Legislating Sexual Morality


A few times recently, I’ve mentioned the church’s debate over the practice of homosexuality (trying to establish a framework for the debate, and showing how the UMC has [or exercises] no authority regarding its statements of belief). Those were addressing issues internal to the Church. I don’t want them confused with how we handle issues external to the Church.

Here, I’d like to look at an issue that goes beyond the Church:

How should the Church be thinking and acting regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage?

First, I should share my personal history. In 2004, the state of Kentucky had a proposed amendment outlawing same-sex marriages and civil unions. I voted for it. That’s the only vote I’ve ever cast on this issue.

I’m ashamed of that vote now. Here’s why…

At least within the Church, I hear two primary reasons people give for keeping same-sex marriage outlawed:

  1. If we believe homosexual behavior is against the will of God, we shouldn’t endorse it by making same-sex marriage legal.
  2. We should preserve the sanctity of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.

Obviously both positions only hold true for those who are convinced homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching. If someone starts with that presumption (whether it’s right or wrong — not the issue I’m attempting to discuss here), do either of the two points above have merit?

Let me ask some other questions:

Are these same Christians interested in outlawing cohabitation outside of marriage?

Are they interested in making it illegal to have sex with anyone other than one’s marriage partner?

Would they be willing to pass laws that make divorce an option only in a few rare cases?

To all of the above, I think the answer is no.

You see, even “conservative” Christians aren’t really interested in legislating their sexual morals. Many would probably say that though they don’t endorse some of these things, they can’t presume to outlaw them for all people.

And if we were so concerned about using the law to preserve the sanctity of marriage, we would need to start passing some pretty strict laws about divorce – or even much stricter laws about which heterosexuals may get married in the first place.

But we’re not passing these laws or trying to. And we shouldn’t be. It’s good and needed for the Church to work out its understandings of sexual morality. But none of us are serious about legislating that for all people. That doesn’t leave us with much to stand on in any continued attempt to outlaw same-sex marriages.

Some may find political or pragmatic reasons to keep up this fight (reasons I find unconvincing) but their biblical or theological reasons to keep up the fight fall apart, I think, when we look at their responses to other issues.

There you go. All I have to say about it in under 500 words. I know you’re shocked. Am I thinking too simplistically about this?

17 thoughts on “Legislating Sexual Morality

  1. The challenge (and not one I can claim to have figured out) is where to draw the line. Should we be involved in legislating anything as a church?

    Let’s take caring for the poor: clearly an imperative for Christians, but should we force the government to do it through taxation because we see it as a moral imperative? I’m inclined to say no for similar reasons that I am against legislating sexual morality.

    In some ways, it can become a cop out for us a church: instead of actually doing ministry with the poor, we legislate the government do it for us through taxation. Similarly, instead of articulating and teaching a moral theology of sexuality, we try to legislate for everybody else what we think sexual morality should be. In both cases, we can end up losing our place in the conversation when they become political issues instead of theological issues.

  2. Hi Teddy! I am still wrestling with this issue, because I resonate with much of what you are talking about. And even in writing this, I don’t know if I have the proper words. But in thinking about your three questions, I wonder if I would vote differently if they were phrased differently:

    Are these same Christians interested in promoting cohabitation to an equal status as marriage by their votes?

    Are they interested in making it legal to commit adultery?

    Would they be willing to pass laws that affirm divorce as a healthy option for our society?

    If any of the above questions were put up for a vote, I would have to adamantly vote against them. But they aren’t. I am ashamed of the ways that the church has been on a crusade against homosexuality. But I also see a large-scale promotion of homosexual practice as normative that we haven’t seen with these other issues – at least in the legislative system. I haven’t seen a nationwide push to exalt cohabitation to the same status as marriage or applaud adultery. If those issues arose, I would be against them. Does this make sense at all?

    1. Thanks Kathy. This is a helpful, reasoned look at the other side. If I understand your questions (at least the second two, about making adultery legal and affirming divorce), what you’re saying is that if we had a different status quo, you wouldn’t want to change it. Or further, that you would be in favor of setting tougher laws regarding adultery and divorce.

      That is, I think you’re saying that if adultery were illegal, you wouldn’t be in favor of legalizing it. And you might even be willing to vote to make it illegal. Am I understanding that correctly?

      And this may be where we just end up on differing sides. If there were a proposed amendment to make adultery illegal, I wouldn’t vote for it. I think adultery is bad — that it’s harmful to individuals, to relationships, to society, and certainly to one’s relationship to God. But I can’t fathom legislating against it. Which leads, of course, to the bigger question about what guiding principle determines when moral issues are legislated and when they aren’t. I’ve heard some suggest that legislation should come in when there’s “harm or violence to others,” but according to what I just said above, that should make adultery illegal…

  3. Teddy: The same-sex marriage debate is not about homosexuality. It’s not about the “sanctity” of marriage. It’s about marriage, and what marriage means to the culture.

