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The President, Jesus, and the Golden Rule Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 11 May 2012

President Barack Obama just announced his support for same-sex “marriage” in an interview with ABC reporter Robin Roberts. In explaining his reasoning, the president offered this theological reflection:

[Y]ou know… we [the First Lady and I] are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we 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. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

I admire the president for unashamedly invoking the authority and instruction of Christ in revealing to us his internal deliberations on this matter. In an age in which many in our culture-shaping institutions reflexively, and unreflectively, dismiss the deliverances of theology as sub-rational, the president’s forthrightness is refreshing and welcome. 

But it seems to me that his appeal to Christ’s Golden Rule, however appropriate, audacious, and praiseworthy, does not succeed in justifying his change of mind. The Golden Rule – “do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12) – 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.

When Christ offered the Golden Rule as part of his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7:27), he knew his listeners would understand it the same way they understood the other parts of that homily, including this question: “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread?” (Mt. 7:9a).

If the Golden Rule were just about a mutual self-interest pact to protect everyone’s preferences, then a good response to Christ’s question would have been, “But Jesus, what if my son did ask for a stone because he preferred to eat the stone rather than the bread?”

This would be a foolish question because the Golden Rule is not about merely protecting your neighbor’s preferences, but rather, advancing your neighbor’s good. The president, ironically, must rely on this latter, and ancient, understanding in order to make sense of the appeal he makes to his responsibilities as a “dad” and “husband.” For the received meanings of these terms are embedded in an inherited moral tradition that he did not invent, but now rejects.


         The president changes his mind.

Jesus places himself and his teachings squarely within that moral tradition: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator `made them male and female’… `For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (Mt. 19:4-6a).

Christ even recognizes that there are “‘some incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage’ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 19:12).

This understanding of marriage is so essential to the Gospel that Christ and his first disciples often likened our Lord’s relationship to His Church as a groom to his bride. (See Mt 9:15, Mk 2:19, Lk 5:34, Jn 3:29, 2 Cor 11:2, Eph 5:25, Eph 5:31-32, Rev 19:7, Rev 21:2, Rev 21:9, Rev 22:17). 

Because the Golden Rule is, as Christ put it, “the law and the prophets” (Mt. 7:9b), it is the foundation of the Church’s mission on Earth, which means that for the Christian the Golden Rule is fully integrated with all of the Church’s moral theology including its understanding of marriage and the common good.

Although the president is mistaken about the Golden Rule, it would be interesting to see to what extent he is willing to apply his version of it more generously, to really “treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

Will he extend it to the unborn or even the survivors of abortion?

Or church-affiliated and private businesses that cannot in good conscience provide contraception and abortifacient coverage under his HHS mandate?

Or private citizens, businesses, and charitable organizations whose moral theology forbids them from blessing or supporting same-sex unions?

Or the Christian youngsters who were publicly bullied by White House supported activist, Dan Savage?

Sometimes I wish that Christ had taught a different understanding of marriage, one that did not require that some of us publicly support what is clearly unpopular in the rarefied circles of the academy in which we make our lives. But our Lord requires of us nothing short of complete obedience, even in the teeth of marginalization and persecution.

For as he said only nine verses after he uttered the Golden Rule, “`Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,’ but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21)

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. His most recent book (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) is the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics (St. Augustine Press, 2012), a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.
 

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Comments (31)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 11, 2012
I think it was quite unnecessary for President Obama to invoke, “unashamedly” or otherwise “the authority and instruction of Christ” on a simple question of civil jurisprudence.

As a trained lawyer, he might well have reflected that the civil codes of most countries contain no formal definition of marriage, but that a functional definition can be found in the provision, common to all of them, that the child conceived or born in marriage has the husband for father. Everything else that distinguishes marriage from unregulated cohabitation, civil unions or domestic partnerships flows from that.

As a statesman, he should have considered that the state has a clear interest in the filiation of children being clear, certain and incontestable. It is central to its concern for the upbringing and welfare of the child, for protecting rights and enforcing obligations between family members and to the orderly succession to property. To date, no better, simpler, less intrusive means than marriage have been found for ensuring, as far as possible, that the legal, biological and social realities of paternity coincide. And that is no small thing.

Had he done so, he would have realised that marriage is quite irrelevant to same-sex couples, whom nature has not made potentially fertile.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, May 11, 2012
Superb column. Thank you.
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written by Manfred, May 11, 2012
Thanks to the error which followed Vat II can a President and his wife who are pro contraception, pro abortion, pro infanticide, pro same-sex "marriage" be seriously discussed as "practicing Christians". By allowing false irenicism we have paid a terrible price.
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written by Andrew, May 11, 2012
St. Augustine addressed Obama's perversion of the Golden Rule in his work on the Sermon on the Mount.

