Three Red Herrings in the Gay Marriage Debate

Three Red Herrings in the Gay Marriage Debate June 30, 2011

The dust is settling from the battle of Albany, and the smell of red herrings is in the air.  Gay-marriage is now legally recognized in the state of New York.  Out of every 9 Americans, 1 now lives in a state that legally affirms gay marriage, and with California likely to follow soon, the proportion will soon swell to 1 out of every 6.  While the air is filled with commentary on gay marriage, I wanted to address three red herrings in the debate.  The idiom comes from the notion that one could use the pungent scent of a “red herring” to throw a hound off the scent of whatever it hunted.  A red herring diverts attention from where attention properly belongs.

When I hear people say these things, I know they’re not really informed on the reasons why social conservatives oppose gay marriage.  My purpose here is not to build an argument against gay marriage.  I have a longer series (most recently here) on basic matters of homosexuality and Christianity.  The point here is to help people — whether they oppose or support same-sex marriage — better understand and discuss the arguments.

“How could same-sex marriage possibly be a threat to my marriage?”

It’s not.  If Adam and Steve wish to marry in New York or Massachusetts, this will do nothing to harm your marriage in California or Georgia — or even in New York or Massachusetts.  But here’s the thing: no one ever claimed that the legal recognition of gay marriage is going to harm your marriage.  The claim is that it will harm the institution of marriage.  And, with all due respect, the institution of marriage is more important than your marriage.  Societies are built on the institution of marriage.  But I’m sure your marriage is nice too.

“Gay Marriage Has Been Legalized in [Pick a State], and Armageddon Hardly Seems to Have Broken Out.”

This too is true, and this too is irrelevant.  No one was predicting that demons would rise up out of the earth and slaughter humankind.  Nor was anyone foretelling that the legal recognition of gay marriage would provoke a sudden rash of divorces or instant social disintegration.  The concern was — and is — that the legalization of gay marriage contributes even further to the long-term deterioration of the institution.

Here’s one very important thing to understand.  Those who oppose same-sex marriage do not see the fight for same-sex marriage as a continuation of the Civil Rights struggle.  The Civil Rights struggle does not even enter their minds when they consider same-sex marriage, because they do not believe that a person has a civil right to marry a person of the same sex with the imprimatur of the state, or that a person has a civil right to adopt one course of action (marrying a person of the same sex) and have it treated legally the same as another course of action (marrying a person of the opposite sex).  In other words, in this view, there is no civil right to marry whomever you please, and “equal protection” does not enter the equation; people in themselves deserve equal protection before the law, but different courses of action can and should be treated differently.

Most social conservatives see the same-sex marriage movement as a continuation not of the Civil Rights fight, but of the sexual revolution.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s established a trajectory of greater freedom of sexual expression, of broadening the field of sexual behaviors that are accepted and celebrated, and of disapproving the judgment of sexual behaviors or identities.  Many social conservatives see the push for same-sex marriage as the next phase in the sexual revolution, the next phase in the deterioration of moral-sexual norms, and the next step toward the dissolution of the basic and God-ordained family structure.  The sexual revolution, they claim, has already done incalculable harm.  They see a direct connection in the past five decades between the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the family, with skyrocketing increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and deadbeat dads — and all the poverty, stagnation and malaise those things bring.

It’s a slippery-slope argument made by people who believe they’re already halfway (if not further) down the slope.  Slippery slope arguments often seem exaggerated, because they invest all the importance of the whole downward path in the very next step.  Every step down a slippery slope only takes us a little way.  But it also creates momentum.  And when you look back, you realize how far you’ve fallen, how much ground you’ve lost.  Nearly 40% of American children are now born to unwed mothers.  And the disintegration of the American family has done the most harm in low-income African-American communities, where there was less stability and social capital to start with.  Over 70% of African-American children are born out of wedlock.  For all the heroic efforts of single mothers, the children of single moms are as a general rule less healthy and less educated, and more likely to enter gangs and engage in criminal activity.

The point is this: American society once built a bulwark around the traditional family structure.  Perhaps in some ways or for some people groups the removal of that bulwark has been liberating, but the conservatives who oppose gay marriage believe that the removal of the bulwark has, on the whole, been absolutely devastating.  The further and further we depart from the family structure God intended, they believe, the more damage we do to our society.

“If Christians Really Cared About Marriage, They’d Fight Against Divorce”

This is not so much untrue as uninformed.  Yes, Christians have made a mess of marriage all by themselves.  Yes, Christian churches have not stood against divorce as strongly as they should have.  But the implication — that conservative Christians are doing nothing to fight divorce — is false.

First, countless Christian ministries seek to improve marriages.  Many thousands.  And every Christian church in America is engaged in this fight.  Elders, deacons, pastors and pastoral counselors at churches spend a very significant proportion of their time training congregants in how to be good spouses and good parents and in helping couples and families stay together.  Some of the Christian ministries most well known for their opposition to gay marriage — like Focus on the Family — actually devote the greater portion of their time and resources to helping marriages and families.  Focus, for instance, funded 66,000 counseling sessions last year, many of them on marital problems, and most of their media is about building strong marriages and families.

Second, of course, this is not an either/or.  Religious conservatives can oppose gay marriage and take pains to reduce the divorce rate at the same time.  And they appear to be having success.   48% of marriages amongst non-Christians end in divorce.  Some who identify as Christians but rarely attend church actually fare worse.  But the rate for all Christians together is 41%, and the rate for all Christians who frequently attend church (once a week or more) is 32% (this according to the General Social Survey, 2000-2004).  Catholics who attend church frequently divorce at an even lower rate, at 23%.  So, many of the religious groups that oppose gay marriage also fight against divorce, and do so with some success.

Third, Christians too are influenced by culture, and the fight against gay marriage seeks to arrest a cultural movement that degrades the moral and spiritual foundations of marriage.  So the opposition to gay marriage and the fight against divorce are actually seen, by the people involved in the fight, as closely related.

Again, this was not an attempt to build an argument against gay marriage.  That would require other arguments, and deeper levels of explanation.  This was just an attempt to address some of the red herrings.  My hope is that people who find the opposition to gay marriage mystifying will understand it a little better, or at least understand why these bumper-sticker slogans are not found convincing by social conservatives.

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