This week, President Joe Biden signed into law The Respect for Marriage Act, which codifies federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriage.
The bill, which was written in the wake of the overturn of Roe and in light of the possibility that Obergefell might also eventually fall, was only possible through a bipartisan effort, including the support of 39 House Republicans and 12 Republican Senators.
Further, The Respect for Marriage Act has found support not only among some political conservatives but among some theological conservatives as well—perhaps most notably political commentator David French.
In an article for The Dispatch, published in advance of the bill’s signing, French wrote about the potentially negative ramifications that could result from stripping a right that had previously been afforded to same-sex couples.
“Millions of Americans have formed families and live their lives in deep reliance on Obergefell being good law. It would be profoundly disruptive and unjust to rip out the legal superstructure around which they’ve ordered their lives. One senses the Supreme Court feels the same way,” French wrote. “I want Americans of different faiths and no faith at all to be able to live together, work together, form families, and live with peace, security, and dignity. I don’t want my gay friends and neighbors to live in fear that the law might tear their families apart.”
Though French has clarified that he has not changed his stance on what he refers to as “covenantal” marriage, which is defined in scripture as the lifelong union between one man and one woman, he is in support of accommodating same-sex unions in the legal recognition of “civil” marriages.
In fact, he sees doing so as necessary in order for a pluralistic country, such as the United States is becoming, to flourish.
In an article published in The Atlantic that same week, French wrote, “The Senate’s Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t solve every issue in America’s culture war (much less every issue related to marriage), but it’s a bipartisan step in the right direction. It demonstrates that compromise still works, and that pluralism has life left in it yet.”
As you might imagine, French was met with considerable backlash among evangelicals, including from theologian and seminary president Albert Mohler.
“One of the most perplexing marks of our time is the defection of so many ‘conservatives’ from the cause of conserving what Russell Kirk called ‘the permanent things,’” Mohler wrote in WORLD. “If marriage is not conserved—if civil marriage is not conserved as a man-woman union—then nothing genuinely conservative can last, at least for long.”
“Support for the Respect for Marriage Act is bad enough. The way David French frames his argument is worse,” Mohler continued. “This is how conservatism dies, and this is how marriage is surrendered.”
Whether Christians stand in support of or opposition to The Respect for Marriage Act (or somewhere in between), the conversation contains a number of key points of debate.
Let’s dive into a few of those areas of concern.
For those most staunchly opposed to The Respect for Marriage Act, religious liberty is one of, if not the, point of contention. Many fear that a federal recognition of same-sex marriage may eventually lead to churches and Christian businesses being forced to participate in or contribute to same-sex weddings, lest they face a lawsuit or forfeiture of their tax exempt status.
This same concern was present in 2015 when SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell decision, which designated same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.
In the majority opinion of that decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the “First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
Nevertheless, many were still pessimistic about the future of religious liberty with regard to this issue. And, indeed, a number of cases have been brought before the Supreme Court that tested whether Christians would be afforded the right to abstain from participating in same-sex weddings. Perhaps most famous among them is Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for the wedding of two men.
However, as French has pointed out, every time religious liberty with regard to issues of sexuality has been challenged in a lawsuit, religious liberty has won. Religious liberty has endured, and with each challenge and subsequent victory, the legal precedence for it only grows stronger.
In this way, it has been argued that The Respect for Marriage Act continues to strengthen religious liberty, as the law includes language that mirrors what Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision.
There is a caveat to this. While Christians continue to win religious liberty cases, they are still being challenged and forced into lengthy legal ordeals. In fact, many of these cases drag on for years.
Be that as it may, this isn’t a function of the laws that have been put into place, but the cultural issues at play. Those who see Christians as bigots are likely to wage legal war against them, even if it is a losing battle. And the fact of the matter is that, when we survey the public discourse among many Christians who hold to a biblical definition of marriage, the way they speak is often bigoted. It’s just that such bigotry is legally protected.