    We must not let changes in the means of procreation (artificial insemination, in vitro) cloud how we perceive the meaning of marriage. The latest FIRST THINGS has two great pieces on this issue. Here is a book review:

    [Teddy’s note: I’m deleting full-text here and providing a link to the review. Don’t want to post full content from other sites here, as I’d rather leave this space for people’s own contributions.]


  4. Teddy, possibly you are not thinking simplistically enough. If you truly believe what you say here, what prevents you from writing a followup post titled “Why Incest Should Be Legal”? Natural law, legislated on our hearts and quite clearly manifested through our physical bodies, tells us that not every kind of behavior is a right. In the case of incest, for example, a parent and child having relations would violate the very nature of who they are in relation to one another. The same applies to homosecual ‘marriage’. Reasoning with natural law would tell us that two bodies of the same sex are not designed for marriage/joining/union/etc. It seems you have been swayed by the volume and intensity of irrational propaganda, not unlike the Methodist groups and leaders you recently chastised.

  5. I resonate with your wrestling on this issue, Teddy. The most appealing arguments to me for not changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage are:

    1) It separates children by definition from one of his/her parents. If one believes that the most effective parenting is done in situations where the child is raised by his/her biological mother and father (as most studies show), then we should not encourage the development of family structures that separate children from their biological parents.

    2) If the culture is able to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage, there is no rational reason why it could not change the definition of marriage to include multiple partners. All the arguments that hold for same-sex marriage also hold for polygamy. I would see both of those changes as a regression of culture and harmful for the future of our country.

    For what it’s worth, I would vote to do away with “no-fault” divorce. Since that concept has been introduced, the family in the U.S. has broken down much more frequently. Having stricter divorce laws would encourage people to work on their marriage before seeking divorce, and it would also encourage people to think seriously before entering into marriage.

    At the same time, I agree with Wesley above that the church needs to recover its voice in teaching a moral vision of human sexuality.

  6. Thanks for these responses, everyone. This is one of the major reasons I’ve wanted to create a forum like this. It’s good to hear some of your nuance when I begin to see things (too?) black and white.

    From what I’ve heard from you, I think I can still say that the reasons I provided in my post aren’t good reasons for Christians to oppose same-sex marriages. They would be inconsistent with how we handle other issues. What you’ve introduced are further considerations — mainly to do with family constitution. I think those are legitimate considerations. So your examples regarding incest and polygamy are helpful.

    For those arguing based on biology and family constitution, I suppose the opposite question is whether we should be re-defining things that belong under marriage rights. Is it right to deny anyone rights regarding disability and end-of-life issues because we hold a different view of “family”? To deny these seems unjust, regardless of one’s position on what constitutes a family.

    Underlying it all is also the question of how the church interacts with our society — how much of our values we attempt to impose on those in our society who aren’t Christians. That’s a lot of what’s prompting these thoughts – not because I’m being overly influenced by “irrational propaganda” as Lauren wants to suggest.

    1. Thank you for clarifying your intent behind these thoughts, Teddy. That helps my perspective. I apologize if the last part of my comment came across too harshly. I certainly did not mean to be uncharitable.

  7. Christopher Kaczor has an excellent chapter on “Same Sex Marriage” in “The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church. “Society has an interest in promoting the link between marriage and procreation. It is one thing to say that practices that uncouple marriage and procreation may be permitted by law (not illegal), but it is something much more detrimental to claim that such practices should be encouraged by law. So procreation outside of marriage, such as single parenthood, may be permitted by law (decriminalized), but it should never be promoted by law as is marriage.” He goes on to say, “Society has an interest in promoting the family as a union of a father and a mother, since this form of the family is sociologically proven to be the most beneficial for children. Approval of SSM makes either the father or the mother dispensable in a legally recognized family.” He also talks about how yes, marriage provides “goods” to the couple: studies show they live longer, are happier, more economically stable, etc, but these benefits do not translate to same-sex couples. In the case of hospital visitation rights, “marriage is not necessary for visiting someone in the hospital. The patient decides who can visit….” I recommend the book!

  8. Good food for thought.

    The questions that were asked in the article ultimately deal with something substantially different than marriage. For example, co-habitation and adultery/pre-marital sex are not unions in the same sense as marriage is, since the former is engaged in in lieu of marriage while the latter is/are not the same as marriage. Divorce is clearly related to marriage but is also not the same thing. Thus, it seems difficult to apply the same reasoning across the board since the ends of each of the practices/relationships is different.

    I think it is also fallacious to reduce marriage to a sexual practice among others, thus equating regulating marriage with regulating sexual practice. That being said, since the union of a man and woman is the only way in which children are brought about, the sexual nature of marriage cannot be scrubbed away from it either so that marriage is merely about love, trust, companionship, legal rights etc. Given that children are an end of sex in general and marriage in particular, and given that the best environment for children is in such a family, to limit marriage to a man and a woman can hardly be reduced to regulating sexual practice as passing legislation in regards to the others potentially would.

