Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Gay Marriage

I had a pastor once who got a bug up his butt about abortion.  I don’t know how it happened or when, but I remember that one Sunday morning he did a long message about the importance of fighting abortion.  I don’t remember him ever really talking about abortion before that, so I’m guessing that it just kind of became a trigger one day.  Or perhaps it had always been an issue, but he’d been holding it in.  I don’t know.

I remember being pissed after that Sunday morning because he basically said that if you weren’t trying to stop abortion you were a bad Christian.  I wasn’t trying to stop abortion, but I wasn’t a bad Christian.[1]  It just wasn’t my issue.

One thing that the pastor said that morning has apparently stuck with me.  I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.  Hell, it’s entirely possible that I agreed with it at the time, or at least allowed his argument to hold sway.  Now, though, I just kind of want to smack him.

The argument basically went like this: “Opponents of abortion say we cannot legislate morality.  But in America we legislate morality all the time.  Look at all the laws against murder and theft.”

The pastor was a good man.  He was a good speaker.  He was a good husband and father.  I’m going to assume he still is.

But he most definitely was not a Constitutional lawyer.  Or if he was he got his degree from Hollywood Upstairs Law School.  He was also not a historian.

See, I’m not a lawyer, either.  I don’t pretend to be one.  But I don’t have to be a lawyer to understand something: the laws of the United States of America were not designed and were not intended to legislate morality.  They were designed to create a livable society.  The problem that a lot of people have is that the necessary conditions to create a livable society and the necessary conditions to create a moral society have an awful lot of overlap.  And most people are unwilling to understand the nuanced differences between the two things.

I can say that the religious or philosophical morality tells me I should not murder or steal.  I can also say that a society that allows people to be murdered or stolen from is an inherently unstable society.  Both of these statements are true[2] but both of these statements are not equal.  Both of these statements are also immaterial.  There isn’t anybody arguing against outlawing murder and theft.[3]  We can all agree that they’re bad to do and bad for society to allow.[4]

It is in the lesser crimes and misdemeanors that we see the difference between a drive towards a moral society and a stable society.  It is also where we can see that a drive towards a moral society is actually an inferior goal to a drive towards a stable society.  Morality, after all, is fungible.

Let us consider for a moment the concept of usury.  It was once considered one of the worst of all sins to charge any interest on a loan.[5]  This is no longer considered an issue.  This, though, is also one of those places where the proponents of a moral society and the proponents of a stable society really should be working together.  I can stand behind the argument that credit card companies should not be extending lines of credit at better than 20% interest to anyone capable of filling out a form that arrives in convenient junk mail form is immoral.  I can also stand behind the argument that the practices of the banks related to credit cards and mortgages destabilizes society.  For evidence, please look at the last two years of life in America.[6]  Even this, though, doesn’t really help me to illustrate my point.  So let’s look at that most contentious argument in American politics: gay marriage.

The main arguments against gay, well, anything, have been primarily moral in America.  It was simply regarded as being wrong.  This was fine as long as the homosexual population was forced to stay in the closet.  Ever since the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Pride Movement, however, the idea of being an out and proud homosexual in America has gradually gained greater and greater acceptance.  Now we’re at the point where gay marriage is allowed in some places and wide swaths of the country are fighting for it everywhere.  Much like the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement before it, the fight has been taken up by people who are not part of the repressed group but realize that there is a greater issue at stake than the rights of people who are different.

When the issue of gay marriage comes before a court, as it recently did in California, the arguments about the morality of gay marriage do not matter.  The issue is one of a stable society and the rights of those who reside in that society.  Opponents of gay marriage are starting to get that, but it seems to me that they’re largely trying to work around that pesky First Amendment without seeing the larger issue.  For this isn’t actually a First Amendment issue at all.

If the argument were as simple as one side waving its favored religious text and the other side holding up the Constitution, we’d be able to handle this in a jiffy.  But there are religious people on both sides of the argument.  There are religious people pointing to different verses in the same exact holy books on both sides of the argument.  And no one is going to say that we should make gay marriage illegal on First Amendment grounds because someone reads that verse where Paul says that there is no longer male or female, slave or free now that Jesus has done his thing, then extrapolates that to say we shouldn’t make distinctions between gay and straight.

The concept of marriage for civil society is quite different from the concept of marriage in religion.  For the religious it is often a sign of some sort of miraculous, god-given institution.  For civil society it is a contract that binds two people together and brings with it certain benefits related to inheritance, the custody of children, responsibility and visitation in the event of illness, and probably a bunch of other things that have never really mattered that much to me personally.  It is a legal combining of household assets and debts that allows us to have a more stable society because we can see the contract.  The fact that gay people cannot get married to each other right now means that they do not have access to those same contracts.  This reduces the stability to society.  It is also a violation of the rights of a non-zero number of American citizens.  This, I would argue, is wrong.[7]

Any argument against gay marriage, then, has to be an argument from stability.

