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Ethical Objectivity: An Endangered Species

In the midst of the national debate on gay marriage, a Republican senator from Ohio, Rob Portman, has switched sides. Formerly an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, whose stance brought out hundreds of protestors when he was invited to speak at the University of Michigan law school, the senator underwent a change of heart when the issue got close to home. His son “came out” as a freshman at Yale in 2011:

Will … came to Jane and me and announced that he was gay, that it was not a choice. It was who he is and he had been that way since he could remember . . . [We] were both surprised, very surprised, but also very supportive of him. Our reaction was not about policy or positions. It was about him as a son and letting him know we were 110% supportive of him . . . [It] allowed me to think about this issue from a new perspective, and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot.1

It’s a familiar phenomenon: someone takes a firm line on an ethical issue only to reverse himself as new experience comes his way, especially if circumstances involve his family or friends. For those who hail the change, it’s taken as a shift from cold legalism to enlightened, humane realism. In Portman’s case, he testifies that he had finally grasped “the [Bible’s] overriding message of love and compassion . . . and the fact that . . . we are all created by our maker . . .”2

There is, however, another understanding of how ethics is done properly. Instead of giving moral cachet to the one who has dealt with the issue “up close and personal,” the alternative view suggests that these heavily involved people may be the last ones to make the call, for their personal bias may confuse them. Better to sort things out in one’s armchair from a distance, where cooler judgment may prevail.

The standoff appears in many forms. Abortion enthusiasts say that pregnant women are in a better position than men to say whether the “doctor” at Planned Parenthood is a godsend. And those who defend the honor of soldiers involved in battlefield atrocities (e.g., My Lai) are indignant that critics who never served in the military would pass judgment on those under fire.

Of course, this sort of argument works not only on behalf of those wanting a softer line, but also for those who want tougher strictures. For instance, a church member may insist that a man should not be elected deacon because he was an arsonist before he was converted. Though the biblical standards of deaconship don’t draw this line, the indignant member may recount the heartache his or her family suffered when family treasures were destroyed in a fire. “You have no idea how terrible this is unless you’ve had it happen to you!”

Fortunately, we have the Bible to chart our course through the stormy waters of conflicting emotion. Or, to put it otherwise, we have the “plumb line” pictured in Amos 7:7 to keep things straight. If we relied on Scripture instead of emotions to sort things out, we might hear less of “I just want my little girl to be happy” and more of “I just want my little girl to be holy” in matters of divorce and remarriage, to take one issue.

Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis got it right when he observed, “Portman has not gained wisdom on this, he has lost objectivity. [He] has abandoned his [principles], not because he has suddenly decided that all of his previous views are wrong, but because of a personal development that understandably tugs at his heart.”3


Deirdre Shesgreen, “Republican Senator Announces Support for Gay Marriage: Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman Reverses Previous Opposition to Gay Marriage,” USA Today, March 15, 2013, (accessed March 29, 2013).


Ibid. Here he echoes the interpretation of the Metropolitan Community Churches, who “quarantine” the traditional readings of Genesis 19 and Romans 1 and who insist, “It is time we listen to the experiences of God’s gay and lesbian children who know with all their hearts that God has created them just as they are” (Mona West, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” Metropolitan Community Churches Website, [accessed March 29, 2013]).


Mark Davis, quoted in “Quotables,” World Magazine Website, March 22, 2013, (accessed March 29, 2013).