The Family's Fair-Weather Friends, Part One

Reading commentary about the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling and scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds for a couple of days, at least one thing is clear to me: the institution of the family—of which orthodox Christianity is the strongest defender—is discovering it has a lot of fair-weather friends. They come in two major kinds, both disheartening. Part One will address those within the orbit of evangelical or orthodox Christianity. Part Two (forthcoming) will address those within the politically conservative movement.

You’ve probably noticed the first kind already, if you have a Facebook or Twitter account. People you know, members of Bible-believing churches (if those churches even have such a thing as “membership”), professing followers of Jesus Christ, changing their profile pictures to rainbow colors and urging everybody to celebrate “love.” I suspect the ranks of evangelical churches are well-nigh bursting at the seams with those who have embraced, whether by deliberate decision or—more likely—slow accommodation, the sexual ethic of our progressive age. This ethic asks two, and only two, questions: “Does it hurt anybody?” and “Is everyone treated equally?” These are strikingly horizontal considerations, and it might seem surprising that professing believers in, well, God would leave the vertical questions unasked. Surprising, that is, until you consider that a great many American Christians are actually adherents to what Notre Dame sociology professor Christian Smith coined, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and aren’t following the Bible or the real Jesus in the first place.

All that to say, any evangelical church that continues (or starts, for that matter) a wholehearted defense of the nuclear family will see its numbers shrink. The cultural climate has changed, and unpopularity—not to mention actually obeying Jesus’ commands—isn’t exactly what they bargained for. In fact, I think they’re far more worried about what their friends will think than anything Jesus might think. That’s what it means to be a “Deist.”

There is a lesser variant among this type of fair-weather friend. This is represented by the sort of guy or gal (forgive my unreconstructed gender normativity) who may well support the idea of traditional marriage, be faithful followers of Jesus, but take the opportunity of recent events not to lament the moral and legal tragedy that has occurred, but to lament other Christians for pointing out, sometimes forcefully, that a moral and legal tragedy has occurred. David French describes this sort of person well:

“For many believers, this new era will present a unique challenge. Christians often strive to be seen as the “nicest” or “most loving” people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals, there is a naïve belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms.”

I’m actually sympathetic to this. Certainly there are people who panic. People consumed with anxiety and fear. People who write and talk about this as though the world is ending. Responses borne out of fear sound indistinct (as well they should) from hatred. I, too, lament this kind of response. We should be cheerful, kind, compassionate, and full of grace, while we advocate for the institution of the family and the sexual ethic it involves.

Ah, but isn’t that the rub? Many are those who want such advocacy to stop, not just that it be done in a different tone of voice. I think there are two very confused reasons for this. First, articulating biblical sexual morality involves calling sin what it actually is, among other things. And, understandably, that offends lots of people. Being “offended” in contemporary society is the apex of victimhood (so decadent are we). So in the minds of many well-intentioned people, it is axiomatic that offending someone is “unloving.” For this sort of person good cheer, kindness, gentleness, compassion, and so forth are fundamentally incompatible with advocating for a sexual ethic that offends people.

Let me just clear this up for you: if offending people was a sin, then Jesus of Nazareth was the chief of sinners. Not exactly where a Christian ought to be, theologically or intellectually speaking.

The second reason they want this advocacy to stop is that they view the institution of the family and its sexual ethic as merely “our” version of the family and sexual norms. Just one plausible hypothesis among many. After all, lots of people don’t accept Christian norms about things, so who are we to enshrine them in the law? * It seems rather arrogant and rude to insist that “our” private Christian views be normative for people outside the realm of the Christian community. 

* Even the great C.S. Lewis was confused on this point.

One problem with this reasoning is that someone’s understanding of human social relations is going to govern a society. There is no escaping this. The legal creation of same-sex “marriages” enthroned a dominant and governing sexual ethic in our society. If the mere fact that somebody or even lots of people don’t agree with something disqualifies it as a public policy matter, then Obergefell v. Hodges has no more claim than Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I’ll call myself as a witness: I do not share its ethic. Isn’t it rather arrogant and rude for the Supreme Court to foist it on me?

