Voices in the Public Square

I’m thankful that, amidst the boisterous conversation in the public square, there are many compelling voices that are shaped by and encouraging to Christian faith commitments. This week I wanted to draw your attention to a few recent articles I’ve found helpful in thinking through current hot button issues as well as the larger, ongoing debate over the role of faith in public life. Though not the last word on any of these debates, they’re worth the read.

First, the highly decorated professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and distinguished Catholic intellectual Robert P. George recently authored an opinion piece in the Wall St. Journal speaking to the current debate over gay marriage. “Deeply embedded in our law and its shaping philosophical tradition,” George argues, is the idea that marriage is

a union that takes its distinctive character from being founded, unlike other friendships, on bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life. This unity is why marriage, in our legal tradition, is consummated only by acts that are generative in kind. Such acts unite husband and wife at the most fundamental level and thus legally consummate marriage whether or not they are generative in effect, and even when conception is not sought.

Of course, marital intercourse often does produce babies, and marriage is the form of relationship that is uniquely apt for childrearing (which is why, unlike baptisms and bar mitzvahs, it is a matter of vital public concern). But as a comprehensive sharing of life—an emotional and biological union—marriage has value in itself and not merely as a means to procreation. This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.

He goes on to discuss the implications that would result from abandoning this traditional definition of marriage:

If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.

A veneer of sentiment may prevent these norms from collapsing—but only temporarily. The marriage culture, already wounded by widespread divorce, nonmarital cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing will fare no better than it has in those European societies that were in the vanguard of sexual “enlightenment.” And the primary victims of a weakened marriage culture are always children and those in the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society.

Secondly, the current issue of First Things contains an article by George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, entitled “Intolerant Tolerance.” Some excerpts:

Some secularists seem to like one-way streets. Their distaste for Christianity leads them to seek to drive it not only from the public square but even from any provision of education, health care, and welfare services. Ironically, intolerance of Christianity and Christian culture is proclaimed most often in the name of tolerance. Christianity must not be tolerated because of the need for greater tolerance.

At present, the most preferred means for addressing the perceived intolerance seems to be antidiscrimination legislation. …Until relatively recently, antidiscrimination laws usually included exemptions for churches and other religious groups so they could practice and manifest their beliefs in freedom. That word exemptions is actually a misnomer, suggesting as it does some sort of concessions from the state to eccentric minorities. These provisions are better described as protections of religious freedom—and such protections are increasingly being refused or defined in the narrowest possible terms in new antidiscrimination measures, with existing protections eroded or construed away by the courts.
How should Christians respond to this growing intolerance? Clearly, there is an urgent need to deepen public understanding of the importance and nature of religious freedom. Having the freedom to search for answers to questions of meaning and value and to live publicly and privately in accordance to our answers is an essential part of human fulfillment and happiness. It also gives rise to other important freedoms, such as the rights to freedom of expression, thought, and conscience.
Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and build a good society—ways that respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publically.

Finally, my thanks to Crossing member Cami Wheeler, who alerted me to an article on the Christian Medical and Dental Associations website regarding HR3200, the health care reform bill currently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. The article briefly lists the principles the CMDA uses to evaluate health care reform proposals and subsequently expresses significant concerns over the implications of the bill as it now stands, including government mandated abortion coverage, potentially forcing doctors to participate in abortion despite objections of conscience (which unfortunately would be precisely the kind of thing Pell warns against in the article mentioned above), and marginalizing the neediest patients by rationing care.

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