Following the launch last week of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, a new organization for which I serve as spokesman, we received plenty of support and plenty of criticism from evangelical circles.
The heartfelt support was welcome, and encouraging. The criticism was to be expected: An organization focused on furthering the marriage equality conversation among evangelicals is sure to ruffle a few feathers. Unfortunately, the arguments leveled against us by our critics had little to do with our mission. Instead, we faced mischaracterizations that bore only a passing resemblance to our statement of belief, and even faced some misguided attacks on our personal standing as evangelical Christians.
Our mission is straightforward: Evangelicals for Marriage Equality exists to cultivate a new conversation on the issue of civil marriage equality, so that evangelicals understand that it's possible to be a faithful Christian and a supporter of same-sex marriage. It is because of our commitment to follow Jesus that we feel compelled to speak out for the equal treatment under the law for all people, whether or not they share our convictions.
What we didn't do in our statement is argue in favor changing the sacramental definition of marriage in the Church. So it's curious that some of our fiercest critics attributed that viewpoint to us.
The Family Research Council, for instance, described us an organization "asserting an orthodox theological case for same-sex 'marriage.'" Similarly, Andrew Walker, of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized our launch op-ed in Time Magazine for failing to offer a robust argument on the "nature of marriage."
They've both missed the point -- we're not arguing against the church's definition of marriage. Our statement of belief is clear: While we "affirm the importance of this marriage bond and recognize our nation's longstanding commitment to religious freedom," we also "believe that in a religiously diverse society, no one religious perspective should determine who can and cannot be married."
Critics like Walker are sensitive to the suggestion that they're trying to impose a Christian definition of marriage in a pluralistic society, and go to great lengths to separate the religious precedent from a legal one. But Walker seems to want it both ways: He asks the government "to tell the truth about marriage," as reflected by our shared Christian faith.
Another criticism comes from Dr. Albert Mohler, the distinguished President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He argued in his morning podcast that there is no distinction between "the church's moral understanding of homosexuality" and "the government's recognition of marriage". (Walker makes a similar point in his op-ed, describing the man-woman relationship as "the basic social unit of civilization.")
But this attempt to brand the Christian definition of marriage as the prevailing definition used by the federal government is problematic. Marriage as recognized by the government represents a set of benefits and privileges that it makes little sense to offer to some couples but not others. Hospital visitation rights, for instance, or funeral planning -- these are benefits that share no particular gender or orientation distinction. The same could be said for tax treatment by the IRS.
This isn't a matter of undermining the "basic societal unit" -- it's a matter of basic fairness.
Evangelicals who speak in worried tones about the "homosexual agenda" as it pertains to marriage are only pushing our LGBT brothers and sisters further away from the church. I'm not advocating for a "watering down" of the faith; I am asking evangelicals to consider whether the Bible calls us to legislate our theology and require those who don't adhere to our doctrines to be governed by them.
We are clearly called in the Bible to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God" (Micah 6:8), to "love our neighbors as ourselves" (Luke 10:27), and to "defend the cause of the marginalized" (Psalm 82:3). We are called to proclaim the Gospel and to live as witnesses of the love of Christ, not to promote our theological or political agenda. This is one message that some evangelicals seem to have clearly forgotten and is a message to which EME is committed to calling us back.