"For the thought occurred, that if any one should wish something wicked to be done to him, and should refer this clause to that. . . it would be ridiculous to imagine that he had fulfilled this clause. . . . For the expression used, "whatsoever ye would," ought to be understood as used not in a customary and random, but in a strict sense. For there is no will except in the good."

In other words, the Golden Rule must be understood to comprehend a notion of what is "good" and so incorporates the natural moral law. It is perverse to invoke the Golden Rule to require us to support an intrinsic evil such as homosexual sex and same-sex "marriage."
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written by Dave, May 11, 2012
We waited in silence for a word from our bishops when publicly Catholic Vice President Biden made his pronouncement on Sunday. We still await their public correction of those Catholic politicians who cause such grave scandal.

Dr. Beckwith, you have done the bishops' job here -- Cardinal Dolan's remarks should have been along these lines. Thank you, and may God bless you. And may he have mercy on our bishops and on those Catholics causing public scandal.
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written by Dan, May 11, 2012
Well reasoned and explained Dr. Beckwith! Your explanation is one I easily understand. I can't help believe, even though the time is unknown, that we are close to the end of an age. Everyday gets more ridiculous with the governing bodies of the United States. Come Lord Jesus!
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written by John Joseph, May 11, 2012
Too bad the President did not take a course in Christian morality and in classical logic, instead of, or in addition to,law. His "moralizing" his way from Christianity's 'love of neighbor as oneself' is illogical and therefore erronious. Any philosopher would say that he suffers from illogical deduction. An intelligent person can see the "non sequitur" error of his thought process of his conclusion. It lacks not only common sense, but knowledge of natural law, as Fr. Bramwell observes in a previous response. I wonder how "The child is father of the man," [Wordsworth] be true [and it IS [psychologically], if the child does not have a father?
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written by Grump, May 11, 2012
"I admire the president for unashamedly invoking the authority and instruction of Christ in revealing to us his internal deliberations on this matter."

With all due respect, how can anyone admire a pro-abort, homosexual-supporting president who twists the words of Jesus to suit a tawdry political purpose: solely to raise money from the perverted Left.

While you make some good points, there's too much sugarcoating here. Jesus, Paul and many others of the Bible were unambiguously plain in discussing the sinfulness of homosexuality, fornication and adultery.

You fail to mention in an otherwise good piece that Obama claimed to have consulted his wife and daughters about so-called gay marriage before "evolving" into his current stance -- a stance, by the way, that he had changed at least three times previously. Imagine sitting down with your wife and kids and talking about such a heinous subject in detail.

Worst yet, no mention of professed Catholics such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi who speak out fervently in favor of homosexuality, birth control, abortion, etc.

As a lapsed Catholic trying to make my way back, I must say these pronouncements give me great pause, especially when the Church tolerates such heresy with impunity. Why haven't these apostates been excommunicated for violating the teachings of the Church? My only conclusion is that the Church, too, puts political expediency ahead of what ought to be its sole mission: to speak the Truth. It is disappointing, to say the least, that Biden and Pelosi, both of whom such a high public profile and wear Catholicism on their sleeves, are allowed to undermine the Church and cause more damage to its image and cause than the infidels.
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written by Tony Esolen, May 11, 2012
One might also consider this: if I was a twelve year old boy again, shy and lonely and not confident about my ability to get any girl to be interested in me, the last thing I would want is somebody holding out for me the possibility that I might be "gay". Nobody considers the feelings of such children -- ever.
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written by Louise, May 11, 2012
"I admire the president for unashamedly invoking the authority and instruction of Christ in revealing to us his internal deliberations on this matter."

