Postcards from the Marriage Wars (Part One): The Golden President Turns on the Golden Rule

On May 9th, President Obama told a TV interviewer that he supports same-sex marriage (SSM). This came soon after his Vice-President, Joe Biden, said he was quite comfortable with the notion. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the President’s revelation. He himself has said that his views on gay marriage have been evolving. Right now, he appears to have reached the end of that evolution, though one wonders if his VP’s comments gave him a nudge in that direction. Whatever the case, my point is not to interrogate Obama’s reasons for revealing what he did at this time (some candour on this issue is rather refreshing, actually). Instead, I want to examine the the President’s rather lazy use of the so-called “Golden Rule”, which he pressed into service as a kind of secular theological way of justifying his position. Here are his exact words:

“…the thing at root we [Michelle and Barack Obama] think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated”. (David Gibson, “Obama Backs Gay Marriage: Golden Rule Informs American Religion”, Huffington Post, May 11th, 2012. Emphasis mine).

That teaching is drawn from a portion of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount: “…do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should treat others as we would want to be treated when it comes to the thorny, and divisive, issue of SSM. That way, we can all get along. It also seems superficially plausible: if we want to get married, then why should we deny that to others? The Golden Rule, it appears, commits us to this position – and all with the imprimatur of divine authority. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the President’s would-be Christian justification.

Most obviously, Obama’s reasoning falls flat due to a basic error. Taken to its logical extension, one might be able to advocate for just about anything, provided one was a supporter of the act in question. This is patently absurd. As Catholic philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has written, the Golden Rule “is not a quid pro quo for preference satisfaction reciprocity. Otherwise, it would mean that if one were a masochist, for example, then one should inflict pain on others” (“The President, Jesus and the Golden Rule,” Catholic Thing, 11th May, 2012).  Conversely, if one simply didn’t want to get married personally, one would have grounds for reversing Christ’s maxim and denying same-sex couples what President Obama clearly thinks is a sacred right (or rite) demanded by Christ himself. I mean, if I am treating others as I treat myself, and I don’t want to marry, then refusing gay couples the opportunity to do so is consistent with the logic of the President’s preference-based interpretation. If Obama can cite this verse to support SSM, one can easily cite it based upon one’s own, contrary preferences. Thus, any superficial usefulness it might have possessed collapses into incoherence.

Indeed, The President didn’t seem to realize that the Golden Rule, when used in such a lazily secular manner, does not settle the issue of the moral status of SSM. Employing Christ’s maxim as Obama did only works if one is already committed to the rightness of SSM. One first has to establish that something is a good before it can be said that the Golden Rule impels one to extend that good to another. The problem lies in the fact that President Obama used this verse as a foundational reason for his support of gay marriage (note his words above: “…the thing at root…”). It is question begging, since it already assumes – without reason or explanation – the normative status of SSM. Now, one might argue that SSM simply represents the extension of marriage to include those who want to marry a person of the same sex; if this is so, and we think marriage is a type of good, then surely we should treat others the way we want to be treated? However, it is precisely the meaning and essence of marriage (and therefore, whether it is proper to extend its meaning to embrace same-sex couples) that is contested ground. The Golden Rule, on the other hand, assumes some shared vision of what is good for a person or people. Debate over SSM, which goes to the heart of the meaning of marriage as an institution, is not within its purview. And since the Golden Rule says nothing about SSM – nothing at all – then appeals to it as the most basic grounding for support of the concept are meaningless.

Obama seemed also to misunderstand the nature of Christian ethical teaching. It is not the case that one can use a verse, completely shorn of its context, to make a point. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the President did. He neglected to mention that Christ’s maxim was a summation of the “Law and the Prophets” (part of the very same verse). What this means is that the Golden Rule is integrated with the rest of the Scriptures; it does not stand alone, in splendid isolation, ready to do the work of anyone who wants to justify anything on the basis of reciprocal preference. It is grounded in a particular theological context that says nothing at all about SSM, but which upholds the ideal of marriage as a union between a man and a woman (see Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24). What’s more, Matthew 7:12 is integrally tied to the rest of Jesus’ teaching – teaching which makes plain the fact that he upheld the creational ideal found in the Bible’s premier book. In fact, just twelve chapters after uttering the Golden Rule, Jesus pointed to the fact that “at the beginning” marriage was created as a union between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:1-6). Now, one might object that these verses don’t say anything about SSM either. Two things can be said in response. First, Jesus’ citation of the Genesis text implicitly ruled out sexual unions that lie outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. His citation, I submit, assumed exclusivity of scope. Second, Jesus was an observant Jew, steeped in the OT, and living in the socio-cultural matrix of first-century Judaism. Support for homosexual acts – and therefore, advocacy of SSM – would have been highly unlikely, to say the least.

