July 10, 2015
Rich Nathan
Understanding and Responding to the Recent Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage

Understanding and Responding to the Recent Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that our Constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in his majority opinion: “The Court, in this decision, holds same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States.” 


How might Christians understand and respond to this decision? Some may wish to psychoanalyze the opinion writer. There have been exactly four gay rights opinions in the history of the Supreme Court. Only four. All have been written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.  It is widely known that Justice Kennedy had a very significant mentor in his legal career, who was gay. The gay rights opinions by Justice Kennedy could be read as a statement of admiration and indebtedness by Justice Kennedy to his mentor. 


The Court’s opinion may be read as anti-democratic. Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, wrote: “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will, for many, cast a cloud over same-sex marriage making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”


Why such strong language? Because, by a one-vote majority of the Court whose members have life-time tenure, the power to decide how American society will define something as fundamental as marriage was wrested from individual Americans and their representatives and decided by the Supreme Court. Only 11 states had granted same-sex couples the right to marry by democratic action, eight by state legislative decision, and three by popular vote. Altogether, 39 states had their laws overturned by courts’ decisions including this Supreme Court decision. Many Americans might respond with a feeling of resignation or cynicism: “Why bother voting? Why bother debating, lobbying, writing letters, campaigning, or any of the other normal activities that support ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people,’ if the Supreme Court by a one-vote majority may undo all of this democratic activity?” 


The opinion could be viewed as a victory for civil rights. The President had the White House lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate the Court’s ruling. And millions of people agree with the President’s statement: “This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”  


On the other hand, the Court’s opinion could be viewed as further evidence of the collapse of Western civilization in general, or of America, in particular. Christians lit up the blogosphere decrying the Supreme Court decision. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, said in response to the Court’s decision, “I believe God could bring judgment upon America. The shift in attitudes that [the President] refers to is the moral decline we are seeing manifested daily around us.”


For Christians, Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent, written in language far less temperate than I can remember in any of his prior opinions, sounds a clear warning about the threat this decision poses to the free exercise of religion in the United States. Roberts wrote:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage – when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question, if they oppose same-sex marriage…Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they received from the majority today.


I predict that there will be tremendous pressure coming against Christian schools (Roman Catholic schools, being the largest religious school system, will bear the brunt of this attack).  Eventually, the tax exempt status of religious institutions will almost certainly be challenged based upon the Supreme Court precedent of Bob Jones v. the United States where the Court held that it was “wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption to grant tax exempt status to a racially discriminatory private educational entity.” In the same way, denying same-sex couples the right to marry will be seen as a violation of public policy for which tax-exempt status may be denied. (For those who wonder what Vineyard Columbus may do, our leadership is unanimous that we will not offer marriage to same-sex couples, nor will we ordain or license pastors who practice sex outside of heterosexual marriage. We hold these positions because of our understanding of God’s eternal Word, which no Court can overturn.)


So, here is the question. Given that the recent Supreme Court decision is admittedly anti-democratic, given the radical redefinition of marriage by the Court and the sweeping way that thousands of years of historical precedent was simply brushed aside, given the threat to the free exercise of religion, why was the Supreme Court opinion received with open arms across our country? Why have large segments of the public been generally receptive? If the opinion is so awful, why do so many people support it? 


Because this Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage is, in my opinion, just another manifestation of the most deeply held philosophy in America today. That philosophy was termed “expressive individualism” by the famous Berkeley University sociologist, Robert Bellah, back in 1990. Expressive individualism basically holds that the supreme value to which every other obligation must be subordinated is the true self within. We communicate expressive individualism by sound bites such as “it just feels natural to me.” Or “I need to be true to myself.”  Or “I’m not going to live a lie.” 


Indeed, the Court chose to root its opinion, which struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, not in the more obvious argument that same-sex couples should be treated the same as opposite-sex couples (under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause). Rather, Justice Kennedy based his opinion on the notion that “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.” And further that “these liberties [including the right to same-sex marriage] extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.”


Justice Kennedy’s opinion, in other words, was not based upon long held principles of Constitutional Law, but rather on the current philosophy of expressive individualism, which dominates American marketing and media. Professor Patrick Madigan from London stated that “expressive individualism holds [that anything that constrains the self] is to be rejected as parental abuse, psychological repression, or cultural imperialism.” 


How different the philosophy of expressive individualism is from the view of Jesus, who taught his followers to find life by denying ourselves, picking up our crosses and following him. I am convinced that the essential task of the church today is to disciple those who claim to be followers of Jesus away from “expressive individualism.” So many people I meet “accept Jesus” as a way of further advancing their true agenda, which is the enhancement of the self, or the achievement of their real dreams – to be married, to have a child, to find true love or whatever. Rare is the person today who understands Christian discipleship as turning away from our own agendas and radically adopting Jesus’ agenda for our lives. 


The political fight concerning accepting same-sex marriage is over. Same-sex marriage advocates have decisively won. Now is the time for the church to disciple Christians away from expressive individualism and towards radical followership of Jesus! 


And concerning the church’s public witness, my favorite editorial writer, David Brooks, provided this wise counsel:

The defining face [of the church] should be this: those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life. This culture war is more about Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than moral majority. It’s doing purposefully in public what [the church] already does in private. But the sexual revolution will not be undone any time soon. The more practical struggle is to [care for] a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable.


Discipling those in our churches towards the radical call of Jesus and redoubling our efforts in proclaiming and in demonstrating good new to the poor are the wisest ways for the church in America to respond to this recent Supreme Court case.


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