I really didn’t want to write another gay marriage piece: it’s getting tiresome. But I wanted to get my thoughts out ahead of the Supreme Court decision that’s due any day now.
Some of my conservative readings rail against gay marriage as a moral issue. Homosexuality is identified in the Bible as sinful, so admitting gay marriage in law is sinful and immoral. Then again, the proponents of gay marriage sometimes frame their position as a moral issue, a matter of justice and equality for all. So which end is up?
“You can’t legislate morality,” my mother told me years ago. It fit my view of the world as a teenager, and I didn’t challenge her on it. But now, thinking about it, one can legislate morality. Alas, one ends up with a state like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where the church is the state and the state is the church and the government can do no wrong as it is run by men of Allah.
In our society, it is not the responsibility of the government to enforce morality. It is the responsibility of each of us to live a moral life. Religion is useful in pointing the way to a moral life, but it’s not the only way. (Indeed, the functional purpose of religion in society is teaching morality to children.)
But the conservatives who frame gay marriage as a moral issue have a useful concept: ‘natural marriage.’ Natural marriage is that which has been around with us for millennia. Natural marriage is exclusively, by definition, between a man and a woman. If you’re religious, it is a gift from God; if you’re not, it’s a consequence of our nature as sexual beings whose young require years of care and upbringing before they can be fully functional. It is also immutable.
To reconcile natural marriage to the government, which needs to track such things, there is civil marriage. Civil marriage is a construct of law and regulation. When a community legalizes gay marriage, they are legalizing gay civil marriage. They cannot change the definition of natural marriage.
And alongside natural marriage (which can’t be changed) and civil marriage (a construct of government) is popular marriage, i.e. marriage as understood in the culture. Gay marriage wouldn’t be worth getting bothered about if it was accepted as a bureaucratic workaround by which gay couples who were committed to each other could secure their rights with respect to each other, and for the rest of us, a curiosity, a weird exception to the rule, and nothing more.
But that wasn’t what happened, or at least not how it’s being presented in the mass media. People are apparently falling all over each other to embrace gay marriage, even though the vast majority of them are unlikely to participate in one. And if you’re not embracing the concept, you must be hateful or, worse, homophobic. (And calling people ‘chicken’ or ‘afraid’ or ‘phobic’ to shame them into agreement is, if not the oldest trick in the book, somewhere in the top ten.)
That the popular culture is so quick to ditch natural marriage (which was already happening well before gay marriage became an issue) is sad, but does that mean that we all have to embrace gay civil marriage as equivalent to natural marriage? I’d like to think not.
It certainly isn’t the same as racial discrimination. At one time, some places denied people of different races the right to natural as well as civil marriage. Thankfully, we’re long past that. But all our good thinking about fairness and equality will not turn civil marriage into natural marriage. And it’s not fair to anyone to maintain the delusion that they’re the same.
As for the question before the Court—is there a Constitutional right to gay marriage?—I’m not a legal scholar. But a commonsense interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment—the right to equal protection of the laws—doesn’t get me there. Natural marriage is gender-neutral: you need to have one of each. And if someone had suggested a century and a half ago that the Amendment would one day be used as the basis for a right to gay marriage, nobody would have believed such a ludicrous notion.
It remains to be seen if the Justices are, um, phobic….