You may have heard about this: Mark Regnerus is pushing research that suggests Christian supporters of gay marriage are, well, a bunch of morally degenerate libertines. At least that’s what it will signal to the audience of The Public Discourse, where he posted it.
Now, Regnerus’ work is entirely unbelievable and unworthy of serious consideration, but his post is worth responding to because it connects to conversations going on around the internet these days: notably, in some of Damon Linker’s recent posts at The Week and, earlier, in Rod Dreher’s insistence that “traditional” Christians can be separated from “modern” Christians solely on matters of sex. Part of Dreher’s argument is that the modernists have been “conquered” by the Sexual Revolution. So there’s an undercurrent there suggesting that “modern” Christians aren’t real Christians, that they’ve given in to secular norms and betrayed “what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed.”
That’s a flawed understanding since, as Linker points out elsewhere, “modernity” as we know it was shaped by Christianity. And, conversely, there’s nothing specifically Christian about the “traditional” understanding of sex, which, at least on the matter of homosexuality, has a lot in common with the beliefs of “traditional” Muslims, and Jews, and even the atheistic regime of Soviet Russia. But that’s a topic for another post.
Back to Regnerus. To summarize, Regnerus asked churchgoing Christians how strongly they agreed with a series of statements, and then compared the answers of Christians who support gay marriage with those of Christians who oppose gay marriage. The statements were:
1. Viewing pornographic material is OK.
2. It is a good idea for couples considering marriage to live together in order to decide whether or not they get along well enough to be married to one another.
3. It is OK for two people to get together for sex and not necessarily expect anything further.
4. If a couple has children, they should stay married unless there is physical or emotional abuse.
5. It is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse.
6. It is OK for three or more consenting adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship.
7. I support abortion rights.
Regnerus found that Christians who support gay marriage were far likelier to say viewing porn, cohabitation, divorce, no-strings sex, infidelity, and polyamory are OK, and to say that they support abortion rights. In fact, on those questions, Regnerus concluded that pro-SSM Christians “look very much like the country as a whole—the population average.”
But there are problems.*
For example, Regnerus concedes: “There is more to sexual and relationship morality than just these seven items.”
All of the items he chose reflect an unstated premise: that support for same-sex marriage is all about sexual license, about dispensing with sexual rules. Conveniently, Regnerus’ data seems to confirm that premise.
Of course, I would say that support for SSM comes from a very Christian understanding of equality and the inherent dignity of human beings, and that what may come off as “anything goes” really comes from an understanding of the damage that busybodies can cause by giving strangers, in Jim Burroway’s words, “unsolicited edicts in how to order their lives.”
And I can think of a whole different series of questions that would paint both groups of Christians, SSM-supporting and SSM-opposing, in a different light. Like these:
Should a married woman submit to the authority of her husband?
Should a married woman stay home with her kids rather than working full-time?
Is sex a duty that a married woman owes to her husband?
Is rape within a marriage a contradiction in terms?
Does a provocatively dressed woman bear some responsibility if she is sexually assaulted?
Is oral sex between consenting, married adults a sin?
Is contraception a sin?
Should homosexuality be criminalized?
With little effort, I could find a blog post from an opponent of same-sex marriage answering all of those questions in the affirmative. Certainly those views are reflected in our “traditional” social and legal customs, the very ones that “modern” Christians (and secularists) are working to challenge. And while plenty of opponents of SSM don’t hold those positions, I think we all know that those views are more prevalent among opponents of gay marriage than among supporters.
I’m not saying that Regnerus’ questions are bad. They’re worth asking, but so are the questions I brainstormed above. My point is just that Regnerus’ questions reflect an obvious bias. As Bill Lindsey writes, Regnerus’ post is a blatant attempt to say “morality belongs tous. It does not belong to you.”
Or, if he’s really, truly, honestly trying to answer the question What is the sexual and relational morality of Christians who accept same-sex marriage, compared with those who don’t?, then his research is very poorly designed. Again.