The newly apparent aggression on the part of some proponents of same-sex marriage has many Christians worried, with some justice, about possible risks to religious freedom in America. But whenever cooler heads attempt to calm the room, the more outrageous progressive politicians find a way of confirming what had previously seemed like hysterical paranoia. The recent unpleasantness in Houston as well as yet another contraceptive and abortifacient “mandate,” this time pushed through California’s health insurance requirements, show that Obamaism in steep decline is even less amenable to rational discourse and capable of prudent judgment than it was in its moment of victory. And yet, reason and prudence remain the only appropriate means of navigating the stormy waters of politics.
We must not allow the fear of not acting to force us into foolish and destructive responses. Unfortunately, such a kind of response has just been levied by some of the more prominent writers at First Things, a would-be flagship of conservative Christian political thought. Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz have been joined by Rusty Reno and Peter Leithart in putting forth a “Marriage Pledge” with an accompanying petition for signatures which calls for Christian ministers to abstain from participating in civil marriages:
Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.
Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, gave his endorsement to the pledge here, where he states:
It’s time to make a clear distinction between the government-enforced legal regime of marriage and the biblical covenant of marriage. In the past, the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms. Now the courts have redefined rather than recognized marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state’s control. That’s why it’s now time to stop speaking of civil marriage and instead talk about government marriage—calling it what it is.
… he should simply refuse the government’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”
There are a number of non-explicit premises to this argument, but the particular action called for is clear. Christian ministers should stop participating in civil marriage ceremonies and licensing and should send their parishioners to the courthouse to procure their marriage license independent of the church. Notice, however, that the parishioners are still allowed to obtain such licenses. The ministers are simply putting a distance between themselves and the state. Parallel ceremonies are allowed, and the separatism is claimed to be a way to bear clear witness.
Some important critical responses have already been published, illustrating just how non-representative this pledge is of the conservative, even traditional “catholic-minded” Christian community. Dr. Edward Peters has written three responses now, the first of which interacts with Dr. Reno’s blurb, the second of which breaks down the pledge itself, and the third of which explains the way in which the pledge complicates and possibly contradicts current Roman Catholic practices. One of the more salient lines comes from the second installment, where Dr. Peters writes about the main thrust of the pledge:
This is shocking advice: it amounts to saying: we ministers will not cooperate with dirty state marriage by signing forms, but it’s okay for you laity to cooperate with it by signing forms. what sense does that advice make? If it’s so bad for you to do, how can you send your people off to do it?
When even a Papalist writer finds that a position involves noxious clericalism, evangelicals need to check themselves.
We can add to this another question: Are new ministers themselves allowed to get married in civil court, or must they forgo all such cooperation with the state in the name of purity? And will this pledge eventually require ministers to reject civil marriage altogether?
Another response, and one which points out a number of unanswered questions implicit in the pledge, comes from Pastor Douglas Wilson. Pastor Wilson’s take is particularly astute:
We have no business officiating over church weddings that are covenantally and legally toothless while at the same time ceding important legal ground, the ground that involves property and custody issues, to the secularists.
What will these signatories do when couples in their churches move in together without a union recognized by the state? What about a couple that has a civil marriage but no church marriage? Or perhaps a church marriage and no civil marriage? Or a couple who have caught the next wave of the Spirit and show up at worship without either? Do the signatories to this pledge have a method, already recognized by the disciplinary authority of their respective churches, for defining fornication, adultery, etc. in this new order? When a church wedding is performed, and the couple then decline the request to go have a civil marriage performed also, do the churches of these signatories have covenants in place that will be more biblical and more obligatory than our current no-fault divorce culture?
Pastor Wilson concludes that this pledge actually further silences the Church’s voice in the political arena, making any parallel ecclesiastical ceremonies basically meaningless as far as public policy is concerned. He urges his church members and fellow pastors not to sign the pledge.
Ryan T. Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation, had this to say about the way in which the pledge was drafted and promoted:
I think it was a missed opportunity (to say the least)—for 4 reasons: 1. First Things didn’t consult or inform those of us who participated in the FT symposium earlier this year that they’d be announcing a new position. 2. FT didn’t consult or inform the editorial advisory council (on which I serve) that they’d be hosting this at FT. 3. FT didn’t give a heads up to the leaders of the various groups working on the marriage issue. 4. FT released this right as the major Interfaith International Vatican marriage summit was taking place. (And, oddly, in the 4 days since the start of the Colloquium, FT has had exactly 1 blog post about it.)
