Same-Sex Marriage as a Civil Right: Are Wrongs Rights?

Albert Mohler, President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

We should have seen it coming. Back in 1989 two young activists pushing for the normalization of homosexuality coauthored a book intended to serve as a political strategy manual and public relations guide for their movement. In After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, authors Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen argued that efforts to normalize homosexuality and homosexual relationships would fail unless their movement shifted its argument to a demand for civil rights, rather than for moral acceptance. Kirk and Madsen argued that homosexual activists and their allies should avoid talking about sex and sexuality. Instead, “the imagery of sex per se should be downplayed, and the issue of gay rights reduced, as far as possible, to an abstract social question.”

Beyond Kirk and Madsen and their public relations strategy, an even more effective legal strategy was developed along the same lines. Legal theorists and litigators began to argue that homosexuals were a class of citizens denied basic civil liberties, and that the courts should declare them to be a protected class, using civil rights precedents to force a moral and legal revolution.

That revolution has happened, and it has been stunningly successful. The advocates for the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage have used legal arguments developed from the civil rights era to their advantage. Arguments used to end the scourge of racial segregation were deployed to normalize homosexuality and homosexual relationships. Over the years, these arguments have led to such major developments as the decriminalization of homosexual behaviors, the inclusion of homosexuals within the United States military, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in some states.

What should Christians think about this? We do believe in civil rights. Taken at face value, civil rights are those rights that a person should be recognized to possess simply because he or she is a citizen. Christians should welcome the recognition of civil rights, understanding that the very notion of such rights is based on a Christian worldview and the affirmation that every human being is made in God’s image, and therefore possesses dignity and certain essential rights. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Even as secularists do their best to establish some grounding for civil rights without reference to God, the founding language of our nation — in agreement with biblical principles — clearly affirms that these liberties are given to all people by the Creator.

Beyond this fact, we must be thankful that an expanding understanding of civil rights has led our nation to address wrongs and to make moral progress in ending wrongful discrimination. The civil rights movement of the late twentieth century saw America come face to face with the reality that, as a nation, we were not living up to our own commitment to those rights.

The key question we now face is this: Does recognition of civil rights for all people require the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage?

That is precisely what gay rights proponents have been claiming for the past thirty years, and their arguments have gained much ground. In 2003 the Supreme Court struck down criminal laws against homosexual behavior in the decision known as Lawrence v. Texas. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the Constitution does not allow for the criminalization of homosexual acts, since such laws would deny a specific class of persons their basic civil rights. A series of similar court decisions has followed, with several courts ruling that outlawing same-sex marriage is a similar denial of a civil right.

When Rights Are Wrong

At this point Christians have to think very carefully. We do not want to deny anyone his or her civil rights. To do so would not only violate the Constitution but also deny the rights that are granted, not by the government, but by the Creator. But is same-sex marriage such a right? The answer to that question must be no.

Marriage laws always discriminate. Current laws discriminate on the basis of age, marital status, and gender, as well as a host of other issues. The law itself necessarily discriminates. For instance, married people pay fewer taxes and women enjoy maternity leave. The question is whether such discrimination is right or wrong.

Discrimination on the basis of an unchangeable characteristic such as skin color would be wrong. But Christians cannot accept the argument that homosexuality is an immutable characteristic. While recognizing the complexity of issues related to sexual orientation, we cannot define a behavior as an intrinsic characteristic. On that basis, why not grant theft or other sinful behavior the same civil rights protection?

Furthermore, we recognize that marriage, like human rights, exists prior to the law. Christians understand that marriage was instituted by the Creator, who designed marriage and the family as the foundational social unit of human society. Marriage unites a man and a woman in a holy covenant that should last as long as they both live.

From the very beginning, marriage was designed as the union of one man and one woman. Every human society has recognized this meaning of marriage, and all successful civil societies have honored, protected, and defended heterosexual marriage as the union that should govern human sexuality, reproduction, intimacy, and rearing of children.

Those pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage have been tremendously successful in convincing many people — and several courts — of their argument that same-sex marriage is a civil right. But this is a confusion of categories that Christians cannot accept.

The argument for the legalization of same-sex marriage fails in terms of any constitutional logic that our nation’s founders would have conceived. Beyond this, faithful Christians cannot accept such arguments because an even greater authority — the authority of the Bible as the Word of God — binds us.

The Bible is clear in terms of its teachings on both sexuality and marriage. As Jesus Christ declared, God intended marriage as the union of one man and one woman “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:4–6). The legalization of same-sex marriage would confuse and greatly weaken the single institution that is most central to human society and most essential to human flourishing.

Christians responding to demands for the legalization of same-sex marriage cannot accept the argument that the right to marry a person of the same gender is a civil right.

We are living in an era of moral revolution and seismic cultural change. Christians must remember that our ultimate authority is the Word of God. We are thankful for the recognition of civil rights, but we also understand that these rights will be confused in a sinful world. We must understand that the claim that same-sex marriage is a civil right reveals more than constitutional confusion — it reveals the need of every human being for nothing less than the forgiveness, healing, and redemption that can come only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, the argument over same-sex marriage is never just about same-sex marriage, and debates about civil rights are never just about civil rights. Deeper truths and worldview implications are always at stake, and it is our responsibility to make certain that we know what those are and stand humbly and compassionately for those truths, regardless of the cost.

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