UPDATE: A considerably expanded version of this post can be read here, in a page that should always be easily accessible from my front page (under ‘Larger Projects’).
Just under a year ago, I wrote a post on the subject of same-sex marriage – The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions, and Procreation. With the topic such a live one in the American context at the moment, my post has come to people’s attention again and has been receiving a large number of hits over the last couple of days. I thought that I would take this opportunity to begin to address a few common questions, questions that I have been asked many times in the past, and will probably be asked many more times again in the future.
This isn’t going to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject of same-sex marriage, nor even of the questions that its opponents often face. However, since I am often asked certain questions, I thought that it would be good to have a single location where those questions are addressed, to which I can direct people in the future. For this reason, I will probably update this post at various points over the coming months. This is a work in progress. I am posting a few initial questions and quickly written answers now (27th March 2013), but would welcome feedback from all parties on questions to add and ways to hone existing answers. I don’t plan to answer comments below the line, but the concerns that they raise will hopefully be addressed in later drafts.
While regular readers of this blog are well aware of how things operate around here, for the sake of visitors, and on this subject in particular, I want to clarify a few things before I proceed. First, I positively welcome strong and challenging disagreement in my comments and elsewhere. I believe that good arguments need to prove themselves by sparring with strong arguments from their opponents. I have little respect for positions that resist exposing themselves to such challenge, from whatever side they may come. You do not need to apologize for disagreeing with me, nor do you need to preface your remarks with obligatory affirmative comments to soften the blow of your criticisms.
Second, I recognize that such issues are sensitive ones for many persons and understand that many might not want to expose themselves to the context of such disputation. This does not absolve their positions from this responsibility, however. The fact that some of these debates are a little close to home for many of us does not mean that debates should be closed down and that the most sensitive party’s positions should win by default.
Third, while tough and challenging arguments are welcomed and encouraged here, personal attacks and name-calling are not. Someone firmly and strongly disagreeing with you and presenting arguments to support their case is not a personal attack. This said, given the sensitivity of these issues, I would request that everyone consider others when making their arguments and seek to disagree respectfully, treating other participants in the discussion with dignity.
What could be wrong with affirming two people’s love and commitment to each other?
The question at issue in the same-sex marriage debate is not whether the love of same-sex couples for each other should be affirmed, but whether it should be affirmed as marriage. There are many ways in which families, friends, communities, and society more generally could affirm the love and commitment of a same-sex couple that don’t involve redefining the institution of marriage. These can and should be discussed in their place, but this particular debate concerns marriage.
Further to this, the love and commitment of individual couples has always had a rather uneasy relationship to marriage as an institution. While married couples are typically expected to get married in large part on the basis of a love for and a willing commitment to each other, the institution of marriage exists not to affirm this love and willing commitment as such, but to create something more certain and lasting beyond that. Marriage typically places considerable restrictions upon love. It places limitations and pressures upon our choices of suitable partners. It denies us the right to have sexual relationships with persons we might love outside of marriage bonds.
For many, the institution of marriage is designed to make it very difficult and costly for them to get out of a relationship with someone that they stopped loving many years ago and may now positively detest. While it begins with a willing commitment of two persons to each other, marriage renders that commitment something objective and binding upon the persons, even should the commitment become an unwilling one. The flipside of the romantic grounding of marriage upon love and willing commitment is a strong divorce culture, because for a significant percentage of marriages, what began as a willing and loving commitment will not always remain that way.
While this is certainly not the only way that a same-sex marriage proponent could put their case, it is important that we notice how the question frames the issue and the assumptions that it betrays. 1. Society is put in the position of ‘affirming’ and recognizing rights, downplaying the idea of the imposition of norms and duties. 2. The focus is upon individual couples, rather than upon marriage and society more generally. 3. More particularly, the focus is upon the underwriting, rubber-stamping, facilitation, and celebration of their volitional, dispositional, and emotive states and their sexual desires, without such a stress upon a binding and objective commitment.
