At the beginning of this political season, as our national political conventions were underway in the swing states of the southeast, I paid a visit to my home state of Minnesota, that liberal bastion of the frigid plains, where political passions were swirling like a January blizzard over a ballot initiative to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
I’ve known about the marriage amendment for some time thanks in part to the unsolicited opinions various Minnesotans have shared on that modern day heir to Plato’s Academy and Rome’s Forum—Facebook. Most of those favoring me with their opinions have supported homosexual “marriage”. I must say that I’ve been disturbed by many of these comments—not because I disagree with them, nor even because they employ the atrocious grammar that seems to be the common idiom of Facebook, but because of their increasing stridency and self-righteousness.
I can’t, to be sure, entirely fault the supporters of homosexual marriage for their erroneous opinions (or even for the sentence fragments with which they express them). While the argument for homosexual marriage is deceptively straightforward (it’s equality, stupid), that for defending traditional marriage is rather more complex and has not always been made particularly well.
Contrary to what our opponents often imply, those of us who defend traditional marriage do not do so because we are hateful bigots, nor because we find anal intercourse particularly distasteful, nor for any of the myriad ways our beliefs are commonly distorted. We do so because we think that privileging traditional marriage is conducive to the common good.
Before proceeding further, it’s necessary to press the reset button on a number of wiggle words that get thrown around in this debate, almost entirely unfairly, and make any sort of reasonable discussion on the subject well nigh impossible. The first is “divisive,” and the second is “tolerance.”
Supporters of traditional marriage are often accused by the mass media of divisiveness, a strange charge since we are only seeking to maintain the status quo. In fact, I suspect that the sometimes lackluster arguments put forth by supporters of traditional marriage stem from the fact that this is not a debate we have chosen, nor do we harbor any particular animus toward homosexual persons. If I were to choose a debate our society should be having over marriage, it would have to do with how to make divorce less common. But this issue has been forced on society by the “gay rights” lobby through lawsuits, legislative initiatives, and more lawsuits. If anyone should have to answer the charge of divisiveness, shouldn’t it be the side claiming that several millennia of stable social consensus and all of the world’s great religious traditions are nothing more than bigotry? And if not, perhaps the charge of divisiveness should be left aside altogether.
Not so, however, the idea of tolerance. I believe that when it comes to homosexuality and the government, tolerance is the golden mean toward which a society such as ours should be striving.
Perhaps, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, we should back up again and clarify a few basic points. The debate about marriage is a debate about behaviors. Moreover, it is a debate about sexual behaviors. It is not a debate about friendship or love, though often those things overlap with sex (if not, perhaps, as often as they should). It’s a debate made necessary because a certain segment of society wants the state to endorse a certain type of sexual relationship. Presumably most gay people love their mothers, but they aren’t asking to marry their mothers; they’re asking to marry their sexual partners.
The state is in the business of regulating all sorts of behaviors—economic, social, and, yes, even sexual. Some behaviors the state prohibits and punishes—such as murder, sexual harassment, and drinking jumbo sodas (though only in New York). The state encourages other behaviors; the state might encourage using renewable energy through tax credits or bravery on the battlefield through the distribution of medals and honors. State recognition of marriage is an example of the state encouraging a certain type of behavior.
And here’s where the issue of tolerance comes in. Every defender of traditional marriage I know would argue that when it comes to homosexual behavior, the state should remain neutral—no punishments, no rewards. We believe, in other words, in tolerance of homosexual behavior.
The pro-homosexual marriage movement, on the other hand, is demanding more than tolerance; they are, in effect, demanding state and private subsidies for homosexual behavior. In fact, as the targeting of various charities and private businesses that refuse to endorse homosexual behaviors in recent years has shown, the impetus behind this movement is not live-and-let-live but the drive to enforce a change in social values and beliefs. Anyone who claims that the redefinition of marriage will not lead to the legal marginalization of churches and other institutions unwilling to endorse homosexual behavior is being either hopelessly naïve or deliberately deceptive.
