Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Secular Case Against Gay Marriage

Newsweek ramps-up the gay marriage debate with its cover story this week, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage."

The piece starts with numerous examples of Biblical figures whose manners of living were diametrically opposed to what today's religious conservatives would champion as an appropriate traditional lifestyle for society: For example, "Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists."

Read the
essay. The problem I see is the author argues an exclusively literalist case against faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage, when in fact most Americans would more likely argue an essentialist religious foundation against gay marriage, one that sees religious tradition - rather than literal prophetic realism - as the basis for an ethics privileging heterosexual marriage.

Here's how Newsweek paints religious literalism as a straw man in favor of a more holistic religious acceptance of same-sex marriage:

As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.
As I have argued many times here, the case for an expansive religious interpretation of a homosexual right to marry was rejected decisively at the polls this year, and Newsweek's own poll that accompanies this article found only 31 percent of Americans in favor full-blown marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

But we can leave all of that aside for the moment, since the increasing secularism in American society seems like a steamroller at times, and its proponents have no qualms of adopting Soviet-style show-trial tactics to dehumanize those who suppor the majoritarian political process.

The fact is, conservatives may have to battle gay rights advocates on the secular battlefield, as contentious cultural issues like this are essentially uncompromising for people of faith.

Susan Shell, in a masterpiece of an article, "
The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage," lays out a classical and secular liberal case against gay marriage ("liberal" is used here in the Lockean form, with a stress on "liberty of rights," not "liberal" as used to describe the American left).

The core of
Shell's argument is that marriage historically is recognized as a practice that his essentially procreative and regenerative. Not all couples bear children, but the institution's social foundation is anchored in the elevation of the basic biological union of spouses, and it is protected under the law as available to only one man and one woman, as a matter of civil principle. Shell argues, for example, marriage should only be available for the regenerative union of spouses in the ideal, as funerals are in fact only available to the dead:
When considering the institution of marriage, a useful comparison exists between how society addresses the beginning and end of human life. Like death, our relation to which is shaped and challenged but not effaced by modern technologies, generation defines our human nature, both in obvious ways and in ways difficult to fathom fully. As long as this is so, there is a special place for marriage understood as it has always been understood. That is to say, there is a need for society to recognize that human generation and its claims are an irreducible feature of the human experience.

Like the rites and practices surrounding death, marriage invests a powerful, universally shared experience with the norms and purposes of a given society. Even when couples do not "marry," as is increasingly becoming the case in parts of western Europe, they still form socially recognized partnerships that constitute a kind of marriage. If marriage in a formal sense is abolished, it will not disappear, but it will no longer perform this task so well.

A similar constraint applies to death. A society could abolish "funerals" as heretofore understood and simply call them "parties," or allow individuals to define them as they wish. Were the "liberationist" exaltation of individual choice pushed to its logical conclusion, would not a public definition of "funeral" as a rite in honor of the dead appear just as invidious as a public definition of "marriage" as an enduring sexual partnership between a man and woman? If it is discriminatory to deny gay couples the right to "marry," is it not equally unfair to deny living individuals the right to attend their own "funerals"? If it makes individuals happy, some would reply, what is the harm? Only that a society without the means of formally acknowledging, through marriage, the fact of generation, like one without the means of formally acknowledging, through funeral rites, the fact of death, seems impoverished in the most basic of human terms.

Like generation, death has a "public face" so obvious that we hardly think of it. The state issues death certificates and otherwise defines death legally. It recognizes funeral attendance as a legal excuse in certain contexts, such as jury duty. It also regulates the treatment of corpses, which may not merely be disposed of like any ordinary animal waste. Many states afford funeral corteges special privileges not enjoyed by ordinary motorists. Funeral parlors are strictly regulated, and there are limits on the purchase and destruction of cemeteries that do not apply to ordinary real estate. In short, there are a number of ways in which a liberal democratic government, as a matter of course, both acknowledges "death" and limits the funereal rites and practices of particular sects and individuals. I cannot call a party in my honor my "funeral" and expect the same public respect and deference afforded genuine rites for the dead. And it would be a grim society indeed that allowed people to treat the dead any old which way--as human lampshades, for example.

Once one grants that the link between marriage and generation may approach, in its universality and solemn significance, the link between funereal practices and death, the question of gay marriage appears in a new light. It is not that marriages are necessarily devoted to the having and rearing of children, nor that infertility need be an impediment to marriage (as is still the case for some religious groups). This country has never legally insisted that the existence of marriage depends upon "consummation" in a potentially procreative act. It is, rather, that marriage, in all the diversity of its forms, draws on a model of partnership rooted in human generation. But for that fact, marriages would be indistinguishable from partnerships of a variety of kinds. The peculiar intimacy, reciprocity, and relative permanence of marriage reflect a genealogy that is more than merely historical.

