On the Current Concerns of Social Conservatives

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Photo by Loor101 on DeviantArt. (Click for original source.)

My friend Tom Stringham has an excellent post at his blog Virtuous Society in which he outlines a secular argument against same sex marriage. It’s the single best argument I’ve read, not because it’s new or innovative, but because it’s the most concise expression of all the key points that so many of the same-sex marriage opponents have been focusing on. It begins:

If marriage is a real thing, then before we can decide what the rules of eligibility are, we have to know what it is–what marriage is. We want our marriage law to deal with real marriage, in the same way that, say, our criminal law deals with “real” crime, and not just anything the government wants to call crime.

This is a deft analogy. We all recognize that, technically, whatever the government decides to make criminal is a crime. But we all generally recognize that this technical definition misses something deeper. To the extent that the criminal code is arbitrary, it loses it’s moral force and we stop seeing it as a “real” crime. And so the question becomes: what lurks behind marriage that makes it something worthy recognizing in the first place? This isn’t a historical question, because there’s no point in the history of the institution of marriage at which a bunch of scholars or lawyers or politicians sat down and decided to hash out marriage law from first principles. Marriage laws are a product of evolution, along with much of our legal code1, rather than intentional design. But that doesn’t mean that they are arbitrary.

Please read Tom’s post for the rest of his argument.

In the meantime, here are some more thoughts.

First, I think secular arguments tend to be the best kind of arguments because (1) they appeal to a broader audience and (2) by not relying on the claims of any particular religion, they are more compelling. I don’t have anything against specifically religious arguments, but I find that–even as a religious person myself–if it’s a matter of public policy it’s preferable to state the argument in the broadest terms possible. That’s what I’ve always done when it comes to the abortion issue, and it’s what makes sense with the issue of same-sex marriage as well.

Second, I just thought I’d note some other interesting articles I found on the topic recently.

How Same-Sex Marriage Makes Orphans of Us All – This is an article from The Federalist that digs a little deeper into some of the philosophical ramifications of same-sex marriage: “To obliterate the sexual-difference feature of marriage is a radical repudiation of its character and, ominously, of the character of the human person it acknowledges and protects.” Going on:

So not only does same-sex marriage ideology redefine parent, but also child. For on its account, a child comes into the world not naturally related to anyone, but only transactionally connected to the persons responsible for fetching him through various means. No child in a same-sex household derives from the relationship of the partners in that home; every such child has been torn from at least one parent. Rather than a child’s dissociation from parents being a tragedy, it is a necessity and design feature of the same-sex regime.

I realize this is not going to be a remotely well-received argument because of the conclusions it draws, but the logic is fairly straightforward: either biological relationships are intrinsically valuable, or they are not. I believe that they are. That the mere fact of biological relationship–parent to child and also to siblings, cousins, and other kin–means something. And if it does, then deliberately creating children in a way that deprives them of this connection is morally troubling in a way that, for example, adopting children in need is not.

Is having a loving family an unfair advantage? – We may as well expand outward from gay marriage to the family generally to questions of fairness and privilege. Thus, this article from The Philosopher’s Zone which argues that–along with economic and gender and other forms of systemic inequality–having a loving family is also a source of inequality that society should rectify. On the one hand, I appreciate that the philosophers who tackle the question are shooting for a moderate position, they contrast private school (which they believe cannot be justified because it is unfair) with reading to your children (which they say is unfair, but cannot reasonably be stopped.) OK, so they aren’t saying that you can’t read to your kids because of the unfair advantage it gives, but (1) they still think you should feel bad about what you’re doing2 and (2) moreover the “right” to read your kids bedtime stories is in their conception contingent. The fact of the matter is that having a serious discussion about whether or not to ban bedtime stories is intrinsically alarming, even if the philosophers decide that (based on their particular criteria), reading to your kids is permissible for now. The implication is clear: the right of parents to provide the best environment they can for their own children within the walls of their own home is not absolute, but rather depends on a particular argument that happened to turn out this way today, but could–in the future, under different analysis–turn out in another way.

The Wild Ideas of Social Conservatives – I’ll wrap up with a pre-emptive response to the points I’ve enumerated thus far. One of the common rejoinders to conservative concerns about marriage, the family, and privilege arguments is that conservatives are hysterical. When have their fears ever, ever turned out to be justified? Well, in this post Douthat tackles that contention head on and points out that, well, conservative fears have been born out many times in the past.

It’s not that social conservatives are always right about where American society is going…

But there’s still a broad track record that’s worth considering. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the pro-choice side of the abortion debate frequently predicted that legal abortion would reduce single parenthood and make marriages more stable, while the pro-life side made the allegedly-counterintuitive claim that it would have roughly the opposite effect; overall, it’s fair to say that post-Roe trends were considerably kinder to Roe’s critics than to the “every child a wanted child” conceit. Conservatives (and not only conservatives) also made various “dystopian” predictions about eugenics and the commodification of human life as reproductive science advanced in the ’70s, while many liberals argued that these fears were overblown; today, from “selective reduction” to the culling of Down’s Syndrome fetuses to worldwide trends in sex-selective abortion, from our fertility industry’s “embryo glut” to the global market in paid surrogacy, the dystopian predictions are basically just the status quo. No-fault divorce was pitched as an escape hatch for the miserable and desperate that wouldn’t affect the average marriage, but of course divorce turned out to havesocial-contagion effects as well. Religious fears that population control would turn coercive and tyrannical were scoffed at and then vindicated. Dan Quayle was laughed at until the data suggested that basically he had it right. The fairly-ancient conservative premise that social permissiveness is better for the rich than for the poor persistently bemuses the left; it also persistently describes reality. And if you dropped some of the documentation from today’s college rape crisis through a wormhole into the 1960s-era debates over shifting to coed living arrangements on campuses, I’m pretty sure that even many of the conservatives in that era would assume that someone was pranking them, that even in their worst fears it couldn’t possibly end up like this.