To be sure, merely changing our tone will not stop the attacks on Christians within the broader culture. But we must recognize a couple of things. First, we need to ensure that we are not driving an unnecessary wedge between ourselves in the LGBTQ+ community not merely by what we believe but how we express it. And second, we should take some solace in the fact that the law is on our side wherever the issue of a sincerely held religious belief comes into question.
Making a Distinction Between Interracial and Same-Sex Unions
In many ways, it was no mistake that codifying federal recognition of same-sex marriage alongside federal recognition of interracial marriage in one bill was a strategic choice on the part of certain lawmakers who want to build upon the perception that the two are essentially one in the same.
This is something of a power move often used by LGBTQ+ advocates, who sometimes float the idea that if a person stands for a biblical sexual ethic over and against LGBTQ+ redefinitions of it, then they are likely also a racist who would not be opposed to re-legalizing segregation.
As a Christian who is deeply concerned about issues of justice and who also holds to a biblical sexual ethic, I find such an implication to be downright slanderous.
However, whereas the cultural trend is to equate race and sexuality, we should also note that in the language of The Respect for Marriage Act, an important distinction between the two is maintained. Specifically, while no one can discriminate against an interracial marriage and have their racist belief be treated as a “sincere conviction,” they can do so when it comes to same-sex marriage, because marriage is an inexorably religious rite.
Fighting Over the Word ‘Marriage’
Another key aspect of this discussion is how much Christians can or should fight over the word “marriage” itself.
In his support of The Respect for Marriage Act, French noted that taking away a right that had previously been awarded to same-sex unions has the potential to disrupt or uproot the lives of millions of people who have structured their families around the assumption that this right would continue to be upheld. Such an act would be cruel.
So in order to maintain a personal conviction in the biblical definition of marriage while allowing for a legal redefinition of it, French makes a clear distinction between a Christian or covenantal marriage and a legal or civil one.
In fact, French has argued that the civil definition of marriage has not reflected the Christian definition of marriage since the advent of no-fault divorce, which essentially made it so that marriage is an at-will contractual agreement that can be terminated by either party at any time and for any reason.
Since this distinction between Christian marriage and legal marriage already exists, and has existed for at least half a century, French believes not only that it is allowable to make further adjustments to its definition, but that it would be hypocritical not to make those adjustments on the basis of sexual orientation when we have already done so for divorce.
Contrary to French’s view, it could be argued that the solution to such hypocrisy is not to further create a divide between “Christian marriage” and “civil marriage,” but rather to address issues that would keep the two from coming into alignment.
Theoretically, this could be accomplished while maintaining legal protections for same-sex couples by creating legislation that recognizes same-sex civil unions that offer all the same legal and financial benefits of a marriage, just without going as far as to give them the official designation of “marriage.”
In fact, these types of unions were in place in various places prior to Obergefell.
Nevertheless, while language is important, now that the bell has been rung, it is worth asking whether it is worth the trouble to try and push through new legislation that reverts the dictionary definition of “marriage” back to what it once was. Some Christians may believe it is, but many likely do not.
Where I Stand
As you can see, this issue is complex, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t out of my depth when it comes to understanding the finer points of legalese. This leaves me somewhat ambivalent, particularly since there is not much that can be done about the passing of The Respect for Marriage Act—which is a law that essentially maintains the status quo of the legal definition of marriage that has existed in America since 2015 anyway.
Nevertheless, I will say that I am not comfortable with endorsing this law as David French has. I do not believe the best solution for strengthening civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community is the redefinition of marriage, the previous definition of which has been held for millennia not only among Christians but in almost every society through human civilization.
On the other hand, fighting this bill is also not a hill I am willing to die on. For some Christians, it might be, and I can respect that.
But for my part, regardless of the current legal definition of marriage, my duty to the LGBTQ+ community remains the same: to model grace and truth the best I can and introduce as many people as I can to Jesus.