The upshot of all this is that President Obama has – unwittingly, perhaps – pitted Jesus against himself. One cannot believe what Jesus taught in Matthew 19, and yet use Matthew 7:12 as a way to advocate for SSM. Either that, or it appears the President has implied that not even Jesus taught in accordance with what the leader of the free world thinks is a proper interpretation of the Golden Rule. For Obama, who states that he and his wife Michelle are practising Christians, something is seriously amiss. How, pray tell, would he reconcile his reading of Matthew 7:12 with Christ’s teachings on marriage (found in the very same gospel)? If it’s true that Christ upheld the ideal of heterosexual marriage, and regarded homosexuality as a sin (as any observant Jew of his time would have), how would the President be able to maintain his religious and theological justification for SSM when it brings him into jarring conflict with the central figure – and the ethical model – of the faith he professes?

As one can see, several problems abound with Obama’s tortured, and tortuous, theological reasoning – and all this before we arrive at an exegesis of the passage in question. Looking at it in context, it’s clear that Matthew 7:12 can only be used as a justification for SSM advocacy by way of imaginative sophistry or intellectual laziness. It comes as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which, although beloved by people who say they admire Christianity (but cannot really commit to all of its teachings), is actually directed towards disciples. This is made plain at the beginning of the section, in Matthew 5:1. Rather, it is an “in-house” sermon, directed towards those who already followed Jesus. Even if Obama’s interpretation were hypothetically plausible, it still would not warrant support for a change in public policy (true, Obama stated his stance on SSM as a personal view. But as President of the United States, and thus that nation’s leading public figure, his personal views cannot easily be disentangled from his public stance on issues).

Everything I have mentioned – the various layers of context within which the Golden Rule sits, Obama’s lazy and undiscerning application, and Jesus’ own recorded stance on the question of marriage – leaves one dubious about the prospect of Christ’s maxim doing all of this theological and intellectual heavy lifting. However, if we move on to the immediate context of Matthew 7:12, that prospect seems even more remote. Just before he uttered his famous words, Jesus spoke of asking (God, presumably) for one’s needs to be met. He then used his present audience in an analogous manner to show them that God could be trusted to supply their needs (Matt. 7:9-11). Moving from the lesser to the greater, Jesus concluded that if sinful human fathers would nonetheless liberally supply their children with everything they needed, how much more would one’s Heavenly Father supply one’s own needs, and work for one’s own good? Reading verse 12, it is apparent that Christ’s “Golden Rule” exhortation was the direct implication of God meeting the needs of his disciples. In like manner, they are to treat others in the same way, with the way one treats oneself (defined in a basic, commonsensical manner) acting as a yardstick. Their lives are to be characterized by a regard for others’ good that mirrors God’s regard for theirs’. In view of what Jesus preached just one chapter earlier – exhorting his disciples to refrain from worrying about the basics of life, precisely because of God’s provision (Matt. 6:25-34) – it seems one has some details regarding the kinds of goods and the sorts of needs one might meet when treating another as oneself. As I noted earlier, such a specific, and contemporary, concept/issue as SSM was never within the purview of Jesus’ teaching at this point.

It is sad to see someone of such intellectual acuity commit such an elementary blunder in an effort to “reconcile” the teachings of Christ and the church with modern-day concerns that are diametrically opposed. We can be thankful that President Obama has at least shown enough candour on this issue to be forthright and honest. As a lawyer, however, one thinks he would have been able to do better. But hey, I suppose that’s what you get when you try and please two groups whose disagreement over this issue could not be sharper. More seriously, it shows us that there are times when Christian ethical teachings simply will not submit to secular concerns, no matter how much one may try. Not even a President, powerful as he is, can reconcile the irreconcilable. 

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