More broadly, over the last few decades social conservatives have frequently offered “both/and” cultural analyses that liberals have found strange or incredible — arguing (as noted above) that a sexually-permissive society can easily end up with a high abortion rate and a high out-of-wedlock birthrate; or that permissive societies can end up with more births to single parents and fewer births (not only fewer than replacement, but fewer than women actually desire) overall; or that expressive individualism could lead to fewer marriages and greater unhappiness for people who do get hitched. Social liberals, on the other hand, have tended to take a view of human nature that’s a little more positivist and consumerist, in which the assumption is that some kind of “perfectly-liberated decision making” is possible and that such liberation leads to optimal outcomes overall. Hence that 1970s-era assumption that unrestricted abortion would be good for children’s family situations, hence the persistent assumption that marriages must be happier when there’s more sexual experimentation beforehand, etc.

I’m not going to tell you that either side has a monopoly on the truth; human nature is much too complicated for that. But I will say, again, that if you look at the post-1960s trend data — whether it’s on family structure and social capital, fertility and marriage rates, patterns of sexual behavior and their links to flourishing relationships, or just trends in marital contentment and personal happiness more generally — the basic social conservative analysis has turned out to have more predictive power than my rigorously empirical liberal friends are inclined to admit.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Douthat. Social liberals tend to see opposition to gay marriage as merely an expression of bigotry. In some cases, it certainly has been. But, even if this list of social conservative fears proves nothing else, the history of widespread paranoia3 of social conservatives going back to the 1960s and the ensuing data should underscore the fact that concerns about gay marriage and sexual mores are not isolated outbreaks that can only be explained by appeals to fear or animosity. On the contrary, this kind of opposition is part of a consistent concern for social well-being that has, in at least some important and recent cases, proved to be well-founded.

20 thoughts on “On the Current Concerns of Social Conservatives”

  1. One interesting argument Justice Ginsburg made during oral arguments last week was in response to comments that marriage remained unchanged for millennia:
    “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition. Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982, when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down.”
    If it’s within the law to redefine marriage from a Dom/sub relationship to a coequal relationship, it seems like a much smaller change to allow flexibility on the sexes in a relationship that’s already coequal.

    In Tom Stringham’s article, commenting on how this is different from elderly/infertile marriages: “Not every expression of a concept needs to fulfill the purpose of that concept” made me literally lol. He goes for some forced business and sports metaphors to “prove” his point. As if a geriatric and a gold-digger, or two old folks getting hitched to share health insurance, are somehow more an expression of a procreative family than every gay 30-40-something couple I know who have raised kids from infancy.

    The plural marriage question is really better left as a separate issue due to the many additional legal questions it poses, like inheritance and rights to make medical decisions. It’s an interesting question. Trying to force an answer now seems designed to stall progress on the simple gay marriage issue.

  2. Ryan, the general point I made is uncontroversial. Most same-sex marriage supporters see marriage as ordered toward love, but wouldn’t accept the existence of a loveless couple as evidence that it isn’t.

    So the question, which I glossed over in my blog post, is whether the procreative purpose excludes same-sex couples while including infertile or elderly husband/wife couples. Here’s another Facebook comment I wrote, if you’re interested in hearing a more fleshed-out argument:

    “Looking historically again for a moment, it seems that people were simultaneously able to see marriage as procreation-centric and to allow infertile couples to marry. However, by comparison, it does not appear that people can simultaneously view marriage as procreative and allow same-sex couples to marry. Indeed, nearly anyone who argues for same-sex marriage insists that marriage cannot be about procreation.

    Now, this difference could just reflect that people have always been bad philosophers. Or it could be that they were intuiting something about the nature of a person’s sex and the nature of infertility. The first is fundamental to a person’s identity, the second contingent. Thus, changing marriage with respect to sex would be changing its form/structure, while changing it with respect to fertility would not be. This is a subjective claim notwithstanding the historical consensus, but even so, it’s extremely practical (for what that’s worth). This is, first, because determining a person’s sex is trivial, while determining their fertility is difficult and an invasion of privacy. Second, because people who have been unable to procreate fairly frequently become able. Third, because men actually often retain the ability to reproduce into old age, so having them married serves a social purpose. Fourth, because non-procreating couples can adopt without leaving a child motherless or fatherless. All of these benefits and we don’t endanger the public vision of marriage as a procreative institution (as we do with same-sex marriage), which is what we need to maintain alignment with the purpose of marriage.”

    To your first point, briefly: restructuring the institution is generally not a problem if the new form still fits the purpose of the institution. This is why race or male property rights aren’t vital characteristics of marriage; neither are relevant to the procreative purpose.

