Culture at the Crossroads
On Gay Marriage: Rights and Consequences
At the root of contemporary law in the United States (and more generally the West) is a doctrine of rights that has become practically meaningless. This point had been simmering for some time, until this past week when I saw a massive McDonald's billboard that proclaimed "chocolate drizzle is a right." I don't blame them; they are only using the idea of rights that's been thrown around in recent years: a right is something you really, really want, and it would be mean to deny it.
The only way that a right can make sense is if a community carefully discerns its meaning over history, and carefully distinguishes that meaning in law. There are dreadful consequences to a society if it gets rights wrong: they lose the force of argument that safeguards social goods.
Consider the right to free speech: carefully discerned, it advances goods like critiquing the excesses of a corrupt government, promoting open dialogue about contentious moral problems, and protecting scholars and jurists who navigate careful arguments in courts of law. Without such discernment, there would be plenty of imminently lawless hate speech without fear of punishment (think of the Ku Klux Klan); lying in the courtroom and on the congressional floor; false advertising; political calumny. It would create mayhem, and virtually all forms of public communication would become rather meaningless.
An analogous argument applies to marriage. It took the Church and the nations of the West about thirteen centuries to get the legal definition of marriage right, but it's taken only a few decades to change course. No longer do we think of marriage as a healing of the two halves of the human family, and a call (especially to predatory men) to social responsibility to benefit women and ensure the welfare of children. We have come to think of marriage as a sexual relationship we really want. It is no wonder that according to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer people are marrying: the bar is extremely low.
In two earlier essays (here and here) I argued that Christians should promote a view of marriage that has evolved over these centuries of reflection, yet I suggested that our promotion of this view should be moral and spiritual rather than legal, to avoid causing hurt to our friends and family who seek out gay relationships. But that was a false dichotomy, and I am thankful to commentators (examples here and here) who elucidated why legal argument must be part of that public witness.