It looks like folks thought I was being coy in Sunday’s post about the knock-on effects of gay marriage. In fact, I was trying to avoid having the “gay marriage: yay or nay” debate hijack the point I was making: that the advent of gay marriage has made people pause and ask exactly what marriage is instead of embracing or rejecting it in a knee-jerk way. The argument I was making didn’t have the moral stature of gay marriage as a premise, and I wanted it to discuss something orthogonal to the usual, played-out discussion about gay marriage.
Unfortunately, the thread was instead hijacked by a debate on “shouldn’t this have been a post on ‘gay marriage: yay or nay’ instead? Possibly with a side debate on whether the internet is vested with the power to throw Leah out of the Church? So now you get to have that fight in the comments thread of this post instead.
I live just over the DC-Maryland border, so I didn’t get to vote in the marriage referendum this November. But, even though I get no personal credit for the outcome, you can bet I had an Election Night dance party anyway. And here’s why:
Civil marriage =/= Sacramental marriage
Marriage in the Church is about both people making a positive committment to each other, to any future children, and to God.
Marriage administered by the State is about setting up protections for each person in the couple and any children who happen along
What the State does is important logistically, but is really a necessary but not sufficient way of talking about marriage. Currently, since we’re talking mainly about what rights the State gives to which people, we’re talking a lot about what we’re entitled to, not what we’re prepared to sacrifice and what we’re giving it up for. Those questions are partially addressed by the communities and traditions (religious or not) that shape our cultural understanding of marriage, but the way that purely civil marriage works does a lot to set expectations.
Here’s my one sentence, purely secular understanding of what marriage is about: You spur each other on to Virtue and you may want to spur children along in a similar way.
Not every gay couple queueing up is seeking that ideal, but plenty of them are. And it’s sure not the case that every pair of straights is looking to that goal either. And I believe that every marriage will benefit from putting that goal at the heart of the relationship, instead of thinking of marriage as something like your license to have sex without feeling guilty about it.
Now, my definition of secular marriage isn’t exactly foolproof. If you don’t have to plan to have children, it’s not obvious what the difference between marriage and a really close friendship is. (Perhaps it’s the explicit and irrevocable adoption of the beloved as a member of the family? Though there are precedents for that in friendship, too). But, then again, sexual frisson isn’t a prerequisite for marriage. Josh Weed, the gay Mormon married to a woman, is pretty clearly part of a family, perhaps in a way not too different than someone in an arranged marriage might be.
When a society has systematically excluded, harrassed, and intimidated a particular group, the burden of proof for anything bearing even a casual resemblance to discrimination is higher, as it ought to be. The great thing about the truth is that it’s out there to be interacted with. If we overcompensate for past wrongs, eventually we’ll notice, but, given that right now the one thing we’re really sure of as a society is that we were really badly calibrated on how threatening or decadent homosexuality was, some epistemological modesty is appropriate.
If there’s a serious problem with the secular model I’ve outlined, by all means, the state should adjust the definition and the law, but we can wait to see how the data plays out (and make a strong pitch for Love and Responsibility-style romance-as-pedagogy in the interim).
So, in the meanwhile, I plan to keep phonebanking for civil gay marriage and throwing rice. And I’ll keep gathering data (a discussion of What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense is coming, just as soon as I manage to find the time to read it). The uncertainty that I’m most curious about is the fact that my most trad, natural law friends tend to agree with my most liberal, sexuality studies buddies that gender is way more central to identity than I tend to think (in my artless, until-recently-gnostic way) and that sexual desire is a much more important part of marriage than trebuchet-building desire.
But hey, I’m 23. More reading, debating, and living, ho!