    To your last point, no one has to “design” a dilemma on poly marriage. Polyamorous people in Britain are already asking for the right:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11576818/Greens-open-to-three-person-marriage-says-Natalie-Bennett.html

  3. To your first point, briefly: restructuring the institution is generally not a problem if the new form still fits the purpose of the institution. This is why race or male property rights aren’t vital characteristics of marriage; neither are relevant to the procreative purpose.”

    I’ve been thinking about this point for some time now. If I use Aristotelian terminology, people seem to be confusing the essence of marriage and the accidents. The essence of marriage is procreation and raising of children. All other properties are accidents. So marriages can be free or arranged, love-based or economic/political, equal or unequal, and marriage can change from having one accident to another over time without changing the essence of marriage.

    Put another way, it’s like arguing, because chairs were once made largely of wood and now they’re often made of metal, chairs don’t possess any defining properties.

    I think you’ve also hit on a good point that male-female is important even if the couple is infertile or old. I agree with the assessment that letting old/infertile people marry doesn’t really affect people’s view of the essence of marriage, but gay marriages definitely do. I also agree that infertility is something difficult to detect and increasingly treatable, whereas gay unions remain indefinitely non-procreative (barring artificial insemination or surrogacy which raises its own host of issues as mentioned in the original post). I wish there was a more rigorous way to demonstrate and defend this principle.

    I also think (addressing Ryan now) it’s somewhat disingenuous to say ‘wait and see’ on polyamorous marriage. Polyamory is already following on the heels of gay marriage, and it would not be accidental that the arguments used to support gay marriage are also used to support polyamorous marriage. That’s why people are bringing polyamory up now with gay marriage, rather than later.

  4. It’s easy to say marriage is about procreation and argue from that assumption, but Pew survey data suggest procreation is 4th on Americans’ list of reasons to get married.
    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/02/13/love-and-marriage/
    So the minority who rank it higher are seeking to impose that opinion on the rest of us. It may be what your marriage is about, but it’s not the first thing on the minds of most marrying Americans. That’s why arguments from the procreation-first assumption reach such a limited audience.

    Tom: “determining a person’s sex is trivial.”
    Hardly trivial. Female olympians with too much natural testosterone have been disqualified. Transgender and transsexual issues will be a new frontier for religious people, and how they apply old dogmas to something that was a biological impossibility when those dogmas were created will be interesting.

    It wouldn’t be difficult to write a compelling essay about why dogs and cats shouldn’t live together. We can argue all day about marriage purpose and theory, but I think most people make decisions like these based on personal experiences. The gradual, persistent acceptance of gay people and gay families is due in a large part to opponents meeting these folks and seeing none of their fears realized. If crafting the perfect argument was the key to public opinion, we’d expect sharper changes in survey results over time.
    Among my liberal friends, I find those who are most likely to demonize conservative positions are those who have no personal contact with conservative people. So I’m curious: Do the authors of this piece, and the references pieces, personally know same-sex-parent families? Have you had dinner with them, or discussed a shared bad soccer coach? Do their kids seem any more messed up than other American kids?
    Speaking personally, I can’t say what my opinion on the issue would be if I didn’t know so many such families. I am genuinely curious about these personal experiences of same-sex marriage opponents.
    I’m also aware that it’s unlikely any argument of mine is going to change anybody’s opinion, so I may as well learn something. How can someone hold a snake at the petting zoo, then still fear that snakes are slimy?

  5. “It’s easy to say marriage is about procreation and argue from that assumption, but Pew survey data suggest procreation is 4th on Americans’ list of reasons to get married.”

    Since when does majority vote decide truth? :P

    Like Nathaniel, I realize technically we can define any term, institution, or law the way we please, but as Nathaniel also said, to the extent that we define terms arbitrarily, they lose their moral suasion.

    I also think considering only current opinion carries a bias towards modern opinions as the most legitimate, and I would argue that a say should not only be given to us but to those who lived before us. And on those grounds, a much different picture emerges, where if anything the modern opinion is an extreme minority. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but it does put a damper on trying to argue that majority view decides.

    “Female olympians with too much natural testosterone have been disqualified. Transgender and transsexual issues will be a new frontier for religious people, and how they apply old dogmas to something that was a biological impossibility when those dogmas were created will be interesting.”

    I don’t think ancient peoples were as ignorant as you think.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history#Ancient_history

    http://www.bilerico.com/2008/02/transgender_history_trans_expression_in.php

    I would take both lists with a grain of salt since by cursory inspection I can see some problems with their historical interpretation, but they are sufficient to demonstrate that ancient people’s weren’t ignorant about the existence of transsexualism and transgenderism.

    “Do the authors of this piece, and the references pieces, personally know same-sex-parent families?”

    Sure do. In fact, I was a fairly liberal atheist (vehemently pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, the whole nine yards) for about 10 years, and my change in opinion came about at least in part due to the empirical considerations Nathaniel brings forth, namely that these social changes are not, in fact, without consequence.

    “How can someone hold a snake at the petting zoo, then still fear that snakes are slimy?”