Apparently “the church” First Things claims to be speaking for does not include, well, most of the Christian Church, not even Roman Catholics with a previous association with their magazine. As we were writing this post, several more responses were put out, notably by Gene Veith, Jake Meador, and the Archbishop of the ACNA.
The most obvious problems with the pledge are noted by Dr. Peters and Pastor Wilson. We will mention some of the same specific points they make, but we would also like to talk about the larger context of this pledge and the real crisis of our day, the paucity of actual moral and political philosophy among public Christian thinkers. These sorts of symbolic statements are actually themselves a part of this problem and in no way its solution.
Regarding First Things and their overall outlook and strategy in American politics, we saw this move coming some time ago. We have said before, in that very essay cited, that we are not particularly concerned about the issue of gay marriage in itself but rather the larger matter implicated in the debate, that of religion’s public character:
Further, we are not immediately very interested in the public discussion of gay marriage. We think it for the most part a diversion from much more foundational concerns, and that it is very probably unsettleable in the terms on which officially sanctioned public discourse presently operates. And we can understand the many good reasons for wanting to rethink or even quietly abandon the “culture war” as it presently being waged. In this, we would seem to concur with the men we have criticized. But insofar as they go farther than mere prudence, and give other, more peculiar reasons, a vast difference opens up, and that vast difference is of vast importance.
… this is what we see at stake in this debate. It is whether we build on the common rock of reality, or the sands of fantasy: the retreat to commitment to incommensurable worldviews, and the impotent posturing of a totalizing aesthetic fideism.
First Things, of course, will give a platform to differing and even contradictory voices. It’s one of the ways in which it manages to be a sort of ecumenical journal, though not often in a truly helpful way. And there is something of a consistent political theory set forth, at least by its headline authors (and again, notice which authors were not consulted about this pledge beforehand). That theory, as we have said before, is a decidedly non-Protestant one. Neuhaus’s original position was more or less Kuyper’s, that of a secularized common space which any number of competing corporations could share, so long as it was kindly disposed towards traditional religious corporations and churches. Now, however, the magazine has deemed that the times have changed, and a more separatist posture is required. But in fact, the posture was always separatist, at least when it came to defining such things as “church,” “state,” and even “religion.” It is just the case that now the separation of space is more visible and the antagonism more hostile. The old separatism was optimistic and integrated; the new separatism is more critical and therefore also more pure. Both presume a clear division between what is and is not the voice of “the church,” the boundaries of “the state,” and what is and is not “the public square.” And this is clearly contradictory of classic Protestant thought on statecraft. Also, just as we have opposed this kind of conservative subjectivism from First Things, we have criticized it among the Reformed whenever it has appeared, as, for example, it did with Dr Paul Helm. Ironically, both the cosmopolitan “ecumenical” political theology of First Things and the old-fashioned resignation of Anglo-Puritanism share the modern retreat to commitment.
Confirming our interpretation of these moves is the perception of outside watchers. For instance, Damon Linker sees the same thing. He even calls it what it is, a return to the retreatism of the early 20th century fundamentalists. Towards the middle of the century, Carl Henry and Jerry Falwell issued a Nehemiad, a call to return from exile. Now First Things is turning back the clock, and it seems that the prophet they are most like is actually Jonah.
By contrast we want to lay claim to a really public faith, a faith which is not afraid of the public order or the people.
Politics and Reality
And so what is the proper response from those wishing to be faithful to a classically Protestant philosophy and ecclesiology but also relevant and strategic in the real world? The real “first thing” is to actually define our terms and identify the proper state of the question. For instance, religious corporations, corporations such as First Things, have been getting exactly the same recognition from the State as gay activist organizations, and it never crossed anyone’s mind to opt heroically out of 501(c)(3) incorporation on account of the State’s indifference to the aims of registered organizations. What makes the action of marriage licensing different, and how is gay marriage now an essential threat in a way in which morally indifferent incorporation, or prenuptial agreements, was not already? The pledge also seems rather indifferent to the state of one’s church membership and whether the various denominations in question are themselves safe to cooperate with. How is the Episcopal Church in the United States less offensive than civil marriage? These inconsistencies make it seem as if this is only a fight over the power to name, what Charles Taylor has called “the politics of recognition” (see his essay by that name in Multiculturalism, Princeton University Press, 1994, 25ff). Such symbolic stands which may or may not actually connect to concrete practice smack of the same identity politics which raised gay marriage to the level of a national crisis.
