Chances are you weren't surprised by yesterday's news that the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 72 percent of Americans think that legal recognition for same-sex marriage is inevitable. That's the percentage of Americans overall—a slight majority of whom (51 percent) are okay with that. Strikingly, the poll found that there's little difference between evangelicals and Americans overall on believing that same-sex marriage is inevitable (70 percent of evangelicals think so), though only 22 percent of evangelicals support same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court didn't actually say that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage or bar states from limiting unions to a man and a woman. But there was widespread agreement that the decisions were historic—both an indicator and a catalyst for changing views on sexual ethics, marriage, family, social justice, government powers, and other issues.
In fact, Justice Antonin Scalia said as much in his dissent. "It takes real cheek for today's majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here—when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority's moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress's hateful moral judgment against it," he said. "As far as this court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe."
Scalia looked toward the future and complained that the majority opinion unfairly stacked the deck against state bars on same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, that majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, drew a timeline of its own, one of enlightenment illuminating the dark ages:
[M]arriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization. That belief, for many who long have held it, became even more urgent, more cherished when challenged. For others, however, came the beginnings of a new perspective, a new insight. … The limitation of lawful marriage to heterosexual couples, which for centuries had been deemed both necessary and fundamental, came to be seen in New York and certain other States as an unjust exclusion.
Slowly at first and then in rapid course, the laws of New York [and the other states] came to acknowledge the urgency of this issue for same-sex couples who wanted to affirm their commitment to one another before their children, their family, their friends, and their community.
The court's storyline continues, with the mean old Congress trying to "demean" same-sex couples and "humiliate tens of thousands of children." And it continues the Supreme Court defending New York's "considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality."
That "evolving" understanding, rhetorically speaking, puts yesterday's decisions not as the culmination of "the meaning of equality" but on what same-sex marriage proponents repeatedly, unrelentingly, unmitigatingly, refer to as "the right side of history."
It was used again yesterday, from everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Alecia Keys to the AFL-CIO. The ubiquity of the phrase must certainly be one of the best examples in recent political history of message discipline.
And like so much disciplined political rhetoric, it's hollow. It brings with it all the faults of the Whig interpretation of history—the notion that humanity is on an inevitable march toward greater progress, liberty, and enlightenment as defined in the present moment—while claiming to do so from some mysterious future vantage point.
But the rhetoric of the "right side of history" (or better, History, for it is always personified as a single, clearheaded judge) is nevertheless powerful. It's powerful even for biblically minded evangelical Protestants. One key reason is that postwar evangelicalism has always been driven by a passion to "speak the language of the culture" (especially the language of mainstream youth culture). Evangelicals' ability to respond to and adapt to changing cultural assumptions has long been a point of pride and passion—a key distinction between it and fundamentalism. Evangelical leaders are not just incessant trendwatchers, but extrapolators. It's hard not to draw a line from Massachusetts to California to the other 11 states that now allow same-sex marriage and not assume that the number will climb to 50 within months, if not years. To many evangelicals, fighting same-sex marriage now seems as quaint as fighting card playing. Call us wrong and we shrug it off. Call us quaint or irrelevant and we howl.
But there's another reason why theologically conservative Protestants are apt to be taken by the "right side of history" rhetoric: Our own view of history tends to dovetail with it. You don't have to be a Late Great Planet Earth / Left Behind–reading dispensationalist to have been shaped by a view that our culture will be on a steady moral and spiritual decline until the cataclysmic return of Jesus. (To be sure, there has been a great deal of rethinking this view in recent years, and as Michael Lindsay notes it's a rare view among the "cosmopolitan evangelicals" he describes as in the halls of power. But it's also precisely these cosmopolitan evangelicals who are least prone to be concerned about same-sex marriage.)
The apocalyptic Christians are right. The "right side of history" on marriage is a history that begins with one man and one woman in a garden and ends with the wedding supper of the Lamb. That is the historical view that all Christian discussions of marriage must proceed from.
But that doesn't mean that the line connecting those two events is one steady downward slope with a sudden radical break at the end.
Rather, the story between the marital distrust and blame of Genesis 3 and fall of adulterous Babylonian Revelation 18 is broken the whole way through—and pierced throughout with God breaking through with beauty, grace, and signs of true union. The barrenness of Sarai, the exploitation of Hagar, and Abraham handing his wife over to Pharaoh exist alongside God's promises to create a great nation that would bless all the families of the earth. God starts off the story cheating—he tells Abram the true "right side of history." But one of the great lessons of Abraham's story is his repeated trouble seeing how his present circumstance connects with God's future promise.
Another marriage story: A wedding feast in Cana appears to end in social disaster (John 4). But here Jesus also points to a grander narrative—"My hour has not yet come"—then, surprisingly, he changes everything as he "manifested his glory."
Jesus had a wedding feast story of his own to tell, one of a party experiencing something worse than a wine shortage. Rather than celebrating, the invitees went on a murderous rampage (Matt 22:1-14). Surprise redemption! They are replaced with a celebratory crowd of "the bad as well as the good." Another surprise twist: There's an imposter!