    This seems to get back once more to the view that a person can only oppose gay marriage for fear of gay people. Now, I realize many people do have a prejudice against gay people which informs their views, but that’s not universally true. If you want a personal example, I go to Subway every now and again and jokingly ask my gay friend who works there for extra meat on my sandwiches. I know his boyfriend, and we all used to party together in college every now and again. My former roommate and close friend is marrying a woman. Homosexuality really doesn’t bother me.

  6. This is all very interesting, even if I do find it a bit disconcerting to find people discussing so dispassionately and abstractly whether or not I’m entitled to the rights that they take for granted.

    “This seems to get back once more to the view that a person can only oppose gay marriage for fear of gay people. […] If you want a personal example, I go to Subway every now and again and jokingly ask my gay friend who works there for extra meat on my sandwiches. […] Homosexuality really doesn’t bother me.”

    I feel compelled to ask how your gay friend(s) feel about your belief that they aren’t entitled to the rights you enjoy? Or that their relationships are somehow inherently less valid or fulfilling than yours is? I ask not to be antagonistic, but because I’m genuinely curious. I find that two people can reasonably disagree about many things, but where one’s basic rights and dignity as a human being are concerned, well, that’s a very difficult needle to thread.

  7. Mike-

    I just want to thank you for broaching this topic. It takes a lot of grace to leave a comment like yours in a forum where you feel that your basic rights and dignity as a human being are threatened.

    I imagine Bryan will be along to reply to your question directly soon. I may decide to tackle the issue you raised head-on myself, but I’m frankly afraid that I won’t be able to do it justice without more space and time than a comment usually has. So, although I realize it will seem contradictory, for now I just want to add that in addition to gratitude for expressing your viewpoint and raising the issue, I want you to know that it is my belief that all human lives have equal value and that–even though we disagree on what this means in practice–I also believe that all human beings deserve equal moral and legal consideration.

  8. “I feel compelled to ask how your gay friend(s) feel about your belief that they aren’t entitled to the rights you enjoy? Or that their relationships are somehow inherently less valid or fulfilling than yours is?”

    I think the entire way we frame this issue isn’t predicated on the universal dignity of humanity or rights but the very modern notion that sex is defining not only to relationships but our existence as human beings in general. People can’t even seem to conceive of extremely close relationships without sex (even though history is littered with them) and that not being able to have sex is inhumane and cruel. This all seems particularly odd since, as a Catholic, many of my friends are either celibate because of their vocation (holy orders and religious life) or simply because they want to live that way, and neither I nor they see their lives or their relationships as incomplete. I’m only engaged, so I don’t have sex either as of yet, and we’re practicing for NFP, which will also involve abstaining from sex quite a bit if we aren’t ready for a kid.

    Now, granted, gay people are in a much tougher position since the nature of their sexuality precludes moral sex with the people whom they want. I recognize the weight of being in that position. But again that doesn’t seem out of line with what other people experience. We all have things we want to do but can’t. I want to use birth control because it would make my life way easier, but morally I can’t. I may want to get a divorce in the future because I think my wife is ruining my life, but morally I can’t.

    For the record, this is why I agree with the view that gay marriage is hardly the turning point on marriage. People love to point the finger at gay marriages, but in my opinion, straight people are much more culpable for having allowed first birth control, then permissive divorce, and finally abortion. It’s kinda hard to proclaim the connection among marriage, sex, and procreation while allowing any three of the above. The Christian worldview is one seamless whole, and compromising on any part compromises the whole.

    I also think that, if we didn’t want this problem, marriage should not have gotten caught up in economic benefits and health/visitation rights granted by the government. Gay people rightly protest that they are precluded from various economic benefits and health/visitation rights by not being allowed to get married. This all fits in nicely with my general worldview that getting Christianity caught up in government is not a good idea. Honestly, I wouldn’t care much at all what the government does with marriage so long as churches remained free if not for the fact that even the secular aspects of marriage are fundamental to society.

    As to how my gay friends feel, they disagree (or I presume they would disagree for the ones I haven’t discussed this issue with), but people who actually give me the time of day realize I’m not a moron arguing from blind prejudice, and they also realize that my position on gay marriage does not compromise my commitment to the fact that they are human beings with inherent dignity–dignity in the classical sense, not the recent sense very much akin to ‘don’t oppose what I want.’

  9. @ Ryan –
    “The gradual, persistent acceptance of gay people and gay families is due in a large part to opponents meeting these folks and seeing none of their fears realized.”

    Something that I think Ross Douthat pointed out in an earlier article on gay marriage is that the conservative position, by its nature (concerned with social institutions in the Burkean sense) requires a more diffuse, long-term approach. After all, Douthat’s points above are about changes that have spanned 70 years to really materialize as seismic shifts. The concerns of many conservatives about same-sex marriage can only be tracked over the long-term–like whether same sex marriage will mark a turning point in the commodification of human beings (through surrogacy and other artificial means of procreation), or whether it will make marriages arbitrary and ultimately less meaningful/regulatable/etc. if they continue to morph into polyamorous and other arrangements, etc. So, the conventional liberal arguments in SSM debates like “How can my/their marriage possibly affect yours?” or “How are my/their kids any different than yours?” set up the question only on liberal terms. And similarly, any such acceptance based on your point above (immediate contact with gay couples, etc.) will not be convincing to most conservatives because of their lack of any long-term, big-picture, “diffuse” effects.

