June 6, 2013

Let’s Get Real about Same-sex Marriage

Some time ago, I began writing an essay titled “Christianity and Gay Marriage” in which I intended to take on opposition to same-sex marriage by Christians. I began by enumerating the benefits of marriage and intended to argue that marriage could benefit both same-sex couples and society as a whole. As my list lengthened, I began to worry that my essay would do so as well, and I put the project aside to be taken up later.

I was thinking about that essay today, perhaps inspired by the fact that the religious forces in the U.K. seem to have given up on derailing the same-sex marriage bill making its way through Parliament in favor of trying to amend the bill to make it more to their liking. It occurred to me that the question is not really why people should be allowed to marry someone of the same sex but why they should be prevented from doing so.

The basic answer as to why same-sex marriage should be allowed is that there are people who want to marry someone of the same sex. This is not as silly as it might sound. In the past, there was virtually no demand for this right, and the largely unexamined tradition of allowing marriage only between men and women went unchallenged. Once the demand for the right to marry someone of the same sex is made in what claims to be a free society, the question that has to be asked is: why not?

Once consciousnesses has been raised, right-thinking people find it difficult to support the status quo absent strong reasons for doing so. Many examples of this phenomenon could be cited from the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. Let me suggest an example that is not too fraught with emotion.

I once found it natural and acceptable to use masculine pronouns where the sex of the referent is indefinite. (“Everyone picked up his books and left the classroom.”) When feminists objected to this convention as sexist, I had to change my practice in speech and writing. The old convention seemed perfectly serviceable, and I did not mean to offend anyone by employing it. When I discovered that some people did take offense (even if they had been taught to take offense), however, I had to change my practice because the objection was logical and the hurt inflicted by the longstanding convention was real. (Alas, we still haven’t found a good grammatical solution to the problem of lacking a sufficiently diverse set of personal pronouns.)

For most of my life, I never though about allowing people of the same sex to marry, but I cannot not think about it now. And when forced to think about it, there seems little reason two people of the same sex cannot live together, sharing their lives and possessions, providing mutual support, and even raising children. Nonetheless, certain religious people, invariably Christians, it seems, are unmoved by the obvious logic. They have reasons to object to allowing same-sex marriage. I want to consider the arguments most often raised by such folks against extending society’s concept of marriage.

Perhaps the most common argument one hears is that gay marriage will somehow damage conventional marriage. It is difficult to take this argument seriously, as a mechanism for such damage is never identified. How is one’s marriage diminished by allowing another couple of whatever sort to marry? In fact, there is only one substantive and objective disadvantage that would be visited on heterosexual married couples by allowing people of the same sex to marry. That disadvantage is financial. Since there are financial benefits to being married—being able to file joint tax returns, for example—the societal cost of those benefits would be borne by everyone. I suspect that most people who say that same-sex marriage will damage conventional marriage are not thinking of this and, if they are, they are reluctant to say so, as to do so would seem (and would be) selfish and uncharitable. I believe this argument is a smokescreen for some deeper misgivings, most likely for simple homophobia.

Many claim that a mother and a father are necessary to raise children and that, for the sake of children, we should not encourage the formation of same-sex families. I hardly know where to start discussing this argument, as there is so much wrong with it. To begin with, not everyone who marries will rear or even want to rear children. Even if one grants that a mother and father are necessary to rear children, society does not demand that married people do so. Children are being reared successfully, if not ideally, by single parents and even by same-sex couples. Allowing same-sex marriage might at least increase the number of children in two-parent households, which is almost assuredly more desirable than having them grow up in single-parent households. In fact, the insistence on the need for a mother and a father relies on stereotyped gender roles and the idea that it is helpful for children to be exposed to different personality types. However, a couple, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may be composed of people of very similar or very different personalities. Many homosexual couples surely exhibit more psychological and behavioral diversity than do many heterosexual couples. A similar statement could be made about heterosexual couples. Significantly, we do not test potential mates for diversity before allowing them to marry. The argument about children may be more sincere than the damage-to-conventional-marriage argument, but it is no more compelling.

Then there is the complementarianism argument, the notion that men and women are, in some abstract sense, equal, but have different God-given roles. Those roles do not include marrying someone of the same sex, a view for which Genesis 1–2 is usually cited. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument suggests that a marriage of people of the same sex is intrinsically disordered and, probably, doomed. To the degree that this argument is the result of sincere religious belief, it is difficult to counter. One suspects, however, that, at its heart, this argument is one of certain body parts fitting into certain other body parts. This represents a narrow view of what marriage is all about. (No doubt there would be more happy marriages if marriage was only about having sex and not about supporting one another, reaching compromises, taking out the garbage, and facing life’s difficulties together.) As an empirical matter, as I suggested above, differences between people are not simply determined by sex. Moreover, in modern industrial (or post-industrial) society, most roles are or could be filled by either males or females. (We may never see female Navy SEALs, but this role is an exception.) The notion that each sex has its own God-defined role is no less offensive than the notion that I heard expressed so often in the South when I was growing up, namely that—excuse the language—niggers should know their place. There are many same-sex couples who have lived for decades in happy circumstances, thereby providing ample counterexamples to this argument. To the degree that it is not simply an article of faith, it is bogus.

Another argument that is frequently articulated is that marriage has always been what the church says it is now, and the church is disinclined to change. This, too, is nonsense, but many people who should know better espouse it, whether or not they actually believe it. No less a churchman than the current Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be saying “this is what the Church of England has always said, and we’re sticking with it.” What can one say to that?

For some people, perhaps for many people who offer one of the foregoing arguments, the real issue is either that they believe homosexuality is a sin that should not be tolerated, or they simply have an aversion to the idea of homosexuality, i.e., they are pure homophobes. Such people are not easily dissuaded from their view.

An argument that can be deployed to counter religious opposition to same-sex marriage is that, in a democratic, pluralistic society, laws should not be determined by religious ideas of right and wrong unless those views are very—and I emphasize very—widely accepted. Thus, homicide is outlawed, but working on the Sabbath isn’t. Of course, this argument doesn’t work on those who insist that the United States is and has always been meant to be a “Christian country.” Such people think they want to live in a theocracy, but they might have second thoughts were they actually to find themselves living in one.

All the arguments against allowing same-sex marriage are weak, at best. Perhaps the most compelling answer to them, however, should be informed by the fact that both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the U.K. have concluded that legislation allowing same-sex marriage is inevitable because the populace, including their politicians, seems to be in favor of it. In fact, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has just today released a report showing that a majority of both proponents and opponents of legal same-sex unions believe that legalization is inevitable. Why don’t we accept the inevitable and move on to discussion of more urgent issues, such as unemployment, our failed banking regulation, or our corrupt system of financing elections?


  1. "The basic answer as to why same-sex marriage should be allowed is that there are people who want to marry someone of the same sex."

    YES!!! This argument is SO overdue. Too often, endless trips down the rabbit-hole are run, that are so much neverending philosophical/rhetorical/theological/argumentive, well, "self-abuse". Enough!

    You have a loving, same-sex couple, and they want to marry. Boom. Done. Get out of their way!


Anonymous comments are not allowed. Gratuitous profanity or libelous statements will be removed. Comments will also be removed that include gratuitous links to commercial Web sites. Please stay on topic.