Evangelicals bending on SSM?

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Call it the Mere Christian Marriage Creed (2MC). C.S. Lewis’ contention that in a non-Christian society Christians should not seek to impose their anti-divorce ideology on those who do not share it is attracting the attention of some thoughtful conservative evangelicals. They recognize that Americans are moving to accept same-sex marriage, and believe that the responsibility of the church–their church–is to clearly differentiate its conception of marriage from that of civil society.

I’ve received a number of comments suggesting that I have been too bold in claiming that Lewis would have taken the same approach to same-sex marriage–and of course it’s impossible to know with certainty what his view would have been. But Darlene Parsons (Dee) of Wartburg Watch and Wade Burleson, sometime president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, recognize that the principle is the same for SSM as it was for divorce: When the social consensus moves away from something a religion teaches, the religion should focus on keeping its own house in order rather than trying to keep the rest of society in line. That’s the position Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, took last week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. It is part and parcel of his denunciation of homophobia from the pulpit at last month’s SBC convention, for which he has caught considerable flak.

The Christian argument against 2MC was made long ago by J.R.R. Tolkien in the draft of a letter he wrote but never sent to Lewis, and I’m grateful to commenter Marta for calling my attention to it (and transcribing it–see the whole text after the jump).

If Christian marriage were in the last analysis
‘unnatural’ (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain
monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special ‘chastity-order’ of the
Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is
valid only for Christians.

The great medievalist and fantasy writer was a devout Catholic, and here he is appealing to Catholic natural law doctrine: If a moral teaching of the church is determined to be dictated by natural law, then it applies to, and can legitimately be required of, everyone. Lewis, an Anglican, was taking a Protestant line. We should not be surprised that reconciling themselves to the legalization of SSM in American society should come more easily to heirs of the Reformation like Burleson and Mohler than to Catholic bishops. Built into Protestant DNA is the knowledge that the church is set apart from society at large, and that, when push comes to shove, it is the responsibility of Christian leaders to tend to their own flocks and let the great world spin on.

Update: Want to see how the Catholic apparat brings the hammer down on a Catholic intellectual who opts for 2MC? Check out Emily Stimpson’s piece in the latest (July 17) Our Sunday Visitor. Complete with recantation.




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From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

49 To C. S. Lewis (draft)

[A comment on Lewis’s suggestion, in Christian Behaviour
(1943), that ‘there ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage’: Christian
marriage, which is binding and lifelong, and marriage-contracts solemnised only
by the State, which make no such demands. The draft, apparently written in
1943, was found tucked into Tolkien’s copy of Lewis’s booklet.]

My dear L.,

 I have been reading your booklet ‘Christian Behaviour’. I
have never felt happy about your view of Christian ‘policy’ with regard to
divorce. I could not before say why – because on the surface your policy seems
to be reasonable; and it is at any rate the system under which Roman Catholics
already live. For the moment I will not argue whether your policy is in fact
right (for today), even an inevitable situation. But I should like to point out
that your opinion is in your booklet based on an argument that shows a
confusion of thought discoverable from that booklet itself.

p. 34. ‘I’d be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to
prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.’ Justly so. Let us consider this
point alone, at first. Why? Well, if we try to ascend straightaway to a
rational plane, and leave behind mere anger with anyone who interferes with our
habits (good or bad), the answer is:

because the Mohammedans would be guilty of injustice.
They would be injuring us by depriving us of our share in a universal human
right, the temperate use of wine, against our will. You made that quite clear
in your remarks about Temperance, p. 13.

But look now at pp. 26, 30, 31. There you will observe
that you are really committed (with the Christian Church as a whole) to the
view that Christian marriage – monogamous, permanent, rigidly ‘faithful’ – is
in fact the truth about sexual behaviour for all humanity: this is the only
road of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women.
That it is dissonant with men’s present sex-psychology does not disprove this,
as you see: ‘I think it is the instinct that has gone wrong,’ you say. Indeed
if this were not so, it would be an intolerable injustice to impose permanent
monogamy even on Christians. If Christian marriage were in the last analysis
‘unnatural’ (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain
monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special ‘chastity-order’ of the
Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is
valid only for Christians. (See II Social Morality at the beginning.) Do I not
then say truly that your bringing in of Mohammedans on p. 34 is a most stinking
red-herring? I do not think you can possibly support your ‘policy’, by this
argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian
marriage. The foundation is that this is the correct way of ‘running the human
machine’. Your argument reduces it merely to a way of

(perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected

The horror of the Christians with whom you disagree (the
great majority of all practising Christians) at legal divorce is in die
ultimate analysis precisely that: horror at seeing good machines ruined by
misuse. I could hope that, if you ever get a chance of alterations, you would
make the point clear. Toleration of divorce – if a Christian does tolerate it –
is toleration of a human abuse, which it requires special local and temporary
circumstances to justify (as does the toleration of usury) – if indeed either
divorce or genuine usury should be tolerated at all, as a matter merely of expedient

Under your limitations of space you have not, of course,
had opportunity to elaborate your ‘policy’ – toleration of abuse. But I must
suppose you have considered it, as a practical policy in the present world. You
do not speak of your two-marriage system as a merely expedient policy, but as
if it was somehow related to the Christian virtue of charity. Still I think you
can only defend it as an expedient; as a surgeon who, knowing that an operation
is necessary for a patient’s health, does not operate because he can’t (the
patient and the patient’s foolish advisers won’t allow him); or does not even
advocate the operation, because the Anti-Surgical League is so powerful and
vocal that he is afraid of being beaten up. A Christian of your view is, as we
have seen, committed to the belief that all people who practise ‘divorce’ –
certainly divorce as it is now legalized – are misusing the human machine
(whatever philosophical defence they may put up), as certainly as men who get
drunk (doubtless with a philosophic defence also). They are injuring
themselves, other people, and society, by their behaviour. And wrong behaviour
(if it is really wrong on universal principles) is progressive, always: it
never stops at being ‘not very good’, ‘second best’ – it either reforms, or
goes on to third-rate, bad, abominable. In no department is that truer than in
sex – as you yourself vividly exhibit, in the comparison between a dish of
bacon and strip-tease. You show too that you yourself suspect that the
break-down of sex-reticence in our time has not made matters better but worse.
Anyone in any case can see that the enormous extension and facilitation of
‘divorce’ in our days, since those of (say) Trollopean society, has done great
social harm. It is a slippery slope – leading quickly to Reno, and beyond: in
fact already to a promiscuity barely restrained by legalities: for a pair can
now divorce one another, have an interlude with new partners, and then
‘re-marry’. A situation is being, has been, produced in which ordinary unphilosophical
and irreligious folk are not only not restrained by law from inconstancy, but
are actually by law and social custom encouraged to inconstancy. I need hardly
add that a situation is thus being produced in which it is intolerably hard to
bring up Christian youth in Christian sexual morals (which are ex hypothesi
correct morals for all, and which will be lost but which depend upon Christian
youth for their maintenance).

On what grounds then do you part company with those
Christians who resist, step by step, attempts to extend and make divorce
easier? (On one point only would I agree. I do not view extension of the
provisions of the law to all classes (irrespective of rank and money) as an
extension of divorce – it is rather justice: if you can have real justice in
evil. I think in so desperate a battle (about so fundamental and vital a
matter) that resistance even of ‘cheapening’

of divorce may be defended – why not save the poor by
their poverty?; but I admit that as an expedient policy it may be given an ugly
twist by the enemy.)

I should like to know on what grounds you base your

system! From the biological-sociological point of view I
gather (from Huxley and others) that monogamy is probably highly beneficial to
a community. On that plane, permanence and rigid fidelity would not appear at
first sight to be essential. All that the ‘social director’

requires would seem to be a high degree of sexual
continence. But has this ever been, and can it ever be in fact achieved without
‘sanctions’ or religio-legal ordinance that invests the marriage contract with
‘awe’? It does not look like it. The battle may be a losing one, but I cannot
help suspecting that those who fight against the divorce in this case of law
and religion are in the right. Sentire cum ecclesia: how often one finds that
this is a true guide. I say this all the more cheerfully, because on this point
I myself dissented in feeling (not expressly because I am under saving
obedience). But I was then still under the delusion that Christian marriage was
just a bit of special behaviour of my ‘sect or order’.

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under
your system: the bridal pair were ‘married’ twice. They married one another
before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a
vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again
before the State’s witness (a registrar, and in this case – adding in my view
to the impropriety – a woman) using another set of formulas and making no vow
of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also
ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the
lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was
in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church;
you may have taken certain vows in your meeting-place but they are just
foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and
impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other
words this ‘sharp division’ is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily
delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian

[The draft ends here.]