Surely you jest.
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written by Howard Kainz, May 11, 2012
Get ready for the next step: Those who practice bestiality (intercourse with animals) will be agitating for their right to marriage to their favorite partner.
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written by tony schiro, May 11, 2012
"Marriage" It is a christian institution, It was designed by God, It reflects his relationship with the church, and Isreal.In the book of ROMANS 1:18-32 gives a very clear picture of how God feels toward homosexuality. Knowing this why would one who practices homosexuality want to be married by a Christian minister whose very doctrine condemnes this lifestyle. The Apostle Paul said: the act of homosexuality was against nature! That this act is dishonorable before God. Men with Men, and women with women!
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written by Manfred, May 11, 2012
Thank you, Grump. I am sure that if you approached Mr. Miner, our editor, he would be pleased to have you present a column on occasion. I share your disdain for modern Catholic "thought", especially when it provides credibility to a wretch who occupies the WH. He is the first president(sic) who has openly supported sodomite marriage. For 5,670 years of Mosaic Judaism/Roman Catholicism sodomy was/is an ABOMINATION. Now the "Catholic" press is going to discuss nuances with him? He and his entourage should be roundly condemned!
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written by Dave, May 11, 2012
Mr. Kaintz: not bestiality: polygamy.
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written by Dale G., May 11, 2012
"But our Lord requires of us nothing short of complete obedience, even in the teeth of marginalization and persecution." The great Sigmund Freud writes about how, in totalitarian, rigid organizations, the individual who what to remain a member must turn off his reason and his logic. He uses religion and the military as examples. He is right. You speak as though "complete obedience" is a simple answer even when it is absolutely clear that everything in the bible is interpreted differently by many many people, each of them often declaring that only their interpretations are true. Logically, of course, this is impossible thinking.
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written by Titus, May 11, 2012
"I admire the president for unashamedly invoking the authority and instruction of Christ in revealing to us his internal deliberations on this matter."

I think some of the commenters misunderstand Dr. Beckwith. On the one hand, his statement can be taken at face value: it takes a certain degree of fortitude, or perhaps simply chutzpah, to make a religious policy argument, even a bad one. It becomes especially difficult if one is committed to a wide range of policy positions most ardently supported by people who regard any religious argument as facially invalid (a frequent topic of Dr. Beckwith's work in this space and others).

On the other hand, it's hard to escape the wryness in the statement, and I doubt that it should be overlooked.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 11, 2012
Aristotle was right when he compared love between men (ἀφροδισίων τοῖς ἄρρεσιν) with the habit of plucking out the hair or of gnawing the nails, or even coals or earth - What they share is their utter futility. Same-sex marriage is similarly grotesque, because purposeless.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 11, 2012
Mr. Esolen really connects with his concern here...how many boys and teen-age young men are being sacrificed on the altar of our society's cowardly pretension of tolerance. Mr. Obama plays the role of the pied piper. This is nothing but utter indifference to the difficult formation of masculinity, of the type Our Lord imaged for us in the flesh. The only true "phobia" here is the silence in the face of the political onslaught of the radical homosexual activists, who are the real bullies in this whole affair.
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written by Sue, May 11, 2012
This is clearly a step along the Marxist path to the final chapter - Brave New World. Romney, unfortunately, will get us there, just a little bit slower.

There is word that some blacks are modifying their own historic homophobia to align with Obama. More UN activity to coerce sterilization and abortion. Look for these to be employed, along with ivf, to achieve a State with insidiously-controlled repro-tech.

Now is more than ever the time for the Church to shine the clear and unambiguous light of truth on her teachings on marriage. May we each encourage our individual bishop to speak out! Perhaps one token of sincerity we can offer is our willingness to suffer the consequences of loss of tax-protected status, which could cause the loss of some physical property.
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written by Frank, May 11, 2012
From President to Nobel Peace Prize winner to biblical scholar...wow! Surely i jest. To our Protestant brethren...now you know why Sola Scriptura is quicksand.
On the other hand, the President just served up a verbal banquet that American Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals could have a feast day with in a loving slap of theological rebuttal.
The door is as open as a Mac Truck is wide...now will our Church Shepherds protect their flock and Christ's Church?
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written by Mark, May 11, 2012
@Grump: I am a Catholic and I too wonder where is the leadership of the Bishops and the priests. I can only conclude that we are nearing the return of Christ.
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written by Patrick, May 11, 2012
For those taking the bishops to task as to why there are no excommunications, etc. -- do remember that we are all sinners. Nominally Catholic politicians do not speak for the Church. So I don't think the scandal is as grave as you seem to think. If a consecrated religious made such statements, yes, then by all means something must be done. But I think the position of the actual Church is clear enough. The bishops are not responsible for every idle comment made by the laity. Excommunications may just amount to inadvertent flattery (think of the "Streisand effect.") Be careful not to create a scandal yourself by claiming to be able to do the bishops' job better than them.
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written by Graham, May 11, 2012
I've noticed that in mainstream magazines such as Time and Newsweek a rampant promiscuity is now accepted as somehow the nature and right of homosexuals. The Bloomsbury Group, the Beats, and Stonewall for example. I lived in NYC in the 80s and was shaken by the sickness and death that one saw everywhere. This week's Daily Telegraph obit of the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (a man who slept with most if not all of the men in the Group) depicts the poor girl thrown into a nightmare of undivulged bedhopping that resulted in two disasterous marriages for her. If this is the progressive and evolved view, then why "marriage?" And why does no one acknowledge in this debate what is the cultural and academic norm here and in Britain? I recall the callousness of a scene in THE GODFATHER in which the families decide to sell drugs in black neighborhoods because "they're animals anyway, let them lose their souls." There isn't much more Christian love in 21st century tolerance.

