I’ve heard it many times. Last week was only the most recent. A pundit on the radio opined that opposing gay marriage is “Neanderthal” because he believes, “people should be able to marry whoever they want.” This was a well known talking head giving voice to a sentiment shared all across this fruited plain. On college campuses, around dining room tables, and in not a few of our churches, gay marriage marches on by the simple logic that says: what business do we have telling people who they can or can’t marry?
As impressive as the argument sounds–barreling down at us with the strong force of moral superiority and the implicit charge of intolerance–the logic is less than meets the eye.
Let’s think about what is not at stake in our culture’s debate over gay marriage.
- The state is not threatening to criminalize homosexual behavior. Though many Americans believe the behavior is wrong (and until fairly recently homosexual acts were against the law in some states), the debate at present is not about whether homosexuality is legal or not. No one questions that it is.
- The state is not going to prohibit homosexuals from committing themselves to each other in public ceremonies or religious celebrations.
- The state is not going to legislate whether two adults can live together or profess love for one another.
The issue is not about controlling “what people do in their bedrooms” or “who they can love.” The issue is about what sort of union the state will recognize as “marriage” and confer all the benefits thereof. The state doesn’t tell us who we can be friends with or who we can live with. You can have one friend or three friends or a hundred. You can live with your sister, your mother, your dog, or your buddy from work. You can celebrate your relationship with your grandma or your college roommate however you want. But none of these relationships–no matter how special–are marriages. The state’s refusal to recognize these relationships as “marriage” does not keep us from pursuing them, enjoying them, or counting them as significant.
The debate is often cast as freedom (those who support anyone marrying anyone) versus oppression (those who want to tell you who you can marry). Conservatives are losing the debate because that’s the narrative being told in a thousand television episodes, in a thousand songs, and by an increasing number of politicians and educators. But in the long run, the triumph of gay marriage (should it triumph as a cultural and legal reality) will mean the restriction of freedoms for millions of Americans.
This will happen in obvious ways at first–by ostracizing those who disagree, by bullying with political correctness, and by trampling on religious liberty. Surely, Christians must realize that no matter how many caveats we issue, not matter how much we nuance our stance, no matter how much we encourage or show compassion for homosexuals, it will not be enough to ward off the charges of hatred and homophobia. We will have many opportunities in the years ahead to walk in the steps of Jesus who when reviled, did not revile in return, and when he suffered, did not threaten but continued to entrust himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
But gay marriage will challenge our freedoms in others way too. It’s not just Evangelicals, traditional Catholics, and Mormons who will be threatened. Once the government gains new powers, it rarely relinquishes them. There will be a soft tyranny that grows as the power of the state increases, a growth that is intrinsic to the notion of gay marriage itself.
Marriage a Pre-Political Institution
In the traditional view, marriage is what it is. It’s the union of one man and one woman. That’s what marriage is, before the state calls it as such or confers any benefits on it. Marriage, in the traditional view, is a pre-political institution. The state doesn’t determine what defines marriage; it only recognizes marriage and privileges it in certain ways. So “gay marriage” is actually “so-called marriage” because the state does not have the authority to redefine a pre-political reality.
In the revisionist view, by contrast, there is no is to marriage. To be fair, some advocates of gay marriage would say monogamy is still essential to marriage. That is, the one person-one person relationship, for some revisionists, still constitutes the essence of marriage. But many supporters would not make this claim. In fact, many are open that their end goal to abolish all bourgeois marriage. Even the ones that do promote monogamy find it hard to maintain logical consistency. If monogamy is what marriage is, then can a brother and sister be married? What about an acquaintance you meet on the internet with no intention of ever meeting in person? Can these two be married? Surely, the revisionist won’t want to say sexual intimacy is what makes marriage marriage. For then they too would be in the business of telling adults who they can and can’t marry. If your love isn’t sexual it doesn’t count.
And by what logic should marriage be restricted to two persons? Already in California a three-parent law is in the works. Multiple-person marriages will not be far behind. Why can’t three people be married? Or four or fifteen? And why should exclusivity have anything to do with it? Surely, we don’t want to stop adults from being married to whomever they want, even if they want to be married to six people at the same time.
This may sound like extreme reductio ad absurdum, but the premise behind these examples is already well on its way to being established. Once you argue that we have no right to refuse marriage to those who want their relationships to be defined as marriage, you’ve sold the definitional farm. You’ve effectively denied that marriage has any essence of its own. Marriage is whatever the state wants it to be.
What an irony: the many young people (and a growing number of young Christians) who support gay marriage on libertarian grounds are actually ceding to the state a vast amount of heretofore unknown power. No longer is marriage recognized as a pre-political entity which exists independent of the state. Now the state defines marriage and authorizes its existence.
Divine Design and the Common Good
One of the reasons gay marriage enjoys increasing support is because it doesn’t appear to harm anyone. The only threat, is seems, comes from those who defend traditional marriage and wish to force their morality on others. Our culture is fickle. It says “live and let live” when it comes to the most powerful human bonds and the most enduring institutions, but it insists on protecting the “other” with fundamentalist zeal when it comes to trans fat, cigarettes, and carbon emissions.
The unspoken secret, however, is that homosexual behavior is not harmless. Homosexuals are at a far greater risk for diseases like syphilis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, gonorrhea, HPV, and gay bowel syndrome. The high rate of these diseases is due both to widespread promiscuity in the gay community and the nature of anal and oral intercourse itself. Homosexual relationships are usually portrayed as a slight variation on the traditional “norm” of husband-wife monogamy. But monogamy is much less common among homosexual relationships, and even for those who value monogamy the definition of fidelity is much looser.
Gay marriage will also be harmful for our society. We must consider why the state has, for all these years, bothered to recognize marriage in the first place. What’s the big deal? Why not let people have whatever relationships they choose and call it whatever they want? Why go to the trouble of sanctioning a specific relationship and giving it a unique legal standing? The reason is because the state has an interest in promoting the familial arrangement which has a mother and a father raising the children that came from their union. The state has been in the marriage business for the common good and for the well-being of the society it is supposed to protect. Kids do better with a mom and a dad. Communities do better when husbands and wives stay together. Hundreds of studies confirm both of these statements (though we all can think of individual exceptions I’m sure). Gay marriage assumes that marriage is re-definable and the moving parts replaceable.
By recognizing gay unions as marriage, just like the husband-wife relationship we’ve always called marriage, the state is engaging in (or at least codifying) a massive re-engineering of our social life. It assumes the indistinguishability of gender in parenting, the relative unimportance of procreation in marriage, and the near infinite flexibility as to what sorts of structures and habits lead to human flourishing.
It may seem Neanderthal to think the state should not confer the rights and privileges of “marriage” upon whomever it chooses by whatever definition it pleases, but give it time. Experiments in sexual freedom have a tendency to blow up in the laboratory of real life. Would anyone say the family is stronger today because of the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce laws? Human nature and divine design are not set aside as easily as our laws and traditions.