Were Jesus to return to Earth, he might be excused for guessing that the "Defense of Marriage Act" that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 had something to do with the prohibition of divorce.

Back in Galilee, Jesus had been fierce in his condemnation of divorce. "What God has joined together," he said, "let no man put asunder" (Mark 10:9). And he allowed for no exceptions to his rule. A man could divorce his wife if she committed adultery, but he could not remarry without committing adultery himself, nor could his ex-wife remarry without repeating her sin. His disciples objected, "If that's the way it is, then it's better not to marry at all" (Matt. 19:10), but Jesus would not back down.

How disappointed, then, Jesus would be to discover that the "Defense of Marriage Act" has nothing at all to do with the prohibition of divorce but is, instead, a law that prevents the creation of new marriages--namely, gay marriages. The Savior, who never spoke a word about homosexuality, would need to have a young conservative activist explain to him that though this law does not prevent civil unions between gays, it has succeeded rather well, until just recently, in barring the path to gay marriage.

What has now happened, though, the earnest young fellow would explain, is that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled that only marriage, called by that name, can guarantee gay couples their civil rights under that state's constitution. Though Massachusetts may still block gay marriage by constitutional amendment, the amendment process could take years. In the interim, the Massachusetts decision has given new momentum to the "Federal Marriage Amendment Act," a House bill with more than one hundred sponsors that aims, in effect, to enshrine the earlier "Defense of Marriage Act" in the federal constitution.

A Christian conservative group wrote the "Federal Marriage Amendment," but other Christian conservatives now oppose it. Why?

The young activist would patiently explain to the Lord that merely banning gay marriage is not enough for some of the largest and wealthiest Christian conservative groups. They want a more sweeping amendment that would block not just gay marriage, but also all forms of legally recognized sexual partnership other than heterosexual marriage. The Constitutional language they propose is: "Neither the federal government nor any state shall predicate benefits, privileges, rights or immunities on the existence, recognition or presumption of non-marital sexual relationships."

Anxious to impress the Master, the young man might conclude by gravely quoting the biblical verse that may soon be enshrined in American law: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; this is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22).

What would Jesus say to all this? On the ethics of homosexuality, we must assume that he would maintain his silence. Had he wanted to take a position about that matter, he would have done so back in Galilee. Deference to biblical inerrancy was never his way, Leviticus 18:22 notwithstanding. On the contrary, his zero-tolerance prohibition of divorce was a bold and deliberate revision of the biblically grounded but (in his view) unacceptable Jewish practice of his day.

As for "the defense of marriage," he would refer his conservative disciple to what he did say. Divorce, not homosexuality, was the deviation that preoccupied him.

"If your people are determined to bring your country into accord with my teaching," he would say, "then let them dissolve all second marriages and write my prohibition of divorce into their Constitution. But if they insist on overruling that prohibition, then let them look to their other prohibitions and consider revising them as well. For how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the mote out of your eye,' when there is a beam in your own?" (Matthew 7:4).

And then Jesus would take his leave, saying to his young friend in his steely and unflinching way, "He who can take this, let him take it" (Matt. 19:18).

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