If you care about traditional marriage, stop fighting a culture war over it

A few weeks ago I commented on a post written over at First Thoughts by Greg Forster arguing that Christians need to stop thinking of their public engagement in terms of a culture war. Now Forster has written an equally provocative and helpful post explaining his opposition to the culture war model further. Forster argues that it is the culture war mentality itself that may be the greatest obstacle to actually achieving the goals of that war. He points out that while the term culture war was once merely a descriptive term, it has been turned into a normative term used to rally citizens and activists for conflict and for the defeat of the enemy.

I believe this normative use of martial language has actually become the key obstacle to victory in our fight for life, marriage and even religious liberty. We have identified the success of these policies as a victory of our religious subculture over other subcultures. If you vote for marriage, you not just voting for marriage; you are voting in favor of being ruled by the conservative religious subculture. So people have to make a choice. What do I value more, marriage or my right not to be ruled by the conservative religious subculture? That’s a fight we will lose in the long run. And the main reason we will lose it is because we ought to. Our religion gives us no right to rule our neighbors.

Just for clarity, I think the problem is not specifically with the use of martial language in any context, but with the identification of the battle for life, marriage, etc. as a battle for the victory of our religious subculture over others. So I’m not asking advocates to stop talking about “victory” for marriage, etc. I’m asking them to stop framing victory for marriage as victory for our side in a culture war.

In other words, preserving traditional marriage is not about preserving the establishment of Christianity. It is about serving our neighbors by doing what is best for them. As Glenn T. Stanton writes in Christianity Today, even in academic circles marriage is increasingly viewed as a basic component necessary to human health and prosperity. There is much common ground between Christians and nonbelievers to which we can appeal in seeking to resolve this issue.

For the past 20 years or more … the unexpected factor in whether our neighbors and their children rise from poverty is marital status. Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, explains: “The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.”

The Christian’s attention to the well-being of marriage among the various strata of society is about far more than mere traditionalism or empty moralism. Marriage is unarguably a central love of neighbor issue.

The key issue for Forster is not whether or not we should fight to preserve traditional marriage (he is adamant that we should) but whether or not we do this in a spirit of enmity and conflict or a spirit in love and comity.

America is defined by its commitment to be a society where people of diverse religious and moral convictions can live together as civic equals. George Washington expressed this beautifully in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: in Europe Jews are tolerated – they are permitted to be Jews – but in America Jews are, for civic purposes, interchangeable with their Christian neighbors. As I once heard a prominent American pastor put it, the survival of the American experiment depends on Christians cultivating strong and deep ties of civic solidarity with their spiritual enemies.

It’s not hard to find an analogy for this. If I have a common problem with my Muslim neighbors – let’s say they are not taking adequate measures to prevent their chickens from defecating in my yard – it makes no sense for me to confront this neighbor with the all-or-nothing claims of a culture or religious war. It would be absurd for me to start quoting Scripture to my neighbor, or to confront him with the Christian claim about Christ’s lordship over all of life – including his chickens – in order to persuade him to exercise better restraint over his chickens. It would make no sense for me to tell him that unless he becomes a Christian we will never be able to resolve our neighborly conflicts with one another. He is my neighbor. He has a common interest with me in staying on good terms and in treating each other with justice and respect. He will ordinarily be won over to right conduct by appeals on this basis.

Forster appeals to us as Americans, but an even stronger appeal could be made to those who consider themselves Christians. Our task is not to domineer and lord ourselves over the world. Our calling is to serve our neighbors and our communities in the passing affairs of this age, even as we point them to the gospel and its promises (and warnings) about the age to come. As human beings made in the image of God, as Calvin constantly argued, we are united as brothers and sisters even with those who are not believers in Christ. We should serve them with the love and respect they deserve.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 17, 2012, in Culture War, Marriage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on If you care about traditional marriage, stop fighting a culture war over it.

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