What the framing of such a question reveals is that the re-imagining of marriage taking place in many quarters does not merely rest with the issue of whether two men or two women can marry each other just like a man and a woman. Rather, the very sort of thing that marriage itself is is in the process of being re-imagined. As I have argued elsewhere, marriage is ceasing to be about institutional norms and public values and is gradually moving towards a more privatized lifestyle consumer model.
Reframing the original question in terms of a more traditional understanding of the sort of thing that marriage is, our hypothetical interlocutor could ask: ‘what could be wrong with society expecting all LGBT persons willingly to commit themselves to the norm of lifelong, sexually exclusive relationships between two persons of the same or opposite sex, to reserve sexual relations for such bonds, to form a culture that reinforces and supports them, to privatize displays of sexuality (though not necessarily romantic affection), and to form a society that is ordered towards the needs and the raising of a new generation?’ Marriage culture is binding on everyone, not merely on those who get married.
The fact that a question of this form is so rarely asked is telling on a number of fronts. In particular, it reveals that society in general is largely leaving behind the idea of a ‘marriage culture’. With it the idea of marriage as an institution designed to serve and strengthen society’s fabric is being jettisoned in favour of the idea of marriage as a private lifestyle choice that should be underwritten, affirmed, and increasingly freed from external restrictions.
I also suspect that, despite the enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, with its affirmation of the equality of same-sex relationships to opposite sex relationships and its puncturing of heteronormativity, there really isn’t great enthusiasm for marriage culture within most quarters of LGBT communities. A campaign for same-sex marriage that is championed by a significant number of persons who are ambivalent, resistant, or even hostile to marriage culture isn’t really going to help an institution that is already ailing within our society. One of the things that have been most concerning in the recent debates is realizing just how extensive this departure from marriage culture in Western society actually is.
Isn’t it discriminatory for it to be illegal for two men or two women to marry?
Once again it is important to clear up a misunderstanding within the question as it is framed. For same-sex marriage to be illegal in the sense of being prohibited or unauthorized by the law it would first have to be a possible entity. For a considerable number of opponents to same-sex marriage, the key question isn’t whether same-sex couples should have permission to get married but, if such permission were granted, whether a same-sex marriage is even possible. The debate here is about the reality to which ‘marriage’ refers and whether it is a reality that a same-sex couple could constitute. The reason why circles cannot be squared or women cannot be fathers is not on account of a lack of permission. This is the reason why one would really struggle to find evidence of laws against same-sex marriages throughout various societies over the course of human history: one doesn’t need to legislate against that which is considered impossible.
The legalization of inter-racial marriage is frequently taken as an analogy for the present same-sex marriage debates. The contrast between the two examples is illuminating, however. There was general agreement that an inter-racial marriage was a possible entity. The debate was purely over whether the possibility should be a legal one. However, there is not the same agreement that a same-sex marriage is a possible entity.
This also reveals that the claim of discrimination isn’t as straightforward as assumed. Discrimination (and, more particularly, unjust discrimination) was clearly operative in the case of inter-racial marriages. However, if a same-sex marriage is an impossible entity it doesn’t make sense to say that it is being discriminated against.
Even were we to grant that same-sex marriage were a possible entity, however, discrimination against it would not necessarily be wrong. Despite the careless contemporary uses of the term, ‘discrimination’ is not a bad thing per se. Discrimination, when it recognizes the various natures and ends of things and treats different things differently, is very healthy. For instance, we discriminate when we establish ages of marital consent. We recognize that mature consent is conducive to the health of marriage, individuals, and society and so we restrict people below certain ages from marrying. Discrimination only becomes problematic when the grounds upon which we are discriminating are not good ones.
The prohibition of inter-racial marriage discriminated on the basis of skin colour, which, relative to the nature and ends of marriage, is a very bad reason upon which to discriminate. However, in discriminating between the committed sexual partnerships of same-sex couples and couples of the opposite sex there are many more grounds upon which to discriminate and, relative to the ends and nature of marriage, a strong argument can be made that they are good ones.
Shouldn’t we seek to treat all people equally?
This question is related to the last. The language of ‘equality’ has considerable currency within our society. However, by itself the term ‘equality’ is largely question-begging and tends to obscure rather than reveal. ‘Equality’ is only truly meaningful when people or entities are in fact equal and, within the relevant context, interchangeable. When we use ‘equality’ language to speak of complex realities where genuine and significant differences do exist, such as gender and forms of relationships, we start to presume the very things that we need to prove.
