When the Supreme Court heard the cases for Prop 8 and DOMA last month, my criticism of the religious right brought me into immediate conflict with my Christian friends and family. My not being against gay marriage came as a shock to a lot of people who don’t seem to have read my blog. For over a week I was bombarded by concerned Christians trying to either understand my dissent from the apparent mainstream or make me see the error of my ways. Many of them were hit-and-run “just checking in” comments, while others mainly seemed to follow along a scripted dialogue. I probably should have just blogged a general response at that time, but emotions were running high and I wanted to be sure that my statement would be thoughtful, rational, and not hurtful. Now that I’ve collected my thoughts, here are the top things I think that conservative Christians need to know about the gay marriage debate:
1. Legalizing same-sex marriage has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.
Without fail, the conversation always starts uncomfortably with the other person first asking me if I’m still a Christian, or if I still believe the Bible, or think homosexuality is a sin, etc. To me, questioning an opponent’s faith is a frustrating starting point to any debate not just because it seems like a subtle personal attack, but because it really has no bearing on the discussion itself. It should go without saying that the Bible or any other religion are not and cannot be the basis for US law. After all, the defense for Prop 8 and DOMA never once mentioned “God” or the “Bible” in their arguments before the Supreme Court. That seems to be a disconnect from what the conservative protesters outside were arguing. To me, it seemed rather two-faced to say one thing in public and then present a different case entirely to the Justices, simply because their lawyers knew their real reasons would never stand up in a court of law. Contrast this with the opposing arguments, that were completely in line with what their supporters on the street actually believe. I personally think that if Christians want to ban same-sex marriage because they believe it’s what the Bible commands, then they ought to go to court proudly and unashamed with that statement. Otherwise, it sounds suspiciously like someone trying to uphold a ban on interracial marriage but not wanting to admit that their real reasons for doing so are just because they don’t like people of other races.
The claim for the Biblical basis to oppose gay marriage is not just a lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, but of the Bible itself. Critics of these conservative arguments are justified in pointing out the selective nature of certain passages from the Levitical purity code while ignoring others, or even the entire New Covenant. Modern Christians tend to view Biblical Law like Islamic Sharia Law: an immutable code that reflects God’s ideal plan for mankind that will result in blessings if followed correctly by a society. Talmudic tradition and and also the interpretive methods of Jesus Christ, however, show that this was never historically the case. Like the Constitution, the Mosaic Law was a conceptual foundation for jurisprudence, but it was never intended to establish the ideal society. In fact, as Jesus himself attests to God’s grudgingly permitting divorce, it sometimes regulated rather than outright banned distasteful practices, such as slavery or conquest marriages, which were artifacts of its culture and time. Christianity’s worldwide success can actually be attributed to its supra-cultural appeal that transcended the bronze age social mores of its Jewish predecessors. The reality is if Christians today really had to live under Mosaic Law, most of them probably wouldn’t be Christians.
The argument that homosexuality is a sin is even more irrelevant, because U.S. law permits many acts that are sinful according to the Bible–including homosexuality! It baffles me why libertarian-leaning conservatives have fabricated a controversy solely around the issue of marriage, as if we deny rights to other groups of sinners, or as if we couldn’t further limit people’s rights on that basis. We take rights like voting away from convicted felons because they’ve committed a crime, we take driver’s licenses away from drunk drivers, we take child custody away from abusive parents, yet we even allow gays to pay the fee and get married in several states but don’t give them the full rights as other legally married couples in their same state. Gay marriage opponents will, with no support, argue that gays are unfit parents solely on the basis of the sexuality, yet preventing gay couples from marrying doesn’t stop them from having children, it just makes it harder to raise them. If conservatives really believed that (and really, there’s no reason to), they ought to be trying to take children, either biological or adopted, from their gay parents; otherwise, it’s immoral to let somebody raise children but not permit that child to enjoy the same benefits and security as any other two parent household. Conservatives need to stop trying to use the law punitively against behavior that’s not actually a crime.
