The Christian Tradition and the Defense of Marriage
On June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, paving the way for the further advancement of gay marriage. This isn’t news to you. Responses have been everything from jubilation to apocalyptic proclamations. Among the latter has been the conviction that gay marriage will spoil heterosexual marriage, which many claim to be a cornerstone of civilization. Spoil marriage and everything falls.
The notion that marriage and family (however that may be constructed) forms a cornerstone of civilization isn’t anything new. At least as far back as Aristotle family has been claimed as the fundamental building block of society. Nor is this a crazy notion. Given human mortality and the vulnerability of human infants, the nuclear family is arguably the lowest self-sustaining unit of human social organization.
Whether gay marriage would somehow undo heterosexual marriage, or whether it would do so any more so than heterosexual divorce and infidelity, is another question entirely and not one I intend to deal with here. Rather, I want to talk about the underlying fear itself.
This fear comes up almost exclusively in conservative Christian circles (full disclosure: my circles). These same circles are the ones which pride themselves, probably accurately, on being the most historically orthodox. That very historical orthodoxy, however, makes the fear expressed in the pro-DOMA conservativism rather strange, because historical Christianity at its best has never been entirely on the side of civilization.
The axiom that marriage is the cornerstone of civilization was much more poignant in the world in which Christianity grew up. Cities in the Classical and Late Classical Greco-Roman world were places where death ruled. Mortality governed the reproductive lives of the citizens of the ancient city. St. Chrysostom described their world as one “grazed thin by death.” As a result, marriage was utterly necessary in order to support the reproduction required to even maintain the population. Humanity literally had to breed themselves out of extinction. Death and sex stood hand in hand in the ancient mind. Huge legal penalties were levied against bachelors, and women were married off at an early age. This latter fact also contributed to the oppression and the mortality of women. It was pagan Roman philosophers who idealized marriage as the furnace of (male) virtue.
Into this world Christianity came with a new message. It declared that this present age, this age in which death ruled, was wicked, and, more importantly, was defeated. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had ended the reign of death. Humankind no longer had to fight death through the mad scrabble of marriage and sexuality. As a powerful symbol of this new age, multitudes of Christians left the tyranny of the city to live in anticipation of the coming age. These communities were celibate and acetic, but this was not a morbid asceticism. Rather, it was the declaration of a new thing—humanity no longer had to live under the yoke of death.
This did, of course, mean another sort of morbidity. Christians could never entirely be for the city, never entirely pro-civilization, because civilization was of the age of death’s reign. Christians would, of course, seek the good of the city out of Christian love, but the relationship was necessarily ambivalent. Even Christian monastics declared marriage a good gift of God, but they always affirmed that there was something better. Marriage was a gift for this age, but there was a greater love, the love of the chaste, which was a foretaste of the world to come.
This orthodox notion that sees the present age as ruled by death, and so evil, rings very true. No civilization is without great evil. Even the best civilizations, and I still believe America to be one of the best, are wracked by wickedness. From drone strikes, to racism, to sexual immorality, our hands are bloody.
Loyalty to God, I truly believe, is a virtue, but given these facts, and given the historical Christian ambivalence towards civilization and the marriages which uphold it, there is something deeply ironic and unsettling about Christians opposing gay marriage because it might undermine civilization. St. Anthony of the desert would undoubtedly have opposed gay marriage (it doesn’t help to be revisionist), but what would he have thought of those opposing it for the sake of the polis? There are legitimate questions to be asked about gay marriage, but Christians who oppose it on these grounds do well to ask themselves just what tradition they stand in, and just what kingdom it is which they defend.
 Bill Mears, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Federal Provision on Same-sex Marriage Benefits,” CNN, June 27, 2013, accessed July 9, 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/26/politics/scotus-same-sex-doma/index.html.
 Although Aristotle also believes that society, the polis, is necessary for the family. Aristotle, Politics I, trans. Benjamin Jowett (The Internet Classics Archive), accessed July 9, 2013, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html.
 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 6.
 Ibid.; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 115.
 Brown, 12-25.
 Brown, 213-240.
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