Colloquium explores discourse of gay marriage debate

In an inaugural program hosted by the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, a prominent Christian ethicist argues in favor of same-sex marriage.


Church leaders in the United States should move away from treating marriage as a moral norm and focus instead on strengthening relationships of all types, a leading Christian scholar said as the keynote speaker in a Feb. 24 symposium sponsored by the Elon Center for the Study of Religion.

The Rev. Marvin Ellison, the Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, visited Elon for a program that precedes a proposed North Carolina constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage being put to a vote in May as part of statewide political primaries.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Ellison has published widely on the topics of sexuality and the sacred, same-sex marriage and heterosexism. He is currently co-chair of Maine’s Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, a member of the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and on the advisory board for the Religious Institute on Sexuality, Morality, Justice and Healing.

On Friday, in a speech titled “Is Same-Sex Marriage a ‘Must’ or a ‘Bust’? Rethinking the Justice Agenda,” Ellison told an audience of more than 100 faculty members, students and university guests that he believes marriage should be viewed not through a moral or religious lens, but through a justice lens. It is one of the most intimate ways to recognize one’s own humanity and a fundamental human right, he said.

Elaborating on the idea, Ellison suggested that what it means to be human is expressed in the freedom to love and be loved, to form intimate connections with others. Denying this ability to connect with another person is wrong no matter what his or her sexual orientation.

Ellison also traced the evolution of marriage and the purposes it served. He described how hundreds of years ago, any sex was something that religious leaders discouraged, but if a person wasn’t able to control himself, he should enter into marriage. The best sex, after all, was no sex.

More recently, he continued, marriage has been viewed as a social structure for reproducing. A man and woman would marry, have children, and grow old together surrounded by a large family. However, two cultural revolutions affected this view as well, starting with the introduction of accessible and affordable birth control, followed by the global feminist movement.

LGBTQ people are the “dumping ground” for the anxiety that marriage traditionalists feel over the shifting purpose of marriage which, until today, had been procreation and social order, with women subservient to men. Ellison argued that neither are now relevant.

“What is undermining family life is not feminism, it’s not same sex marriage. What is undermining family life is the corrupt capitalism that erodes economic security for the vast majority,” Ellison said. “During hard times, and these are hard times, people turn increasingly to their private relationships, for identity, for support and for economic survival.”

Ellison said that many church leaders who privately support same sex marriage want to remain “neutral” to their congregations. He added that the irony is how many worshipers personally lean toward support of same sex marriage but simply haven’t heard a faith-based, Christian ethical argument for why they should.

In addition, Ellison offered areas on which people of faith should focus to strengthen the institution of marriage. “We need to offer adults as well as young people quality sex education that is values-based and focused on relational integrity,” he said. More broadly, Christians should consider a comprehensive agenda that looks at wealth redistribution, racial justice and empowerment of women.

Another point to consider is the careful exercise of religious language in social debates, and American culture should become “wedding industry resistors,” perhaps returning to a point where marriage is a public event interlaced with other regular ceremonies.

Finally, Ellison said, Christians should actively engage in public debate and discussion using a faith-based justice lens. “Change is possible, and religion for many people is the key that foments such change,”  he concluded.

The colloquium is the first event sponsored by the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, an academic initiative related to the Multi-Faith Center to be housed in the future Numen Lumen Pavilion. Its purpose is to promote intellectual reflection on the intersections between religion and culture among a broad range of participants, scholars from different disciplines, community members, and students.

The center will focus on three areas: an annual research colloquium in religion and public life, the promotion of excellence in undergraduate research in the study of religion and public life, and the development of a scholar-in-residence program.  

Organizers said that by engaging the issue of same-sex marriage, especially in regards to the North Carolina ballot measure known as Amendment One, they are creating an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to work alongside individuals who are involved in shaping the future of North Carolina.

“As the first event sponsored by the Center, this event is presenting Elon as a place for multi-faith conversation and activism to a wide range of people in North Carolina, including community activists and clergy from various traditions,” said Associate Professor Lynn Huber in the Department of Religious Studies. “We’re letting them know that Elon wants to be a place where individuals and groups from around the state can come together for thoughtful conversation about religion and culture, that they are welcome here.”