The President, Jesus, and the Golden Rule

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

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).