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Pick Your Shibboleths Wisely!


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Christianity Today, October 2004


Pick Your Shibboleths Wisely

Do we really want to be known as the generation who gave marriage over to the government?

By Daniel A. Crane | posted 09/20/2004 9:00 a.m.


We continue our series on the meaning of marriage with another point of view. Though most evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, they do not necessarily agree about how exactly to oppose it or how strongly to work against it. Here Daniel A. Crane, assistant professor of law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, explains his concerns regarding this issue. —Editors


With same-sex marriage licenses pouring out of City Hall in San Francisco before they were declared invalid, state courts inundated with claims of entitlement to same-sex marriage, a federal constitutional amendment proposed to define marriage as a heterosexual union, and the presidential candidates trying to mollify as many constituencies as possible on this hot potato, same-sex marriage certainly has our attention. Indeed, it's becoming a shibboleth.


A shibboleth is a single issue by which a political candidate or party is judged. The word comes from the biblical story of Jephthah and the Gileadites in Judges 12:4-6. Jephthah had routed Israel's foes from Ephraim and was determined to cut them down to the last man. The Ephraimites weren't obviously distinguishable from the Gileadites by physical appearance, and some tried to sneak through Jephthah's lines. So Jephthah devised a clever test: Any man trying to ford the Jordan was required to say the Hebrew word shibboleth, which means "a torrent of water." Since the Ephraimites mispronounced the word as sibboleth, they were easily identified and slaughtered.


When it comes to politics, we evangelicals love our shibboleths. There is a certain convenience in evaluating political candidates, organizations, and movements by their stand on some discrete social issue—think abortion, creationism, and Prohibition. Though reductionist, the shibboleth approach isn't necessarily irrational. If the shibboleth follows closely from a particular worldview, then it may be a reliable predictor about how the candidate, organization, or movement will react to other issues that people haven't had time to think or ask about.


But, before using a shibboleth, we had better be certain that it accurately encapsulates our worldview. The costs of choosing an improper shibboleth are high. Since the purpose of shibboleths is to create a broad rule of action by generalizing from a narrow assumption, error on the assumption means multiplication of the error many times over.

This is why I believe same-sex marriage is a dangerous shibboleth: It reinforces the status of government as the custodian of the institution of marriage. If the church not only abets but actively furthers the notion that marriage owes its legitimacy to the state's approval, then the battle for the family is all but lost.


The Divorce Analogy

Let's take for example the law of divorce. In the 1950s, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien debated Britain's divorce laws, articulating starkly different views on marriage. Tolkien believed that Christian teachings should shape Britain's legal definition of marriage, while Lewis held that secular marriage and Christian marriage are two very different things.


For Tolkien, "no item of compulsory Christian morals is valid only for Christians. The foundation is that this is the correct way of 'running the human machine.'" Tolkien believed that Lewis's arguments for separation between the secular and religious institutions reduced marriage "merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines." For Tolkien, "toleration of divorce—if a Christian does tolerate it—is a toleration of human abuse."


Since Lewis married a divorcée, first in a civil ceremony for one set of reasons (compassion) and some time later in an ecclesiastical one and for another set of reasons (love), it is not surprising that his views were different. Lewis believed in "two distinct kinds of marriage; one governed by the state with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by it on its own members." Thus, for Lewis, Christians should be willing to tolerate civil rules about marriage that didn't meet biblical standards, since secular marriage was to be governed by an entirely different set of rules.


Who was right, Lewis or Tolkien? In my view, Jesus answered the question directly. Matthew 19 records that some Pharisees put a tricky marriage question to Jesus: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason, good or bad? The Pharisees saw a good chance to trip up Jesus, since he had already spoken out against divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, yet the law of Moses permitted divorce without enumerating a list of permissible reasons. Indeed, the only condition specified in Deuteronomy 24:1 was that the wife had become "displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her."


In avoiding the trap, Jesus differentiated between God's original plan for marriage, set forth in Genesis, and the human institution of marriage. Moses, Jesus explained, granted the Israelites a right to divorce because their hearts were hard, not because divorce was part of God's plan for marriage.


Jesus' treatment of the marriage issue is significant because it recognizes that the spiritual institution of marriage is quite distinct from the legal institution of marriage—even though the legal institution is directly ordained by God. The legal institution of marriage accommodates sinful man's faults; the spiritual institution transcends them and aims for the highest ideals in marriage. Further, the legal institution of marriage cannot be soft-pedaled on the grounds that Moses' law instituted the bare minimum necessary to ensure morality, whereas the spiritual institution goes further and dispenses grace.


