Liberal Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo recently has proposed a “compromise” that would remove government from “marriage,” making it strictly a religious observance.  The state would instead recognize “civil unions” for opposite sex and same sex couples.   Ostensibly this arrangement would defuse controversy and liberate clergy from serving as agents of the state.

Campolo explains:  “Marriage would be preserved as a religious institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this highly charged issue would have to be compromised.”

There are several problems with this supposed compromise, and it would likely only redirect rather than ameliorate controversy.  It should be noted that Campolo, unlike others on the Religious Left, has not renounced traditional Christian teaching on marriage per se.  And there are some religious conservatives, despairing of marriage’s legal future, who flirt with Campolo’s view.

According to that view, government would treat same sex couples as equivalent to opposite sex couples, effectively legalizing same sex marriage in all but name.  Different terminology doesn’t solve the core debate over what society, through law, should sanction and encourage.  What benefit does society, through law, gain by recognizing sexual and domestic arrangements other than traditional marriage?  Campolo doesn’t explain.

Campolo seems to accept that marriage or its equivalent can be redefined as a “right” to be claimed by potentially any interest group instead of an organic union intrinsic to nature, pre dating the state, and rooted in procreation and child rearing, as well as the complementarity of male and female.  Why would an evangelist so cavalierly abandon what his faith has always taught as a social good not just for believers but for all society?

There’s also the question of what limits the state would place on these civil unions that  Campolo advocates.  Would they preclude family members for example?  If so, why?  And why preclude unions of more than two persons?  And should all unions have equal access to adopting children?

Christians traditionally affirm civil laws for all people rooted not just in Christian teaching but also through natural law and revealed through human experience by common grace.  All human societies have affirmed traditional marriage.  None, prior to recent years, have recognized same sex unions as marriage.  What new wisdom has emerged to overthrow millennia of human experience?

Beyond universal practice, Christianity has refined marriage by insisting that marriage be monogamous for both male and female, by urging celibacy for both sexes before marriage, by rejecting marriage for close relatives, and by affirming women as moral equals.  Does Campolo think society is better without these counter cultural teachings?

Christianity has also traditionally understood the civil law as a teacher.  Should the state actively advocate same sex unions as a moral good?  Should children be taught so in public schools?  Should disapproval of non traditional unions be socially stigmatized or, as in Canada, even effectively made illegal?  Should traditional marriage and traditional morality be effectively relegated to churches and private practice?

If what Christianity teaches is good and true and loving, should Christians not proclaim it to all society?  Is it not cruel and uncaring to withhold its benefits from a lost and suffering world?  In our current age, when family and marriage are under such assault, with millions of children are already deprived of stable homes with mothers and fathers who remain married to each other, should Christians further undermine traditional marriage by privatizing or diluting it?

Over the centuries, Christianity has been its most noble when striving to reform society, which included rejecting polygamy, incest, concubinage, harems and prostitution.  The church, when faithful, has taught that human behavior has profound moral, spiritual and eternal consequences.  What Campolo touts would step back from that great tradition.  He urges cultural surrender when the church’s witness should be bold, contending for the souls of men and women.

Campolo implies that society will be content for churches privately to teach and practice their own morality.  On what does he base such confidence?  Well funded activists have battled for decades to overturn church teachings about marriage.  And where churches remain faithful, a growing chorus would punish or restrict their freedom and influence through social stigma and even law.  After all, why should society tolerate “hate?”

Would Campolo urge the church to withhold its teaching from other controversial  political arenas?  Should Christians stop asking the state to care for the poor?  Silence about the environment?  Should Christians not advocate social justice, instead passively retreating, content to practice their own ways privately, if allowed to do so?

Campolo commends the Dutch example of civil unions in law for opposite and same sex couples, relegating “marriage” to churches.  Some example, a country where marriage is collapsing, birth rates far below replacement level, and where growing numbers avoid marriage by instead relying on sequential cohabitations or more exotic domestic arrangements.

How society treats marriage in law will affect countless millions, including the most vulnerable, especially children.  On this issue, above all others, the church should, for the benefit all, boldly extol marriage as the union of man and woman.  Defending what is true and good, even amid controversy, especially amid controversy, is God’s calling for the church at all times and all places.

Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.