In today’s America you can’t write a multi-part series on marriage without discussing gay marriage. I would rather avoid it, because my position won’t make anybody happy. Nevertheless, here goes.
I’m conflicted. I believe in traditional marriage as much as anybody on the planet, and by traditional marriage I mean one-man-one-woman till death do us part. I don’t believe gay marriage really exists, as a genuine counterpart to traditional marriage. I am dead-set against Christian pastors blessing same-sex unions.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that the fight against state-recognized gay marriage is worth the grief. I don’t think it actually defends marriage.
To me, there’s a big difference between what I’ll fight for in church and what I’ll fight for in government. The church is meant to be pure, and that’s worth fighting for. The state will never be pure. It is meant to keep the peace and foster the general welfare, and that sometimes requires putting up with lots of compromise.
Last fall I had a discussion with a Kenyan friend when he came to visit. We were about to vote on Proposition 8, which would change the California constitution and ban gay marriage. My Kenyan friend was surprised and shocked to learn that I was leaning toward voting no. I told him I thought the fight was non-productive, and was only convincing a whole generation that Christians are prejudiced and hate-filled.
He said, “Whether or not you want to join the fight, you can’t avoid it. You are being asked as a citizen whether or not you are in favor of gay marriage.”
To which I said, “I’m not being asked whether I am in favor of gay marriage. I am being asked whether I want to overturn a law that licenses gay relationships as marriages. What’s legal is not necessarily the same as what’s good. What the law recognizes is not the same as what God upholds.”
Divorce is a useful parallel. I hate divorce with a passion, and I would never consider it anything but tragic. Yet I would vote for divorce laws. Married people do break up, and you can’t stop that. We need laws to regulate how they do it.
Jesus talked about this in Matthew 19:8: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
Jesus affirmed the Mosaic law, which dealt with faulty people as well as with moral principles. Because people’s hearts were hard, a divorce law was necessary. God hadn’t designed the world that way, but that was how the biblical law dealt with the mess of imperfection that it found. Jesus said that what was in the law—the law given by God through Moses—didn’t necessarily reflect all that God desired for his people. It was a practical way to deal with the hardness of people’s hearts.
That’s how laws are and ought to be—and even more so when they regulate people of different faiths. For example, in much of Africa and Asia governments routinely recognize polygamous marriages, not necessarily because they are endorsing the value of polygamy, or flouting one-man-one-woman marriage, but because polygamous unions exist and there is a need to regulate them.
So the issue here: gay unions exist. What is the best way for the state to treat them?
That’s not the way the arguments get made, however. Gay marriage is argued as a symbolic, not a substantive issue, which is why it gets so emotional. Our symbols are often closer to our hearts than anything else. (Think American flags, book burnings, swearing on a stack of Bibles.)
Sometimes it’s worth fighting for a symbol. But sometimes it’s better not to go there. Sometimes the fight is not worth it. (As when young men kill each other as a result of feeling “dissed.”)
As to substance, gay relationships are going to continue whether or not they are recognized in law. If we were talking about going back to the day when sodomy was a legal offense, when gays could be arrested and tried for having sexual relations, that would be substantial. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about whether those relationships should be called “marriages,” or “civil unions.” There’s not much substance there. Either way, the actual activities pursued by real people stay the same.
The best argument against calling those relationships “marriages” is that they don’t deserve that title, and that when the government honors them with the word “marriage” it demeans the real thing. There’s surely something to this argument. Standards matter. If I can call “organic vegetables” anything I feel like calling “organic vegetables,” then pretty soon the term loses meaning. My wife, a therapist, believes that recognizing gay marriages will add to the confusion that young people feel about their sexuality.
The trouble I have with this argument is that we’ve already demeaned marriage, and confusion is already hopelessly rampant. You can get married in Vegas to somebody you met in a bar ten minutes before, and you can say your vows if you’re too drunk to stand up. You can get divorced next week just because you feel like it. That demeans marriage. So does the amazing divorce rate, with Christians leading the way.
I think the issue of gay marriage is a distraction. Those who care about marriage are putting time and energy and emotion into a cause that won’t make any substantial difference in the way ordinary people live. And they are alienating a generation that sympathizes with gay people. Suppose, in California, gay marriages are permanently banned. What grand result do we gain? The most dramatic result I can see is that the church gets a bad rap for being hateful and prejudiced against gays.
That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of laws recognizing gay marriage. All things being equal, I would stick with things the way they are. I feel for gay people, I recognize that they are discriminated against, and also that they often struggle to accept their own sexuality. I understand that they find marriage attractive, both as an official validation of their relationships, and as a way to get at the intimacy and life-long love they may feel they’ve been denied. However, I doubt very much whether a marriage certificate will do much for them in the long run. I don’t think calling their relationships “marriage” will do anything for their long-term significance, intimacy or legitimacy. Those relationships are what they are, regardless of what the state calls them. I suspect gays have seized on and idealized marriage hoping to fill a void in their lives. I don’t see that working out.
(There is the issue of whether state recognition of gay marriage will convey needed legal benefits to gay partners. That’s a separate and important question. I don’t see any reason those benefits can’t be conveyed through other legal means, such as “civil unions.”)
I come out thinking that the struggle over gay marriage is a symbolic fight that doesn’t connect to the real issues. Beating back the legal recognition of gay marriage won’t change gay relationships. It won’t strengthen or defend traditional marriage. But neither will state recognition of gay marriages give gay people much of anything that they want or need. I don’t see anything worth fighting over.
What distresses me most is the failure to address real problems. American marriages are deeply troubled, particularly among the less-educated part of America that probably needs them most. These problems make deep impacts on children, who are helpless victims. And we’re spending tons of time and energy angry and upset over something that, so far as I can see, won’t help them in the least.