Culture at the Crossroads
On Gay Marriage: Rights and Consequences
In short, if Christians are to be part of a culture, rather than removed from it in a kind of ghetto, it is our responsibility to help shape laws that promote the common good. We must do it with the careful discernment and love that characterized Jesus' attitude toward all: generosity and compassion, rooted in the truth of who God has called us to be as individuals and communities, not naming the speck in our neighbor's eye without first removing the plank in our own.
The common good in matters of marriage is fundamentally not about the rights of adults, but rather about the goods that accrue in a society that protects the welfare of mothers, fathers, and children. The tenor of the argument about gay marriage in New York and elsewhere misrepresents both the notion of rights and the notion of marriage, and both misrepresentations will have negative effects for our culture. Christians and others who therefore share a commitment to a robust and meaningful understanding of rights must therefore be part of the legal argument about gay marriage. But we must do it by first naming how we ourselves have gotten marriage wrong, through callous participation in the toxic contemporary sexual zeitgeist.
First, rights. No one has a right to a state-invented declaration of marriage. Only a weak understanding of rights can found a claim of a "right" to marry in this sense. Such a claim proposes that states can decide on the kinds of relationships to which they will give legal recognition. Yesterday, it was between men and women; today, it could be between women or between men; tomorrow, it could be between grandmothers and grandsons or between managers and secretaries.
To suggest that a state is the locus of new definitions of rights is a very dangerous precedent: we have seen in the past how state definitions of rights can change radically (examples here and here), and so the history of philosophical reflection suggests that rights must be located not in the legislative or judicial decisions of states, but rather in the thoughtful consideration of reality accessible through the application of reason over history. Aristotle, the Stoics, Christian scholastics, Muslim philosophers, and Enlightenment political theorists all held to this view of what came to be known as Natural Law. It is an imperfect doctrine because of the imperfection of human reason, but it is far superior to the vagaries of intra-state politics, because it locates rights not in a group vote but in a careful discernment of an unchanging reality about the human person. And because history teaches us that biases can pervade even for a generation or two, it is important to carefully consider the judgments of generations now far removed from our own. The claim to a "right" to gay marriage is suspect precisely because this right has no history.
Second, marriage. States have an interest in promoting all sorts of love relationships: between parents and children, among extended families, between friends, and so on, for love relationships promote social harmony and can be of themselves good, true, and beautiful. Yet in the main, only marriage between husbands and wives has, over history and around the world, been accorded legal recognition, because only those marriages involve overcoming the alienation between the two halves of the human family, and the procreation and rearing of children. States have an interest in reconciling the sexes, keeping fathers involved in families, and helping mothers through pregnancy, childbirth, and nurturing. The state's promotion of marriage invites adults to roles of particular social responsibility.
Positing a right to a new state-invented declaration of marriage will have negative consequences for a society. It takes a culture to support children, but it also takes a culture to support the hard work of communication to overcome the differences between men and women. Marriages between men and women are complex in ways that same-sex relationships are not. Expanding and changing what marriage means will likely have the consequence not of equalizing access to marriage, but helping to diminish the sense that it's worth bothering about.