  10. Nathaniel: ‘I want you to know that it is my belief that all human lives have equal value and that–even though we disagree on what this means in practice–I also believe that all human beings deserve equal moral and legal consideration.’

    Ryan: ‘[My gay friends] also realize that my position on gay marriage does not compromise my commitment to the fact that they are human beings with inherent dignity–dignity in the classical sense, not the recent sense very much akin to ‘don’t oppose what I want.’

    I think this gets partly at what drives so many gay people screaming from Christianity. While I respect that you’re trying to show consideration and compassion, if you frame the demands of gay people for equal dignity in society and before the law in terms of churlish schoolchildren who need to be put in our place and told what’s good for us, you aren’t truly respecting our dignity or value as individuals. I can assure you that the expectation to be free to marry and commit your whole life to the one person you love more than anyone else is anything but a hedonistic, ‘just let me do what I want’ demand. While I remain a great fan of ‘traditional marriage’ (I wouldn’t be here without it!), I see the kinds of arguments you seem to be making all the time: that gay people just don’t understand what marriage ‘really’ is and, if only you explain calmly and patiently to us why the proper order of society demands that we be excluded and our lives made much more difficult than they need to be, we’ll surely have to agree with you that so-called ‘natural law’ demands that we accept a sort of half-existence, both in our private lives and as citizens before the law.

    To the question of celibacy, it seems that conflating those who have chosen to go into holy orders or those who choose to forgo birth control with those whom your religion insists must live entirely sexually desolate lives is disingenuous. They are not the same thing. I have a friend, a gay friend as it happens, who converted to Orthodoxy and felt so compelled to give his whole life to God that he became a monk in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He is happy because this is the life he has freely chosen and the life in which he feels he can do the most good and extract the most meaning. He did not join the monastery because he thought his homosexuality demanded it. It is a tiny fraction of humanity who will feel that the Divine calls them to a sexless life, a life in which they must give up any hope of ever enjoying the reciprocal love and satisfaction and meaning that come from being in a romantic partnership or marriage. If you feel such an extraordinary call, I have no quarrel with that, but to say that every single queer person on earth is called to such a life, and at the same time claim that this is somehow not much different from choosing to hold off on sex for a few months between engagement and marriage or choosing to use the rhythm method is, frankly, risible. You truly are expecting all gay people to impose upon themselves, for the duration of their natural lives, a way of life that virtually no one, gay or straight, is prepared to undertake and that, indeed, can cause immense harm and misery to those who aren’t prepared for such a thing. I am not a Christian, so to a large extent I have no dog in this race and I’m content to let religious people work these things out with their co-religionists. I just think that you need to really stop and have a deep appreciation of what your beliefs would impose on living, breathing, loving human beings, not abstractions out of Aquinas.

    One area of agreement we might find is in what you call the commodification of human beings, especially as manifested through in vitro fertilization, surrogate parentage, genetically modified fetuses, etc. I think there is a skein of selfishness that runs through the whole question of artificial fertility. To my mind, the argument for it is that it allows couples (or individuals) to have children with whom they enjoy a genetic bond. (There’s also the legal question, of no small import to gay couples, that having the child be related by blood to at least one parent is important, in case the family lives in or moves to a state that does not recognize adoption by gay couples, but I’ll leave that to one side.) This seems narcissistic to me, or at least a failure of love and imagination. An adopted child is no less your child than one who shares your DNA, and indeed that child is in greater need of love and stability than a theoretical child you could conjure up out of a test tube. This does not seem like an effective argument against same-sex marriage, though, but perhaps works rather as an argument for making adoption a more attainable and attractive option for more people. Though your concern that children will come to be seen as accessories and products is justifiable, you’re nonetheless mistaken in thinking that broadly accepted and legal same-sex marriage will somehow be the watershed for that unhappy future. The gay couples of my acquaintance who have chosen to have children have overwhelmingly opted for adoption. In states where same-sex marriage is legal and accepted, this has only resulted in children who would otherwise waste away in group homes or shuffle from foster home to foster home having a stable, two-parent home in which to flourish.

  11. Mike: “Ryan: ‘[My gay friends] also realize…’ ”
    This quote was by Bryan. I don’t know him, but I’m certain this isn’t the first time someone’s mixed up his name. It’s far from the first for me.
    I also wanted to thank you for humanizing what could have easily ended up as a cold, clinical discussion of what is best for Those People. Thank you for calling out as ridiculous the comparison between elective celibacy and forced celibacy.

    Bryan: “Since when does majority vote decide truth? :P”
    If you insist that cars are about transportation, I can show you my (theoretical) beemer with spinning rims and leather seats, and say “this car is about getting me laid.” The truth is, that car exists to get girls, whatever you say about transportation.
    The Pew poll asked people what their marriages were (or would be) about, so it doesn’t mean much what you tell a couple who got married for love. Your insistence that it’s about procreation doesn’t make it true about that marriage.
    Marriage is a social construct, so it is inherently what people make it. The poll shows what people have made it. While it may be true for a Mormon that their marriage is about an eternal bond, that’s true only for that marriage. A whole government may have an opinion on what marriage is for, but they can’t make that opinion true any more than they can legislate whether the death penalty is just, or when a growing mass of cells is human. Personal faith means that what I believe about other peoples’ marriages is true only to me; what’s objectively true about any given marriage is what the people in that marriage decide is true.
    So, I respect your opinion on what marriage is, as a valuable contribution to the spectrum of poll data.