We need to back up. Politics cannot—by the constraints of reality itself—make or define marriage ontologically. It can define the way a certain polity will recognize and treat marriage for purposes of public policy, but that is where its power stops. Cooperating with an imperfect and even immoral government in general or in legitimate particulars does not imply endorsement of any specific immoral actions it might countenance or be involved in (see, for instance, the distinction between formal and material cooperation), and the Christian Church has managed in the past to exist within far more antagonist polities.
There is the sensible reason why government ought to care about marriage, and not simply a symbolic one. The civil government must care about marriage because it should and must recognize and regulate the estate of procreation—the natural effects of sexual activity—and thus the creation and nurture of its citizenry. This creation and nurture is also relevant to property, custodianship, and the potential for abuse, and it therefore calls for the power of the sword to support and defend in earnest. All attempts to “get the government out of marriage” invariably ignore these obvious issues or fantasize about their privatization. But privatizing the power of the sword is not actually privatization. It is actually a species of barbarism and would end up creating a collection of micro-states, a tribalism well known throughout human history and, again, not very private. Instead of that impossibility, we ought to strengthen our own institutions and seek to reform and repair our political structure, using the appropriate means of persuasion and influence. Walking away can be a sort of persuasion, but it has to be executed in the right context and with a clear, consistent, and legitimate rationale.
And so what happens if the state does this business of recognizing and regulating imperfectly or even poorly, as it is now doing? Quite simply, the well-being of the society is harmed. But how is it then necessarily problematic for ministers to do what had previously been deemed good, assisting in proper and virtuous marriages within that imperfect system? After all, conscientious ministers have already been dealing with the dilemmas of a legal system that defines marriages as easily terminable contracts—no-fault divorce—and yet they have felt no need to abandon the field. They have also already had to decline certain individuals’ requests for a wedding on account of failures to meet various criteria (usually piety or church membership). Discrimination in wedding cooperation is the status quo for the overwhelming majority of Christian ministers. What is new now, on the individual and practical level? We need to address the actual objectives and explain the way in which our tactical approach will meet those objectives.
Continuing the Neo-Anabaptist March
The term “prophetic” is trucked out frequently but without much reflection. The prophets of old were not simply political theorists or community organizers but rather were bringing a twofold word from God: pointing out the sins of the people and proclaiming the impending judgment coming. By contrast, today’s prophets usually wag a finger at social policy, pass around a petition, and then wait for the day when they can return to rule over the scene. (This is a parallel to the posture of the “R2K” ecclesiology in this sense) In fact, we are told that this pledge is not merely an ordinary political action at all but indeed a prophetic act on behalf of the church to create something hopefully monumental. And this is where it becomes doubly problematic.
Consider, Peter Leithart explains what is important about the pledge by saying:
Both of these [“Anabaptism” and “Erastianism”] are forms of secularization and ecclesial privatization, because both involve the church’s failure to act as her own public.
Because it is part of a renegotiation of church and state, because it proposes a redefinition of “public,” because it treats the church as a renewable historical community in herself, Marriage Pledge is a rejection of secularization, that is, of the privatization of the church. Positively, the Pledge calls on the church to reassert herself as a public.
Though he contrasts it against what he calls an “Anabaptist” form, this is still classic Anabaptist theory—Yoder with guns, perhaps, but Yoder nonetheless. It fits in easily with what James Davison Hunter has called neo-Anabaptism (To Change the World, 150ff). This is a position we have spent considerable time criticizing for years now. Its claims never cash out, and its slogans are all provocative equivocations. It claims to be an alternative polis, but then, when pressed, admits that it offers none at all of the administrative or civil-society functions of a real commonwealth. It serves largely as a sort of virtual “Second Life” game for over-bookish intellectuals, verging on what Voegelin calls “secondary reality.”
Now, we can pretty well figure out what’s implied in Dr. Leithart’s ideal form of the “new public,” since he has been working on a consistent project for many years (see here for an example), but we have to ask whether the marriage pledge itself explicitly “propose[s] a redefinition of public.” It seems not to, and thus we are left to do that on our own based on the good and necessary consequences of its argument. Let’s attempt to work backwards and figure out what must be meant. The ministers lay claim to the title of “church” and, after being frustrated in their previous attempts to hold the line, now refuse to cooperate with the civil government. But they then send their lay-members to that government, and thus away from “the church,” to get marriage licenses for all of the real-life and inescapable legal necessities. Thus, at present, the marriage pledge makes a very peculiar kind of new public. It is a “public” that stays away from the other public. This is something, by the way, that used to be called “private.” Perhaps a divine speech-act has transformed the actually private into something “sacramentally” public? It is getting harder and harder to know.