Seen in this light, the issue of gay marriage can be reduced to the following question: Is the desired union between homosexuals more like a marriage between infertile heterosexuals, unions that draw ultimate psychological and moral sustenance (at least symbolically) from the experience of human generation; or is it more like insistence on attending one's own funeral--a funeral, one might say, existing in name only? This question is not easily answered. Progress can be made, however, by attending to the stated goals of most gay marriage advocates.
Someone who is living cannot attend their own funeral, and thus, according to this logic, someone who is gay cannot attend their own marriage, as marriage has been historically constituted heterosexually in law and culture.

But Shell adds another paragraph indicating the likely backlash militant homosexuals will engender through their hardcore gay marriage advocacy:

American citizens should not have the sectarian beliefs of gay-marriage advocates imposed on them unwillingly. If proponents of gay marriage seek certain privileges of marriage, such as legal support for mutual aid and childbearing, there may well be no liberal reason to deny it to them. But if they also seek positive public celebration of homosexuality as such, then that desire must be disappointed. The requirement that homosexual attachments be publicly recognized as no different from, and equally necessary to society as, heterosexual attachments is a fundamentally illiberal demand. Gays cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to heterosexuals any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. Least of all can gays be guaranteed all of the experiences that stem from the facts of human sexual reproduction and its accompanying penumbra of pleasures and cares. To insist otherwise is not only psychologically and culturally implausible; it imposes a sectarian moral view on fellow citizens who disagree and who may hold moral beliefs that are diametrically opposed to it.
Keep in mind that Shell argues this point with the acknowlegment that political libertarianism would accord homosexuals the same rights that accrue to traditional couples, such as adoption. And as we saw in the Newsweek survey, on every other gay rights issues outside of marriage equality majorities of Americans are tolerant and expansive in affording full inclusion for same-sex partners.

But the current militant authoritarianism for same-sex marriage rights - which we've seen demonstrated with nauseating clarity in the No on H8 attacks following the passage of California's Yes on 8 initiative - will almost certainly generate the kind of backlash against gay marriage equality that Shell envisions.

So, while there may indeed by a growing generation tolerance for full-blown same-sex marriage equality, the logical extension of full public affirmation of such marriage rights may well create the the kind of reaction capable of setting back the clock on gay rights altogether.


Nikki said...

I enjoyed this read very much...I already have the funeral comparison ready in the event of a gay marriage debate...thanks for the interesting article. :)N

AmPowerBlog said...

Thanks Nikki!

We can make the case against marriage on religious and secular grounds, and the more militant gay advocates become, the more they'll hurt their own case.

Anonymous said...

I will try to make this as simple as I possibly can. I am in a same sex relationship. My "domestic partner" is my legal wife in Canada. I pay taxes, social security, and medicare in the United States where I was born and live. My religion is none of your business. My personal beliefs about many of the marriages that I must give appropriate regard in a legal way is not important either. Neither is your personal belief about my relationship important. I deserve the same legal recognition of my relationship as do you. The religious recognition of our relationships should be left to the various existing theologic entities. However, the impact on taxes, social security benefits, property rights, and the rights of our children to be protected by marriage should be exempt from the varying ways in which religious entities may view marriage. The rights and privileges of marriage are secular; the moral judgement of the validity of marriage is another matter. You have no more right to deny me and my family secular marriage than I have to deny secular rights to your family. I am tired of struggling to find the space to answer the "check box" question of whether or not I am married. There is not enough space to say that I am legally married in Canada though the marriage is not recognized her in the United States. THIS

Anonymous said...

The suggestion that marriage as it is legally recognized in this country has anything to do with the ability to "procreate" in the traditional sense of a sperm and an egg coming together to produce a zygote in the fallopian tube of the the woman and then traveling to the uterus of the woman to become an embryo is ridiculous. Marriage is in part about protecting children. But these children are not required to have come from traditional procreation. ALL CHILDREN deserve the protections of marriage - even the children of same sex couples.

AmPowerBlog said...

Anonymous: You didn't actually address the argument at the post.

You should do so, because I am deleting posts by "Anonymous," which are getting to be most just attacks on me, although this one is getting to more in line with actual commentary and debate.

Tapline said...

DD, excellent post..If marriage is not between a man and a woman, then could it be between a man and his dog, or a man and his many wives????? does this also make sense. I can see civil unions if that is what they want to call them for legal purposes, but marriage....lets keep to what it is, a joining of a man and woman, making them one in the eyes of God....stay well....

AmPowerBlog said...

I agree, Tapper!

Tapline said...

DD, excellent post..If marriage is not between a man and a woman, then could it be between a man and his dog, or a man and his many wives????? does this also make sense. I can see civil unions if that is what they want to call them for legal purposes, but marriage....lets keep to what it is, a joining of a man and woman, making them one in the eyes of God....stay well....

Laura Lee - Grace Explosion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich Casebolt said...

