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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Uncivil unions: my five questions on gay marriage

Okay, so it was eventually going to happen that I would have to tackle this issue. When I go to church every Sunday in my evangelical Presbyterian church and go to LGBTA meetings every Monday, the whiplash was going to catch up to me eventually. The issue I'm really struggling with right now is what to do as a Christian, and as a social justice freak who loves the LGBT community, with the arguments swirling around about the topic of gay marriage.

So, four years ago I had no problem per se with limiting marriage as long as it was handled on the state level and it was done constitutionally.  I was a Christian, after all; at the time, I had a tough time delineating between following Christ and Christian culture, which meant that I didn't question what I had been taught about the morality of same-sex desire.  So when my home state in Appalachia put a marriage definition referendum on the ballot, the (Baptist) church I went to at the time pushed it pretty hard.  I was pretty ambivalent, honestly.  It seemed fishy, but who was I to argue?

When the time came to actually vote, I stared at that question on the ballot for a good five minutes, held my breath, and clicked the "Yes" button.  Then I spent the next six months feeling like an absolute jerk for doing it.  I just didn't think I could challenge the rest of the church on that issue, and I let the pressure push me into voting in a direction I didn't really have any conviction in.  I really regret that now. I should have realized that, if my church was pushing me to vote against my conviction, that maybe that's because something was wrong with the whole situation. 

Things have changed a lot in the last four years.  For one, I feel like I can stand up against the pressure from my church to start looking at the issue more critically.   My problem with limiting marriage now is that the only legitimate arguments I can come up with that hold any water are completely Biblical.  I can make the argument work for within the body of Christ if I actually want to, but I can't find a clear, logical argument for extending that outside into the larger social sphere.  If I can't come up with a clear, obvious reason to apply a law or rule to those outside of the Christian body, I become very reticent to force it upon a larger society who doesn't share my religious conviction.  I'm not a fan of Sabbath laws or liquor sales restrictions for that same reason. 

Next, the Manhattan Declaration keeps telling me about all the vast social ills that will invariably follow from allowing same-sex couples to marry, and I just don't buy it.  The argumentation just isn't there to support it.  So far, no single country has seen a rise in any of the "social ills" they're afraid of because they were already there; and if South Africa suddenly collapses in the next decade or so, it's certainly not going to be because they let gay people get married. It will be from a much larger complex of social problems which the government is trying to address but seems unable to resolve. 

As far as I can tell, the only thing wider society will lose with the adoption of gay marriage is an easy, clean definition they've always made between what we have deemed licit and illicit sex.  All of a sudden, we can't just push people to get married and make their sexual situation "okay" because now marriage can make sex between couples that we don't like "okay" as well.   Gay marriage, if anything, threatens the moral high ground of sexual conservatives by creating a category crisis.  First, we can no longer deny legal recognition of couples we don't really approve of to keep the "us" separate from "them."  That's the same reason miscegenation laws were so popular in the US for a long time too, you know, and those have been completely (and rightly) dismantled.  Secondly, it blurs the social distinction between the two.  When gays and lesbians suddenly become as domestic, sedentary, and monogamous as the rest of us...  how much harder is it to argue that they're immoral and disgusting? (And that's exactly the point, conservatives.  They're not.)
Corner of Gay and Union
So, in short, this erstwhile conservative evangelical is having an extremely hard time justifying definition of marriage statutes in the United States, and right now, few people in the Christian community are helping me out.  I just keep hearing the same old flawed arguments about the collapse of society and the slippery slope.  And, strangely, I've discovered that I'm not the only evangelical to feel this way.  I keep running into scores of other people with the same problems with the Christian right's approach to gay marriage and civil unions, but right now we can't find anybody from our own community who can allay our concerns and convince us that defining marriage to exclude same-sex couples is right.  So my only recourse at this point is to conclude otherwise.

So, here are my five questions for the Manhattan Declaration crowd that need answered if you're going to get me to reconsider my opposition to definition-of-marriage statues and preference for full marriage benefits for all.  If you think you can actually answer these in a thoughtful, reasoned way with good logic and evidence, I would be very interested to hear what you have to say.

