Divisive issues can be challenging enough when all sides fire away from their respective corners.
But when an issue is largely miscast and ill-defined, things get absurdly messy. On the issue of gay marriage, I’m going to define what the issue is, and what it is not, and then settle it right here.
First, to the language. President Obama himself, who did us the favor last week of finally telling us the truth about his feelings on the issue, lends to its misdefinition by saying he believes “same-sex couples should have the right to marry.”
To the President, and to anyone similarly foggy on this: Gays can marry today, anywhere they wish. They may secure a hall and an officiant, hire a band, lay out a buffet and get married right now, wherever they wish.
The only question is whether those marriages will be granted the same legal status as heterosexual marriages.
Sloppy usage like this, plus the unforgivable use of the term “gay marriage ban” conjures images of cops banging on church doors rousting out those inside amid bullhorn shouts: “You’d better not have two people of the same sex getting married in there!”
This does not happen. It will never happen. The miscasting of the gay marriage issue stems from the failure of nearly everyone to recognize that marriage has three components:
It has a religious component. A marriage may carry a heavy faith significance or none. That is no one’s business but the happy couple’s.
It has a social component. This is the recognition by friends, family and society at large that the couple is indeed married and thus the permanence of their union is recognized and appreciated. This is also not the business of the public at large, only the loved ones of those who marry.
The component of marriage that is everybody’s business is the legal portion-- the question of which marriages will be recognized and which will not, granting or denying the various benefits that come from marriage in areas like the tax code, estate laws, property rights and others.
The nation’s founders were visionary, but surely they never imagined Americans would seriously argue for marriages between two men or two women to be regarded as the equal of the marriages that have underpinned society nearly forever. As such, the Constitution is silent on the matter.
This is vital to understand when people assert that the craftily titled concept of “marriage equality” is a right. On what basis? There is no foundation for that claim in the Constitution, and surely no argument for it as a moral right as defined in any mainstream religion.
Something does not become a right simply because people are passionate about it. I am passionate that restaurants should be able to enact their own smoking rules, but I recognize it is not a right.
The Constitution requires that matters unspecifically addressed in its text are left to the states and to the people. This means every state can make its own gay marriage laws. Liberal states may grant legal equality to gay unions, conservative states may reserve that unique status to man/woman marriages.
Both decisions pass constitutional muster, and President Obama is right-- if he is truthful-- about wanting this as a matter for the states and not federal edict.
So the individual states are the proper battleground for which marriages to legally recognize, keeping in mind that gays are free to marry everywhere, and those marriages are equally sound in the religious and social sense, both of which would seem to mightily outweigh the legal technicalities.
Think of your own marriage. What makes it sacred and special? For most, it is the vows made before God, followed closely by the status of “married” as recognized and lifted up by friends, family and the community.
The “piece of paper,” as it is so often called, is a distant third. There, is, in fact, a libertarian argument that government should have no role in marriage whatsoever.
But as long as it does, gays and those who fight for their rights will focus on legal equanimity for a variety of reasons.
Establishing an identical status for gay marriage is a step toward establishing identical status in the public mind for homosexuality and heterosexuality, the so-called “legitimization” battle. For the record, gayness does not alter my regard for any man or woman, and my embrace of Christian teaching on this issue will never lead to any scolding disregard from me for any gay couple. I will occupy my time keeping myself as free of sin as I can rather than obsessing about the activities of others.
The fight for legal equality is also powered by various practicalities-- hospital visitations, rights of inheritance and the like. Basic human decency should lead us all to confer those prerogatives, without the necessity of sacrificing the definition of marriage based on the laws and values of centuries of human existence.
But winning this argument requires acknowledging the sincere questions and concerns of gay marriage equality advocates. So let’s address their questions and claims respectfully, one by one:
What harm is there in granting gay marriages legal equality?
This is a very good question, made better by the fact that it does not involve some instant demonstrable, tangible negative. The economy does not falter, we don’t lose the war, the Earth does not spin out of its orbit.
The argument is based on principle and possible future dangers. The most valuable principle is the vital need to fight the equalization of the genders, to maintain the special recognition of the glories of manhood and womanhood.