It also reminds me of those people who insist that the priest abuse scandal "was not about homosexuality." Really? Even in two reports from highly secular and liberal John Jay Criminal Justice, the percentage of 80% is given for those victims who were male. Which makes incoherent the other common remark I hear from Catholics that "we need married clergy." Given that logic the clergy would have to be allowed "same-sex marriage" as well as the other more biased kind. I live near a large suburban gay community -- a minority but they have elected a gay mayor. You see the "Hate isn't a Family Value" bumper stickers everywhere but just say "family values" and the sneers and snickers and eye-rolling come fast and furious.

My impression -- and I live in a liberal diocese -- is that probably half of Catholics don't care one way or the other about same-sex marriage. Ditto for the HHS regs. Multiple dittoes for re-electing the most pro-abortion president in American history. After all, according to a recent poll, 50% of Catholics would vote for Obama again. I refer you to a recent story about St. Mary's RC in Platteville, Wisconsin. The Bishop of Madison sent a written reprimand to the parishoners for their attempt to have an orthodox Spanish priest removed as pastor. The bishop thought this reaction so outrageous that in his letter to the parish he quoted the relevant Canon Law which he was ready and willing to enforce. As the priest defended himself, he wasn't teaching anything that isn't in the Magisterium. And this dust up occurred before the president's charade of "evolving" his position -- as if his wife would have accepted any other conviction since they've been married. They're both college-ordained radicals after all. Who knows what would have happened if Fr. Ruiz preached against the president's evolved thinking?

Why are so many in the Church reluctant to acknowledge the disconnect between actual experience and behavior and the cynical social justice rhetoric of professional activists? The "rebels" as one sympathetic CNS writer calls them. All I can say is that many more Catholics now know what it was like for those of us in the 1960s and 1970s who Rempert Weakland with shocking candor in his 2011 book calls "squealers" --then Catholics didn't know and didn't want to know. They still don't. We were victims twice. And now once more for the road?
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written by Frank, May 12, 2012
Patrick, with all due respect and restraint...THIS FAR AND NO MORE...puhhleaze.
Those Catholics in positions of elected political power exercise and project the power of the state upon all of us through the legislative process...most of the time. Then there are those rare times where they wield power with the use of deadly force backed up by the force of law. Now, our lapsed Catholic leaders can stay in office as long as they get elected and reelected back into office if their constituencies are foolish enough to keep voting them back in. Can they remain Catholic if their behavior and acts as legislators influence the norms and mores of society diametrically opposed to the Church...I think not and I'm not alone in that thinking. Sebelius and Biden have been told by their respective Bishops not to present themselves for the Eucharist in their home diocese. Pelosi made a few remarks about Catholic theology a few years back only to be summoned by her Bishop to have a "discussion" about who does and does not speak for the Church.
One thing you did get right, we are all sinners. It's a very simple principle and not a profound one as you would imply. But the difference between many of us and our rogue Catholic legislators is that for us, it's a daily struggle of prayer and avoidance and for our illustrious leaders, their sinful positions are a pretext to preserving a carnal, craven and temporal power. Sorry Patrick but if this were a baseball game, you just connected on a pitch and sent that pitch out of the park...in foul territory! Strike one or strike two?
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written by Coast Ranger, May 12, 2012
I wish people didn't make the assumption that the U.S. Bishops (whatever that term means, if anything) have to comment immediately on everything that is said by politicians and pundits.
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written by Fran Gaspari, May 13, 2012
A true Christian acknowledges that his/her behavior should flow from the teachings of Christ; what The President has done has been to misuse the teachings of Christ to justify his own opinions or behavior...!!! In other words instead of being Christocentric, he is egocentric...!!!
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 14, 2012
Well said Fran.
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written by Adam, May 15, 2012
It's important to note that the Golden Rule predates Jesus. When asked to summarize Jewish law (on one leg, no less), Hillel obliged and responded,

"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it."

That is expressed as a negative injunction: don't do to others what is hateful to you. Jesus's expression was positive: DO unto others what you would have them do unto you.

So it could be argued that these are different statements. (After all, US law does treat positive and negative injunctions differently.) (Though it's hard to imagine that Jesus wasn't *referencing* Hillel, since Jesus would have been aware of his teachings.)