As Jesus put it rather bluntly, the man who follows the law of Moses and gives his wife a certificate of divorce might cause her to commit adultery (if she remarries). Thus, Moses' law tolerated divorce even though, spiritually, it opened the door for people to become adulterers. In Jesus' view, there unquestionably was an important distinction between the legal and spiritual institutions of marriage.


The harms of equating the spiritual and legal institutions are large. Even if a union between the two were possible in a theocracy, it certainly wouldn't be possible in a pluralistic democracy where hearts are arguably harder than they were in Moses' day. The two institutions cannot merge, but what happens when the church treats them as though they were merged?


Sadly, recent history reveals the answer. Years ago many Christians began to view marriage solely through the legal lens. If no-fault divorce is the rule of the day, then Christians find it easier to break their marriage vows whenever they feel so inclined.


The example of divorce suggests that Christians have already lost much ground on marriage and the family by failing to distinguish secular family law clearly from God's perfect plan for man and woman. This is why it is alarming to see many Christians insist that defeating legal recognition of same-sex marriage is necessary to preserving the institution of marriage. If that is true, it must be because marriage owes its definition and legitimacy to the state—a proposition that Jesus squarely denied and that should frighten anyone who takes seriously the Genesis prescription.

Making It Work

If the church must clearly distinguish between the legal and spiritual domains of marriage, where does that leave us on same-sex marriage? One might like to see the government get out of the marriage business altogether, leaving the definition and consecration of marriage to private choice, meaning, in our case, the church. But that isn't a terribly realistic option today, since the idea of marriage so thoroughly permeates our legal system.


The words marriage or married appear more than 500 times in federal statutes, more than 900 times in federal regulations, and thousands of times in state statutes. The concept of marriage flows through numerous statutory and regulatory schemes, including areas as diverse as taxation, military service, Social Security benefits, adoption, and agriculture.


If the government can't get out of the marriage business altogether, then perhaps we, as Christians, ought to take the lead in reconceiving the notion of civil marriage as distinct from holy matrimony. Perhaps we should abolish the word marriage altogether when speaking of the license granted by the state and instead appropriate the civil union terminology that has been created to deal with the same-sex issue. When asking about the definition of marriage or civil unions for legal purposes, perhaps we should take a functional, rather than normative, view.


If a legal definition of marriage is necessary because we need to know who should be included in a health insurance plan or how we should assess potential adoptive parents, then the definitional question should be asked with respect to the objects of the legislation, not based on a transcendent conception of marriage.


For example, a statute dealing with health insurance benefits may be intended to extend health coverage to uninsured individuals in the same household as the primary insured. Since the object of the legislation is to make health insurance available to a wider group of people, it might make sense to recognize a wide group of civil unions as eligible for inclusion under the statute. Maybe even short-term or temporary civil unions should be recognized for that purpose.


On the other hand, a law making marriage a criterion for adoption is not intended to broaden the group of eligible participants but to narrow it to those most likely to be good parents. If the state concludes that children are most likely to benefit by having both a mother and a father and that heterosexual unions are more likely to be enduring, thus promising long-term stability, the definition of marriage might be narrower for adoption purposes than for health benefits purposes. In both cases, the civil definition of union or marriage would be answered by the particular aims of the legislature, not by the abstract question: "What is marriage?"


None of this should be taken as an argument that the law should recognize same-sex civil unions. There may be important functional (as opposed to moral) reasons why such recognition would be unwise. Nor should a separation of civil and religious marriage lessen our concern over the recent conduct of activist judges and mayors who have tried to impose their own political vision by judicial or executive fiat, contrary to the clear rules established by state legislatures.

But neither should we escalate the culture war by making this debate into a battle for the heart and soul of marriage. If we do that, we concede that the state owns marriage and that the church's function in blessing unions is subservient to the government's. Far better to lose the battle over the legal definition of marriage than to win it and find that the government now owns one of our most sacred institutions.

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Now, for a lighter treatment of these matters..


How the Grinch Stole Marriage

by Mary Ann Horton, Lisa and Bill Koontz

(with apologies to Dr. Suess.)


Every Gay down in Gayville liked Gay Marriage a lot......

