Is opposition to gay ‘marriage’ about warding off a public threat, or policing private morality? Is it about imposing religiously-derived categories onto a secular public, or protecting our way of life?
These questions recently came to mind when I stumbled across an article written thirteen years ago by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Mrs. Mathewes-Green is one of the most helpful and lucid thinkers of our era. Her writings and public speaking have been a source of much rich blessing for both my wife and me over the years. So I was naturally interested when I read some questions Frederica posed on her website about what she calls “anti-gay activism.”
I fall into the category of what would probably be considered an “anti-gay activist” since I have been very involved in both Britain and the United States campaigning against the promotion of homosexuality in the schools and, more recently, same-sex ‘marriage.’ But perhaps these efforts are misplaced. Does the gay agenda really threaten marriage? Is homosexuality really a political issue, or just a question of private morality? These were some of the questions that Frederica’s thought-provoking article raised. Since the time when she wrote that article, David Dunn has argued that gay marriage will definitely not affect traditional marriage in any way. I’d like to suggest that both Mathewes-Green and Dunn may be being too optimistic and that the evidence from Canada shows that legalizing same-sex ‘marriage’ can be considered a public threat.
To be fair, at the beginning of the 21st century when Mathewes-Green wrote the above article, it was still possible to assume that gay rights only affected the homosexual community, and that what happens in the secular realm need not affect what happens in the rest of the world. But things have rapidly changed since then, and it has become increasingly clear that the goals of the gay community, if realized, would affect everyone, not merely themselves. To put it simply, gay rights in general, and gay ‘marriage’ in particular, represents a significant public threat.
Before proceeding to demonstrate this, it is important to appreciate that activists like myself and the thousands of other Christians who are involved in the campaign to prevent same-sex marriage are not literally “anti-gay.” Or at least, if we are “anti-gay” then we have a problem and need to repent. What we oppose is not homosexual people, whom we love and long to share the gospel with; rather, we oppose the attempt among gay activists to change society for all of us, to change the meaning of marriage for everyone, including those in heterosexual marriages.
To make such statements sounds like nonsense to many people. How can the things homosexuals do in private, or the categories they use to define their relationships in public spaces, affect everyone else? This is one of the questions Mathewes-Green raised in her article. After being invited to a meeting on how to combat “the gay agenda”, she expresses some bemusement at what all the fuss is about:
“I tried to picture how a nice male couple living down the street, mowing their lawn and paying their taxes, could damage my marriage….
“The problem, I think, was that my friends assumed homosexuality is a political issue. We got used to thinking in political terms during the abortion debates, and with abortion that was justified; the minimum purpose of law is to prevent violence, particularly against children.
But homosexuality, it seems to me, is vastly different. Widespread promiscuity, straight or gay, is dangerous, but I don’t see a reason to rank private homosexuality high on the scale of public threats. I’m willing to be convinced, but I haven’t been yet.”
Perhaps the easiest way to see how the gay rights agenda is a public threat is to observe what happened in Canada after the gay rights movement got their way. As soon as the Canadian government made marriage simply the formalization of an intimate relationship between two consenting adults, they undermined the integrity of EVERY family living in Canada. By granting themselves the god-like power to declare which collections of individuals constitute a ‘family’, the Canadian government implied that both marriage and family are little more than legal constructs at best, and gifts from the state at worst. In the former case, marriage and family lose their objective fixity within society; in the latter case, we all become wards of the state. Precisely because of this, gay ‘marriage’ should be seen as a public threat.
But this needs to be fleshed out. In what follows I will attempt to demonstrate the truth of what I have just claimed in three successive points. Point number one is that same-sex ‘marriage’ hinges on certain non-sexual modalities. Point number two is that because of point number one it follows that the state that legalizes gay ‘marriage’ presumes to replace nature as the sole determiner for what constitutes a family. Point number three is that because of point number two, the state that introduces same-sex ‘marriage’ redefines its relationship with EVERY marriage and every family in the nation.
Premise 1: Gay ‘Marriage’ Hinges on a Non-Sexual View of Marriage
I begin with the point that same-sex ‘marriage’ hinges on a non-sexual view of marriage. In contrast to the traditional view of marriage, which we can call ‘the conjugal view’, same-sex ‘marriage’ depends for its coherence on another view of marriage, which we can call ‘the revisionist view.’ According to the revisionist view, the marital union is first and foremost a loving relationship, a bond of commitment and affection between two consenting adults. It is first about the communion of souls in a committed and affectionate relationship and only secondarily about the acts those people might or might not perform with their bodies. This view of marriage contrasts sharply with the traditional view which sees marriage as a sexual union publically recognized because of its potential fecundity. As Girgis, Anderson and George explain:
In short, the revisionist view sees your spouse as your ‘Number One person,’ in one advocate’s pithy phrase. Hence it cannot distinguish marriage from simple companionship. And we all know that companionship, while deeply enriching, is far more general than marriage….
Take Oscar and Alfred. They live together, support each other, share domestic responsibilities, and have no dependents. Because Oscar knows and trusts Alfred more than anyone else, he would like Alfred to be the one to visit him in the hospital if he is ill, give directives for his care if he is unconscious, and inherit his assets if he dies fist. Alfred feels the same about Oscar. Each offers the other security amid life’s hardships,. and company in its victories. They face the world together.
