I’ve blogged about the whole ‘equal / same-sex marriage’ thing before (here, for example). I don’t really have anything else to say about the way ‘bigots’ who disagree are being steamrollered out of the way; instead I want to talk about something which seems to have been somewhat missed in this whole debate: what is marriage?
A few weeks ago I read an excellent paper on marriage: it’s not from a Christian perspective – it’s written by two people who, as far as I know, have no particular religious affiliation (in fact, the church’s position on same-sex marriage comes in for criticism). However, they do talk about this most important question of the very definition of marriage. I’d like to pick up on the points they make, because I think it’s worth spreading these ideas as widely as possible: it seems to me that most people simply have no idea about what same-sex marriage would entail, as far as the definition of marriage goes. I think this just goes to show how far values of ‘equality’ and ‘tolerance’ have permeated our society – in many ways these are good and right concepts, but can be pushed too far. Allow me to explain.
At the outset, I will say that you shouldn’t read this and think that you don’t need to read the actual document. I am going to be quoting from it, but please read the whole thing yourself! I just want to outline some of the points they make which particularly struck me.
Their basic premise is that there are two competing ideas of marriage at stake – same-sex marriage indicates one idea of marriage, whereas ‘traditional’ marriage is another. It should also be noted that they are arguing for ‘traditional’ marriage, and not against same-sex marriage (per se).
From the introduction:
…there are two competing ideas of marriage at play in the current debate. The ﬁrst is traditional and conjugal and extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape. The second is more privative and is to do with a relationship abstracted from the wider concern that marriage originally was designed to speak to. Some call this pure partnership or mere cohabitation. The latter is what marriage is becoming: a dissolvable contract between two individuals who partner purely for the sake of the partnership itself [my emphasis]. It has little or nothing to do with children, general education or social stability. This is not to say that it is to be wholly resisted – of course not – but it should be incorporated and built up to a conjugal summit, because the loss to society of the conjugal model imposes such high costs on society and the state that neither can be indiﬀerent about its erosion [my emphasis]. The partnership model is one shared by many heterosexuals and wider society, and it is this that has done much harm to the institution of marriage. By the same token, many homosexuals actually fulﬁl a more conjugal model and it is to be hoped that the civil unions we propose speaks to this and oﬀer same sex couples their own proper version of ‘conjugal marriage’. (p. 5)
Their basic premise is that a stable society is not built around partnerships only. A stable society is built around a society which also looks to the future – a society where children are actively looked after and catered for. Marriage as an institution has been the way that children have been cared for and raised in the past, the place where children learn to become fully functioning members of society. However, what marriage is becoming – and will be cemented with the same-sex marriage legislation – is “a dissolvable contract between two individuals”. This is not marriage, and this will not be good for society.
They continue, “Conjugal marriage is fundamentally child-centred and female advancing. Lone motherhood which is bad for both the woman and the child is the evident manifestation of the contemporary separation of marriage and parenthood.” Marriage has formerly been about children as much as it is about relationships: the changing definition of marriage to a contractual basis is what has caused so much ‘lone motherhood’. This is not how it is supposed to be: as they say, “[marriage] provides the sole institution that can successfully cope with the generative power of opposite-sex unions.”
They then move on to talk about marriage as an ‘ontological change’, if you will – a change “from one mode of being to another”.