But the Grinch, who lived just east of Gayville, did NOT!!


The Grinch hated happy Gays! The whole Marriage season!

Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, his Florsheims were too tight.

But I think the most likely reason of all was

His heart and brain were two sizes too small.


"And they're buying their tuxes!" he snarled with a sneer, "Tomorrow's

the first Gay Wedding! It's practically here!" Then he growled, with his

Grinch fingers nervously drumming, "I MUST find some way to stop Gay

Marriage from coming!"


For, tomorrow, he knew... All the Gay girls and boys

would wake bright and early. They'd rush for their vows!

And then! Oh, the Joys! Oh, the Joys!


And THEN they'd do something he liked least of all!

Every Gay down in Gayville the tall and the small,

would stand close together, all happy and blissing.

They'd stand hand-in-hand. And the Gays would start kissing!


"I MUST stop Gay Marriage from coming! ...But HOW?"


Then he got an idea! An awful idea!



"I know what to do!" The Grinch laughed in his throat.

And he went to his closet, grabbed his sheet and his hood.

And he chuckled, and clucked, with a great Grinchy word!

"With this beard and this cross, I look just like our Lord!"


"All I need is a Scripture..." The Grinch looked around.

But, true Scripture is scarce, there was none to be found.

Did that stop the old Grinch...? No! The Grinch simply said, "With no

Scripture on Marriage, I'll fake one instead!" "It's one man and one

woman," the Grinch falsely said.


Then he broke in the courthouse. A rather tight pinch.

But, if Georgie could do it, then so could the Grinch.

The little Gay benefits hung in a row.

"These bennies," he grinned, "are the first things to go!"


Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most uncanny,

around the whole room, and he took every benny!

Health care for partners! Doctors for kiddies!

Tax rights! Adoptions! Pensions and Wills!

And he stuffed them in bags. Then the Grinch, with a chill, Stuffed all

the bags, one by one, in his bill.


Then he slunk to the kitchen, and stole Wedding Cake.

He cleaned out that icebox and made it look straight.

He took the Gay-bar keys! He took the Gay Flag.

Why, that Grinch even took their last Gay birdseed bag!


"And NOW!" grinned the Grinch, "I will pocket their Rings."

And the Grinch grabbed the Rings, and he started to shove

when he heard a small sound like the coo of a dove.

He turned around fast, and off flew his hood.

Little Lisa-Bi Gay behind him sadly stood.

The Grinch had been caught by small Lisa-Bi.

She stared at the Grinch and said, "My, oh, my, why?"

"Why are you taking our Wedding Rings? WHY?"


But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick

He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!

"Why, my sweet little tot," the fake Shepherd sneered,

"The judges are evil, the other states weird."

"I'll fix the rings there and I'll bring them back here."


It was quarter past dawn... All the Gays, still a-bed,

all the Gays still a-snooze when he packed up and fled. "Pooh-Pooh to

the Gays!" he was grinch-ish-ly humming. "They're finding out now no Gay

Marriage is coming!" "Their mouths will hang open a minute or two then

the Gays down in Gayville will all cry Boo-Hoo!"


He stared down at Gayville! The Grinch popped his eyes!

Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Gay down in Gayville, the tall and the small,

was kissing! Without any bennies at all!

He HADN'T stopped Marriage from coming! IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!


And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood

puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?" "It came without lawyers,

no papers to sort!" "It came without licenses, came without courts!" And

he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch

thought of something he hadn't before!


"Maybe Marriage," he thought, "doesn't come from the court. Maybe

Marriage...perhaps... comes right from the heart. Maybe Marriage comes

from all the words the Gays say. Words like Husband, like Wedding, and

Spouse who is Gay." And what happened then...? Well...in Gayville they

say that the Grinch's small brain grew three sizes that day!


And the Gays had their Weddings. They promised for life.

They swore to be faithful, to Wife and her Wife.

The Husbands were happy, to each other they vowed

To be Out and be Honest, be Gay and be Proud.

They told all their neighbors and friends of their Spouse,

They told of their Marriage and sharing their house.

They said "We got Married." They shouted it loud.

Their marital status was "Married and Proud."


And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight,

He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light.

And he brought back the rings, cake and Gay birdseed bags!

And he... ...HE HIMSELF... hung the Gay Rainbow Flag!


The Lord looked down, at the proud and the tall,

and said "These are my children, and I love them all."

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