    As far as disability, end-of-life issues, etc.; these are, in my opinion, ultimately red-herrings since there already exist legal options to possess those sorts of prerogatives outside of a marital relationship. As such, that a certain relationship (whether rooted in biology or by means of marriage) automatically grants certain rights is not therefore tantamount to a denial of those rights for persons outside of those relationships. The legal granting of certain rights in certain contexts is not in the aggregate the definition of marriage or family, and by the same token one cannot argue that since such rights are presently included in marital rights, therefore the definition of marriage or family should be modified.

    I agree with you that churches in the west have tended to take a poor approach to this topic, especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture. The arguments about what the Bible says or what Christian morality prescribes or proscribes are often not terribly interesting to a society that could increasingly care less. And given that the majority of denominations in the United States tend to take an identical approach to sexuality as the broader culture, to single out certain practices as opposed to God’s laws even though the underlying logic is nearly the same only solidifies the suspicions of homophobia, prudishness, etc., and makes reasonable articulations of Christian morality more difficult to come by.

  9. Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage says, “Marriage is the institution by which children are connected with their biological mother and father.” It seems to me we have a responsibility to protect and defend it. Also, his debate on same-sex marriage with Dan Savage was really interesting (found on youtube)

  10. Being able to have children is a really bad reason to be against gay marriage. What about the many women or men that can not procreate? Based on the logic of some of you; you would deem their marriage wrong senseless.

    1. It does not follow that because a man or woman is infertile, therefore their marriage would be wrong or senseless. The logic of this particular point of the argument is that, given the nature of sex as procreative and the nature of marriage as unitive, therefore only within a certain relationship- that of a married man and woman- can a marriage exist.

      Infertility would not render a marriage wrong or senseless since there is neither an intent to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex nor even an intrinsic deficiency. (After all, fertility is wide-ranging in causes, duration, ability to be treated, knowledge of its existence, etc.) Unless there is a deliberate intent to bifurcate (or frustrate) the unitive and procreative aspects, the sexual act would still be directed towards procreation since it (infertility) would not in and of itself artificially hinder such an ordering.

      Same-sex marriage, on the other hand, would entail a relationship that is not ordered towards procreation because of an intrinsic deficiency, as same-sex relations in human beings cannot bring forth offspring. And since the procreative ordering of the sexual act could not be an aspect of the relationship and therefore would from the start separate the unitive and procreative nature of the sexual act, there would be no possibility of such a relationship being a marriage.

      1. Devian7monk seems to be following a more Roman Catholic definition of sex and marriage. (I could be wrong about that.) In that understanding, the procreative aspect of sex has to be at least incipiently present in order for it to be a valid marriage.

        I would put the argument differently. For the sake of a non-religious audience and using arguments that would hopefully fly in the public square. Same-sex marriage would by definition separate a potential child from the biological parent of one sex (and in some cases both biological parents). Such an arrangement would be inherently less than the best for the child, as studies have shown children do best when raised by both biological parents in an intact family. Thus, public policy should not encourage such an arrangement.

        Marriages where the couple is infertile is an exceptional case. One does not want to make public policy based on exceptional cases. An infertile couple’s marriage is still valid and good, serving the other social goods of marriage (raising economic level, lengthening lifespan, increasing health, etc.).

        To change the 2000-year-old (actually much older) definition of marriage to accommodate a relationship that disadvantages children would be bad public policy. The rights of same-sex couples can be secured in other ways than through changing marriage as an institution.

  11. Tom-

    While my articulation of marriage and sexuality in my previous comments broadly follows a Roman Catholic definition, I would be inclined to describe it more as the ‘classical’ definition which RC teaching follows (and expands). After all, none of the articulations I have offered are inherently religious, even though the terminology I use is probably formulated more extensively within religious contexts and by religious thinkers since such terminology (in my opinion) concisely describes the meaning intended by marriage.

    I would agree with your (more juridical/sociological) approach to the argument. Although my articulation is more metaphysical, I wouldn’t see them as incompatible. I would, however, tend to view the juridical/sociological argument as supplemental to the metaphysical.

    Thanks for your thoughts- I appreciate them!

    1. The point Mr. Lambrecht makes is extensively articulated by the Chief Orthodox Rabbi of France in an article published this month in First Things and previously cited by Pope Benedict.

      Unfamiliarity with a sound biblical anthropology as articulated by United Methodist Tim Whitaker (cited in the previous post on authority in discipline in the UMC) makes discussion of this issue somewhat difficult.

      Human beings are embodied spiritual beings. Those bodies have genetalia. hose two basic facts and the implications for the human person and our well-being cannot be escaped.

    2. I should have added that Catholic teaching on this, as all subjects, most fully embraces and reflects a biblical anthropology. Just because the culture has divorced sex from procreation doesn’t mean we must accede to that disaster in the public square.

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