As it functions in contemporary discourse, especially surrounding gender, sexuality, and forms of relationships, egalitarianism tends to be a self-asserting dogma, often making it impervious to reasonable discourse. I firmly agree with egalitarianism on the point that, when things are truly equal relative to a particular end, they should be treated equally. We should never discriminate between persons or entities on the basis of irrelevant criteria. However, when we are trying to have a debate about the natures and ends of particular realities and which criteria are relevant in particular contexts, to speak about equality merely begs the question.
Instead of the language of equality, I suggest that we adopt the language of ‘equity’. Equity recognizes that people are different and, taking those differences into account and discerning differing natures and ends, is impartial, even-handed, and fair in its administration of justice.
We all agree that equal things should be treated equally: the challenge for proponents of same-sex marriage is to prove that, relative to the ends and nature of marriage, same-sex pairings are actually equal to opposite sex pairings. ‘Equality’ rhetoric simply dodges this difficult task.
Why should same-sex couples be denied rights in areas such as inheritance or visitation?
I do not believe that they should. However, there are ways to grant or secure such rights without redefining marriage. To redefine an institution as fundamental to human society as marriage for the sole purpose of addressing such problems is extreme overkill. More troubling, the suggestion that one not infrequently encounters that it would be a sufficient rationale for doing so betrays an alarmingly hollow view of what marriage actually stands for.
Jesus never said anything about same-sex marriages. Why should Christians speak on the subject?
As I have already remarked, many opponents of same-sex marriage believe that it is an impossible entity, so it should not surprise us that Jesus never spoke about it, just as he never spoke against women being fathers. Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching does clearly stand against same-sex marriage. Jesus grounds the institution of marriage firmly in the created reality of sexual dimorphism:
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:4-6
Jesus’ argument against the Sadducees in Luke 20:34-38 is also illuminating on this front. N.T. Wright observes:
The logic of Luke’s version of Jesus’ riposte then depends for its force on two unstated assumptions: (a) that marriage is instituted to cope with the problem that people die; (b) angels do not die. The Levirate law, quite explicitly, had to do with continuing the family line when faced with death; Jesus in Luke’s version, not only declares that this law will be redundant in a world without death, but that marriage itself, even with one husband and one wife, will likewise be irrelevant in such a world. A key point, often unnoticed, is that the Sadducees’ question is not about the mutual affection and companionship of husband and wife, but about how to fulfil the command to have a child, that is, how in the future life the family line will be kept going. This is presumably based on the belief, going back to Genesis 1.28, that the main purpose of marriage was to be fruitful and multiply.
The purpose of marriage, both in Genesis 1 and 2 is about much more than companionship. It is framed by the concept of vocation: the vocation of humanity to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and subdue the earth, and Adam’s vocation to serve the earth, to guard and keep the garden, and to uphold its law. After the Fall, marriage is also framed by the reality of death and the need to survive and multiply in its face. Human companionship is wonderful and many of its benefits can be enjoyed in particular richness in the context of the lifelong bond of marriage. However, marriage serves ends beyond this and, for Scripture, the tasks of procreation and child-rearing are central. In the new creation, the human race will have finished these tasks and so marriage ceases too. Companionship isn’t as primary an end of marriage in biblical thought as it is within contemporary society, where, given the nature of our world and our economy, companionship with a spouse has to bear the sort of existential weight that were previously typically borne by thick relationships within a settled community.
Such a firm grounding of marriage upon both sexual dimorphism and procreation stands sharply opposed to same-sex marriage.
Why should Christians speak to this issue? First it should be stressed that Christian ethics should address matters of which Jesus never spoke. The fact that Jesus never explicitly condemned bestiality doesn’t make it permissible. We have explicit commands elsewhere in Scripture that address such things. We also have developed principles of justice that we can bring to bear upon realities that aren’t addressed in the biblical text.