To be clear, each of these stories affirms that there really is a grand arc of history, and that there is a Lord of history who is seeing it through. Against views that time is cyclical or an illusion, Christianity says it is linear, with an end that we've already been told about. It's an end that sees the triumph of love, justice, and righteousness—a wedding feast in which we neither marry nor are given in marriage. And these stories also affirm that we will see signs of that conclusion now, in our own lives, that give us "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow." But they also remind us that only the Lord of history knows what will happen tomorrow (see also Prov. 27:1, Matt. 6:34, James 4:14).
Consider another story. When Athanasius left the Council of Nicea in 325, he had good reason to think that not only was he on the right side of orthodoxy, but the right side of history as well. Since he was only a 27-year-old deacon and not a bishop, he wasn't part of the council. But he was already one of the chief critics of Arianism—the belief that Jesus was not fully God—and secretary to Arius's nemesis, Alexander. The Council had declared that the Son, in fact, is "Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made." The Arians were specifically condemned in a part of the Nicene Creed that is little known: "But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not' … are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church." According to one early history, Emperor Constantine sent out a letter "in all directions to the bishops and people," ordering that any treatise composed by Arius should be burned "in order that not only his depraved doctrine be suppressed, but also that no memorial of him may be by any means left." The penalty for hiding one of Arius's works was death.
Constantine, it seems, had a change of heart about two years later. He felt that perhaps folks had been too rough on Arius after all. So he let Arius start preaching again. This led, as one might imagine, to conflict with Athanasius. Athanasius, falsely accused of murder and interfering with trade, demanded an audience with Constantine to push for renewed suppression of Arianism. Instead, his insolence raised Constantine's ire and he found himself exiled more than 1,200 miles away.
Years later, Constantine died and his son took the throne. Athanasius returned. Less than two years later, the new emperor banished him and put in place an Arian bishop. Orders were given for Athanasius's death.
Eventually he would be exiled five times by four different emperors, for more than a third of 45-year service as patriarch of Alexandria. The exiles had taken their toll on both his spirit and his efforts, allowing Arianism to spread throughout the East. But each time he returned to his see, he made great strides in repelling the heresy. He died in peace. But six years later, Gregory Nazianzen went to Constantinople to find that nearly every Christian in the city was Arian, save for the members of one tiny congregation.
At which point in this story is it clear that Athanasius was "on the right side of history"? He knew that ultimately every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus was Lord and God. He knew Arianism would fail. But he didn't know if it would happen in a year, in his lifetime, or at Jesus' return.
History, of course, is full of warnings that the "inevitable" is often not. Industrialization was going to lead to global secularism, except it didn't. Kicking the missionaries out of China was going to kill off Christianity in the country that now has the world's most Christians. Luther expected to die an anathematized heretic. The New York Times called Roe v. Wade "a historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue." The eugenics movement. Prohibition.
As Richard John Neuhaus once said, "There are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes."
Or, as N.T. Wright said more recently, noting that Hillary Clinton had said once that "Russian and China were on the 'wrong side of history':
But how does she know what "history" will do? And what makes her think that "history" never makes mistakes? … The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat. What is more, the Church's foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews.
The danger, of course, is that all of this can sound like one more culture war battle cry: We shall fight on the beaches! We have not begun to fight! The fewer men, the greater share of honor! To the constitutional amendment making machine!
Except it's not that. The proper response to such arrogance and rhetorical triumphalism isn't more arrogance and triumphalism, shouting, "We win in the end, so get with the program." The better response is to meet those claims with humility and questions.
Thankfully, that's what we're seeing in the early Christian responses to yesterday's Supreme Court decisions. Almost to a one, the Christian leaders we talked to yesterday disavowed easy lines of "Christians vs. gays and lesbians."
"The gay and lesbian people in your community aren't part of some global 'Gay Agenda' conspiracy. They aren't super-villains in some cartoon. They are, like all of us, seeking a way that seems right to them," said Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention's voice on ethics and political issues. "This is no time for fear or outrage or politicizing."
Moore, like Focus on the Family president Jim Daly and others we heard from, wanted to talk about the court decisions as opportunities, not defeats. They agree that same-sex marriage is a large-scale social experiment that's likely to have negative consequences. They agree that the biblical image of marriage and the shifting reality of marriage have significantly diverged. But that means that Christians have a chance to have different marriages that bear witness to the redeeming, sacrificial gospel. "The single greatest argument we can present to the world on this issue of marriage is to personally live out marriage in all its God-ordained fullness and radiant beauty," said Daly. Moore agreed: "We have the opportunity, by God's grace, to take marriage as seriously as the gospel does, in a way that prompts the culture around us to ask why."
Given that we, sin-soaked and broken, still live before the wedding feast, is that likely to happen? Will our marriages be on the right side of ultimate history? They're only saying it's possible. And that's a very powerful thought.
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