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Looking for a 'Serious' Conversation

The Newsweek religious case for gay marriage is mostly an attempt to marginalize the opposition.

The Newsweek cover story on "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" has understandably raised the ire of religious conservatives. As many have pointed out (as did Mollie Hemingway, our new columnist, on the GetReligion website yesterday and today), the so-called case is not much of a case, and at many points, seriously misrepresents the views of those it argues against.

It starts at the beginning:

Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does … . The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered.

This is astonishing, for it not only misrepresents religious conservatives, but also Jesus and Paul—all in one fell swoop.

"Have you not read," Jesus once said, "that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matt. 19, ESV).

"Husbands, love your wives," Paul wrote, "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh' " (Eph. 5).

Where, oh where is this supposed New Testament indifference to marriage? Christ deserves our primary loyalty, yes, but the New Testament never suggests an indifference to other loyalties, to family, to neighbor, to the world.

While we do not expect Newsweek to excel in theological or biblical argument, we do expect that respected magazine to practice good journalism—like presenting the actual arguments of one's opponents, and being fair to the context of quoted sources. Neither of these things happened in Lisa Miller's piece.

But that's not the most amazing thing that happened in the most recent edition of Newsweek. That was revealed in the Editor's Desk column by Jon Meacham, who set up Miller's cover story. Unfortunately for Miller, Meacham inadvertently but essentially concedes that the religious case for traditional marriage may be stronger than he lets on.

The first sign that an argument is nearly over is when the opposition begins by calling you names. Meacham notes that conservative Anglicans have "declared that their opposition to the ordination and the marriage of gays was irrevocably rooted in the Bible—which they regard as the ‘final authority and unchangeable standard for the Christian faith and life.' "

To which Meacham adds, "This conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism."

We wish we could set aside the hyperbole, for surely this type of "fundamentalism" is not worse than the violent kind that practices terrorism. But we suspect that Meacham, an intelligent writer, knows very well that in using that phrase—"the worst kind of fundamentalism"—he is trying to get his readers to emotionally associate biblical fundamentalism with the worst kinds of fundamentalism.

But, of course, as any religious journalist knows (or should know), to affirm the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and life is hardly a mindless fundamentalist mantra, but a belief that guides Christians of many stripes, from evangelicals to Anglicans to Presbyterians to Methodists to Roman Catholics. That Meacham knows this to be true and still shouts "fundamentalist" suggests that he's pretty much given up on having a conversation with his intellectual opponents on this issue.

Then again, to suggest his opponents are intellectual is being generous, because Meacham certainly doesn't think much of our intellect. He goes on to note, "Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given" to the Bible, "to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition."

As if the manner by which God, in his providence, pulled together this book we call the Bible somehow relativizes its teachings. As if the critical attention of scholars is the touchstone by which people of faith do or should make their ethical and theological judgments. Yet to argue otherwise apparently is "intellectually bankrupt." And "unserious."

When a writer of Meacham's stature sweepingly dismisses the history, tradition, ethics, and biblical theology of Christians who have taught and now argue that marriage is, by God's design, a commitment of a man and a woman—well, you know he has pretty much conceded that he's run out of arguments. He says that one could argue for traditional marriage in other ways, but to ground it in biblical theology is "intellectually bankrupt" and "unserious."

Meacham inadvertently practices a kind of modern Gnosticism, an ancient religious perspective that can be found whenever a group assumes that the elect have special knowledge, while those outside remain ignorant. You see this subtly happening when someone refuses to engage in argument, but simply calls his opponent names. But it's not so subtle when Meacham says, "The Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person's makeup as skin color" (emphasis mine).

As if this is a proven fact. As if all scientists of sexuality agree that all sexual orientation is as given as skin color. As if we need to quit denying this supposed fact and just recognize reality. This statement does have the virtue, however, of remaining consistent with the rest of his column: If you are part of the elect who does, in fact, recognize this truth, well, you no longer have to take seriously those who are "intellectually bankrupt" and "unserious."

Toward the end of his column, Meacham makes one last desperate attempt to sideline religious conservatives. He argues, "History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion." Meacham is a historian, so surely he knows how often that line has been used, often in the most evil ways. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were sure history and demographics were on their side. As were Lenin and Stalin. Closer to home, and in Meacham's living memory: The free-love, drug-obsessed '60s generation was a social experiment that millions believed was leading us to a new, open, and joyful society. Instead, it left countless teens and 20-somethings wasted, lonely, diseased, and dead. When a writer pulls out the "history and demographics" rhetoric, you know he is at the end of his rope. He is at a loss as to how to counter the argument and logic of his opponents. Instead, he tries to intimidate them with historical determinism: "It's going to happen whether you like it or not, so just surrender!"

All this would be infuriating and insulting if it weren't finally laughable and sad. It suggests one of three things.

It could mean that Meacham and Miller are simply ignorant of the nuanced and careful biblical arguments that religious conservatives have made. But this is doubtful, since as journalists of the topic, they have surely been immersed in the literature.

It could suggest they simply don't understand the subtleties of the biblical arguments. But this can't be, because they are clearly bright people in other respects.

Or it means they have found themselves hamstrung by the richer, nuanced, and thoughtful biblical defense of traditional marriage. And they find themselves utterly incapable of responding to it on its own terms.

And so ironically, even before the first word of Miller's religious case for gay marriage has been read, Meacham has conceded that it is not a case at all, but a simple assertion. And while they both claim they are arguing against exclusiveness and for inclusivity, they have managed to exclude from this crucial national conversation a significant proportion of the American population who happen to believe there is a strong biblical case for traditional marriage.

The one thing we biblical conservatives will never do, however, is exclude people like Meacham and Miller from any conversation that matters to us. So, we invite them to sit down with us, or someone from our world, to have a biblical, intellectually rich conversation about marriage—if they really are interested in being serious about this crucial topic.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has a special section on same-sex marriage, which includes the following articles:

What God Hath Not Joined
Sorry, Newsweek: the Bible is in fact quite clear on why marriage was designed for male and female.
Up for Debate
Publicly arguing for traditional marriage is worth it even if I don't change many minds.
Let No Law Put Asunder
A constitutional amendment defending marriage is worth the effort.

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