To fight for equal rights or equal pay is one thing. To assert that man and woman are in fact the same thing, a distinction without meaning, is a ruinous road to travel.
Legal equality for gay marriages means the law would say it is the same for me to marry a man as to marry a woman. If a equals b and a equals c, then b equals c. Thus it is the law saying manhood and womanhood are statuses undeserving of distinction from each other.
This is the basis for protecting women from the draft, as well as a slew of laws that properly recognize some women’s workplace rights and protections that liberals and conservatives agree on. You want a war on women? Legal equality for gay marriage strips women of the logic to assert certain stances that have served them well throughout history, all due to the law recognizing that men and women are citizens of equal stature, but are most decidedly not the exact same thing.
Remember one of the dumbest stories of the last ten years, some guy or group of guys who asserted the right to be Hooters waitresses? This was properly hooted out of court because they have the right to hire women for those posts, and not just any women at that. They have the liberty to hire those whom they feel help their business.
That kind of liberty, as well as others far more substantive, vanish when law obliterates the differences between men and women.
The worst effect is to negate the difference between mothers and fathers. This extends to adoption policies, where what was once a basic understanding is now a debate flashpoint: that the best place for an adopted child is with a married man and woman.
This basic fact, once as accepted as the sun rising in the east, now draws fire, as it did in a recent speaking engagement of mine.
In an energetic room full of diverse participants-- my favorite environment-- that suggestion nearly drew gasps as I got pushback on the basis that favoring married hetero couples for adoption was unenlightened and just plain mean.
It required a nuanced parry. I am well aware, I told them, that single Moms, single Dads and gay couples of both sexes are capable of good child-rearing. Some in those groups, driven by urgency, gratitude or both, constitute some particularly exemplary parenting examples. Conversely, there are plenty of married men and woman who are absolutely horrible parents.
But that does not negate a basic truth: the ideal for a child is to have a mother and a father, under the same roof, committed by marriage. Anything less is a retreat from that ideal.
And I will not retreat.
The dynamic has come to this: it has become an article of empathy to equate gay and hetero marriage. To fail to do so has become evidence of homophobia or socially neanderthal thinking. This is a masterstroke of opinion manipulation by gay rights advocates, taking advantage of every opportunity to characterize opponents as bigots.
I do not have a homophobic drop of blood in my veins. Conservatives simply must make the argument on constructive principle, and stop relying on some tactics that have never been helpful:
-- the notion that the mere existence of gay marriage makes it harder for others to honor traditional marriages.
-- the notion that gay marriage is a scourge that presents some palpable danger to those around it. Gay marriage is better than gay promiscuity.
-- and here’s the tricky one: the notion that we need a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman.
While I would not lament its passage, there are two reasons why this is not helpful right now. First, the country is not sufficiently with us and it would fail the properly high bar for amendments to succeed. Leaving this to the states honors the Constitution, and as state after state says no to “marriage equality,” the battle is thus won so far already.
Second, I do not look to the Constitution as a personal behavioral guide. It is a blueprint for a strong but limited government, a roadmap of what that government can and cannot do. I have never needed it to contain amendments saying we must do this or must not do that. This is what legislatures are for.
There are various ways to couch opposition to gay marriage equality in a way that can pry away the default settings of those who have consumed the Kool-Aid that it is cruel to deny it.
One is to play the polygamy card.
It seems a stretch at first to say gay marriage equality makes it hard to prevent polygamy, but it is undeniably true because the arguments are the same. Why deny multiple marriages if the love is real, everyone is consenting and polygamists are made to feel like inferior citizens if they are denied?
I would suggest that multiple heterosexual marriages is less jarring to the existing norms than same-sex unions. But until the polygamy lobby can sculpt its wishes into a civil right, they will be denied the normalization of their passions.
But one deviation from the logic granting unique status to heterosexual marriages is an invitation to court cases seeking others. And on what basis will they be denied if the petitioners are sincere in their quest? A sincere wish to prevail is all gay marriage advocates have going for them, and they are making progress in the courts and in public opinion.
So without any ill will toward gays, without regard to any opinion we may have about homosexuality in general, let those of us who seek to protect the singular legal definition of marriage move forward unbowed by those who would falsely brand us as haters.