The questions were posed by my friend Peg (before she took up the sailor's life.)
When I advocate in favor of gay marriage, I sometimes hear "it will hurt the marriage institution." My response, that gay marriage can't hurt marriage anymore than straight marriage has, is ignored. Would someone explain the rationale behind the "bad for marriage" argument to me?
This question is remarkable only for its utter lack of mystery. Religious authority has been losing its position as the definer of truth in many things--government, education, natural philosophy to name a few—for centuries. They tried to hold the line on these fronts, but inevitably came up short. Marriage has been one remaining refuge where their longstanding priority in saying what goes is still more or less intact. Even after their power to influence sexual mores began to erode, marriage has been a bulwarked fortress from which they have had little cause to retreat. Yet, that, as the saying goes, was then, and this is now. Society is shifting towards dramatically increased tolerance of homosexuality. Worse, there are open demands that homosexuals be allowed the covenant of marriage. The religious realize they face a society that believes it has outgrown clerical authority on yet another topic. They simply find this difficult to bear.
One cannot completely discount the role of fear and hatred in all this, but we must resist the temptation to assume it is in total control of the reaction. Consider. If even the modest estimates of the proportion of gays in the Roman Catholic priesthood can be trusted (which they probably can, boy howdy can they), then homosexuality has to have been an open secret among thousands of clerical colleagues over years and years. Yet they have gone on rubbing elbows together in the arms of Mother Church without flinching. This is hardly a climate of rampant homophobia. The idea that they simply can't bring themselves to understand the equivalence of a same sex union in terms of love, honor, commitment and growth is false. The claim that if they could only be made to see this their opposition would evaporate is utter nonsense. They are perfectly capable of seeing that, and the more intellectually reflective of them have probably already acknowledged it to themselves. They might even acknowledge it openly. The bottom line is that they just couldn't care less. The hate card makes good rhetoric, but it doesn’t frame the real issue.
No, the thought process that sets off the alarm in the authoritarian clerical mindset is their unshakable belief that marriage IS what the church says it is, and only the church is allowed to say what it is. Of course they'll rephrase that to say “what GOD says it is”, making sure to speak for him if he doesn’t make an appearance. It is one of the areas where they still hold a truly dominant share of the market. Were they to bow to shifting societal attitudes regarding marriage, they would be conceding away one of their last remaining spheres of dominance. The stakes for them are therefore enormous.
In a sense they are perfectly right. Societal introduction of gay marriage contrary to church instruction destroys the institution as they understand it, but only because that would mean it was no longer their sole province. They know damn well what they are being asked to give up.
All very good points and well-said. But the person I am trying to reason with is concerned only with the implications of legalizing CIVIL marriages.
It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference. Certainly in a society where freedom of religion and separation of church and state are the law of the land, a civil administration of marriage is to be expected. But it is also true that our society in practice has greatly deferred to clerical authority in matters of marriage more than in any other arena. How many people do we know that still get married by a cleric, even if their personal beliefs are agnostic at best. The historical bargain of the establishment clause may have required the various sects and faiths to share power in matters nuptial, but the religionists understood that it was still mostly their game, and their ball. To this day faithful of many stripes expect that status quo to be upheld. It does not matter to them, therefore, that a law allowing civil marriage would not encroach on their right to refuse to proffer the sacrament to homosexual union. The point is that in matters of what marriage is going to be in society they still expect to have the last word.
This leaves them in a bind. First, what they are trying to uphold is not a legal privilege as much as a Gentlemen’s Agreement. They may feel the legalization of civil union violates their purview, but what can they do? The more stridently religious can scream about sanctity, an explicitly religious concept, but that won’t stand long in the face of the establishment and separation clauses. They can prattle about the offense of forcing believers to respect a bond sanctioned by the civil authority in violation of their deeply held religious laws, but that won’t hold up to scrutiny either. In this society, the reach of religious law is short, and does not increase with the passion with which the faithful embrace it. Otherwise, orthodox synagogues would preclude the establishment of pig farms in the same neighborhood.
Second, a number of clerics and denominations have broken ranks and come out in favor of same sex marriage. Some offer the sacrament where possible, either in accordance with or in lieu of existing civil recognition. One effect of this is to turn the legal landscape a full 180 degrees. It makes proffering the sacrament of marriage a matter of differing religious opinions. The Constitution makes it very hard to ask the state to take a position adjudicating between such differences, all other things being equal. Our best rule of thumb in such cases is for the state to remain neutral and proscribe sufficient room for all to practice as they see fit. This invariably favors the civil allowance of same sex union for those who want it.
Given all this, what can be said in defense of the old status quo? Not much. The fall back becomes a preservationist argument. Marriage as defined in the old terms is claimed to be such an important and meaningful concept that it must be preserved in toto. Not a dram of its meaning can ever be allowed to evolve or pass away. They might say something like “What would anyone add to or cut away from the Mona Lisa?” They will accuse us of trying to do something like that to marriage.
I can think of a few objections to this position. First, it’s based on an assumption of some kind of perfection in the marriage concept they wish to preserve. This is very problematic. They can trot out the theological “God made it perfect” claim in support of this, but it puts them squarely back in the arena of civil vs. clerical separation. Beyond that, is there anything to suggest perfection in the institution? Its common practice certainly doesn’t, nor does its history of evolutionary change. At one time it meant a subjugation of a woman’s legal independence to her husband. We’ve worked hard to rid ourselves of that, with some way yet to go, but the point is that if we thought the marriage concept was perfect, we wouldn’t be still working on it like that. Other examples of change in the marriage concept can be brought readily to mind. Without some kind of static perfection to fall back on the preservationist argument starts to leak oil.
Even if we granted some kind of perfection to the traditional concept, that wouldn’t necessarily preclude anything new. To reply to the Mona Lisa analogy at its face value: Just because we want to keep Leonardo’s masterpiece intact doesn’t mean we have to tell Renoir or Pollock or O’keefe to lay down their brushes, or restrict them to pounding out duplicates of one portrait of an Italian merchant princess. Worthy things can coexist: the more the better. When Rodin crafted The Thinker, he did not detract from but added to the value of Michelangelo’s David. Excellent yet different conceptions side by side offer far more than they do separately.
Finally the preservationist argument is a ploy: an attempt to get you to agree to manacles in advance of the debate. It’s based on the knowledge that growth and change attends an annihilation of some fraction of the original. Instances where growth is exclusively amplification or simple addition are rare. Natural, desirable, inevitable change usually discards some part of its beginning. Insect and amphibian metamorphosis shows this in extremis. The caterpillar is continuous with the butterfly, yet only a small necessary amount of the caterpillar identity is preserved. The flaw in the maneuver intended by the status quo defender becomes clear. They will argue it does not matter what is gained by the expansion of the definition of marriage, if even the slightest bit of the original is discarded or lost, they will demand that it must not be done. They deny growth, adaptation, and experiment: an excellent strategy, if the goal is to learn or invent absolutely nothing.
So the next time anyone asks you to put on the “preservationist” handcuffs, tell them no, it just doesn’t turn you on. Some may like, even need, bondage to be part of intellectual intercourse, but you simply have to have your hands free thank you very much. If they complain, suggest that if they can’t “perform” under those circumstances the fault might not lie with you.