Nearly all Christian denominations, both evangelical and mainline, read the Bible as opposing homosexual practice. As a result, they do not perform same-sex marriages. Most denominations, though, have a separate debate about whether same-sex marriages should be allowed by the government. Here, the two groups differ. Evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, oppose legalizing same-sex marriages, whereas several mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), support legal same-sex marriage or civil unions. This is not a hypocritical position: the church is a voluntary association whose members have chosen to live under Biblical rules, while the state is an involuntary association whose citizens must abide by the secular laws. The church can set itself a higher standard than the state can demand.
In the United States there is no established church, and therefore no dissenting sects in the classic European sense. All religious institutions are equally denominations, on a level playing field. Yet each denomination has a distinctive understanding of its role in relation to the larger culture. Some denominations are more churchly, some more sectarian, and which attitude toward the state and the culture it has usually reflects its pre-American heritage.
Baptist churches were born in Europe and New England as dissenting sects. In the South, the Southern Baptist Church is culturally dominant and in many counties is numerically a majority. Yet the Baptist churches tend to approach the state and the culture as a sect. A sect does not expect the World, and especially the government, to be godly – usually quite the opposite. The Southern Baptist Convention often has a strong message and rule for Baptists, and usually the same strong message for the state and for society at large. But if the state adopts a rule that the church does not accept, a sect always has the option of dissenting from the state and creating a separate counter-cultural enclave.
The Presbyterian Church, heirs of the established Church of Scotland and the culturally hegemonic Calvinist church of Geneva, tends to see itself as one of the stewards of society. The Presbyterian Church accepts the principle of the separation of church and state. Yet Presbyterians have been instrumental in developing many of the institutions of American society, especially the educational institutions. They did so not with the idea of Presbyterianizing everyone, but as a way of being good stewards of the gifts given to Presbyterians to use for the benefit of all. Mainline churches in general, and the Presbyterian Church in particular, are used to having their views, the laws, and the norms of society all correspond. While the mainline has not be identical with the Establishment for more than a generation, it is still disorienting to a churchy denomination to have its norms run counter to the laws.
Maggie Gallagher, in an excellent analysis of the arguments about same-sex marriage, notes that “If same-sex marriage is a right, … the capacity of schools and faith communities to transmit the marriage idea to the next generation will be sharply curtailed. People who believe that children need mothers and fathers will be treated like bigots in the public square.”
Baptists who oppose making same-sex marriage legal would nonetheless know what do to if and when it does become the law: they maintain their own counter-worldly rules within the church, and work to elect individuals who will change the law back. If that means that they are in tension with the world in the meantime, that is only to be expected; Baptists have been there many times before. Ironically it is the Presbyterians, who support civil unions and even a form of legal same-sex marriage, who are ambivalent and uncertain when they get their way in the law, but society treats them as bigots and hypocrites for having a different rule in the church. Stewards of society are not ideologically prepared to be in such high tension with the World.