    Rachael: “any such acceptance based on your point above (immediate contact with gay couples, etc.) will not be convincing to most conservatives because of their lack of any long-term, big-picture, “diffuse” effects.”
    The steadily growing support for gay marriage does not seem to have plateaued. Assuming that most of these conversions are due to personal interactions with gays who want to throw fabulous weddings, it appears at least some conservatives are being swayed by the immediate contact approach. When you’re holding a baby who happens to have two dads, or watching two moms cheer a graduating senior, it’s hard to see how that family will lead to a Brave New World of test tube babies. The only test tube baby I know just celebrated her own daughter’s first birthday, and the little one’s three maternal grandmas are thrilled.
    I realize that’s a sample size of one, but since I’ve been unable to convince Nathaniel with the overwhelming scientific consensus, I’m reduced to charming anecdotes. (Apparently the entire sociology community is willing to put thousands of children in harm’s way by lying en-masse about gay parents being good parents. That sounds like something people who dedicated their careers to children’s welfare would do.)
    Since several countries legalized gay marriage years ago, the US will be able to see them develop some of the dreaded diffuse effects before us, and move to mitigate the damage.

  12. Ryan,

    One of the biggest arguments that I find against SSM is simply that the fidelity is much less common found between LGBT partners compared to that heterosexual partners.

    To me to suggest that many LGBT people see marriage as the same as heterosexual is quite a stretch. It seems like they have a very different view on relationships that the liberal media would like to present to us.

    Sure some of proponents may see marriage similarly to hetero but it also seems like they wouldn’t see marriage as the same because they aren’t creating children between the two of them.

    Starting a “family” for a same sex couple seems to me like it would be somewhat of a foreign concept.

  13. Mike

    “While I respect that you’re trying to show consideration and compassion, if you frame the demands of gay people for equal dignity in society and before the law in terms of churlish schoolchildren who need to be put in our place and told what’s good for us, you aren’t truly respecting our dignity or value as individuals.”

    Discussion of dignity and rights has reached the point where it’s considered demeaning to make any comment at all on what might be right or wrong or what might be best for human beings. This occurrence makes some sense since we’re witnessing the interaction and clash of two fundamentally different worldviews: One where dignity is at least semi-independent of what a person desires (the classical sense), and one where dignity depends solely on what a person desires (the recent sense). This isn’t a power trip conversation about putting other people in their place. It’s a very serious conversation about the fundamental structure of human society and happiness, and people have rightfully (in my opinion) recognized in every age that there’s often a difference both between what we want and what is moral, and what we want and what makes for the best life.

    “I see the kinds of arguments you seem to be making all the time: that gay people just don’t understand what marriage ‘really’ is and, if only you explain calmly and patiently to us why the proper order of society demands that we be excluded and our lives made much more difficult than they need to be, we’ll surely have to agree with you that so-called ‘natural law’ demands that we accept a sort of half-existence, both in our private lives and as citizens before the law.”

    There seems to be this pervading theme in your post that we think everyone who disagrees is dumb and just doesn’t get it or won’t accept the obvious truth. Perhaps other people act that way, but I don’t think that about you all. I understand that this issue turns on two mutually exclusive worldviews, not just one group or the other lacking understanding and facts, so disagreement isn’t simply a matter of people not getting it.

    If you feel such an extraordinary call, I have no quarrel with that, but to say that every single queer person on earth is called to such a life, and at the same time claim that this is somehow not much different from choosing to hold off on sex for a few months between engagement and marriage or choosing to use the rhythm method is, frankly, risible.

    I very explicitly acknowledged I do not face the same challenges as gay people, nor does anyone who volunteers for celibacy. I highlight religious life, permanently celibate lay people, and temporarily celibate lay people (such as myself) as well as teachings like NFP and no divorce because I want to show how sex isn’t as central to life as the modern world thinks it to be and that moral demands are made of everyone in the Catholic Church, both voluntary involuntary, not just of gay people.

    I realize that the non-voluntary nature of the celibacy imposes a heavy burden. What else do you want me to say? I really can’t think of anything to say, even if I think it’s right, that won’t inevitably be taken, based on track record, to paint me as unfeeling and uncaring.

    “I just think that you need to really stop and have a deep appreciation of what your beliefs would impose on living, breathing, loving human beings, not abstractions out of Aquinas.”

    I do appreciate the demands of what I say. There seems to be this thought that no one can think through their position, know gay people, and remain in opposition to gay marriage. I’m guessing people will continue to make that assumption about me and others anyways, which is fine because there’s really nothing I can do once people start operating on the assumption that no thinking, feeling person can hold this position.

    Honestly, I prefer having this discussion in person, because the internet inevitably makes these arguments look like a bunch of unfeeling, uncaring people speculating distantly in ways that make real people suffer. It’s much easier to communicate in person that I do, in fact, think about the consequence for real people of what I say.

    “One area of agreement we might find is in what you call the commodification of human beings, especially as manifested through in vitro fertilization, surrogate parentage, genetically modified fetuses, etc.”

