A county judge in Des Moines, Iowa, of all places, ruled last month that the state law allowing marriage only between a man and a woman violates the constitutional rights of due process and equal protection.
This isn't New York or Massachusetts or California, mind you—this is our nation's heartland.
Iowa voters, with their own defense of marriage act in place for over a decade, thought they had settled the issue of same-sex marriage. While the judge's decision has now been stayed, this action reminds us that the institution of marriage is still under constant threat from the whims of just one obscure judge.
Anyone paying attention to the early-developing race for the White House knows that Iowa—with its first-in-the-nation presidential caucus—is crawling with aspirants for the Oval Office. Perhaps this decision by an Iowa judge will help place this issue front-and-center in the minds of voters across the nation and thus, the presidential candidates.
While some opponents of same-sex marriage argue that this is a state issue, I believe at its heart it is a national issue. In fact, I believe events in American history support this position.
I suspect that Abraham Lincoln was a staunch Federalist. While he believed most issues should be decided at the state level, there are some issues that are so compelling and basic ("first principles") that they have to be decided at the federal level. Lincoln understood the moral dilemma that would unfold if each state was able to decide for itself whether it would be "slave" or "free."
In a speech delivered June 17, 1858—before he became president—Lincoln said the issue of slavery was a "crisis" that the nation could not ignore.
Quoting the Bible, he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Matt. 12:25).
"I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," Lincoln continued. "I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South."
I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, as well as ancestors who fought for the Union, and I appreciate the fact that the Civil War was more complicated than just the issue of slavery. There are people who assert the war was about states' rights and not about slavery. What do you think was the precipitating cause that made people talk about states' rights? It was some people's belief that it was a state's right to allow some people to own other people. The fact is, without the issue of slavery, there never would have been a Civil War.
The slavery analogy is apt when it comes to the marriage issue. America's families—and the culture at large—cannot survive as a union of states with half embracing same-sex marriage and half accepting only traditional marriage. The U.S. government will not disintegrate, but eventually the nation will have one definition of marriage binding us all.
Lincoln gave his speech in the same year that the infamous Dred Scott decision was decided by the Supreme Court. The sensibilities of many Americans of that day were outraged by this immoral decision that said, for the purposes of law, that slaves were not people, but property.
The Dred Scott decision was not what you would call a close decision. The 7-2 verdict said the right to own slaves was a fundamentally guaranteed constitutional right that could not be limited by the states.
Lincoln, in an 1860 address, pointed out that the slaveholders would not be content to continue owning slaves in the states where they held them. They wanted to force everyone in the country to acknowledge their right to have slaves anywhere in the United States. In other words, they wanted to make slavery legal in every state of the union.
So less than six months after the end of the Civil War, what did the people of the United States do? They adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which said once and for all that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Slavery was outlawed in the federal Constitution. It was not going to be an issue decided by each state.
I respect the Constitution, and I don't believe it should be amended unless it is absolutely necessary. We have reached the point regarding marriage that we once reached regarding slavery. Rulings like this one in Iowa reveal the urgent need for a federal Marriage Protection Amendment.
At least one person has said to me that while banning slavery expanded personal liberty, prohibiting same-sex marriage would contract or limit personal liberty. Yet while the ban on slavery expanded liberty for the slaves, it inhibited and constricted liberty for the slaveholders.
In fact, the emancipation of the 3 million African-Americans held in involuntary servitude until the end of the Civil War was the largest property expropriation without any kind of indemnity or compensation to the slaveholders that has taken place anywhere in the Western world in modern history.
No longer was an American free to own another human being. Liberty was secured for the slaves and constricted for slaveholders. Never has justice been better served.
Forbidding same-sex couples from marrying may be a constriction of their liberty, but more importantly, it is an expansion of the people's liberty to define what constitutes marriage.
Whether or not the same-sex marriage issue becomes a topic of discussion among those running for president depends upon all of us. If we make the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman an issue, it will become an issue among the crowd of candidates reaching for the golden ring.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.