Same-sex Marriage Ruling Leaves Religious Questions Unanswered

June 29, 2015
Mark D. Jordan
HDS professor Mark D. Jordan comments on the SCOTUS ruling to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. / Photo: Justin Knight

News of the United States Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage reached San Francisco early in the morning on June 26. The city was already preparing to celebrate Pride weekend. The news meant that we started the party early.

People met on the streets to congratulate each other, to cheer, to wave rainbow flags. There were tears, too—of joy, relief, and incredulity. Who could believe it? A dozen years to the day from its nationwide decriminalization of that old theological category "sodomy," the court recognized the legal right to same-sex marriage.

I celebrated the decision on Friday morning, but I couldn't bring myself to declare victory. I was struck immediately by the contrast between the court's decision and the funerals in Charleston.

The unending chronicle of racial violence in America shows us each day the stark difference between legal rights and social reality. For queer folk, too, the right to marry doesn't yet come with other rights—like freedom from discrimination in employment or housing.

I also kept thinking about all the religious questions left unanswered by this landmark decision. In our national history, as in Europe before, marriage has fallen uneasily between church and state, between sacrament or blessing and contract.

So far as the court's decision pulls civil marriage further away from the practice of some religious bodies, it energizes old controversies. Some have to do with religious liberty in a country of expanding religious experience.

To remain a unified country, we need to learn a richer religious toleration—a more generous recognition of divinity. The same holds within separate religious traditions, which are never monoliths.

As a Christian often in the minority on theological issues, I regularly claim freedom of conscience, but I also acknowledge that the claim is easily misused or muddled. Some of the loudest voices demanding religious exemption from the court's marriage ruling were insisting just in the past few days that the U.S. was a Christian nation and that they had the correct Christianity. There are some tensions here, to put it mildly.

There is also some incoherence. I doubt that anyone objecting to the decision in Obergefell v Hodges really holds that "sincere religious belief" should routinely trump the nation's laws. It is hard to think of a crime that has not been committed by someone somewhere with a conviction of perfect piety.

It is very hard to define "religious belief" as against other kinds of belief. It is also not self-evident that a "religious" belief, however sincere, merits exemption from the social contract. However precious freedom of conscience may be, a claim of religious exemption from civil law always carries risks, beginning with the risk of self-deception.

The religious questions that follow the court’s decision don't stop with conscience clauses. They barely begin. More important questions arise for fundamental religious teachings on marriage, family, and human sexuality. These teachings are often presented as timeless. In fact, they undergo continuous historical change, at scales small and large.

Let me stick to Christian examples—the ones I know best. From the New Testament forward, Christian writers have pronounced ambivalent views about the purposes and dangers of human sexuality.

They have exalted the ideal of marriage, while expressing severe scruples about its practice. They have praised human sexuality as a divine gift, while proposing that serious Christian life would move beyond it, even within marriage. These and other ambivalences echo through a complex history that most Christians were never taught and many churches would like to forget.

During the last century, Christian groups were compelled to reexamine their rote condemnations of homosexuality because of large social shifts linked to advances in law and medicine. Thinking again about same-sex desire meant reviewing old presuppositions about sex and procreation.

If God could create some people to desire sexual relations not open to reproduction, what did that mean for the foundations of Christian sexual ethics? And if some of those creatures wanted to be joined in permanent unions blessed by churches, what then for Christian marriage?

Over the previous 100 years, theologians and church leaders have written a library on these topics. The work is hardly finished.

The Christian churches I know do not yet have nuanced and truthful theologies of sexuality. The churches have scarcely begun to admit the historical changes that prepared the court's decision.

For several centuries now, in the most "Christian" nations, control over human sexuality has passed from religious institutions to state bureaucracies. For a time, the churches persuaded themselves that they could administer sexuality together with the state. That compact has now come apart on issues from divorce to contraception or abortion to same-sex unions.

I think that this separation is a good thing for churches, whose ministers should not be agents of the state. But it is also a rude awakening, especially for churches that got into the habit of letting states settle emerging issues about marriage or sex.

I'm still celebrating the court's decision. I’m also getting ready to resume the delayed conversations within churches on the meaning of embodied life along a rainbow of creaturely desires.

—by Mark D. Jordan, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Christian Thought. Professor Jordan's latest book, Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault, is available through Stanford University Press.