And if you're on the other side of this issue and can provide good arguments for gay marriage from within a Biblical framework, I would be very interested to hear from you, too.

All right, so my five problems are as follows:

1) Is marriage sacred or not?  Make up your minds. 

It really bothers me that many Christians (depending on denomination) seem to make no conscious distinction between a marriage pledged in the name of God and a secular marriage. Why?   After all, it's the foundational institution of mankind and established by God, wasn't it?  Isn't that our main argument that marriage "is an objective reality" that can't be redefined, Manhattan Declaration?  In the Roman Catholic church, marriage is a sacrament; God has to specifically recognize and give His blessing upon a union so great that "what God has joined" no man can put asunder.  There's a clear delineation between those marriages blessed under this covenant, and those that are not.  When my Catholic godmother married a Presbyterian without a wedding mass, it was a serious problem for her fellow communicants and took several years before her church and her husband were reconciled to each other. 

But among most other denominations (including all the ones I've been in) there seems to be no clear delineation in our minds between those marriages blessed and consecrated to God and those that never were in the first place.  As long as we can get two people "living in sin" to walk down the aisle and exchange a couple of rings, be it officiated by a priest, a ship's captain, judge, or Elvis impersonator, we feel that their relationship is now okay in God's eyes.  We often don't care if those people now married believe in God or not or recognize that their marriage has religious implications; we care only that the marriage is legal and not whether the marriage is moral.  So, if marriage is as holy as we say the Bible says it is... why aren't we acting like it?

2) Is marriage a civil or religious institution, or is it both?

This brings me to a larger problem: to what sphere does marriage belong?  In most nations, US included, marriages can be performed by a church but require a license to be legal in the eyes of the state.  That is, the government issues the contract, but the church can perform the ceremony.  Often times marriages officiated in a religious sphere are religiously binding even if they never file the license.   Marriage is thus a religious institution but governed in a civil sphere, and in the US, the civil sphere specifically keeps its fingers out of the church's business, and vice-versa.  Marriage can therefore take place in the religious sphere, or it can have no religious implications whatsoever.  We have an institution stretching across both civil and religious territory in a nation founded on separation of church and state.  Try to figure that one out. 

I think, in this sense, people lost the argument over the 'sanctity of marriage' about a hundred and fifty years ago when marriage licenses and officiating were turned partially over to the government for administration.  When I was an MA student,  I had once read some fascinating religious pamphlets from English pastors in the 1830's which gave this same argument against secularizing marriage in Britain.  They were afraid that marriages inimical to common sense and religion could be performed by the state, and the church would then have to deal with the consequences.  Interesting bit of prophecy, isn't it?  

3) Gay people can already get married.  What they can't get is a license.

In actuality, gay marriage per se is not illegal anywhere in the US. As long as you can find a practitioner willing to perform a ceremony, anybody can have a non-legal marriage ceremony that is binding in the eyes of some philosophical, religious, or moral institution but not in court. Gay friends of mine have done it before.  So have straight friends.  What they cannot get is legal recognition of that marriage as a contractual agreement binding their personal and financial existence in the culture. That tells me that what we're fighting over is actually marital rights and not the right to marry.  So, if they can already get married, this brings me to my next point:

4) What about benefits?

Marriage is a contractual obligation between two parties which offers legal protections that are, by definition, unavailable to large parts of the population; these can vary from the right to collect certain Social Security benefits and qualify for family insurance to inheritance, even the simple right to visit your partner in the hospital or pick your kids up from the day-care or make medical decisions for them.  That status as "married" qualifies two householders for all these benefits. 

Basically, the only way two people setting up a domestic household can qualify for these benefits is to get married, which means that any domestic household under any other situation than one man and one woman cannot qualify for those same rights.  Whether you like it or not, same-sex couples are setting up households and raising kids, and denying those couples access to those same rights as common householders puts them (and especially their kids) at a legal and financial disadvantage.

And, before you hop on the "civil union" bandwagon, I'd just like to point out that "separate but equal" provisions, according to the US Supreme Court, have been inherently unequal since 1954.  Check out Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.  We've been down that road before. 

