The Growing Target of Affirming
I mentioned in a previous post that church open and affirming statements are vague and I suspect will increasingly be outdated. The affirmation that I suspected is being asked or demanded is this, that the individual’s constructed or discovered sexual identity be accepted and affirmed and their self-prescribed, imagined journey towards sexual and relational fulfillment be endorsed and supported by religious organizations.
Consider the case of this lesbian couple who were refused a wedding by a Rabbi. They weren’t denied on the basis of their lesbian identity but on their desire to have a multi-faith marriage. The imagined reader is perplexed at the Rabbi’s inability to cater to their religious/spiritual needs/demands. The Rabbi and other Jewish experts just kind of had to shrug apologetically because of the last vestige of constraint left in their religious system. We imagine that this too is simply a matter of time, that all such constraints are also on the “wrong side of history” and that some innovative Jewishy religious leader will emerge and establish a community or tradition that can embrace and support the unique blend of Judaism and Christianity that this lesbian couple are discovering/inventing/exploring at least for now. I’m sure the could find a nice Unitarian pastor or church that would be happy to facilitate or create a new service for them but it just wouldn’t have those same historical overtones that give our ceremonies a sense of meaning and depth. It wouldn’t feel authentic.
What We Really Want
I think many in ministry realize this isn’t just about same sex couples, it is about pretty much all of us. The best description seems to be the assumption of what Christian Smith describes as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If God is a therapeutic cosmic butler the religious institution of choice is supposed to be the local branch outlet that helps the individual spiritual pilgrim discover and develop their unique journey towards enlightenment, meaning, happiness, joy while likely including the intimate relationship or relationships that are commonly central to such a journey. Think Eat/Pray/Love but locally grown and on a budget.
Churches, desiring financial security and market share dominance, have instinctively picked up on this market and adjusted their advertising and implicit image messaging to transmit on this wavelength. Churches now compete in the same imagined space as therapists, yoga studios, self-help books, spiritual literature and a great many consumer brands like Starbucks and Apple that wish to posture themselves as assisting people in their journey of self-realization.
In this space a prohibition like refusing to affirm, service or facilitate the relational journey of same sex couples is simply unthinkable. You can put a lot of things in an Apple App but not the Manhattan Declaration. Churches in heavily blue state contexts that refuse to do this locate themselves in what is seen as a regressive, mean spirited, declining, obsolete culture associated with slavery, bigotry, racism, imperialism, misogyny, and the Republican party. In California we know that there are places in the country and even in this state where people not only believe this stuff by revel in it. We might have friends or family members who are part of that group. They give us an opportunity to show our magnanimity while we wait for them to fully evolve.
You Shall Have No Other Sin but Cheating
If the church says “We’ll agree to affirm that the sex or gender of a romantic partner does not impact the morality of the relationship. All we demand is that the relationship be monogamous” does this make the church any more culturally relevant or attractive? The “celibacy before marriage” demand is just as out of step with the broader society as the “sex/gender of the participants is vital to the moral quality of the relationship” demand. Note this snarky but apt comment made by one blogger responding to City Church’s decision.
The laughable thing here is that City Church still insists it condemns gay sex *outside of marriage,* like this is an important or noble distinction. More like an unreal one. Find me a planet, or even just a city block in San Francisco, where self-proclaimed gay men live who believe that all gay sex *outside of marriage* is wrong and that homosexuals should remain virgins until married. (Not to mention the fact that the case for celibacy outside of marriage rests every bit as much on Tradition with a capital ‘T’ as it does on any literal exegesis of texts.)
The current community standard with respect to sexual intimacy that I can discern is “don’t cheat”. This means that if you have established an understanding or agreement of some sort with a romantic/sexual partner you’d better not have sexual/romantic intimacy outside of that agreement without prior notice or approval. The “right” thing to do is break up before you do someone else. If you fail to do so then you are a “cheater” and you have broken faith and are subject to reputational retaliation and shaming. If both have a relationship within a faith community the assumption is that the cheating party will need to find a new therapeutic community for some light chastisement and contrition or therapy before they enter into their next romantic agreement. This would be what a spiritual person does. Isn’t being spiritual about second chances?
