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The ghost of Mario Cuomo returns—on marriage

Personally opposed but publicly supportive of same-sex marriage is a formula for disaster


Mario Cuomo delivers his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention on July 16, 1984, in San Francisco, Calif. Associated Press Photo

The ghost of Mario Cuomo returns—on marriage
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Over the last couple weeks, we reached an inflection point in the larger conversation among evangelicals about so-called gay marriage. Christianity Today published a guest opinion editorial by Carl Esbeck arguing that the misnamed “Respect for Marriage Act” (which enshrines gay marriage in federal law) is a “win for the common good.” Likewise, David French argued in The Atlantic that the gay marriage bill is a “bipartisan step in the right direction” and a win for pluralism.

Later, French added an extended explanation as to why he changed his mind to support civil gay marriage. Among other things, he argues that millions of gay Americans have formed families on the basis of Obergefell and that it would be “unjust” to deprive them of legal gay marriage. Finally, he argues that because American law didn’t promote a Christian view of marriage before Obergefell, it is OK for Christians to support civil gay marriage now.

I am just as concerned about religious liberty protections as anyone, and the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, Kristen Waggoner, has effectively refuted the argument that the gay marriage bill is a win for religious liberty. Indeed, Waggoner says that contention is “hogwash.” As important as religious liberty is, that is not my main concern in this column. My main concern is a pastoral one. What does this argument mean for ordinary Christians sitting in the pews?

These articles are inflection points for evangelicals because of who wrote them and where they appear. Christianity Today was founded by Billy Graham in the mid-20th century and continues to style itself as “the leading evangelical publication for news and opinion.” French also is a well-known Christian and conservative commentator. These columns assert that even though gay marriage is a sin, it should nevertheless be affirmed as public policy.

The Bible teaches that marriage is a part of God’s good creation order. Defying that order does not bring about the blessings of liberty but the bondage of sin.

In essence, they are trying to do for gay marriage what the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo once did for Catholics on abortion. They are trying to create a way for evangelicals to be personally against gay marriage but legally for it. We all know how that ended up for Cuomo: He vigorously supported policies that are indistinguishable from those advocated by the most radical pro-abortionists. I suspect that the same thing is going to happen with those who follow French and Esbeck on gay marriage. Here’s what I mean.

The Cuomo option tempts these brothers and sisters into believing that they can avoid the reproach suffered by Christ by means of splitting the baby in half, with part going to God and the other part to the civil authority. There are many weak sheep who are going to take this argument out for a spin. They are going to reassure officemates (or voters) that they support their civil gay marriage, while they stuff the Bible’s teaching about marriage further and further down into the recesses of their “private religious beliefs.” In fact, they may begin to realize the incredible contradiction of having private religious beliefs that don’t have any impact on their convictions about the common good when it comes to marriage. And it is at that point that they may discover that their Christian belief about marriage may not be so central after all.

It will not do for Christians to hold to the right view about marriage in private but then to advocate for something different in terms of public policy. That strategy shows that they aren’t actually holding to the right view even in private, for the Bible teaches that marriage is a part of God’s good creation order. Defying that order does not bring about the blessings of liberty but the bondage of sin. No Christian should argue in favor of a policy that so blatantly defies the created order and the flourishing of our neighbors. To do so risks putting oneself on the wrong side of Jesus’ admonition, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

But please don’t misunderstand me. I am not making a slippery-slope argument, as if following the Cuomo option will tempt Christians to other serious error. The Cuomo option is serious error all by itself. The position is inherently unstable. In the end, people will not tolerate a split-the-baby option. They will eventually conclude that they are either all in for gay “marriage” or that they are all in for Christ. Consistency will compel them—as it should all of us—that there really isn’t an in-between position. The Cuomo option is not really an option for Christians, and it never has been.


Denny Burk

Denny Burk serves as a professor of Biblical Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He also serves as one of the teaching pastors at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of numerous books including What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013), Transforming Homosexuality (P&R, 2015), and a commentary on the pastoral epistles for the ESV Expository Commentary (Crossway, 2017).

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