The Christian teaching on subjects such as marriage, gender, and sexuality are extensive. Most of this teaching takes a positive form, filling out such realities as sexual dimorphism with meaning and purpose, rather than the negative form of prohibiting particular behaviours (although there is plenty of that too). One of the problems with the assumption that Jesus never spoke to the subject of same-sex marriage is that, rather than taking our bearings from close attention to the positive teaching, it presumes that our answers would only be found in the form of negative prohibitions. However, the positive statements that Jesus makes about marriage clearly reveal that he is speaking about something quite different from same-sex relationships.
Christians should also speak to the subject of same-sex marriage because we are members of society and have an interest in and duty to it. Marriage and the family that grows from it represent the fundamental institution of the original creation. It relates us to deep and transcendent dimensions of reality. It humanizes some of our most fundamental animal functions and orders them to personal and societal ends. It explores and articulates the meanings of the most basic created anthropological difference and relationship – that between a man and a woman. We should seek to guard this for the sake of the good of wider society and for generations to come.
Doesn’t all opposition to same-sex marriage boil down to homophobia and opposition to gay sex?
No. One does not have to exclude LGBT persons from those to whom we owe equitable treatment and recognition of personal dignity in order to oppose same-sex marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage can be quite consistent with support for civil rights for LGBT persons more generally. The arguments that I have raised against same-sex marriage here and elsewhere do not presuppose opposition of homosexual relations, nor even to their recognition by society. The question that we are addressing here is not about the morality of homosexual practice (a question that must be addressed in its own place), but about the meaning of marriage.
Why the fixation on same-sex marriage? Why not the same opposition to divorce culture, for instance? Surely husbands and wives divorcing weaken the institution of marriage much more than same-sex couples wishing to enter it.
Divorce culture represents a huge threat to the integrity of marriage. However, divorce culture is a very complicated thing to address. There are valid reasons to divorce, so making it illegal isn’t a solution: it is not divorce but divorce culture that is the problem. Divorce is a symptom of an underlying set of problems. Often these problems don’t lie so much with the laws surrounding divorce or even with the liberal ways in which they are applied (although these are problems) as they do with the underlying values of the society. Challenging and changing these values is difficult.
We attack divorce culture by attacking the values that underlie it. However, the arguments for same-sex marriage that we are encountering at the moment are closely bound up with or serve to strengthen many of these values. It is at points like this, when the underlying values of the divorce culture break the surface and meet us head on – and especially when we are asked to affirm and celebrate them – that we have the duty to resist them.
One of the principal threats posed by same-sex marriage is that of establishing within the very public meaning of marriage key elements of the value system integral to the divorce culture. Same-sex marriage would not be a cultural possibility had not the values underlying the divorce culture paved its way. One’s perspective on the current arguments for same-sex marriage will tend to be shaped by your ranking of values relating to such things as, for example: 1. procreation; 2. the stability of the environment of child-rearing; 3. the relating of the two sexes to each other in society; 4. individual choice, autonomy, and self-fulfilment; 5. the anthropological and religious significance of sexual dimorphism; 6. sexual gratification; 7. marriage as cultural and institutional norm (sexual exclusivity, lifelong union, avoidance of sexual relations outside of marriage, opposition to adultery, etc.); 8. romantic love; 9. the bond between biological, legal, and social parenthood; 10. the need for both a father and a mother and the full involvement, commitment, and interdependence of both sexes in child-rearing; 11. the enjoyment of social status, benefits, and perks; 12. the presence of social support structures that uphold, inculcate, and facilitate the cultural norms.
The values that we hold most highly will be the values into which we will try to integrate all others. However, such a process always requires sacrifice or compromise. For instance, if romantic love is our highest value then we will tend to compromise on marriage as a cultural and institutional norm, because the two will frequently be at odds with each other. If we value marriage as a cultural and institutional norm very highly, we will tend to tolerate – indeed, to expect – much greater sacrifice in such areas as the happiness and sexual gratification of the unmarried. All of this should be fairly straightforward and obvious.
