For several years, American society has been engaged in an intense political battle over the nature of marriage. I haven't presented any thoughts here on this subject up until this point, and certainly not because I had no opinion.
Today, a Facebook friend shared this comic:
It's not the first time that I've seen this sentiment, and it isn't even the best representation of it that I've seen. For whatever reason, however, seeing this today convinced me that today was the day to share my thoughts on the issue of redefining marriage. Here goes.
Terminology and History
To start, notice that I'm referring here to redefining marriage, not to "gay marriage" or to "marriage equality." That's intentional. The first term I loathe because of its distinction.
So-called "gay marriage" would be nothing distinct from what we now refer to as "civil unions," an alternate form of recognition. No one wants to see "gay marriage;" some people want to see homosexual unions recognized on a civil level, while others want to see marriage redefined so that homosexuals may marry.
I don't remember who used the line so effectively, but it's stuck with me: "When I park my car, I just park it. I don't gay-park it."
Then there's "marriage equality." I hate this one too. Marriage as it is defined in most societies today--in most of the United States and in much of the world--is a contractual arrangement between two people of opposite genders. Most legal codes require mutual consent, but there is no requirement in the contract that the two people are in love, are attracted to one another, or intend to have any sort of sexual contact. It's a contract.
Now, yes: marriage generally includes the assumption by the broader society of sexual intimacy. But there's a singular reason for that, and it's the reason why marriage has traditionally existed: to assign property rights to heirs. Whether property passed down maternally or paternally in a given society, there was always a need to decide how to deal with people's stuff when they died.
Perhaps it would have been easier if humans had enshrined collective confiscation of possessions upon death. We did not. Instead, our ancestors came up with a way of handing down on the basis of lineage, and because they couldn't tell who was actually fathered by whom, they left it to two things:
- The children born to a man's wife or wives, who were unavoidably and necessarily legitimate (an arrangement that forms the basis of insistence upon female marital fidelity); and
- The children born to other women whom a man might deign to recognize as being his own (at his discretion, hence the relative lack of concern for male marital fidelity).
The point is, marriage is not a couples' right but rather an individual right, and it has to do with property rather than cozy feelings. In that regard, homosexuals have always had precisely the same legal rights as heterosexuals vis-a-vis marriage: they can choose to marry anyone of the opposite gender they wish, for reasons entirely their own.
The Modern Perspective
Over time, marriage has come to be used by legal systems as a convenient way of extending rights and benefits to people who form relationships--convenient because people in long-lasting relationships tended to get married. That's one reason why we have discussions today about redefining marriage.
There are a great many things, including automatic passing of property and implicit power of attorney during incapacitation as well as custody of children and claims on pensions, that are by law given special treatment between legal spouses that do not get similar treatment for unmarried people, regardless of how long they may have lived together. (Once upon a time, this was a non-issue by virtue of common-law marriage provisions; many states no longer recognize common-law marriage.)
At the same time, Americans in particular have bucked the trend of the developed world by doubling down on marriage as a desirable goal of personal life. In Europe, marriage rates have declined in favor of civil filings that extend similar benefits. Here in the U.S., people continue to see getting married as a superior and more legitimate form of announcing a public union.
For both reasons, and others of more personal natures, homosexual couples in committed relationships have sought to gain access to the specific legitimacy long afforded only to heterosexual couples. The combination of non-legacy issues (e.g. things other than children) and the rising trend for couples to marry first and foremost out of love (enabled by a general increase in social prosperity and the independence of women as earners in a post-industrial workforce) makes this an understandable thing to want.
Marriage has been around in its traditional form for a long time. It was always a given that any attempt to redefine it would be challenged by those who liked it the way that it was. Let's first consider the obstacles that fall into practical terms--that is, the ones whose objections are exactly what they seem to be.
#1: Pandora's Box: The Polygamy Argument. Some have argued that by refining marriage to remove the requirement that it be between "one man and one woman" in favor of simply saying "two people," American society would be opening a line of thinking wherein the ability to restrict marriage at all would be in question. The range of possibilities offered include everything from polygamy to people marrying their dogs.
Most such claims are silly. Marrying an animal, an inanimate object, or a child would remain impossible because of the requirement for consent under U.S. marriage statutes; neither animals nor children are deemed by our laws to be competent to consent to such things, and clearly boxes and other inanimate objects are inherently unable to consent.
The polygamy claim is not silly. It is unpopular with advocates for marriage redefinition to broach the subject, but if one can rationally argue that society has no valid right to restrict the recognition of a relationship between consenting adults on the basis of their genders, it follows quite easily that society would have similar difficulty explaining why precisely three or more people might not form a consensual relationship in the same manner.
Abraham Lincoln famously called slavery and polygamy the twin evils of human society. We retain that visceral objection to polygamy to this day. But in Lincoln's day, American marriage was not between equals. It's easy to see why a man taking multiple wives without their having much say in the matter would be an issue. It's far harder to see how such a thing today, decided between men and women on terms of equality, would be any different than couples deciding to have open marriages or polyamorous relationships. Why should secular society be concerned?
Indeed, the best response to the claim that redefining marriage might open the door to polygamy seems to be the same response given on the matter of homosexuality: "So what?"
#2: The Money Argument. The only other practical argument against redefining marriage to allow for homosexual couples to marry is the dollars-and-cents cost of the matter. I'm not talking about the time of judges to perform ceremonies or witness paperwork; that sort of thing gets covered by filing fees. No, I mean the very real cost of extending spousal benefits to people who up until this point have been treated by the Federal government as single.
