In a FB conversation with some friends they wanted to know what I thought. I told them that I though the lesbian couple down the street with the two children they are parenting ought to look the same before the eyes of the law as my wife and I and our children look. This satisfied my straight friends, but I suspect it would not satisfy all others. The debate is a red herring. What is being sought is a judgment that the status of a romantic, sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is identical to one between two of the opposite sex. The reason the debate is a red herring is because judgment is always derived from a person on personified judicial agent.
A Matter of Civil Law
A judgment before the eyes of the civil law based upon representative democracy is not a difficult thing to derive. The US and other countries have significant time, money and social capital invested in the machinery to create this personified judicial agent we call the law. If this secular, representative democracy decides to view the lesbian headed household as it does my own, that doesn’t really bother me. Those children need rights recognized and protected just like mine. That couple has property matters that need to be fairly adjudicated just like my wife and I do. There is in my opinion sufficient analogy between our relationships to warrant the kind of legal oversight and protection for both. I really don’t have a problem with that.
I would argue the same thing for the case in England of the two sisters who attempted to file for the legal right to marry in order to save the home that they shared and the tax advantages that a marriage would have afforded them. If they were raising a child in that home I would want that child also to have similar rights. All of these laws are about family. Family as a legal construct is created either by blood relationship or analogous blood relationship of which traditional marriage is a part. Stephanie Coontz in her book on the history of marriage notes that about the only commonality you can find among the huge diversity of marriage situations throughout cultures in history is that marriage creates family members out of non-blood related persons. Adoption functions similarly. I don’t think that any of this is new or outrageous.
If the debate is to resolve the question of whether families that somehow deviate from the traditional interpretation of family should have the benefits and responsibilities of family law, then it is an easy debate, one that really isn’t much different from many other questions long resolved. We want laws for human flourishing that protect the weak and afford justice for persons working within these systems. We have all sorts of ways for dealing with this and it does not seem like a difficult question, but again I don’t think this is what is giving this debate the emotional fuel it is clearly expending.
This Debate is God-Haunted
I am amazed at how God haunted this debate really is, even among atheists and people who openly condemn theistic assertions. When President Obama “switched sides” what exactly changed? Yes, there are some detailed legislative implications in his embracing “same-sex marriage”, transitioning from his affirmation of “civil unions for same sex couples” but those differences are lost to most of us not legally and economically impacted by the distinction. For a while now a majority of Americans articulated a willingness to afford same sex couples the same legal and tax benefits of opposite sex couples.
The debate has for a long time centered on the word “marriage” and the reason it has been that word in America that has been fought over is because of its God haunted quality. Again and again you will hear “let the government only do civil unions, let churches fight out what ‘marriage’ is.” which exposes the assumption that “marriage” within our vocabulary possesses a religious meaning beyond the mechanics of civil law. This is where the battleground lies for many of the combatants, especially the ones connected to churches.
This debate is about a judgment. People are saying “this is about judgment of law” but I don’t think so. It is about the judgment of God and it always amazes me how on one hand people who either by overt profession or management of life say “there is no god or at least he/she/it doesn’t really matter in the real world” get worked up about religious pronouncements, especially when they are the target of negative religious pronouncements. If an ancient Canaanite prophet were to pop up before me in the line at the supermarket and inform me “Molech is VERY angry with you!” I don’t think I’d be bothered in the least. I don’t believe in Molech nor do I give two toots about what he might think of me.
Many will recognize this and say “but I protest people having opinions about me because of their religious reasons” and that makes more sense. None of us like being looked down upon. We do know however that this is a consequence of living in the midst of people with the capacity to form their own judgments for whatever reasons. We commonly segregate ourselves from people who form negative judgments of ourselves and we do so naturally. We perpetually endeavor to shape the judgments others create of ourselves in a positive way through appearance, kindness, civility, generosity, etc. and we try to influence others around us to join groups of people who naturally favor us and join us in resisting groups who oppose us. These are the common under currents of human community and organization.
Those of us who feel particularly threatened by the opinions of Molech might take another step to declare “It isn’t right that the believers in Molech cast laws against those who deny the will of Molech” and I would agree. I don’t want the Molech faithful to mandate that I offer my children to fire sacrifice. Fortunately we live in a nation that has a system that both allows religious persons to participate but tries to not enthrone any religious system with state sponsorship. The working through of these dynamics stands at the heart of our system, for better or for worse. See Nick Wolterstorff’s good conversation with Miroslav Volf on religious participation in liberal democracy.
To me the interesting parts of this debate have little to do with the legal issues. Those don’t seem terribly hard to deal with. We have established processes for working through questions like these (courts, legislatures, elections, etc.) and they will grind away in their time towards whatever solutions they find for however long they endure. What is more interesting to me are the whys behind the debates.
This debate is not really about the judgment of the civil law on this matter. It is about the assertion that the sex of romantic and sexual partners is incidental to the public value of the relationship everywhere in society. It is the demand that all those with the capacity to form judgments (especially the large, influential ones) not evaluate a romantic or sexual partnership on the basis of the sex of the parties involved.
Because the traditional position of the church has been that the only morally sanctioned sexual activity happens within the context of a marriage, having the church embrace same sex marriage then has the church sanction same sex behavior within marriage. Gay libertarian Justin Raimondo wrote
“The modern gay-rights movement is all about securing the symbols of societal acceptance. It is a defensive strategy, one that attempts to define homosexuals as an officially sanctioned victim group afflicted with an inherent disability, a disadvantage that must be compensated for legislatively. But if “gay pride” means anything, it means not wanting, needing, or seeking any sort of acceptance but self-acceptance. Marriage is a social institution designed by heterosexuals for heterosexuals: why should gay people settle for their cast-off hand-me-downs?”
The Us We Demand Our Gods to Mirror
Many have noted that this fight is different in America. Is it because America is more religious or is it because American religion has some interesting properties? In Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” he describes how when you release the world from God the Romantic solution tends to fill the gap. With God out of the picture we attempt to use romantic relationships as the mirrors though which we wish to see our selves, know our selves, construct our selves, vindicate our selves, save our selves. Rose says of Jack in the movie Titanic “he saved me in every way a person can be saved”. We like our romantic saviors and we like our gods lines up to affirm our choices.
What is going on in this debate is nothing less than a pitched battle to define a public god’s judgment with respect to our romantic idolatries. If romantic love is our savior, we must have our god agree.
This of course leads us back to the question: “what is marriage for?”
If you say “I want my country to mirror and support my religious views” I would certainly agree with you. While we’re at it I’d like to eat all the ice cream I can without weight gain or heart disease. I don’t believe God is going to grant me either request. If you’re a conservative Christian who feels like someone has changed the rules on you, that you’ve lost a lot of power in the land and that America is no longer the Christian nation you thought it was you have my sympathies. There is a rigorous debate as to whether there ever was a golden age of Christianity in America. I think a lot of the different perspectives on this are dependent upon where someone was located in those years.
In 1986 Will Willimon wrote a piece putting Christians on notice about the fact that we should no longer expect the nation to prop up the church. It’s a good piece, one worth reading. pvk