In terms of the values listed above, traditional opposition to divorce culture would place a high emphasis upon 1, 2, 7, 9, 10, and 12 in particular and to downplay and expect sacrifices in the areas of 4, 6, and 8. In order to secure the best interests of children, adults need to learn how to resolve conflicts rather than escaping them, to cope with profound sexual frustration, and to recognize limits on their choice and autonomy. In tackling the divorce culture we need to stress the importance of the duties and roles of both parents and just how necessary it is to guard the integrity and unity of the bond of parenthood. For the same reasons as we oppose divorce culture, we also seek to ensure that marriage is a universally acknowledged cultural norm, so that children aren’t born out of wedlock and so that all of society is committed to and focused upon making marriage a stable and healthy institution, ordering our sexual and relational behaviour in terms of it.
The case for same-sex marriage, however, must necessarily downplay 1, 3, 5, 9, and 10, factors that serve as the primary basis for marriage as a socially normative institution (7). Given the way that the core values of the institution of marriage are carefully woven together, the significance of male-female bonding is never merely an isolated thread within it, but is connected to everything else. Cut that thread, and don’t be surprised if you find all sorts of other things unravelling. The arguments in favour of same-sex marriage have typically emphasized 4, 6, 8, and 11, which, once again, has tended drastically to diminish the significance of 7. Grounding the practice of marriage upon choice and love may seem natural, but history has shown that it is far from a stable basis for the institution.
The divorce culture approaches marriage as an institution ordered primarily around adults’ ends and stresses individual autonomy. It tends to resist marriage’s demands of couples and of society more generally, both married and unmarried. It often treats romantic love and sexual gratification as the primary reasons both for getting and for staying married. It tends to diminish the significance of the very same values as same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage goes further, however, as such a diminishment is essential to what it is. While divorce is a failure to attain to certain values integral to marriage, same-sex marriage simply denies that many of these values are integral to marriage or that necessary in the first place. Divorce culture may seriously compromise the bond between biological, legal, and social parenthood. However, every child in a same-sex relationship has at least three parents. Divorce culture may compromise the child’s right to the presence of an involved father and mother. Same-sex marriage typically denies that children need both a father and a mother.
A further and absolutely crucial difference between divorce and same-sex marriage is that divorce has never pretended to be anything other than a tragic sign that something has gone seriously wrong somewhere and that something sought for was not successfully attained. However, same-sex marriage takes much of the same value system of which divorce was a symptom and calls us both to celebrate it and to present it as integral to the meaning of marriage. Divorce typically acknowledges the compromises and the sacrifices that it is making: same-sex marriage strenuously denies them.
On what basis do opponents of same-sex marriage say that it will lead to polygamy?
Questionable ones, I believe.
The shift to a more constructivist and malleable understanding of marriage, moving away from close reflection upon the nature and ends of the realities with which it deals, can definitely lead to a weakening of traditional objections to polygamy. The steady de-institutionalization and privatization of marriage can also have the same effect: if James and Steven’s marriage doesn’t harm mine, leaving me with no reason to object to it, couldn’t the same be said of Simon, Linda, and Jane’s? A number of the arguments that many bring forward for same-sex marriage prove more than they intend to and in this sense it could be said that they will lead to polygamy.
However, I have yet to see a convincing reason why legalizing same-sex marriage will open a legal door to polygamy. Nor, more importantly, is there much of a cultural desire for it: the will of our society is running in very different directions. Even if polygamy were made possible, it would be fringe in contrast to same-sex marriage, which is in the mainstream. The following are a few reasons why polygamy goes against the zeitgeist.
1. Polygamy is characterized by a fairly extreme gender differentiation. The current trend is in precisely the opposite direction.
2. Polygamy has male-female bonds at its heart. It is worth remembering that polygamy is not one man entering into one marriage within many wives, but one man entering into many marriages with many wives. The wives are not married to each other. There is an essential affirmation of sexual dimorphism and the fact that a marriage is built around the committed sexual relationship between a single man and a single woman at the heart of polygamy, even if those relationships aren’t exclusive.
3. Polygamous groups tend to be highly procreative and polygamous families tend to place a lot of emphasis on children. Marriage is oriented towards the production of a new generation, not mere sexual gratification or romantic companionship. Once again, this is directly contrary to the current trend.
