Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What the Same-Sex Marriage Debate Is Really (not) All About

Though it were to risk making a fault of frankness, I must say: the more I hear from people on the "no" side of the same-sex marriage debate, the more sympathetic I become to people on the "yes" side of it.

This is not to say that I think same-sex marriage advocates are in the right.

I do not.

Nevertheless, I cannot say that I am "for" something we might call "traditional marriage" sic et simpliciter - without qualification.

You see, I simply cannot get my head around what it might mean to be "for" something called "traditional" marriage. It sounds to me like being "for" gravity, which is what it is, regardless of my disposition toward it (for the record: I am generally well-disposed to gravity).

Let me put it this way: marriage is what it is, quite apart from how I or anyone else might feel about it - and marriage, prior to the state and before all constituted political or civil authority, is between one man and one woman (yes, even where polygamy and polyandry are practiced, each marriage is an iteration of the one man, one woman model: King Solomon's wives were not married to each other); it is for the stability of society in time from generation to generation, through the regulation and rearing of children within established and legitimate households.

This is obvious to me, though it is so only because I have read too much of world history and literature not to be so convicted. Had I looked merely at the state of society today - or had I taken the measure of things as they have developed over the past generation or so (by the biblical reckoning, for which a generation is a 40-year interval), I believe things would indeed appear very differently.

Over the past four decades or so, we have seen a series of social changes regarding marriage: fewer couples entering into marriage and at ever greater age; exponential increase in the number of children born out of wedlock (and in many jurisdictions, tendentially erosive change in laws governing legitimacy); the introduction of "no fault" divorce, with the subsequent increase in numbers and rates of divorce, re-marriage and the increasing prevalence of "blended" families. It is for sociologists to debate and perhaps to decide whether, how and to what extent these phenomena are related to one another. What is certain, and pertinent to present purposes, is that society has come to understand marriage not as a commitment to a way of life, but rather as a sort of official seal of approval on a statement two people make about how they feel toward one another in a given moment.

In several important senses, chief among them the legal, marriage today is no more than this.

Quae cum ita sint, it is more than merely reasonable to ask why society should withhold its official recognition from any two persons who wish to make such a declaration.

In other words: political communities in the United States have decided to understand marriage as little more than a temporary mutual ratification of sentiment, and this does as a matter of fact make it difficult to understand why persons of the same sex cannot have such ratification - why the state ought to withhold its seal of approval.

The debate over "gay marriage" is only symptomatic of a broader sickness in the body politic.

Until we recognize this state of affairs for what it is, and for so long as we continue in our obstinate refusal to recognize that the position of our interlocutors on the other side of this issue is reasonable and (in enough cases to admit of a generality) held in good faith, we will make no headway in a contest for which the prize is neither more nor less than a chance to restore and recover the basic integrity of our entire civilizational project.

1 comment:

Clayton said...

This post gives a very helpful framework for the discussion to follow.

It makes no sense to build on a faulty foundation... I think of the parable of the man who built his house on sand, and the other who built his on rock.