Professor, I think Blogger has a setting to disallow anonymous comments. Gateway Pundit wasn't allowing them for while (IMO for the same reasons as you cite) when he was using Blogger for comments (ironically, he switched over to Haloscan recently ... the opposite to your recent course of action here.).

Anonymous said...


Answer this question. How does anonymous being married effect you? Does it effect you economically? physically? personally? Or is it simply just that you cannot reconcile your fanaticism with those that seek the same rights as yourself? Well guess what, there's an appropriate word for that. Its called TYRANNY. Sounds like you have more in common with Stalin and Hitler than the rest of us socialists/marxists, after all.

And by the way, I know you guys don't dig the science and all. Cause yeh know its all about peer reviewed, factual, tested theories? The kind of theories that don't drop from the sky? Yeh that stuff, you guys love to hate.

I have a developmental/social psychology text with me here. Let me quote:

"reearch on children reared by gay and lesbian couples, along with findigns concerning African American grandmothers, reminds us that "good parenting" can assume many different forms.....multiple adults are important, thats evident from research on the impact of divorce on children but who the adutls are seems to matter less than what they do. Children benefit from good parenting skills whether its a mother and father or two women or two men......"

So if anyone wants to make the case against gay and lesbians child-rearing, there you have it......peer reviewed studies.

repsac3 said...

That funeral analogy rubbed me the wrong way the first time I read it... I couldn't write a better reply than the one to which you inadvertently linked earlier today:

correct the analogy:

When people make incorrect analogies, I think it's best to correct the analogy.

The funeral analogy is this:

* funerals have always been Catholic or Jewish
* Protestants have memorial services

To protect traditional funerals:
* only Catholics or Jews may use the term.
* Protestants may only have their own traditional memorial services.
* atheists & agnostics can't have funerals or memorial services
* atheists & agnostics can have "civil burials" — but anyone buried civilly cannot:
* pass on property
* cannot be listed in the obituaries in newspapers
* cannot have a service presided over by clergy

AmPowerBlog said...

Nice try, Reppy!

No, not just Catholics, etc., have funerals. As Shell notes, the state has all kinds of protections for funerals AND death rites, which are only, of course, for the dead.

"The state issues death certificates and otherwise defines death legally. It recognizes funeral attendance as a legal excuse in certain contexts, such as jury duty. It also regulates the treatment of corpses, which may not merely be disposed of like any ordinary animal waste."

You lose, again...

Anonymous said...

Has anybody against gay marriage ever stop to think that they are guaranteed that right in the constitution? In the 14th amendment, every citizen of the United States is guaranteed due process, which is legal equality. Marriage is nothing more than a legal definition; don't bring your religion or morals into someone else's life. We also have the implied rights of privacy, in such amendments as the 14th, 9th, 1st, ect. This means that you cannot deprive them of their legal rights, or what goes on in their lives. Their decision to be gay doesn't affect you whatsoever, unless you fall to the floor and have a stroke everytime someone discovers that they are gay. You have no legal standing to not allow gay marriage, all there is to it. Didn't civil rights and women's rights pass in this country and come to acceptance? Anyways, the divorce rate between heterosexual couples is at 60%, just because straight people aren't happy with their lives they have to deprive someone else of happiness? What harm would allowing gay marriage do? How would you feel if you loved someone, but your country refuses to acknowledge how you feel?

Anonymous said...

Only a person with a very dismal, bitter, sad and lonely perception of marriage would draw analogy between marriage and death. This must be why so many heterosexual couples (I believe 60% and climbing) get divorced. If marriage is akin to a funeral, then divorce is what, a resurrection?

This is not a masterpiece of an article, nor is it even a legitimate "case" against gay marriage. But keep trying, people... you're on the wrong side of history anyway.

Anonymous said...

Basically, I think you should blow me.

Gays are getting married. There's nothing you can do about it, because people are waking up every day and realising that marriage is about love.

Your foolish propaganda, under the guise of being "secular", disgust me. I piss on your ideals.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

This article came up in the first page of Google results for "the case against gay marriage." I kinda figured that this was about the best that could be done, but I just don't see how this doesn't eventually give way to the Equal Protection clauses of our Constitution as an earlier poster pointed out. I think it's just a matter of time, just as the Lawrence v. Texas decision was, and on similar constitutional grounds. The funeral analogy is silly, as we are dealing with the rights of living peoples regardless of orientation, and whether our laws reflect similar treatment of similar cases in similar circumstances. Clearly the alive and the dead are not similar to warrant similar treatment. (DUH!) The American Right is truly in a sad state when this is the best they can muster. The very article quoted also gives away the whole case for gay marriage:
"If proponents of gay marriage seek certain privileges of marriage, such as legal support for mutual aid and childbearing, there may well be no liberal reason to deny it to them."

That's all you need and the case for same-sex marriage is closed.