However, the article posted above negates the distinction. It says the Golden rule is NOT about treating others how you want to be treated (see masochism. Under Hillel's phrasing, the fact that you're a masochist has no bearing on how you treat others (except in the sense that you might wish to accord them some sexual privacy and freedom, given that being persecuted for your kinks would be hateful to you.))

Jesus even understands the Golden Rule as a negative injunction, as evidence by his illustration with the stone and the bread. (Don't do something hateful like give someone a stone when he asks for bread. A positive illustration would be "you like bread? Well your son does too. Who among you would NOT give your son bread?")

So I contest the assertion that the Golden Rule stands for "Do unto others what you think is best for them, regardless of what they think or want."

Now, maybe that's not how Francis is stating the Golden Rule. But he seems to use to the stone and bread example to say just that--you should do what you think is best for others (give bread) no matter what they think or want (stone).

In fact, I think that actually perverts the Golden Rule. Not only is it a positive injunction, but it's a positive injunction to do precisely what may be hateful to that person.

I welcome historical and textual evidence to support the position that the Golden Rule is a positive injunction to treat people how you imagine will promote their good.

But for the time being, I'm convinced the simpler solution can be found in the source: Hillel.

Ah, right--how does the Hillel phrasing of the Golden Rule reflect on Obama's statement? Well, as Blake pointed out earlier, Obama mentioned the Golden Rule in passing, so I'm not sure he was engaging in a rigorous theological debate. However, it could very easily be formulated this way:

Look, you don't have to believe in same-sex marriage. You don't have to run around supporting and celebrating same-sex marriage. But you shouldn't work to make them illegal.

You like bread, your neighbor likes stones. Nobody is forcing you to give your neighbor stones. But by the same token, you shouldn't force bread on your neighbor.
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written by Cathryn, May 15, 2012
Marriage is what it is, as Prof. Beckwith stated originally.
If men and women with same-sex attraction feel the need to have some kind of relationship supported by the state, then they should make a case for its public benefit. So far I have not seen such an attempt. Usurping and distorting the definition of marriage is unjust, especially to the children on whose behalf the real institution of marriage exists. That includes the injustice of entering into marriage without the intention of permanence.
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written by Adam, May 15, 2012
@Cathryn:

The case has been made over and over again for many years, using both rational argument and ample empirical evidence (including in court cases).
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written by drdanfee, May 19, 2012
Traditional conservative Roman Catholic or other believers who sincerely think that living per their (theololgy, ethics) perceptions, rules, understandings, and so forth is universally best for all possible involved or concerned other people ... perhaps ought to pause and imagine being on the opposite, receiving ends of such a closed, tightly circular, and self-confident force ….as in: A faith believe just like me (or my clergy, or my bishops) can do no harm, ever, by having others conform to what I know and we know is already best for them in my particular theology and ethics?

As with other domains in which empirical evidence undermined or disconfirmed a cherished doctrine or belief of a believing community, the fair rules of our public squares are changing in connection with LGBT citizens and neighbors.

A faith community may continue its harsh, mean, critical, and negative dudgeon about LGBT people being especially, innately dirty plus damaged plus dangerous (compared to straight people?).

But to the extent that these deep negative persuations of faith are no longer empirically consistent with the real LGBT people in our families, schools, workplaces, and public squares … the dilemma-conundrum of when and how and where to apply state force to interfere with LGBT neighbors thriving in some way that is supposed to be reserved for heterosexuals only? … falls back upon the flat earthisms of the faith communities who pledge to maintain those beliefs.

Believers may want to pause and think carefully, before taking such a categorical human responsibility upon themselves unilaterally without the informed consent of the LGBT neighbors who will be most closely governed by such law or policy hindrances as based on the going negative theology and ethics.

My guess for now?

Do not expect special help or applause from others in the public square for clinging to flat earth notions about LGBT folks (ideas which deny access and resources, claiming to know best what is good or possible for LGBT people in love, life, work, and thriving)? Indeed, the alarm fueling campaigns to hinder and punish LGBT people via law or policy seem to reveal a hidden awareness that the negative theology or ethics is not sufficiently persuasive in its own rights?

If a man without legs truly cannot run a 500 meter race? … because objectively speaking, he just does not have legs? …. then why do we need a law or a policy that excludes him from an otherwise shared, public track and field arena? And if he can run a race, after all, once he has donned his high-tech appliances …. who should adjust to those startling new facts? Us? Or him?

Alas. Lord have mercy. drdanfee

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