Today, the State of New York begins allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Gay rights advocates in the state are bruised and beaten from years of fighting political and social battles, struggling to bring marriage legislation to a vote. Cultural observers predicted that if the bill ever made it to the congressional floor, it would likely pass. New York, after all, is not Texas or South Carolina or even Colorado. New York City boasts the nation’s highest population of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. Today, the LGBT community is elated.
In closed-door conversations, many of the Christian leaders I know admit this new law could be the decisive defeat in the three-decade old war that began at The Stonewall Inn. They lament a nation that seems to have disregarded the ancient consensus on marriage held by most every major world religion and society since the beginning of time. But their discussions, surprisingly, move toward the future and to the question of “how to remain biblically faithful, yet credible, in a pluralistic, post-Christian culture?” But stating this publicly would signal defeat; so for now, they keep these conversations private.
Maybe they shouldn’t.
According to Christianity Today, the effect of the New York law has moved well beyond The Empire State, inducing a “surge in sexuality debates” among religious communities across the nation. Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said, “This is probably the biggest challenge to traditional marriage that we’ve seen.” And many in the Christian community still struggle with how to engage their friends in the LGBT community. Some are confused, unsure of how to react to this new law.
Is it conceivable that as the focus of many Christians narrowed to the political debates surrounding “marriage”, that our attention was diverted from assessing the health of our own marriages? Christians need to be having rigorous, civil dialogues about marriage and sexuality that go beyond the issues of same-sex relationships. Shame no longer keeps divorce and infidelity from being commonplace fixtures in American culture. This degradation of marriage is due, not to the 2.8% of those who identify as LGBT in our society, but to the heterosexuals with spoiled marriages and the increasingly popular hook-up culture in the younger generation.
On a distinguished panel addressing the question “What is Marriage?” Dr. Robert George of Princeton University said, “The problem with marriage in our culture isn’t same-sex marriage. It lies in heterosexual sexual activity in and outside of marriage.”
We must remember that there are many ways to influence and to engage our culture’s definitions of marriage and sexuality. Only a small portion of the American population, after all, identifies as gay or lesbian. And while a few states legally recognize same-sex unions, the majority of states have laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Followers of Jesus have a great task ahead, and fortunately for us, momentum plays in our favor. The latest Census data points out that over 77% of couples married since 1990 made it to their tenth anniversary. That’s an increase from 74% in the 1980s, when divorce rates were at an all-time high. A stunning statistic, considering most divorces in first marriages happen within eight years, and many of us believe the well-publicized line that “over half of all marriages end in divorce.” With such a hopeful trend undergirding our efforts, Christians must be poised to lead a discussion not just about the Biblical definition of marriage, but also how to choose a spouse, how to maintain healthy marriages, and how to weather the storms of marriage that every couple must face.
The generation now coming of age is one that has grown up amid sexual tolerance. Purity is often a laughing matter and sexual identity is something with which they are encouraged to experiment. This hook-up culture easily tempts the average youth group adolescent as well. Many young men and women, however, still dream of getting married, but many grew up with little modeling of healthy dating and married relationships.
How can Christians who care deeply about traditional marriage move forward in this new era? By focusing on what we can control—loving our spouses, serving our families, renewing our commitment to help others whose marriages are failing, and by engaging with the youngest generations on what it looks like for them to pursue healthy sexuality. If the recent New York law becomes the impetus for Christians to stop reacting and start leading in these ways, it may be the best thing that’s happened to traditional marriage in more than a generation.