    Hey, we agree somewhere, at least in some small part! XD

  14. Hi, All.

    Though I dread wading into this, I’ve been educated by the thoughtful discussion. Unlike so many discussion on this topic, it’s been relatively free of personal attacks and strawmen. Thank you all.

    Mike’s choice of vocabulary gets right to the point: he uses the term “rights” more than once. He also uses the phrase, “equal dignity in society and before the law.” I don’t believe the question is not about whether a same-sex couple can call themselves “married” or not. Even very few conservatives would quibble much about such use of language. If they want to, why not? The real issue is a question of law.

    Why does the government privilege marriage in the first place? How does the government benefit as a result of legalizing some couplings over others? If the only defense is because it is a social norm, it feels like a weak argument to me–even if it’s a social norm that is thousands of years old. Unless, perhaps, there is something to that social norm other than it being just a norm.

    If it is true, as recent studies suggest, that biologically related children of heterosexual parents tend to be more stable, happy, and productive, the procreative reason could be the reason. (Unfortunately, this comes off sounding polemic. For clarity, even if that’s true, how do those children in the studies raised in a loving gay family, by a single dad or a single mom compare with them? It’s probably not “bad” vs. “good.” It’s probably a matter of “good” vs. “better”–speaking statistically and not individually.)

    Is governmental privileging of gay marriage going to be a problem in 30, 40, or 100 years? The fact is, though there are some indications it might be, we really don’t know for sure. No one does.

    So, getting to the heart of the matter, I have begun to realize that this isn’t about “rights” or “dignity before the law” at all (sorry, Mike!). In California and other states, gay couples had all the rights and privileges of marriage; all they seemed to lack was the word “marriage.” Why all the fuss over the word? Gay marriage, couched in terms of a “right,” are now routinely pitted against constitutionally guaranteed religious rights. When I first heard this, I couldn’t imagine that was where the argument was heading. But it’s starting to look that way to me. As a religious person (Mormon/Christian), I hope I am always kind, never bigoted; that I treat everyone with dignity. But I don’t think that will save me from the ramifications of gay “rights” being privileged by law and the courts over religious rights. I feel certain that, at some point in time, my sincerely held beliefs–which I do not feel I can change arbitrarily–are going to land me in trouble somehow. And there will be not one thing I can do about it.

  15. Todd:

    I agree with some previous posters that this has generally been an actual discussion devoid of ad hominem attacks, which has been really nice, and I usually don’t participate in these types of conversations because people can be so mean and icky. As background I’m a gay who grew up Mormon/did BYU/mission, and now am a lawyer (not a constitutional one, though my prior firm did represent Edith Windsor in the DOMA case).

    Todd’s position is a hard one for gays to empathize with. Christians seem to feel that they are under attack by gays, that gays are attempting to chip away at religious liberties by claiming new rights. I know there are these sad stories of bankrupted florists who dared to stand up for their Christian values by not providing services for gay weddings. I also know that it is frustrating to be called a bigot and uncaring for professing your sincerely held religious beliefs.

    But I venture that the fear of religious people is misplaced. Almost every representative in every level of government in the U.S., from the federal to the state level, in the legislative, executive and judicial departments is Christian. I would guess well over 90%. The remainder is almost completely Jewish. The constitution explicitly calls out some protections for religious practice, most importantly the free exercise clause. Over time, the Supreme Court has expanded upon these protections. Gays, on the other hand, are hanging their hat on vague promises of equal protection, and had no SCOTUS backing before Lawrence v Texas in 2003! 2003!!

    As gays, we have nothing. We have what, one governorship (and she wasn’t elected!)? One senator? a handful of congresspeople? Zero Supreme Court justices. Token placements elsewhere in the judiciary.

    And that’s not going to change. We are a tiny minority facing an overwhelmingly populous, organized and wealthy Christian behemoth that generally views us somewhere on the spectrum between confused on the tolerant end and worthy of stoning on the less tolerant end. We face discrimination not only in marriage, but also in many places employment and housing (discrimination based on religion, on the other hand, as you know, is barred by federal law). We face fear of physical violence basically everywhere. Even here in NYC, less than a mile from where I live, just this week a gay man had a chair smashed over his head in Chelsea by some nasty homophobes. Yes, Chelsea – one of the gay-friendliest neighborhoods on planet Earth. One hears these things with regularity.

    We, making up something like 3% of the U.S. population, have only the most rudimentary organizations and resources to help us seek redress for any kind of systemic or individual indignity or inequality. When it comes down to it, we gays are generally begging Christians, both at the democratic and judicial level, to act like Christians – and to their credit, they are doing so much more readily now. We are constantly baffled by the fact that our quest for marriage rights is seen by many as an attack on straight marriage, as though we were asking the high court to dissolve marriages across the land! The answer has to be that if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married. And go on with your life. You have nothing to fear. You own everything, everywhere. You can squash us like a bug.

    But more substantively, to answer a question posed, “Why all the fuss over the word?” It’s about legitimacy. When you don’t afford us the word “marriage,” you send the message that we are different and other. Illegitimate. We are not asking for the privileging of gay rights. We are asking for the end to a privileging of straight rights (in other words, equality). Many gays, myself included, believe that Christians want to keep the word “marriage” for themselves because they want to separate out the homosexual lifestyle from those lifestyles that are considered acceptable and mainstream. So it is easier to paint it as a sinful lifestyle. Because in the end, you believe it is a sin. You don’t want your children to be gay, because you don’t want them to live a difficult life of pain or a life separated from God. Yes, you would love them anyway, but you don’t want that for them. You don’t want them to be tempted by it. You want gay to seem very other and very far away.