Somebody will invariably respond by saying that the current law is secular, while “ours” is informed by religious considerations. To which I reply: first, read Justice Kennedy’s decision and tell me with a straight face he doesn’t have religious devotion to his concept of autonomy and self-actualization. If you do think his reasoning is somehow different in kind from religious dogma, explain exactly why and how. This is the sort of thing easily assumed, much more difficult to prove. Second, the whole notion of “secular” reasoning was invented to ground morality and ethics in principles that are universally recognized. The whole point of the Enlightenment project was that once we all agree to the “secular” principles laid out in, say, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty everyone would lay aside their religious peculiarities and agree on everything and bloodshed and war and bigotry and ignorance and hatred and conflict would end. So, then: since we live in this secular utopia where only secular ideals govern, well-nigh 300 years on from Kant, name one issue of public policy everybody agrees on. Give me one success story.

I’ll wait.

Having trouble?

Of course you’re having trouble, because secularism’s blueprint for cultural homogeneity has been a spectacular failure. A 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court is hardly the poster child for—er, the promised glories of “secular” reasoning. Secular reasoning is supposed to result in 9-0 decisions, every time. If secularism has something else going for it, some kind of “Plan B” that entitles it to rule our thoughts and societies, feel free to enlighten the rest of us. *

* In one of those once-in-a-lifetime ironies, you know what has been universally agreed upon, until about yesterday? Marriage as being between a man and a woman.

More importantly for our fair-weather friend, what the family is is not “our” thing. It is not some kind of Christian distinctive. Christians account for it in a very specific way—as the way God designed it as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2. It is what we call a “creation ordinance,” meaning that marriage is for everybody, Christian or not. But even absent that theological account (and I see no good reason to leave it out), it remains what it is. Every single child born in human history (Jesus excepted) had precisely one father and one mother. This is the first human society, father+mother=children, not merely in time, but priority. It is the first society a newborn baby discovers; it remains the strongest and most foundational bond until such time as one forms another by joining with a member of the opposite sex and creating new life. It is the most visible, the most basic, and the most important of all natural human institutions. It is an anthropological and biological reality such that it is pre-political. No one had to invent this society. Certainly preachers and prudes didn’t invent it. Throughout all of recorded human history, all over the world, civilizations have noticed its reality, and sought to recognize and protect it as the best arrangement for social peace, prosperity, and general welfare. You know why? Because it is the best arrangement for social peace, prosperity, and general welfare. They noticed, among lots of things, its domesticating effects on otherwise promiscuous men, the protection it afforded otherwise vulnerable women, its stability and provision for children, its economic power, and its success as a vehicle for transmitting beliefs and values across generations.

That is the institution we are talking about. Forgive me for being irritated at those who suggest that advocating for the institution of the family is some kind of parochial defense of peculiarly Christian ideals that we have no right “imposing” on others. It is, rather, a defense of a reality that persists and survives our every attempt to circumvent it, from deadbeat dads to no-fault divorce to cohabitation. It survives because God made it, and because of a simple fact that neither you nor I, nor any homosexual or lesbian couple can escape:


We’ve now institutionalized a version of the family where wombs must be rented and vials of sperm must be purchased. And in every case of its kind the kids will be missing one of their real parents. No one has a clue about the consequences of subjecting wombs to market valuations or embryos as economic commodities, but I guess this is one of those Pelosian things you’ve got to pass so you can find out what’s in it.

This much should be crystal clear: “Our” version is not the novelty. We are not the ones foisting some newfangled specialized orthodoxy on the unwilling public. *  

* There’s a reason the fiat decision of five Justices of the Supreme Court was required here.

So the institutional family has a significant constituency of fair-weather friends among evangelical and orthodox Christian communities. The first variety, the ones painting everything with rainbows, have already abandoned it. Whether they abandon their churches is simply a matter of whether their churches themselves care about the institutional family and sexual ethics. The second variety, the ones wringing their hands over the fact that other Christians take this stuff very seriously, are already a long way down the road of abandoning it, if for no other reason than they have accommodated the notion that offense is a sin that must be avoided at all costs. The ranks are thinning.

Obergefell was a decisive turning point and, waving the white flag, they show that their hearts were never in it. On the other hand, those of us who think that what Jesus taught is good and that history’s oldest and most important institution deserves defending, will continue on unbowed. For the good of human civilization.

Read Part Two.

Brian Mattson