?  If heterosexuals were barred from legal marriage, rates of promiscuity (already high) would soar astronomically.  As the Apostle says, “it is better to marry than to burn”.  If monogamy and fidelity are good for straight folks, shouldn’t we be making it as easy as possible to practice these virtues?

Sexual responsibility and fidelity should be givens for all Christians. The same rules should apply across the board.

At first glance, the biblical argument appears unassailable.  If you can’t support gay marriage without denying clear biblical teaching, the issue should be easily decided, at least for Christians.

Here, as elsewhere, everything comes down to the vexed issue of biblical interpretation.  Despite what radical exegetes may tell you, there are a few scattered passages in the Good Book that take a dim view of same-sex intimacy.  

But if homosexuality is such a big issue, why did Jesus never mention it?  More to the point, how do we square a strict ban on gay sexuality with the radical inclusion and hospitality Jesus practiced without qualification?  Read the gospels and ask yourself if the Jesus who socialized with tax collectors (widely viewed as traitorous cheats), prostitutes and sexually immoral sinners, would turn away from gay men and lesbians. 

I can’t see it.

When you realize that nobody, gay or straight, chooses their sexual orientation, the theological and ethical problems multiply.  Would Jesus condemn a woman for entering into a covenental relationship with her female partner?  Would he say, “I welcome the prostitute and the tax collector, but I draw the line at you”?

But did Jesus really welcome sexually immoral people into the kingdom?  Wasn’t his acceptance predicated upon repentance? 

Ah, but there’s the rub!  If sexual orientation isn’t chosen, it cannot be repented.  Some men in Jesus’ day chose to be tax cheats and some women chose to be prostitutes, and they were free to choose differently; but no one, then or now, chooses to be gay or straight.   

This is why a Christocentric reading of Holy Scripture will ultimately champion same-sex covenantal intimacy.  Transpose the Bible into the key of Jesus and the matter is settled.