This is why we’re being subjected to the bullshit of people like the Liar Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.  They have to argue that gay people will make bad parents.  They have to argue that gay marriage will somehow destroy straight marriage.  They have to argue that the tyranny of the majority should be allowed to trump the rule of law in this case.  They have to do this because these are the only sorts of argument that will make sense given the parameters of the argument.

Consider the ever-popular slippery slope argument.  Gay marriage opponents stand up and hyperventilate about how if we allow gay marriage we’ll have to allow polygamous marriage and if we allow that we’ll have to allow adults to marry children and people to marry ducks.  It’s a hilariously ignorant argument about societal instability, but that’s exactly what the argument is.  If gay marriage were made legal tomorrow in the entire country the only thing that would change is that gay people could enter in to a marriage contract with each other.  It’s that contractual agreement part that matters, too.  Children cannot legally sign contracts.  Ducks and dogs can’t either.  There’s the question of polygamous marriages, but that’s a different argument.[8]

Similar, too, is the “gay marriage will destroy straight marriage” argument.  It’s not a valid logical argument.  In fact, it’s a pretty fucking stupid argument from a logical perspective.  But it’s a visceral argument that attempts to paint a picture of a bleak future where the very fabric of American society has been ripped apart.

The very absurdity of the arguments, though, point to the complete indefensibility of the position being argued for.  The thing that’s truly sad, though, is that we have to have these arguments at all.  And that, for the moment at least, the side that is in favor of ignorance and absurdity still has the upper hand.


Side note: people talk about allowing civil unions as a substitute for marriage in order to keep the precious religious folks from worrying. It's stupid, especially when you consider it from the perspective that marriage is simply a contract in the eyes of the law.  If a civil union is going to be thought of in the same way as a marriage for contractual perspective, then they're the same thing.  But they're not, which brings up a thorny issue: a little case called Brown v. Board of Education.

A marriage and a civil union that are separated because a certain class of people is considered less desirable to have one or the other creates a situation known as "separate but equal."  That term comes from a court case called Plessy v. FergusonBrown v. Board overturned the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Creating a separate category of civil unions specifically to allow gay marriage would require overturning Brown v. Board.  Which is a bit problematic.  This is a backdoor argument, but it shows exactly why the gay marriage fight is a Civil Rights activity.


[1]Seeing as how I’m no longer a Christian this will become a point of contention for certain parties.  If I am not now a Christian that means that I could never have possibly been a real or good Christian because to admit that it’s possible for me to realize it was a load of bullshit and walk away would require them to admit that they could decide to do the same thing.  This is terrifying.

I have decided that from here on out I will not accept any other argument for this phenomenon without a hell of a lot of additional support.  The arguments that I hear from a certain segment of Christians for why people leave Christianity are completely founded on laying blame and projecting.  This cannot be accidental.  The entire fundamentalist Christian mindset is founded on maintaining beliefs that cannot stand up to prolonged exposure to reality.  The desperate anti-evolution fights, attempts to change history curricula, and creation of an isolated, parallel Christian educational subculture bear this out and offer more than a little proof of the fact that those who are in the evangelical and fundamentalist subcultures are, at the very least, viscerally aware of this.  Constant checking of Bible verses that belittle the idea of the wisdom of man whenever this Bible/reality divide comes up doesn’t really help any attempt to make a case for the contrary, either.

[2]The former statement requires more qualification than the latter, however.  But for the sake of simplicity I’m drawing a bright line around murder and theft and labeling them as Bad Things.

[3]With the possible exception of Basil

[4]Even there, though, we can have an argument.  Watch a couple episodes of Leverage and you’ll understand what I mean.  The entire concept for the show revolves around the idea that there are some people who absolutely need help and cannot get it, so a team of thieves and con artists who have switched to the good side pull off elaborate schemes to right the wrongs done.  This generally involves some measure of deception and theft and general lawlessness, but we overlook that because the people who have been wronged have had much greater evils visited upon them by much worse people.  Hence the show’s tagline:  “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys.”

[5]This was actually the root of European anti-Semitism and the root of the myth of the cabal of Jewish bankers who rule the world.  The Church did not allow Christians to charge any interest but did not give a shit what the Jews did, since they were all going to Hell for killing Our Lord and Savior, anyway.  This meant that if people needed money for something and had to get a loan the only people who were likely to loan money were the Jews because they, unlike anyone else in Christian Europe, could demand an appropriate ROI.  Note, too, the idea that it’s not okay to loan money at interest, but it’s absolutely a-okay to take out a loan with interest.  Morality is flexible.

[6]This, unfortunately, is one of those places where absolutely no one was looking out for morality or stability.  It was a maelstrom of idealistic attempts to help create the American Dream combining with corporate greed.  And that’s where we absolutely need the government to step in and regulate.  There exist in this world greedy motherfuckers who will take everything they can get their hands on just because they want it.  There also exist in this world people who are unwilling or unable to properly plan ahead.  The government should be doing everything in its power to minimize the damage that can be done when these groups meet.  This supports societal stability and, I would argue, is a morally important position to take.  Also, I feel like Fred Clark right now.