The alternative I've offered to some people is for straight married people to renounce all legal benefits that come with marriage and have to take out a domestic partnership contract and a prenuptial agreement for them to have any legal protection inside the sphere of marriage.  That'd allow everyone the same access to legal protection and still let them take their ball and go home, so to speak.  Strangely, few people gung-ho about DOMA or definition of marriage laws don't seem willing to do that... and yet they won't answer my question about benefits, either.  What's up with that, Manhattan Declaration? 

5) Why won't you recognize the importance of emotional bonds in same-sex partnerships?

What every person on this planet craves most is not sex, no matter what Hollywood makes you think.  It's love, and people have always tried to find that love outside of the marital sphere whether we like it or no.  Many Christians refuse to recognize that, like any problematic union outside of wedlock, same-sex relationships have importance to the emotional and mental well-being of the people involved and can in fact create a stable social environment. And yet, those relationships are regarded as having zero social value.   This really bothers me; it's unethical. 

For instance, a very common argument I hear from Christians is that a hetero marriage can be based on love and mutual respect, but same-sex relationships are based on desire, lust or sex only.  Sorry, that's stupid.  Since we (meaning religious conservatives) often define LGBT people only by their sexuality, it's the only lens a lot of people ever look at them with.  Everything about them becomes colored by sex, and that's unfair.  Actually, it's bigotry-- a gay or lesbian person's identity consists of a hell of a lot more than just their sex drive, and discussing a person's sexual orientation is not the same as discussing their sex lives.  They are complete, complicated human beings like everyone else, and that includes their emotional needs-- so stop flattening them out into two-dimensional caricatures of themselves. 

In fact, the emotional bonds between two people of the same gender can be just as rich, intense, and real as between husband and wife.  Look at Ruth and Naomi, after all, or Jesus and John.  Actually, from a biblical context, those emotional relationships were far deeper and rewarding than the place that the Bible accords to marital love, and heck, they were non-sexual.  Or, what about David and Jonathan?   Looky here:
Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. 
Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father's house.
Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.
Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt. (I Samuel 18:1-4)
Okay, so I don't really buy that David and Jonathan were gay, mostly because, as a Premodernist, I'm not sure our modern terms for sexuality and identity translate well into the Premodern period.  We need a different model.  But, hey, let's be honest: the only difference between David and Jonathan and a Judean version of Brokeback Mountain is sexual consummation.   They knit their souls together and made a "covenantal union," for crying out loud.  As the Manhattan Declaration points out, marriage is a covenant, too, in that exact same model. He took Jonathan from his father's house and they cleaved together, in soul, at least (Genesis 2:24).  So, as far as I'm concerned, they're married.  Look at 2 Samuel 1:26:
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
Look at that word for "love" in Hebrew: its used extensively in the Psalms for God's love for his people.  But it's also used extensively in Song of Solomon.  This term overlaps into both the sphere of holy and physical love.  So, no Christian in their right mind would argue that Jonathan's love for David had no value or shouldn't be recognized as legitimate. Why, then, do we so often ignore those bonds when we then throw sexual desire into the equation?

I have a huge problem with this because it's ignoring the emotional import of these relationships.   If you don't recognize the worth of something important to an individual's wellbeing and withdraw your respect, you're not treating them as full human beings.  You are minimizing their wants, hopes, needs and dreams in comparison to your own.  The result that you treat another human being with something less than full compassion-- and in my opinion, approaching others with less than full love and compassion is a hell of a lot less biblical than claiming that David and Jonathan were swingers. 

So, in short, those are my five points I keep thinking about when I try to unravel this snarl of marriage, and religion, and same-sex marriage.  Any suggestions, anyone, that don't involve the old, dead and tired arguments?  How do you suggest I should navigate through this mess?


1)  "I Do," a wonderful and goofy Lego illustration from Dunechaser's Flickr photostream.  Available under a Creative Commons license.  If you check out his photostream, he has Lego man illustrations for a variety of different situations, and they're quite fun. 

2)  The corner of Gay and Union streets, in my adopted hometown in Appalachia.  taken by me. 

3) A marriage in Vegas, from razzlefrazzle's Flickr photostream:
I'm sure these two people are just wonderful, and I hope their marriage is blessed.  Even if Elvis officiated the "I Do's."

