In 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton rulings, together legalizing abortion in all 50 states, took everyone by surprise. Forty-two years later, the court’s legalization of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges surprised almost no one.
Both cases mark historic “losses” for American evangelicals. Minutes after Friday’s ruling, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore called it the “Roe v. Wade of marriage.”
Though many evangelicals oppose abortion and gay marriage as violations of natural law, they are significantly different issues with different social consequences. As Christians, we recognize the value of God-given life; when society authorizes the deprivation of life, we commit the gravest possible injustice. The results of abortion are as immediate, visceral, and individual as they are sweeping: an estimated 20 percent of pregnancies in the US end in abortion, over 56 million since 1973.
The social consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage have yet to be seen. Currently, they comprise less than one half of one percent of all married couples in the country. And unlike abortion, gay marriage remains an act rooted in love. As Wesley Hill writes, even if we disagree with the expression of homosexuality, we can affirm the longing to be loved and belong.
Yet, what abortion and same-sex marriage have in common is that they each attempt to deny the procreative nature of the sexual union. Each forms a deep crack in the mirror of nature that reflects the image of God.
Thankfully, the decades since Roe offer lessons for the challenges we face. As a church, we have repented of the shame and rejection once conferred on unwed mothers, responses that drove many women into abortion clinics. We understand that to love the unborn child, we must love the mother (and father), first. Yes, we have still protested abortion—sometimes loudly. But even more, we opened our hearts, homes, and pews to mothers, fathers, and families in crisis. We established pregnancy help centers. We welcomed and comforted the women (and men) who regret their abortions—and, I pray, those who don’t.
The Centers for Disease Control now reports historic lows on all measures of the US abortion rate. And for the past two decades, the percentage of Americans identifying as pro-choice has significantly declined. We can take hope in the fruit of perseverance.
In the case of same-sex marriage, our work is just beginning. We must now repent of the injustices we have perpetrated on LGBT people. Not only is such mistreatment wrong, but—in a bit of cosmic irony—it played a significant role in galvanizing social momentum toward acceptance of gay marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges mentions injustice as part of its rationale for legalizing gay marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated:
Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial [of the right of same-sex couples to marry] works a grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians.
The sense of injustice among LGBT Americans did not emerge ex nihilo. It came from real discrimination often carried out in the name of Christ. As Mark Galli wisely wrote for Christianity Today:
What actions and attitudes have we imbibed that contribute to our culture’s dismissing our ethics? Our homophobia has revealed our fear and prejudice. Biblical inconsistency—our passion to root out sexual sins while relatively indifferent to racism, gluttony, and other sins—opens us to the charge of hypocrisy. Before we spend too much more time trying to straighten out the American neighborhood, we might get our own house in order.
Our house has long been out of order. As a result, we no longer live in a society that esteems the sexual and spiritual union of male and female as essential. But we have not lived in such a society for a long time. Both Roe and Obergefell represent the logical outcomes of ongoing cultural changes. Today:
- The abortion rate among Protestant women is slightly higher than that the overall rate.
- Co-habitation rather than marriage is “the new normal.”
- Over 40 percent of US births are to unmarried mothers.
- Between 40 and 50 percent of married people in the United States divorce. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher.
- About two-thirds of men view pornography at least monthly; the figures for Christian men don’t vary significantly from the general population.
These numbers remind us that gay marriage is but one characteristic (and a statistically insignificant one at that) of a culture whose understanding of sex and marriage has long been unmoored from biblical principles.
While public policy and legal experts debate the recent decision and the ramifications for people of faith, our most meaningful response as Christians will come from our daily lives. We witness through how we love: our God, our church, our spouses, and all of our neighbors.
So just as ultrasound images of the babe in the womb often serve as the best argument against abortion, the portrayal of our own robust marriages—signifying the mystical union between Christ and his church—will make the case for natural marriage. Just we have shown compassion toward those who have gone to the abortion clinic and to the divorce court, so must we do the same for those who go to the altar of gay marriage. We can stand for principle and love people, too.
While both rulings attempt to deny the nature of the sexual union, neither alters the essence of human life or marriage. Roe v. Wade decreed, inexplicably, that the court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” In Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling boldly proclaimed the re-definition of marriage rooted not in a self-evident natural law (or, as Chief Justice Roberts put it in his dissent, “in the nature of things”), but in human desire.
In the “empire of desire,” the body is the shadow ruler—always to be either denied or obeyed, but never subordinated, its desires not “ordered toward something higher.” As citizens in this empire, we who advocate natural marriage can expect disdain and derision (which are by no means the same as persecution) for our quaint views.
A culture that sees through the dark lens of radical autonomy (“Don’t like abortion/gay marriage? Don’t get one!”) will likely misunderstand our motives. We can expect accusations against our character, calling us driven by hatred (“misogyny!”), fear (“homophobia!”), and personal piety rather than social good (“how does gay marriage threaten your marriage?”).
If we know these charges to be false, then we must show them to be. If we are confident we are not on “the wrong side of history,” as many aver, then we must acknowledge and repent of the times when the church was on the wrong side: slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage—the list is much too long. We must reprove such accusations less with our words and more with our lives.
From this day forward, we must forfeit our tendency to address cultural issues in piecemeal fashion. If we believe in a natural law that reflects the order of creation as ordained by the Creator, then we must steward creation as a whole, where one part touches the rest.
If we want to support marriage, we cannot wink at divorce and adultery. If we wish preserve the lives of unborn children, then we must care about the environment in which they will be born and grow. If we respect bodies as God made them, we must reject the vanity of drastic cosmetic surgeries and interventions that deny the body's natural condition, functions, and processes. If we believe Christ is the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep, then we must lovingly shepherd the animals beneath us. If we care about God’s Creation, then we cannot treat the earth’s resources as disposable.
We must not tear the created order asunder in well-intentioned attempts to tackle “issues.” To worship God who exists in fullness and wholeness, we don’t get to pick and choose. We must dedicate our all to affirming and celebrating his right order.
From this day forward, we must embody—both as a church and as individual believers—a compelling image of the abundant life as a whole.