Chastity Before Marriage? Isn’t that like Abusive Virginity/Purity Culture?
If the church comes along and says “full sexual intimacy is reserved until after marriage” many people may sit politely but roll their inner eye. They will probably ask “has this standard ever held? My great-aunt ________ HAD to get married in the 40s (or 60s).”
They have a good point. The church has practiced “don’t ask don’t tell” especially since the sexual revolution. Thanks to reliable birth control we do a lot less telling.
“Dating” today seems to mean sexual intimacy in all but the most restrictive religious communities. At least that’s what it seems to be on the TV, the great shaper of public expectations. OK Cupid says 54% of their users say they have sex on the first date if you caught that in the opening video of this post.
Yet marriage itself has not been abandoned. Marriage remains for most in America the romantic culmination of the dating process. Dianne Anderson in her attempt to craft a career while helping Christian youth emerge from purity stricken evangelicalism declares that some may even waiting to have sex until marriage is a legitimate option if marriage is seen as romantic culmination.
American youth, Christian or not, ask with earnest practicality (and naivety) “why would we leave sexual compatibility out of the marriage try-out process? Living together is the obvious dry run to insure a better marital outcome.” Most of the social science research on co-habitation not withstanding.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Natural Religion
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a contemporary variant of what I call natural religion. Natural religion is the common, nearly universal human attempt to make their way in this broken world by appropriating supernatural or spiritual power. MTD is in many ways natural religion plus Western individualism. MTD is one piece important piece of how we got to where we have on Christianity and same sex marriage.
The Rise of Individualism and the Modern State
In his fascinating book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari talks about the relationship between Individualism, the breakdown of the family and the rise of the nation state.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community.* Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses.
The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police. When a person fell sick, the family took care of her. When a person grew old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund. When a person died, the family took care of the orphans. If a person wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand. If a person wanted to open a business, the family raised the necessary money. If a person wanted to marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 5523-5530). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Common marriage, that broad, diverse, near universal institution practiced by humanity before Christianity and broader than Judaism was the device by which family could be created from non-biologically connected people (see Stephanie Coontz.) Before the modern nation state the kind of individualism common today could not be broadly afforded. The family had powerful leverage over an individual’s religions belief and practice.
It’s also easy to see why same-sex marriage made little sense before the contemporary era. Same sex behavior was a function of a person’s sexual desire and maybe even had a social role to play in some systems (like ancient Greece, army or prison cultures or other unisex contexts) but it had little place in the family because family was about procreative and economic survival and flourishing. If you wanted a same sex lover, OK, but what point would there be in marrying them? The necessity of the family will change in the modern state.
The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 5574-5587). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If the rise of modern nation state with its legal and economic tools that we commonly embrace and call progress has afforded us individualism, what place would marriage continue to possess?
The Rise of Marriage and Romantic Fulfillment
The morphing of traditional common marriage into its contemporary romantic expressions has not gone unnoticed. Authors like Stephanie Coontz and Andrew Cherlin have been marking the progression. Romantic love has long been a common psychological component of marriage but when in the rise of the individual and the modern state is it any wonder that this one element came to consume the whole of it?
Christian sexual ethics ironically plays an interesting piece in this drama. In places where Christianity takes a hard line on marriage being the dividing line between licit and illicit sexual activity in Christian communities marriage has become the defacto sex licence. If you want to be a good Christian and you want to have sex you had better marry. In the evolution of same sex marriage we essentially see this rule trumping the “opposite sex marriage only” rule. We also see this in the rising tide of Christian seniors that wish to marry in the eyes of the church but not the eyes of the state. If you would suggest to the faithfully churched seniors that their request for a “church only” wedding stands in perfect alignment with the demand for same-sex weddings they might be horrified, but these trends are growing from the same branches.
