The narrative logic behind the same-sex marriage debate

Reformed Protestant theologian Michael Horton on why there is “no way of defending traditional marriage within the narrative logic that apparently most Christians—much less non-Christians—presuppose regardless of their position on this issue.”

If God exists for our happiness and self-fulfillment, validating our sovereign right to choose our identity, then opposition to same-sex marriage (or abortion) is just irrational prejudice. Given the broader worldview that many Americans (including Christians) embrace—or at least assume, same-sex marriage is a right to which anyone is legally entitled. After all, traditional marriages in our society are largely treated as contractual rather than covenantal, means of mutual self-fulfillment more than serving a larger purpose ordained by God. The state of the traditional family is so precarious that one wonders how same-sex marriage can appreciably deprave it.

Same-sex marriage makes sense if you assume that the individual is the center of the universe, that God—if he exists—is there to make us happy, and that our choices are not grounded in a nature created by God but in arbitrary self-construction. To the extent that this sort of “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” prevails in our churches, can we expect the world to think any differently? If we treat God as a product we sell to consumers for their self-improvement programs and make personal choice the trigger of salvation itself, then it may come as a big surprise (even contradiction) to the world when we tell them that truth (the way things are) trumps feelings and personal choice (what we want to make things to be).

The secularist mantra, “You can’t legislate morality,” is a shibboleth. Defenders of same-sex marriage moralize as much as anyone. They appeal to dogmas like freedom of choice, individualism, love, respect, acceptance (not, tolerance, mind you, but acceptance), and excoriate religiously traditional opponents as hypocritical in failing to follow the loving example of Jesus. The agenda is plainly as ethical as any other. Whatever is decided at state and federal levels, a certain version of morality will most certainly be legislated.

What this civic debate—like others, such as abortion and end-of-life ethics—reveals is the significance of worldviews. Shaped within particular communities, our worldviews constitute what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann coined as “plausibility structures.” Some things make sense, and others don’t, because of the tradition that has shaped us. We don’t just have a belief here and a belief there; our convictions are part of a web. Furthermore, many of these beliefs are assumptions that we haven’t tested, in part because we’re not even focally aware that we have them. We use them every day, though, and in spite of some inconsistencies they all hold together pretty firmly—unless a crisis (intellectual, moral, experiential) makes us lose confidence in the whole web.

Every worldview arises from a narrative—a story about who we are, how we got here, the meaning of history and our own lives, expectations for the future. From this narrative arise certain convictions (doctrines and ethical beliefs) that make that story significant for us. No longer merely assenting to external facts, we begin to indwell that story; it becomes ours as we respond to it and then live out its implications.

I’ve argued that in Christianity this can be described familiar terms of the drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. But you see it in every worldview. Take Friedrich Nietzsche, for example. The late 19th-century philosopher believed that we came from nowhere meaningful and are going nowhere meaningful, but in the middle of it all we can create meaning for ourselves. Freed from an external creator, law-giver, redeemer, and consummator, we are finally on our own. The parents are on holiday (if there is a parent), and it’s party-time. In Romans, Paul identifies our fallen condition as a pathological inability to be thankful. After all, if reality is an accidental given of a random and impersonal universe rather than a gift of a purposeful God, then the only meaning we have is that which we design and execute for ourselves.

It’s something like Nietzsche’s narrative—the “Nowhere Man” poised to make something of his own individualism and will to power—that creates the plausibility structure of contemporary living in the West. Its central dogma is the will to power and its doxology is actually self-congratulatory, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It yields masters and consumers rather than pilgrims and disciples.

The fact that “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” is the working theology of Americans—whether evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, or agnostics—demonstrates the pervasiveness of secularization even in our churches. The old actors may still be invoked: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. Bits of the old narrative may still be mentioned: creation, providence, redemption, salvation, heaven. However, the shift is evident enough. These old words are mapped onto an essentially human-centered rather than God-centered map. The map is the autonomous self’s striving to create a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance. Each individual writes his or her own script or life movie. “God” may still have a meaningful role as a supporting actor in our self-realization and peace of mind, but we’re the playwright, director, and star.

So when we come to debates about same-sex marriage in civic debates, even professions of deeply held Christian commitments can be invoked without the biblical narrative, doctrines and commands, doxology, and discipleship actually providing the authoritative source and structural integrity to our arguments.

Conservatives often appeal to self-fulfillment: gays are unhappy. They don’t realize their own potential to mate with the right gender and produce pleasant families like the rest of us. To be sure, there are other arguments, like referring to the decline of civilizations that accommodated homosexuality. However, this is just to extend the pragmatic-and-therapeutic-usefulness presupposition of individual autonomy to a social scale.

On this common ground, same-sex marriage is a no-brainer. Some people are happier and more fulfilled in committed same-sex relationships. There’s no use trying to refute other people’s emotional expressions of their own subjective states of consciousness. Do same-sex couples wrestle with tension, anxiety over a partner losing interest and being attracted to someone else, infidelity, and so forth? Looking at the state of traditional marriage, how exactly are these couples uniquely dysfunctional? A 2006 Amicus Brief presented to the California Supreme Court by the nation’s leading psychological and psychiatric bodies argued, “Gay men and lesbians form stable, committed relationships that are equivalent to heterosexual relationships in essential respects. The institution of marriage offers social, psychological, and health benefits that are denied to same-sex couples…There is no scientific basis for distinguishing between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples with respect to the legal rights, obligations, benefits, and burdens conferred by civil marriage.” Well, there you have it. The new high priests of the national soul have spoken.

How would someone who believes that sin is unhappiness and salvation is having “your best life now” make a good argument against same-sex marriage? There is simply no way of defending traditional marriage within the narrative logic that apparently most Christians—much less non-Christians—presuppose regardless of their position on this issue.

“Same-Sex Marriage Makes a Lot of Sense” (White Horse Inn)

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