2. The state does not bless marriages.
With all the talk about the “sanctity” of marriage from the conservative side, I often wonder how they can honestly look at legal marriage in this country and still consider it sacred. For starters, half of all marriages in this country end in divorce. Fidelity or procreation are completely untied from the marital contract, we let adulterers, swingers, porn stars, and serial killer death row inmates marry. Simply put, the state does not make a moral judgment when it grants a marriage license. On top of that, the desirable benefits legally tied to marriage–inheritance, child custody, joint tax filing, hospital visitation rights, end of life decisions, etc.–have no Biblical basis whatsoever. If they honestly evaluated it, anybody who would argue gay marriage is an abomination would have to admit that marriage itself is an abomination if we rely on the government to bless it instead of God. Insisting that gay marriage should be illegal because it will confuse people’s sense of morality is futile, we already have to discern that about a 5-minute Las Vegas marriage and annulment. We are left to make our own moral judgments about the married and re-married adulterers, swingers, and porn stars, we don’t need to take away their state recognition to do that. Not everybody will agree with our morality, of course: the Catholic Church won’t marry divorcees even though the state will; not all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin and some already perform gay unions even if the state won’t.
Conservatives mistakenly sees this wedge issue as a moral battle for a holy institution, when marriages could be holy and God-honoring even if they weren’t recognized by the state. The problem is that making heterosexual marriage the line of demarcation creates far more moral ambiguity than same-sex marriage does, because it creates the false impression that all heterosexual unions are virtuous when in fact the majority are not. Many of the prominent leaders of the movement–Ted Haggard, Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, and so on–fall disgracefully short of the Biblical ideal, very often in scandals that most gays wouldn’t be caught in. I think gay marriage is such a popular fight among conservatives simply because it’s so effortless for them. Most Americans are Biblically illiterate but they claim to be expert Christians just because they can quote a verse from Leviticus. Nobody questions whether a protester outside the courthouse is a faithful husband or wife, it’s far easier to demonize a tiny 3% of the population than it is to address how the other 97% is actually destroying the institution of marriage.
It’s fashionable at this point for libertarians to throw up their hands and say that government should be completely removed from marriage, but that’s practically impossible. Marriage is about more than filing taxes jointly, society really can’t function without some rules governing child custody, shared property, and other life decisions. One country couldn’t easily convert to a system of civil unions since that would negate everyone’s marital standing once they leave that country.
3. Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality, incest, or anything else.
The next step of the conservative script always seem to jump to the conclusion that gay marriage will open the door to a slippery slope of other practices. If two consenting adults of the same sex can marry, then what’s to stop 3 or 4, or brothers from marrying each other, or a child, a goat, a toaster, etc. There are many problems with this illogical assumption, the first being that same-sex relationships are not illegal in this country. It shouldn’t even need to be mentioned that minors, animals, or inanimate objects cannot give legal consent to marriage or any other contract, and while I don’t think conservatives actually believe this, they still use it as if it were a serious argument. Honestly, I think this argument is so silly it shouldn’t even need to be addressed, yet follow any news story on gay marriage and you’ll see one conservative after another comment about this repeatedly as if they’ve never before heard it refuted.
Bigamy, on the other hand, is universally prohibited, and while groups of three or more are free to co-habitate if they choose, the barriers to legalizing polygamy are not as simple as merely expanding it to include the same gender; it would require complex re-writes of every law governing child custody, inheritance, benefits, etc. Furthermore, polyamorous relationships are not discriminated from marriage benefits like gays are, because two members of the party can still be married and receive the full state and federal benefits. I will admit, though, that polygamy is the one and only item on this list that might even be a real possibility, but that would be true even if there were no gays. Polygamy is still currently practiced by millions of people worldwide, mostly Muslims and some fundamentalist Mormons, two of the most anti-gay religions known to man. Pretty much anything that you claim that gay marriage would lead to would not only be a possible slippery slope arising from heterosexual marriage as well, but would actually be more likely.