This change of status has the beneﬁt of social recognition. But it comes at a price. And the price has been, in traditional Christian societies, a heavy one: sexual ﬁdelity ‘till death do us part’, and a responsibility for the socialising and educating of the children. As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, so do weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure. As sociologists are beginning to observe, however, this gain in freedom for one generation implies a loss for the next. Children born within a marriage are far more likely to be socialised, outgoing and able to form permanent relationships of their own, than children born out of wedlock [my emphasis]. For their parents have made a commitment in which the children are included, and of which society approves … Children of married parents ﬁnd a place in society already prepared for them, furnished by a regime of parental sacriﬁce, and protected by social norms. Take away marriage and you expose children to the risk of coming into the world as strangers, untutored by fathers or abandoned by mothers, a condition of eﬀective abandonment in which they may remain for the rest of their lives. (p. 6-7)
In other words, there are benefits of marriage to the children of such a union, which has a wider impact on society. Degrading marriage to a merely contractual arrangement devalues marriage, potentially impacts on children and so negatively impacts society at large. And, so they argue, this move towards same-sex marriage will further the idea of marriage being a merely contractual arrangement:
Since then, however, we have experienced a steady de-sacralisation of the marriage tie. It is not merely that marriage is governed now by a secular law – that has been the case since Antiquity. It is that this law is constantly amended, not in order to perpetuate the idea of an existential commitment, but on the contrary to make it possible for commitments to be evaded, and agreements rescinded, by rewriting them as the terms of a contract [my emphasis]. What was once a socially endorsed change of status has become a private and reversible deal. The social constraints that tied man and wife to each other through all troubles and disharmonies have been one by one removed, to the point where marriage is in many communities hardly distinct from a short-term agreement for cohabitation. This has been made more or less explicit in the American case by the pre-nuptial agreement, which speciﬁes a division of property in the event of divorce. Partners now enter the marriage with an escape route already mapped out. (p. 7)
In other words, marriage has been devalued in society to the point that it is seen as a contractual agreement – it’s so easy to get out of, that ’till death us do part’ has become something of a joke. Although there are many benefits to society of such a union, nonetheless the state has seen fit to make it easy for people to end one. And, in so doing, marriage is devalued and actually discourages people from entering into it: “Just as people are less disposed to assume the burdens of high oﬃce when society withholds the dignities and privileges that those oﬃces have previously signiﬁed, so too are they less disposed to enter real marriages, when society acknowledges no distinction between marriages that deserve the name, and relationships that merely borrow the title.”
But “what about equality?”, we may say? How can we live in a society which promotes ‘equality’ while at the same time allowing an institution to exist which is based primarily around the difference of men and women? They say:
Marriage has grown around the idea of sexual diﬀerence and all that sexual diﬀerence means. To make this feature accidental rather than essential is to change marriage beyond recognition [my emphasis]. Gay people want marriage because they want quite rightly a variant of the social endorsement that it signiﬁes; but by admitting gay marriage we deprive marriage of its social meaning. It ceases to be what it has been hitherto, namely a union of the sexes, and a blessing conferred by the living on the unborn. The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating. It resembles Henry VIII’s move to gain ecclesiastical endorsement for his divorce, by making himself head of the Church. The Church that endorsed his divorce thereby ceased to be the Church whose endorsement he was seeking.
In other words, by making the natural difference between men and women something which is only incidental to marriage, it actual undermines that institution. Marriage is something which exists for the benefit of the unborn – future generations. Its very definition involves the union of a man and woman which no homosexual union can have: redefining it to remove that union essentially redefines marriage out of existence.
In addition, same-sex marriage would not promote the kind of ‘equality’ which is desired:
We have profound reservations about same sex marriage not just because of the harm it does to a vital heterosexual institution but also because we reject the implication that in order to be equal and respected homosexuals should conform to heterosexual norms and be in eﬀect the same as heterosexuals. In this sense we believe same sex marriage to be homophobic – it demands recognition for gay relationships but at the price of submitting those relationships to heterosexual deﬁnition [my emphasis]. This serves neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals. The former are absorbed into a structure that does not give due credit or recognition to their distinction and diﬀerence; whereas, heterosexuals are stripped of any institution that belongs to them qua their heterosexuality. Men and women who marry are denied proper recognition or celebration of their own distinctive union across the sexes and even more importantly any recognition of their role and unique responsibility in creating and nurturing children whose origin still lies exclusively in heterosexual union. (p. 9)
In other words, ‘equality’ is not something which should obliterate all differences between people! There is a fundamental difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships which should be celebrated, not brushed under the carpet. By forcing same-sex marriage into the traditional definition of marriage, what the government are doing is creating some kind of colourless, bland institution which does not celebrate difference but instead tries to force everyone to conform. As they say, “The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating for in seeking equality with something unlike yourself the thing that you join to is no longer what you joined.”
I’m not going to quote to your their two recommendations – you can read the article yourself for those.
But I do hope this at least provides some food for thought. I think it’s quite interesting to note how difficult it’s become to disagree with the same-sex marriage juggernaut in this country, but I hope that respectful dialogue will provide insight on both sides. In particular, I’m hoping that this paper will cause some to at least understand that arguing against the same-sex marriage legislation is not bigotry.
There is also another paper which goes into the same-sex marriage arguments from another perspective, which I will leave for the time being as this post is too long already. But maybe some other time.