Don't shrug. When one tallies the tax implications of deductions and credits that phase out at different levels for married couples and the gift exemptions afforded them, the numbers are big. Toss in the value of spousal benefits for Social Security--not only one-half of the amount paid to the higher-earning spouse while he or she is alive but also the entire amount transferred to the survivor upon the higher-earner's death--and we're talking hundreds of billions of dollars. That's enough money for society to take notice and have a say.
But what should that say be? The only practical reason for society to reward marriage is and has always been its affect on children. If we're concerned about how much marriage costs us as a nation, it's not much of a reason to avoid redefining marriage to take into account those committed same-sex couples raising children. In that context, what we should be asking is why we offer benefits for marriage rather than parenting.
#3: People, not judges. The third argument against redefining marriage deals with methods versus conclusions. There are people in this country who are emphatically supportive of legislatures redefining marriage to include same-sex couples who are bothered by a State Supreme Court "finding" that the documents of government do not allow the people of the state to restrict marriage by gender. I count myself among these people, and I don't think it's hard to see why.
The United States was founded by an act of rebellion. Our Founders were aware of this and went to great lengths to establish means by which the people could weigh in on a given issue and change the rules from within the system; by doing so, the Founders removed the legitimacy of taking up arms in the way that they themselves had done.
We have courts in part to protect minority rights from majority whim, but we should not lose sight of the terrible cost associated with decisions made solely by the courts. Desegregation was enabled by the judiciary in Brown v Board of Education but enshrined by the Civil Rights Act and is no longer widely questioned. Abortion rights, in contrast, were established solely by Supreme Court decree and remain unsettled today.
Taking into account that it is only the confidence of our ability to change things by working within the system that dissuades the most passionate from the legitimacy of an armed insurrection, we should be very careful in how we as a nation proceed regarding the use of courts to topple long-established precedents. There are times when this makes sense and is necessary, but the court action should never be more than a vanguard for broader and more inclusive legislation that affirms a majority backing of what was done. To do otherwise risks long-term divides that, lest we forget, might always be reversed by a new court as simply as they were made by an older one. The definition of marriage deserves a better foundation than the whim of a judge.
Having addressed the only three reasoned arguments that hold much weight with regards to redefining marriage, we now come to the one that matters: religious belief.
I wish that I could say that the wave of debate that has swept America these last few years channeled an invigorated rationalism in which millions of my fellow Americans gave careful thought to the merits of society, tax policy, and the proper role of the courts. However, this is almost certainly not the case.
Because of America's particular divide between religious views and secular law, many of the most fervent religious opponents to redefining marriage cloak their arguments in secular-seeming morality. "The sanctity of marriage" is a particularly favorite reference of religious activists, ascribing to marriage a positive vibe without having to say specifically that it is a blessing given by God Almighty and that His laws must trump our own. (Some particularly fervent moralists, like Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, do take this position; notice Santorum's poll numbers.)
But make no mistake: marriage's so-called sanctity is only a cover for saying "God wants it to be this way and only this way," shallow camouflage for advocating an American theocracy.
That brings me back to the comic that I included at the beginning of this post. Some people look at that comic and see a sort of hypocrisy. There's no hypocrisy among the religious opponents to redefining marriage. Given the power, they'd ban divorce. They'd ban premarital and extramarital sex. They'd ban not only pornography but also "suggestive themes," and they'd carry through with wiping out every last instance of immorality that they could find in consultation with their religious guidance on the subject.
Now, it is true that Christian activists in particular are regularly seen offering forgiveness to those who repent from their sins, and perhaps they do recognize the unlikelihood that those repenting are truly sorry. But think about it from their perspective: God has mandated forgiveness for those who repent. If they're lying, God will figure that out. You'd be able to apply that same standard to people who had been in homosexual relationships and now repented. You could not apply it to people who insisted that homosexuality was acceptable, just as you'd not condone people in ongoing open marriages.
Of course, there are Christians who take no issue with homosexuality and support redefining marriage. But these fall into two categories:
- People who chose their specific faith and place of worship because it fit with the beliefs that they already held, and would opt to keep their beliefs over their faith if the two conflicted; and
- People who have studied their faiths and come to believe that the teachings and lessons say something other than what others believe.
From a 2012 vantage point, it appears to me that the United States is not far from removing the traditional restriction of marriage by gender. Taking into account that the human interest in marriage is and has always been primarily for the good of children, and since so many families are now the products of adoption, in-vitro fertilization, and other means beyond traditional sexual couplings between spouses, I see little reason to take issue with such a change on a practical basis.
How we do it matters, and that's why I encourage supporters to build bridges based on respectful listening and tolerance. Court decisions may be the first steps, but to retain equal status for all married couples, we need to go beyond the Supreme Courts and into people's own lives. We need to win support that will translate in broad-based mandates.
We're almost certain to see the erosion of polygamy bans in the wake of such changes. But let's be honest: people are going to do what they want to do anyway. Recognizing these unions is as much about making it more annoying to end them as it is about giving positive benefits to the participants. Serial monogamy might be religiously acceptable, but it's ruinous for children. We want families to be happy and stable.
Supporters of redefining marriage need to talk to people. Be respectful and thoughtful. Make friends of those who disagree. You can't "win over" religious activists, and arguing reason or trying to tell them that they've misread holy teachings is more likely to get you kicked out than it is to turn on a light bulb over their heads, but focus on tolerance. I've had friends who made terrible marriage choices. That didn't keep me from liking them, or them me.
Remember, it's from those who oppose us that we stand to learn the most. If we only respect those with whom we agree, our society isn't much worth saving anyway.