But even if polygamists did rally after DOMA and Prop 8 are struck down, it’s still not acceptable to try to ban one thing by banning another. The way to block polygamy is to pass more aggressive laws addressing polygamy. Slippery slope arguments are never an acceptable reason to ban anything, because just about anything could be prohibited on that basis. The Constitution exists not to limit the rights of citizens, but rather to limit the powers of government. While it’s unacceptable to use a slippery slope in favor of limiting rights (“if we allow citizens to own guns, eventually they’ll want to get nukes, ergo we must ban guns”), it is acceptable to ask that when limiting state powers (“if we ban assault rifles, what’s to stop the state from banning all guns?”). Therefore, the only place this line of reasoning has in the discussion is questioning if the government could also limit gay people’s rights in any other way or prevent any other groups from marrying.
4. Gay marriage isn’t about you.
While gay marriage proponents were all changing their facebook profile pictures to the red equality sign, I noticed their friends lists were almost uniformly red. Looking at the profiles of some of the friends who were staunchly against gay marriage, however, I noticed they had almost no–if any–friends in visible support. This is not just a reflection of the increasingly polarized political climate, it also shows that the ones most opposed to gay marriage would ironically be the least affected by it. From my experience, many conservatives seem to erroneously think that gay marriage would be a license for a nationwide moral decline. The reality, however, is that gay marriage won’t cause anybody to be gay who isn’t already, nor will banning it prevent same-sex couples from living together. Basically, it will affect no more than a tiny fraction of the 3% of the population who are gay and already in a relationship. To put this into perspective, when California judges ruled that nothing in the state’s laws prevented two people of the same sex from being married, only a little more than 150,000 couples were wed before Prop 8 was passed to change the constitution, and even this represents the accumulation of couples who were denied the ability to marry for decades. Unless you have a large circle of gay friends, it’s unlikely that gay marriage will affect you in any way. But even though conservatives have never been able to explain how gay marriage negatively affects their own marriage, banning it or denying legally married same-sex couples the same benefits as their heterosexual peers has very real detriment to those who are in same-sex relationships as well as their children.
5. Laws should protect everyone equally, not just promote and benefit the ideal.
The arguments defending Prop 8 centered heavily on promoting heterosexual marriage, even those beyond child-rearing age, as the ideal relationship that government has an interest in promoting because it produces offspring. The first problem with that reasoning is that marriage doesn’t exist just to benefit the government. While society as a whole does benefit from stable marriages, the institution actually exists for the protection and security of those involved in the relationship. Marriage is a contract between those two people, not a contract between them and the government.
The next problem is that government does not exist to protect the ideal, laws should protect everyone equally even if they fall outside that standard. This principle can also be found in the Mosaic Law by permitting divorce, which not even Jesus would agree was an ideal. Single parenthood has been shown to have detrimental effects on children (incidentally, these studies are often mis-cited by Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage to support banning gay marriage), yet even though it’s not ideal we don’t attempt to limit people’s rights who remain single parents either by choice or no fault of their own. The problem with DOMA is that gays are already legally married in 9 jurisdictions, so most of the general conservative arguments are 10 years out of date anyway. There are 40,000 children living in gay households in California alone, there is no moral justification for withholding them necessary protections just because some squeamish politician in another state might somehow lose sleep with the knowledge that their parents are two men or two women.
Lastly, the gay community and society in general does actually benefit from gay marriage. Any group historically barred from marriage inherits a self-perpetuating promiscuous stereotype (see the attitudes towards interracial couples before the 60’s). Marriage in general reduces promiscuity, and gay marriage has been proven to reduce HIV infections in the states where it’s legal. Ironically, the same people that would condemn the gay community for the stigma of AIDS would also deny them a proven and effective means to avert the epidemic. In a similar way, conservatives opposed integrating open homosexuals into the military often because of an assumed effeminate stereotype; as long as, in their mind, no gays were in the military, then all gays could fit this self-perpetuating image. Ultimately when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, there were no noticeable problems in the ranks, gays didn’t start dressing in pink uniforms or hitting on their straight coworkers any more than they do in the civilian world. Perhaps the Religious Right’s biggest fear about allowing gay marriage nationwide is that it wouldn’t usher in the Apocalypse that they claim it would.