    You can imagine how these attitudes make us feel.

  16. I’m not going to wade into this morass, but I’ve got to say that the sidenotes format of this post is brilliant. I usually skip endnotes and sometimes even footnotes because I don’t want to interrupt the flow of my reading, but just glancing to the side allows me to skim them without doing that. Well done, I’d love for other publications to adopt this format.

  17. Brian, your last point, that same-sex marriage would extend legitimacy and sameness to gay people, is taken well enough, but I can’t shake the idea that it’s special pleading, given the broader picture for gender/sexual minorities. Aren’t poly-oriented and asexual people (and for that matter, those who find themselves attracted to siblings) as deserving of legitimacy as gay people? Should they continue to be “other”? If the answer is marriage for gay people, why not for those millions as well? I don’t mean this even slightly flippantly–I think it comes across that way because this conversation we’re having only makes sense within this small window of time in the early twenty-first century, after mainstream acceptance of gay people but before acceptance of all consenting adult relationships/orientations.

    The response I’ve heard is that these are “different issues”. If they indeed are, then the arguments made for one shouldn’t apply to the others. We can choose to interpret marriage as some sort of formalization of attraction and apply that without prejudice to everyone and their attractions, and that’s one thing. But the case for marriage as a union available to exactly two unrelated lovers is going to require its own coherent and rigorous defense apart from special pleading–just like the case for marriage as a union of unrelated man and woman. Or at least, it would require that if you want to persuade those whose views on sexuality are not limited, either in the future or the past, by the passing cultural moment.

  18. Tom:

    The expansion of marriage rights to other sexual minorities is, I think, somewhat different, although perhaps not materially so. I remember in the SCOTUS oral arguments a justice did mention poly marriages, and why they would not be worthy of the same types of marriage rights. The lawyer gave the answer that the legal and social infrastructure (divorce, child custody, medical guardianship, inheritance, etc) exists to handle same sex couples but doesn’t really exist for a poly-type relationship. Fair enough, but I think if we’re really talking about individual dignity and freedom, to say that there isn’t legal infrastructure to deal with something really is a call more to change the legal infrastructure than to dismiss the rights of the poly crowd.

    Frankly, I don’t care. I’m perfectly happy with polygamy/polyamory on its face; I know there are feminist arguments about coercion and general inequality that some put forth against those arrangements. I don’t find them particularly credible. I simply don’t know why we can’t allow anyone able to consent to marry anyone else able to consent. Sibling marriage is fine. I don’t know why anyone would care about sibling marriage – it would be unbelievably rare anyway. (What are we worried about, birth defects? We allow Tay-Sachs carriers to get married, right?) In the absence of demonstrable harm, we should be in favor of greater freedom and less government restriction, as a rule. If people want more structure in their lives, let them join a community that will help them live that way. There are many such restrictive communities.

    At base, I think a lot of this comes down to legislating morality, which is a tough question. We of course legislate morality. We outlaw murder, and child abuse, and other awful things. A moral system is simply a system that helps us distinguish “right” from “wrong”. But I am very against legislating idiosyncratic religious morality, like that gay sex is wrong. In the public sphere, when we’re talking about minority rights, we need to maintain maximum freedom, and limit freedom only where harms result. In the public sphere, “wrong” should only be “what causes harm.” What harm is caused by polyamory? What harms are caused by gay marriage? These are the questions we need to ask in a pluralistic society rather than simply saying “well, we’ve always been this way” or “God doesn’t like it”. Some people think God doesn’t like you to eat a cheeseburger or drink a Coke. “Harm” is of course not always an easy question – does my gay marriage cause a catholic psychological harm? Maybe. Then we have to do some weighing of rights – is my right to have the government recognize my union, and the attendant tax and legal benefits, more important than someone’s psychological harm? I think yes, but I guess that’s why we have judges and reasons and brains, so we can sort through such tough questions.

    And to go to the child question: Generally, when we’re talking about families and children, let’s remember that in America the bar we set for what is an acceptable family for a child is EXTREMELY LOW. We terminate parental rights basically only where there is *substantial* physical abuse or physical neglect. We allow totally uneducated, poor, single, borderline mentally ill people with no family support have and keep their children, as long as there is no physical abuse. We even pour money on them! To deny poly families or gay families or whatever kind of nontraditional family legal recognition because of deleterious effects on children, you really should have to show that such a family structure is as horrible as physical abuse. And I don’t think you’re going to get there.

    We really already have poly families, anyway – they result from divorce and remarriage or siblings that only share one parent all the time. Kids have a mom and stepmom, dad and stepdad, live with a sibling’s parent, huge number of permutations of caregivers. Sometimes it works well for all involved, sometimes it doesn’t – but we never question a divorced parent’s right to remarry or a parent’s right to have a new child with a new partner just because it might complicate the familial status of a child. (And THAT is straight privilege at its finest!)

  19. It may be too late, but I wish people would people would use a last initial or a middle initial or something. Between Ryan, Bryan, and Brian, I’m having a hard time keeping track of who has what views. :-)

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