On March 21, 2013, Law and Religion Headlines, the very useful online newsletter from Emory University, carried a summary of an interview on the BBC with Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He is an interesting and appealing figure. Born in 1956, he had an elite education at Eton and Cambridge, then an impressive career as an executive in the oil industry. He sensed a call to the ministry, left a lucrative job, and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1993. Just twenty years later, he has now become symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican communion (in between he was, briefly, bishop of Durham)—a rather steep career, to say the least. He is known for moderate views and for personal modesty (in that respect rather similar to the new Pope, though he does not seem to have washed anyone’s feet, but then this would be a rather un-Anglican extravagance).
The interview with the BBC took place just before his “enthronement” (that is the term). It is noteworthy that in this interview Welby addressed the issue of same-sex marriage. That is not only a hot-button issue in the Anglican communion, threatening a schism between its branches, respectively, in the Anglo-Saxon countries and in Africa (where most Anglicans now reside, most of them ferociously hostile to homosexuality). It is also highly relevant in current British politics. Coincidentally, as Welby was “enthroned” as Archbishop, the House of Commons passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a comfortable majority (despite a broad interfaith campaign against it). The bill has been pushed by Prime Minister David Cameron, part of his project of rebranding the Conservative Party as open-minded and modern. (Colonel Blimp is no longer to be welcome in Tory circles.) Welby took a nuanced position. He said that he still adheres to the “formal opposition” to active homosexuality by the Church of England, which goes with the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Just what does the adjective “formal” imply here? Asked whether he would turn a blind eye to some gay relationships, he replied that “it’s not a blind eye—it’s about loving people as they are and where they are.” He spoke with warmth about the “stunning” quality of some gay loving and stable relationships. Is Welby joining the voices in Europe and America suggesting that the churches should stop investing time and effort in a battle that may already be lost? In any case, Welby is unlikely to go on the barricades over this issue. He mentioned that he intends to meet with Peter Tatchell, a prominent gay activist.
By any measure, the United States is a more religious society than the United Kingdom, which makes for a different balance of political forces in the culture wars. But there is an important similarity in the debate over same-sex marriage: It is really about one word—the word “marriage”. A majority of people opposing same-sex marriage is willing to allow same-sex couples the legal status of “civil unions”, with all or most of the rights held by married couples. But this does not mean that the battle is over nothing. The disputed word stands for two widely discrepant worldviews, one continuing to affirm the nation as being “under God”, the other looking on the nation as held together by an essentially secular compact (indeed, if you will, by a “civil union”). Yet both worldviews are considered by their adherents as representing absolute, indeed sacred values. In other words, what we have here is a religious war, in which compromise is tantamount to apostasy. In religious wars people passionately defend and attack different doctrinal wordings. Of course, as has been clear since the 1970s, homosexuality is just one item in a larger catalogue of disputed topics. But it is pivotal. Right now, it seems to me, this particular topic stands for all the others.
Each side in this battle wants the state to solemnly ratify its doctrine of marriage. The progressive side has been on the offensive, the conservative side (naturally) manning the defenses. Part of the progressive offensive has been to appropriate the symbols of the conservatives—to appropriate the words that describe their identity. The appropriation of the word “marriage” is a kind of symbolic identity theft. The gay movement—or, as it now prefer to call itself, the “LGBT movement”—for obvious reasons likes to compare itself with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. African-Americans were discriminated against because of the color of their skin. An analogy suggests itself: One of the aims of the Civil Rights Movement could have been the demand that the government (perhaps via the US Census) officially classify all citizens as “white”. Every analogy limps. But this one, it seems to me, is worth mulling over. A different strategy is possible: Rather than wrestling away the symbols of a dominant group, an insurgent movement may demand that its distinctive symbols be treated with respect—that is, that its separate identity be accorded cultural dignity and legal rights. That has been the direction taken by the Civil Rights Movement. As I recall, that was the original thrust of the gay movement.
This is not the place to spell out my own view of this topic. It is not easily enlisted under either banner. Long before this became a mainstream position, I was fervently opposed to the persecution (not an exaggerated term) of homosexuals that was rampant in Western countries until very recently. (My office at the New School for Social Research was a few blocks from the famous Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, and I was delighted when In 1969 a group of gay men decided to fight back against yet another harassing police raid.) Against conservatives, I would point out that what they call “traditional marriage” is in fact bourgeois marriage, a little older than the steam engine, and with little resemblance to a Biblical view of the institution (if you doubt this, just refer, no less, to the last of the Ten Commandments, where a wife is counted among a man’s possessions, along with his slaves and domestic animals). Against progressives, I would suggest that it is evidently counterfactual to deny the uniqueness of an institution built around the astounding mystery of a man and a woman jointly bringing a new human being into the world. This leaves open many questions, but it means that one begins to think about the modern institution of marriage in prudential rather than absolutist terms.
Wars of religion, unless they result in the total victory of one side, typically end with a formula of peace. In the modern history of the West the most important such formula was the one of the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which almost a century later (in 1648) ended the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants, which had decimated the population of central Europe—cuius regio eius religio, roughly translated, “he who rules decides the religion”. This meant that the ruler decided whether his realm would be Catholic or Protestant; those who didn’t like the decision would be allowed to leave. This was certainly an improvement over earlier practices of massacring or forcibly converting the losing party, but it is a territorial formula of peace very hard to realize under more recent pluralistic conditions.
There have been other formulas of peace: One in which the state was based on Islam, but where various (not all) religious minorities were accorded certain rights (a more modern incarnation was the Ottoman millet system). An ingenious formula from India, by which every ethnic or religious group became a caste, retaining its distinctive characteristics while becoming somehow integrated into the Hindu system. A formula curiously shared by the late Roman Empire and Confucian China, nicely summarized by Edward Gibbon (he referred to Rome but could have put this in Confucian language): “The people believed all religions to be equally true, the philosophers to be equally false, and the magistrates to be equally useful.” It seems to me that, under modern conditions, it is difficult to beat some form of the separation of religion and the state as a formula. There are different versions of this, but they share the assumption of a common political space, with a secular discourse within which public debates must be conducted. This does not mean the “naked public square”, which my old friend Richard John Neuhaus deplored—a space from which all religious language must be barred. Nor does it obviate the need of some common values, foremost among which must be the core democratic value of the inviolate dignity and rights of every human individual. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) coined an interesting phrase in this connection: One of the founders of modern international law, Grotius proposed that this law be developed etsi Deus non daretur—“as if God did not exist”. It should be emphasized that Grotius was anything but an atheist; he was theologically committed to Arminianism (the more humane version of the Dutch Reformation).
What would be a “formula of peace” for the topic under discussion here? For policy considerations, marriage would be moved from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane. The state would get out of the business of defining marriage altogether, leaving it to individual citizens or communities to define and solemnize it in any way they choose. In other words, the state accepts the empirical reality of pluralism in this area of life. The state simply registers contracts of cohabitation by a limited number of individuals (if nothing else, polygamy or polyandry would make the welfare state unaffordable), but would only become much more intrusive if or when children are involved in such an arrangement. In other words, civil union would be the only legal category, available to everybody, regardless of sexual orientation—while “marriage” would be a religious or philosophical category not defined in secular law.
Such a formula might work in some European democracies. It is very unlikely to be realizable in the United States, where the debate has been absolutized to a degree that would be hard to reverse. Justin Welby, if he intends to go in this direction, would have a better chance in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, I would think, it would be good advice to lower the temperature of the debate.