4. Polygamous marriages tend to challenge the sentimental nuclear ideal of the family, expanding the family beyond a unitary bond of affection and making it far more of a public and communal reality that transcends and limits the will and entitlement of those within it.
5. Polygamy tends to be de-individualizing, particularly for women and children. While it produces more children, the polygamous family invests less in each particular one. It also stresses roles, limitations, and one’s ‘place’ within a greater order, not hinging upon and affirming the choices of sovereign individuals.
6. Polygamy typically relies upon a vision of marriage that is neither companionate nor romantic in character. Almost the entire reason for same-sex marriage’s plausibility to contemporary society rests upon such a notion of marriage.
7. Being procreative in orientation, polygamy would typically stress the connection between sex and marriage, ironically strongly maintaining many of the values that we associate with ‘monogamy’. Polygamous marriages are not typically ‘open’, ‘non-monogamous’, or ‘monogamish’ marriages in the sense that many more modern relationships are.
It is worth remembering that polygamy is typically practised in more conservative religious communities. This really isn’t an accident. Polygamy is in many respects the antithesis of same-sex marriage. While polygamists could exploit the current inclarity concerning marriage for their ends, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that polygamy is the direction that things are heading. Polyamory is a far more likely suspect: it is romantically driven, gender neutral, oriented towards the satisfaction of individual desires, more fluid and renegotiable, more sexually open to outsiders, and typically non-procreative.
Couldn’t same-sex marriage lead to a strengthening of marriage as an institution?
Following all of the focus over the last few years of the same sex marriage debate upon marriage being primarily about the love, choice, rights, and affirmation of individuals’ desires by society, it is unlikely that we are about to see a return to marriage as a true cultural norm that would be prepared to compromise or limit those things to maintain its institutional integrity. What we are seeing is a de-institutionalization of marriage for everyone, as the wider public has largely bought into the same notion.
I have encountered suggestions that a lowering of the divorce rate in some countries where same-sex marriage has been introduced is evidence for such a strengthening. Beyond the fact that divorce rates are complicated things to interpret, given the difference in the duration of the marriages involved, it must be recognized that divorce rates have generally dropped because far fewer people are marrying in the first place. When only those who are most committed to the institution bother to get married in the first place, a decline in the rate of divorce is exactly what we should expect to see. The more telling figure is the percentage of the population that marries in the first place.
Also, as a number of the ends integrated by marriage are slowly detached and downplayed, we should expect to see a further chipping of the coin of marriage in various ways. The value of monogamy will be weakened in favour of open marriages, non-monogamy, and ‘monogamish’ relationships. Marriage may also become less oriented to the needs of children and more focused upon the rights of adults. In such a situation, even those who do get married are committing themselves to much less.
The effect of same-sex marriage is not really about the cumulative effect of particular gay couples getting married. Its true damage arises from the corrosive influence of the system of values that it champions and establishes. This system of values isn’t an invention of LGBT communities. Rather, it is a system of values that has been operative in wider society for some time. The problem with same-sex marriage is that it establishes this system of values as the new orthodoxy, the public meaning of marriage, accelerating the change in what marriage means for everyone and making reversal of these unhealthy trends exceedingly difficult.
It shouldn’t surprise us if same-sex marriage further decreases the number of people who marry (as marriage moves from being a cultural norm to a private lifestyle choice), increasing the number of children born out of wedlock. Nor should it surprise us if it reinforces the values of divorce culture (as that is the flipside of the romantic view of marriage that makes love its all-encompassing rationale), and gives pace to the movement towards a loosening of the values of monogamy.
My suspicion is that same-sex marriage and increasingly marriage in general, as it will be practised in the future, will be more of a class-based entity, focused on the class status signalled by the lavish wedding and upper-middle class domestic lifestyle. It will function as a social norm to some degree, but the emphasis will be on the desirable social appearance that marriage confers, and much less upon its integral values. Weddings will be bigger, but marriages will be weaker. Such a form of marriage, with its greater emphasis on marriage as ‘sign value’, serving to indicate social status and provide a context for shared consumption, will also tend to discourage the poor from entering into the marriage market in the first place.
Remember, if you have any questions that you would like to be answered in future drafts, please add them to the comments. Thank you for reading!