Being civil about gay marriage

About macro-economics, I’m moderately conservative. About freedom of lifestyle, I’m hyper liberal. It may, therefore, seem inconsistent that I am opposed to gay marriage. Let me explain.

Gay marriage is controversial only due to the entanglement of religion in civil law and the religious bullying that entanglement invites. Given the centuries-overdue liberalization of attitudes on same-sex love, lust, and living arrangements, most Americans now agree that denying same sex couples the civil benefits of marriage is ethically wrong and civically unnecessary. But many other Americans are opposed—some militantly so—to redefining the traditional definition of marriage. All but a negligible proportion of the opposition is due to widespread belief that marriage is an institution created, defined, and protected by God.

Surprise! When people cite an unseen authority whose nature is widely debated even among believers, straight thinking (the pun’s accidental) about civilized public policy is in grave danger. Need I reflect that—even as we touted our commitment to equality—slavery, disempowerment of women, racial segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws were OK for decades because millions of Christians were sure God said they were? It is just another shameful extension to that list that we fined, hassled, and imprisoned homosexuals in America since its founding until, in a fit of liberalization, we decided that declaring gays second-class citizens instead would be a more Christian thing to do. Drunken on newfound enlightenment, many religious folks offered a charitable compromise, even if one reeking with condescension: We would tamp down our homophobia (perhaps even deny we had any left) if gays would just keep their gayness to themselves, not flaunt it, and by all means not have an “agenda.”

(That last bit has always mystified me. What human doesn’t have an agenda? It is not a meaningful criticism to observe that gays, unions, Baptists, witches, and atheists have agendas. How could they not?)

Anyway, offering civil unions to same sex couples developed as an ostensibly fair compromise between civil rights and public piety. Mindful of the parallel with the old “separate but equal” ruse, proponents of lawful same sex unions were neither grateful nor satisfied; after all, the compromise only succeeded in reducing the degree of civil discrimination, not its elimination. So the controversy continued, resolve hardening on both sides. On one hand, how can a fair-minded society be so obviously unfair? On the other, how can a majority Christian society change God’s definition of marriage? Hold those thoughts for a minute, please, while I digress.

Funny how we can profess sweeping, even profound values, yet with great surprise find ourselves rudely violating them! Hypocrisy is so much a part of our makeup that we can despair of declaring difficult moral obligations. Why, for example, enshrine our superficiality in rhetorical flourishes like “all [people] are created equal” when we obviously don’t mean it? Why pledge “liberty and freedom for all” when we obviously don’t mean that either. Why pronounce our bigger values, since claiming a high moral ground just sets us up for hypocrisy?

Much as it seems a defense of hypocrisy, I think there is good reason to express the broader—one might say deeper—value, for as time moves on there’s a chance that the broad aspiration might be realized when it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to countenance the discrepancy. (We should be embarrassed that our eventual discomfort is normally born out of loud, irritating, persistent protesters rather than our commitment to civic morality.) Thus, we finally found that slavery violates our stated values, then lack of suffrage for women, then discrimination by race. Gay access to the same civic benefits of partnering is but another step in that progress—not because of capitulation to a gay agenda, but due to the “peoples’ agenda”: those civic and humanitarian values to which we’ve long said we ascribe. Now, hold that thought, too, if you please.

An encompassing value in the U. S. Constitution is that the civil power erected by its adoption would not take its orders from religious faiths, discriminate among those faiths, or adjudicate between religious faith and lack of it. The writers created a foundational document based largely on the philosophical considerations of Locke and Mill not on the Bible as current revisionists bend reality), one which preserved religious liberty by the simple albeit revolutionary expedient of professing no religious intent, no religious rules, no religious support, and no religious inclinations. For adherents to the various religions and for those in none, this intentionally godless Constitution was, in a word, a godsend. The founders knew that the most certain way to forfeit religious liberty would be to get the government into it.

Thanks for holding those thoughts; now I’ll get back to gay marriage. There are a couple of ways our society can resolve the immoral treatment of gays with respect to legally recognized unions. One, the most obvious is to grant gays the same status as straights: marriage for same-sex as well as opposite-sex persons. Certainly that takes care of the matter. I’ve become convinced, however, that religions are so attached to the word “marriage” that they think their religion has the right to own it. In their defense, they are correct that marriage has a long association with religion, considerably before civil governments got into the act. As political states took over, the religious connotations stuck. It is understandable that religious people get their knickers in a twist when, as they see it, liberalization-gone-wild shoulders in on their special word. Love that cannot speak its name seeks to force organized religion to give its blessings to what would it believes to be an abnormal arrangement.

(A parenthetical word about “abnormal”—so often a statistical substitute for thought. As long as it refers simply to a trait in short supply, there’s no harm done. Six fingers per hand and psychosis are abnormal, but so is genius and a .350 batting average. Strong attraction to the same sex, evolutionary biologists contend, runs a relatively constant 8% of the human population and exists in varying amounts in other species, so on that basis it counts as abnormal. Abnormality per se, however, is a numerical judgment, not a moral one. Even then, though, if it is normal for the human race to be 8% homosexual, what good does it do to call each individual instance of it abnormal? Each is merely an instance of a predictable and historically demonstrated take on life. At any rate, abnormality signifies good or bad only when other considerations are consulted such as tendency toward a disease or offense to a god. Greek gods didn’t get too excited about it, but it seems Yahweh gets a bit bent out of shape though he’s more upbeat about left handedness and red hair. I guess even God can’t keep tabs on everything, there being a lot of sparrows to watch. Bottom line: Do I view heterosexuals’ treatment of gays as frank immorality? Absolutely. Do I see homosexuality as abnormal or, for that matter, any less wholesome than heterosexuality? Not in the least.)

Recently, I saw a Christian protester carrying a sign saying “Marriage was created by God: one man, one woman.” Hers was one of the gentler messages, though happily none sank to the vile level of “God hates fags.” But apart from the implied harshness of her judgment, she seemed oblivious to the fact that a civil government decision has (or should have) nothing to do with what she thinks her God has to say.

And she will likely never understand the meta-political reason why it shouldn’t. (Just as the free market must be saved from as well as for businesses, religious freedom must be saved from religionists. In both instances, those most benefitting from the freedom are the first to destroy it.) So rather than defying the protesters’ arrogant ignorance, I propose we simply let religions have their sacred word so they can—sect by sect—define marriage any way their faiths dictate, including how to get into it, how to dissolve it, how many times it can be used, and all other religion-based rules of conduct. The state should never have gotten entangled in that controversy to begin with. The state has an interest in the civil consequences of partnering, but not in the religious ones.

So in addition to instituting gay marriage, the second method of resolving the matter—my preferred one—would be to get the state out of the marriage business altogether. Same-sex and opposite-sex would lose all meaning before the law, since the legal arrangement would not in itself have religious significance. Religious objectors would have nothing to be apoplectic about (well, nothing beyond their usual burden of representing God). The Constitution would be better served and religionists could continue to own the word marriage and define it however they wish. The state’s being mixed up with religion to the detriment and unnecessary heartache of both could so easily be avoided. Civil unions for all!

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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