Faith and Family as Therapeutic Lifestyle Accessory
Christianity has one part to play in this, the loss of the gods is another. Now that the we have the state to care for our needs what will become of the family gods? MTD and expressive individualism develop and the gods are deployed to fill the gaps where the state safety nets fall short, they are for “world peace” where the UN falls short, and they are there for our own need for fulfillment and happiness which the state was never really fully able to make up for the family.
The nuclear family did not disappear completely from the modern landscape. When states and markets took from the family most of its economic and political roles, they left it some important emotional functions. The modern family is still supposed to provide for intimate needs, which state and market are (so far) incapable of providing.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 5600-5602). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
What is marriage for NOW? Happiness and personal fulfillment. Religious Americans in perfect harmony with MTD wish to draft God or the gods in on this mission to guarantee a favorable emotional outcome.
Marriage has become a vehicle for human fulfillment and identity creation and affirmation. Marriage is not the context in which this is discovered by American youth, that is what experimentation and promiscuity are for, but it is the place in which American imagine it will be hopefully preserved and elevated once discovered. In one of the most popular pages on my blog I have an extended quote from Earnest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning Book The Denial of Death on the romantic solution. We don’t look to God or the gods to offer us identity and fulfillment, we look to each other. In the MTD version, we want God’s help and the blessing and assistance of the church and other vendors of spiritual goods and services.
Brave New World
In our contemporary context both religion and marriage have been displaced as foundations for a community’s strategy not just for identity preservation but even biological survival. Both have been displaced by the modern nation state and many of us are happy on balance with the exchange. The modern secular state continue to locate both religion and marriage as private means by which individuals can create small societies for personal emotional well-being, fulfillment and happiness.
Given all of this it is not hard to see why we are where we are fighting over same sex marriage. It is not hard to see why a common instinctive response to this issue is “sex and religion are private matters that the church should stay out of. The church (and other religious institutions) should simply be available to help individuals craft their unique religious expressions by making their traditional beliefs and symbols available to suit the needs and desires of the individual seeking to discover their most authentic self.”
This is why the lesbian couple above, together with many readers of the New York Times can’t figure out what religion is doing and why. Why won’t religion get comfortable with its place in the new modern secular state? Note the battle ground over the ways the state can nudge religious institutions and communities in embracing these values as part of the rule the state sees religion as playing.
The Christian celibacy demand before and apart from formal marriage and life long marriage-monogamy demand are just as out of sync with the logic of individualism in the modern state as the “marriage between opposite sexes only” rule and traditional Christians hammering the Bible as a set of rules to “make life work” simply won’t convince many people.
Here we find ourselves back in the context of the far larger culture war. Does Christianity provide a larger, more compelling, more fulfilling narrative within which the modern nation state is an option and within which life long marriage continues to have meaning and practical feasibility? Even to phrase the question in this way embraces the placement of religion within the private fulfillment market place.
Has the larger secular humanist narrative relegated both marriage and Christian devotion and practice as private psychological vehicles for personal, experiential happiness and fulfillment while we walk through our hundred year biological clock towards the big sleep.
Practicing the Unthinkable
We are on the verge of Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Palm Sunday is the Christian holiday where pragmatic nationalism faces off with Christian cruciformity. The crowd casts Jesus in the public role of Simon Maccabees but Jesus will embrace the image of failed Messiah, willing to be crushed under the heals of Roman power. If you want to get the world’s attention sacrifice for another.
Christianity’s attempt to reform and transform common marriage has always emphasized cruciformity. The pater familias must give himself up for those beneath him to whom society has awarded him dictatorial control.
When the church plays the moralism card secular witnesses yawn. “Yep, institutional power exerted to privilege the elite for whose benefit the institution was created.”
When Christians freely deny themselves like Merrill Nosler or Nancy Yonker who stays with her disabled husband since his bicycle accident, the world pays attention. Christian marriage gets exceptional when it breaks the societal narrative and says “marriage is about bearing witness to the crucified Christ more than it is about personal fulfillment and happiness.”
This is the main battle ground where Christian marriage is failing its witness and failing to resist being swallowed by the secular narrative. I don’t see how affirming same sex marriage helps with this battle in any way.