[7]I would argue this is another example of the fungibility of an argument from morality.  Fred Phelps would argue that gay sex is immoral.  I would argue that violating the Constitutional rights of American citizens is immoral.  How do we choose between those two arguments, especially since Phelps would argue that he trumps me because his arguments come from a higher moral authority while I would argue that I trump him because his moral authority is nothing but his imaginary friend and his own overinflated sense of outrage.  Arguments from morality are fungible precisely because moral frameworks vary according to people and experience.

This is, ultimately, why we have the First Amendment of the Constitution.  By eliminating religion as a consideration, the Constitution allows us to create a nation based on the idea of creating a stable society specifically to allow people to pursue life, liberty, and happiness as they see fit.  If I am killed I obviously cannot do that.  If my possessions are stolen from me I cannot pursue happiness.  If I decide to pursue a homosexual relationship I am attempting to use my Constitutional freedoms to find happiness.  This is why murder and theft should be illegal, while homosexuality should not.  Once we get over that hurdle the question of whether gay marriage should be allowed is merely academic.

[8]I have nothing against polyamory or polygamous marriages, morally or legally speaking.  However, if we’re talking about marriage in terms of a contract that handles inheritance and questions of who is responsible for making medical decisions in the event of incapacitation, I’m willing to hear arguments against polygamous marriages from a stability standpoint.  Again, IANAL.[9]

[9]That’s one of my favorite internet acronyms, by the by.  Because although IANAL, I cannot say that I anal.  Although I can say that I am anal…


Janet said...

Okay, so you've made the argument better than I've ever managed to, so I defer to you in the future. Well done! On separate but equal: Clerical nightmares aside, what do you think about declaring "marriage" a strictly religious term, off limits to legislators, and terming all courthouse marriages "civil unions"? It seems to me that the Christian Church never gave a damn about the civil contract, and didn't consider you married unless it was done in God's house by His vassal. Of course, it would be a much more difficult sell than gay marriage itself, but it has a kind of irresistible symmetry for me.

David said...

1) Your focus on stability is interesting, because the idea that gay marriage promotes stability is the mainstay of conservative arguments in favor.

It's perfectly obvious to me that, in terms of stability, providing a socially sanctioned framework for gay relationships is vastly superior to moral condemnation. The only way to battle the so-called "culture of promiscuity" is to provide a viable alternative to it.

2) I am fascinated by the slippery slope argument. I don't think anyone is really afraid that people will marry ducks, but I do think that there is another slippery slope that frightens the reactionaries, but they dare not mention it.

If two dudes can be happily married, and successfully raise children, then a whole host of assumptions are immediately called into question. Is homosexuality immoral? Are strict gender roles really necessary for a successful marriage and family? Is sexuality set in stone, or is it fluid? If Jim and Bob, say, live next door and are upstanding citizens, these pesky questions cannot simply be swept away.

So when I hear them carp about the "threat to traditional marriage," I understand them to mean that a whole complex of (often unstated) ideals and assumptions is under threat -- not just about marriage, but also gender rolls, sexuality in general, and ultimately what constitutes the good life.

In short: are they afraid that gay marriage will be a disaster? Or are they more afraid that it will be a success?

The Everlasting Dave said...

Circle me "gay marriage and abortion are personal, not political issues; fuck anyone who says otherwise, this is the reason American political discourse is an oxymoron."

Paul said...

This is the best statement I've read on this issue of personal (or group) morality and the law. The problem, I believe, is that at some level many of our elected officials do understand the distinction but would rather ride the wave of ignorance than explain this distinction to their constituants.

Michael Mock said...

"In short: are they afraid that gay marriage will be a disaster? Or are they more afraid that it will be a success?"

Honestly, I've had similar thoughts about the "Gays In The Military" debate. I think the real fear is that homosexuality will be seen as normal - and if soldiers start viewing homosexuality as Not A Big Deal, they'll probably carry those attitudes back into civilian life.

Geds said...


Again, IANAL, so I can't say anything about the legal ramifications. But it seems like a massive pain in the ass to do, so I'm against it on those grounds. Philosophically, too, the word "marriage" means different things to different people and many of those meanings are outside of a Christian context. I have a hard time accepting the idea of saying, "Yeah, we'll just let you have this one if you'll leave us alone." This, too, is one of the primary reasons I hope construction of the Cordoba House goes ahead.


I don't necessarily know if allowing gay marriage will end the culture of promiscuity. I mean, there are plenty of promiscuous heterosexuals out there. By the same token, I don't think it will hurt. And it's really beside the point.


Yeah...that's about as succinct as the thought can get.


Demagoguery is far more popular than quietly explaining the issues, sadly. What's the old saying about never going broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people?

As to the slippery slope:

I think David and Michael have basically hit it on the head. They don't want to acknowledge the possibility that life might go on as normal. If we don't see the apocalypse the day after the moral issue of the day is handled against their favor, then that causes problems.

Of course there's also the bit where if there's actual resolution of the gay marriage and abortion debates a lot of people suddenly not going to be able to hit people up for money and/or cheap votes...