I’m not inclined here to launch into a nuanced discussion of the ethics of homosexual acts because I don’t think the debate demands it. But I would like those inclined to hurl charges of intolerance against the defenders of traditional marriage to consider an analogous situation that might help them to understand the reaction of the other side. A woman with a very high-powered job decides relationships are too bothersome but claims that an hour or so of porn each night leaves her satisfied and fulfilled. Tired of the social stigma long attached to pornography, she demands a certificate from the county clerk and an annual tax break to keep her computer up-to-date. Uncomfortable? I hope so.
You would most likely be inclined toward tolerance in that poor woman’s case—not inclined to put her in jail or humiliate her publicly, but not really wanting to encourage her either. Those of us who support traditional marriage find ourselves in an analogous position.
Our discomfort comes not from any particular repugnance over homosexual acts themselves—we’ve been so bombarded by Hollywood imagery intended to change our sensibilities over the past several years that the sight of three women clothed in cold cuts making out in the midst of various wardrobe malfunctions on television is today rather ho-hum. Instead, our more fundamental objection to re-jiggering the institution of marriage is that the social goods traditional marriage encourages will be undermined, just as so many of the goods that come from sexual relationships are undermined by the near-miss of pornography.
Sorry to again play the role of Captain Obvious, but the single greatest good that marriage provides for society is children. Ours is a society that likes to talk about how important children are, but we often don’t treat children like a social good. If we all really thought children were so great, would so many of them grow up without fathers? Or in poverty? If children were really so important to the good people of the United States, would our nation annually kill 1.3 million of them in the womb?
The reality is that even though all of us pay lip service to the importance of children, our society also likes a lot of things that children tend to get in the way of—financial advancement, sex, power, career. In reality, children are often treated as a burden, even—dare I say it?—a punishment.
Both supporters and opponents of homosexual marriage would agree that the debate centers around a fairly fundamental shift in values, though it’s not always clear what we’re shifting from or toward. Traditional marriage is an institution designed around children. Marriage redefined is an institution designed around sexual desire. I support traditional marriage because I believe children are the greater value.
A few of the predictable objections might as well be dealt with up front. Obviously not every heterosexual marriage produces children, but when we’re dealing with marriage in the law we’re talking about institutions, not individual relationships. It wouldn’t be particularly prudent or productive for the state to investigate each individual human pairing to determine if it is likely to provide sufficient social benefits for recognition. What we’re talking about is the state endorsing a particular social structure.
And the fact of the matter is that, on the whole, at the level of social structure, the stable union of one man and one woman is the best sort of institution for raising children. This doesn’t mean that there are not exceptions, nor that those who find themselves—for whatever reason—raising children in some other sort of arrangement are bad people. But as a society should we do our utmost to ensure that every child has a father and a mother? Absolutely.
Nor are father and mother simply interchangeable. Of course, one could construct a scenario where a homosexual couple is better than their heterosexual counterparts (drunken abusive mother and father, compassionate neurosurgeon lesbian partners), but sociological research confirms what common sense has told us all along—children are better off with a mother and a father.
In fact, denigrating the value of the traditional family, suggesting it is somehow interchangeable with any other family structure, is one of the greatest injustices advocates of homosexual marriage commit. Those fighting for homosexual marriage may be by and large members of the comfortable white elite, but the attitudes and moral sensibilities they advocate have an effect on those in far less fortunate social circumstances, those whose wealth and social positions cannot as well shield them from the consequences of their sexual choices. In my work on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, I see the consequences of these choices every day.
And this brings me to a final point. It is worth noting again that none of what I’ve written above should imply any particular animus directed against people who struggle with homosexual attractions. Nor even that homosexual behaviors should be singled out as particularly harmful. Heterosexual promiscuity, easy divorce, pornography, and, yes, a contraceptive mentality, have, in my opinion, already done more to damage the institution of marriage than homosexual unions are likely to do; but redefining marriage represents the legal codification of all the worst attitudes of the sexual revolution—the movement away from understanding sexual love as social cement that binds families and societies together and toward seeing it as an arena for individual gratification.
We ought to be sympathetic toward those with homosexual inclinations. Who among us has not struggled with the temptations of the flesh? But this does not mean that those who think that children have a right to grow up with a mother and a father are bigots, little more than Klansmen.
In this political season, as candidates put forth proposals and give speeches and announce plans, no politician will ever be able to come up with a social program that does more for the human good than the traditional family. A mom and a dad can’t be beat.
So vote YES, Minnesota!