3)  A Prop-8 Protester's sign, from Stevebott's Flickr Photostream: 


  1. Regarding your comment on "separate but equal", I should point out that our society, as well as the federal judiciary, is much more tolerant of separate but equal on the basis of gender than on the basis of race.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment! That is, of course, a very good point. I suppose what I'd like to know now is how that race/gender distinction with segregation laws has been treated in the constitutional court in the last thirty years or so. What has the judicial trend been, I wonder?

    The only example of gender-based segregation I can come up with is the flap about membership at Augusta National, and since it's a private club and whatnot, it's not a very clean example...


  3. Hi, and thanks for a great blog. Been reading it for ages today after just discovering it!

    I'm from South Africa. I'm also a Christian, and so glad that "gay marriage" is totally legalised here. And our society has certainly not fallen apart.

    I always find it somewhat amusing, or perplexing, that although South Africa has plenty of American style charismatic/pentecostal/evangelical churches (I belong to one of them!) the "culture war" issues (gay marriage, "evolutionism", etc.) just don't seem to get the same attention here.

  4. Stephen, thanks for the comment!

    Although, before I say anything else I need to tell you how much I LOVE your nation. I've been fascinated by how much cultural innovation and religious thought has sprouted there just in my lifetime, and someday I WILL visit there. As soon as I'm not broke.

    But to get back to the post, you're touching on things that have me perplexed, too. I'm not entirely sure how or why we have a 'cultural war' over LGBT rights (or evolution) in this nation or how that became the main rallying cry of my religious community in the first place. Why pick this one expression of sexuality of all things to circle the moral wagons? I can't make it work out in my head.

    A friend of mine (who's in the Nazi counter-protest pics if you look), and a native-born Southerner thinks it has a lot to do with fear of change. "My people [Southerners] see their way of life disappearing, and that's terrifying," she told me once. "Any movement that tries to preserve the way of life and strike back makes them feel less helpless in the face of it all, maybe."

    On the one hand, I can see where she's coming from, but I still have to look to South Africa and think that's not the whole story. There are conservative religious traditions who, perhaps, have similar fears about things in SA, but they don't rally around sexuality; rather, I've always sort of assumed that they often revolve around social factors like language and heritage. I sure a lot of people might point to our different social histories as the reason for that difference, but the more I look to SA the more I see how much our two cultural histories are the same.

    In any case, having looked at your blog, it seems we have similar personal interests about the intersection of faith and culture. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about issues like these from your perspective!

  5. Hi Jackrabbit,

    Ah yes, my blog. The creation/evolution issue just fascinates me, because I think it brings to the fore so many of the current conflicts within modern Christianity.

    It's not that South African evangelical churches are necessarily any more "liberal" about issues such as homosexuality (or evolution, for that matter). I've still had to sit through a number of sermons - gritting my teeth, throughout, in many cases! - while an otherwise wise and loving pastor talks about how homosexuality is not acceptable.

    But the tone is very mild. The language is not adverserial. Moreover - and here I think the difference between the USA and SA becomes clear - there is NOTHING said about civil unions, etc. The church here (at least the parts I have contact with) are much more content with the separation of church and state here, and people seem quite able to accept that even if homosexual marriages would not be allowed within their faith community, there is no need to go telling people "outside" what to do, or telling the government to legislate to enforce their sense of morality.

    Of course, it could all change. I'm sure there are plenty of conservative-minded Christians here who would love to outlaw homosexual marriage, for example. Or introduce "Intelligent Design" into school biology textbooks. But I don't hear much of it. Maybe the political dynamic is different, too. Maybe, politically, there are bigger fish to fry (like 25% unemployment!).

    But back to the church here. I have to say am getting a bit tired of this "God loves the sinner, not the sin" sort of approach. It's better than hate speech and victimisation, sure, and I'm glad the topic gets mostly a cursory mention rather than too much attention. That presumably gives some gay people in the church a little space to just live their lives in peace. But I do worry about those who are not settled in their own mind about the "conflict" between their sexuality and their faith. The half-hearted acceptance coming from the pulpit must be a constant reminder that they might not be "fully" Christian or something. And that's a shame.

    Anyway, please do come visit South Africa some time. You'll absolutely love it, that I can guarantee!

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