In any case this new public is, at present, peopled only by clergy. The laity are left behind in the supposed “ruins” of the old public. They are still going to the old public courthouse. How long they ought even to do that is an obvious question, and one that the spokesmen of this purported new public will inevitably have to answer. Dr. Leithart says he understands people not signing, but feels that he himself should sign in order to bear “witness.” This is witnessing, all right—or rather, Witnessing; Jehovah Witnessing, that is, with its conceit that the people of God are a unitary political organization separate from all commonwealths and only passing through them, and from these commonwealths’ politics abstaining utterly.
But what does this actually accomplish in the world as we know it today? What really happens when conscientious ministers abdicate their public role on this point? American socio-economic life goes on merrily without them. Ah, but what happens when those ministers protest that they are not in fact abdicating their public role but rather creating a new public in which to work? The old public, which renews itself constantly, goes on without them. The assumption of the marriage pledge seems to be that the absence will be so deeply felt, and the inadequacies which follow so powerful, that the old public will once again come calling, begging to get back together. These ministers are huffily unfriending the public on Facebook, and they actually believe said public will care. Dr. Leithart will, no doubt, point to his apocalyptic argument set forth in Between Babel and Beast. Other signers of the pledge are more likely to appeal to the so-called “Benedict Option,” a sort of political monasticism popular among the literary caste. And so whatever this new public is, it is clearly a replacement public for the truly public, the public where the common good of the people is pursued and political rule is exercised.
Note well, as both Dr. Peters and Pastor Wilson have pointed out, the pledge does not call for all Christians to reject civil marriage licenses. It just says that they must get them individually and, we presume, secularly. The clergy gets to wash their hands in innocency and circle the altar of the Lord, whereas the laity is forced to do the dirty work. This simply drives the wedge between nature and grace further in, and it actually silences the church’s prophetic voice that much more.
The Crisis in Christian Politics
We need to speak plainly for a moment: few Christian theologians and ministers actually possess a working knowledge of American statecraft, the mechanics of policy, and the actual historical and present causes of our current situation. They have lots of big ideas, to be sure, and they have certain books on which they rely, but these are highly reductionist and often simply mistaken altogether. And this lack of a mature and informed understanding of political affairs, or even of academic disciplines outside theology, is sadly notorious.
An illustration taken from real life is representative. At an academic conference one of us attended, a panel was discussing the contributions of early-modern political theologians, including the names of several famous Reformed heroes, to the 18th- and 19th-century developments. One of the contributors was asked about a leading modern writer in political theology whose work seemed pertinent to the general theme, and the contributor simply shrugged and said, “I try my best to stay away from theologians.” What he meant was that “theology” has been relegated to the purely recreational wing of academia, a boutique specialty which is safely detached from actual legislation and policy making. Even more unfortunately, most of the theologians have been happy to stay there, and may actually have put themselves there in the first place. Real knowledge of real politics is rare among contemporary theologians, and so we now rarely get from them any serious political proposals with concrete steps of action. What we get are lots of symbolic stands, lots of gestures along the lines of the old Letters to the Editor columns. But who ever thought that the letters to the editor column was a strategic rhetorical forum? And who seriously thinks that the big Editor—the media machine—is any kind of authoritative adjudicator?
The Church does need a prophetic voice on this issue, but as the prophets always do, that voice needs to speak to the Church itself. Christians do need to be separate and come out from among them—but the them in question is not the political arena or civil society but the distracting hype of the media itself. We need a revival of moral and political philosophy, and we need Christian men and women involved in the political process, as well as in the various institutions that shape the culture driving that process. And they have to actually learn the arts of the trade rather than simply proclaiming big ideas through the mode of worldview critiques. We need real people doing real work to shape real societies.
Pastors need to know how to handle real-life cases in their congregations. They ought not be burdened, confused, and distracted with fighting all the big ideas across the world. They need to know the definition of marriage, but more importantly they need to know how exactly something like marriage comes to be “defined” in the first place and why that matters. Who does this defining, after all, and why is it a political act? Further, how can marriage be strengthened, and the household rooted and cultivated as the ground of civic community?
A new and separate public is indeed a retreat. It may be a retreat that looks with fevered wish toward an imagined future victory, but all religious retreats have always done that. Is is true that the public is being renegotiated at the site of marriage and other places, but this is not being led by non-juring clericalists speaking for a non-existent alternative polis. It is being renegotiated by Christian men of affairs and men of letters who know that the architecture is not in utter ruins, and that they are the heirs of it; their reconfiguration of order will be in the humble service of the image of God in all, explicitly on the pattern of the Servant King, and it will be negotiated through informed prudence in wise care for the city, for the glory of God.