So far, you may be assuming that Oscar and Alfred have a sexual relationship. But does it matter? What if they are bachelor brothers? What if they are college best friends who never rooming together, or who reunited as widowers? In these cases, most agree, they would not be spouses. And yet they would be, by most revisionists’ arguments.
Assuming a general policy of recognizing committed dyads should the benefits that Oscar and Alfred receive depend on whether their relationship is or can be presumed to be sexual? Would it not be patently unjust if the state withheld benefits from them only because they were not having sex with each other? A Syracuse Law professor has argued that it would be: that the state should recognize social units made up of committed friends.
The revisionist cannot successfully answer by claiming that marriages are the most emotionally intense of relationships, and that sex generally fosters and expresses that intimacy. Emotional bonds are certainly important, especially in marriage. But if sex matters for marriage only for its emotional and expressive effects, as the revisionist must hold, then surely sex is perfectly replaceable, as no one really holds. Emotional intimacy is also fostered by deep conversation, cooperation under pressure or imminent tragedy, and a thousand other activities that two sisters or a father and son could choose without raising an eyebrow. There is nothing in this respect unique to sex.
In other words, why is sex more expressive of marriage than other pleasing activities that build attachment? We know that passion, pleasure, and delight in any genuine good, including marital union, are themselves also valuable; emotional union is an important part of marital union. But if spraying oxytocin at your partner increased her pleasure and attachment to you, that would not make it fungible with sex as an embodiment of your marriage. But why not, unless something about sex besides its emotional effects is also crucial?…
Can revisionists explain any systematic difference between marriage and deep friendship?… An account of marriage must explain what makes the marital relationship different from others.
It is interesting in this regard that in the literature of the gay and lesbian community, the specifically sexual dimensions of marriage are increasingly being downplayed, and that is why I have argued elsewhere that same-sex ‘marriage’ carries with it many Gnostic assumptions about the body.
The de-emphasis of the physical dimensions of marriage has resulted in the UK government announcing that the concept of consummation and non-consummation will be inapplicable to ‘marriages’ conducted by homosexuals. When the news surfaced that the government had decided that both consummation and adultery couldn’t be committed by two people of the same sex, many people puzzled at this, even though it was the logical outworking of the sex-less descriptions of “union” propagated amongst the agitators for gay marriage. You see, once our understanding of “union” in marriage is reduced to “a loving relationship between two committed adults”, then what two people do with their bodies becomes extrinsic rather than intrinsic to that union. But in that case, it is possible, in principle, for gay marriages to occur between two people who are celibate. By contrast, for a heterosexual marriage to be “consummated” (that is, to be a fully complete marriage), there is an act the husband and wife must perform with their bodies. Hang on to that thought, because it has profound ramifications for how we understand the family’s relationship to the state. However, one more piece of the puzzle must be put in place before I can discuss this implication, and that has to do with the concept of monogamy.
The de-emphasis on the physical dimensions of marriage surfaces again and again in the literature of the gay community and comes out most prominently in their attempts to reduce monogamy to purely spiritual categories. The notion that “Fidelity is not between your legs but between your ears” (quoted in When Gay People Get Married, p. 95) is a typical position within the homosexual community. Dermot O’Callaghan reminds us of the tendency for homosexual men to downplay the importance of monogamy:
A study called The Male Couple found that “all couples with a relationship lasting more than five years have incorporated some provision for outside sexual activity …”
Another study, Beyond Monogamy, indicates “a positive correlation between longevity and non-monogamy.” It says, “… non-monogamy isn’t by nature de-stabilizing. In fact, the results of this study would suggest the opposite – many study couples said non-monogamy enabled them to stay together”.
The agony of non-monogamy amongst gay men surfaces repeatedly in the literature. Other terms include:
- Modified Monogamy
- Monogamy of the heart
- Negotiated non-monogamy etc.
The concept of “monogamy of the heart” is simply the logical step once the physical dimensions of marriage are no longer seen as being central. As Girgis, Anderson and George again explain, “If marriage is, as the revisionists must hold, essentially an emotional union, this norm [of monogamy] is hard to explain. After all, sex is just one of many pleasing activities that foster vulnerability and tenderness, and some partners might experience deeper and longer-lasting emotional union with each other if their relationship were sexually open.”
Even those within the gay community who do practice monogamy, still generally wish to define the marriage “union” in purely non-physical terms, as simply a committed and loving relationship between two adults. This is important because, as we shall see, it has widespread implications concerning the state’s relationship to the family.
Premise 2: The State that Legalizes Gay ‘Marriage’ Presumes to Replace Nature as the Determiner for What Constitutes a Family
My second point follows directly from the first and it is this: the state that legalizes gay ‘marriage’ presumes to replace nature as the sole determiner of the difference between marriage and non-marriage, and thus what constitutes a family.
To demonstrate this second premise, recall what we saw a minute ago about the difference between marriage as the gay community would have us understand it, vs. marriage as it has traditionally been understood. The gay community would like us to think that marriage is, and perhaps always has been, “a committed and loving relationship between two consenting adults.” This is over and against the conjugal view of marriage as “a union between one man and one woman”, or more specifically, a sexual union publically recognized because of its potential fecundity.
In the case of the conjugal view, there is an empirical reality we can point to when establishing whether a relationship is really a marriage, or at least a complete and consummated marriage. Have they had sexual intercourse? But we have seen that there is no corresponding empirical reality that can constitute what it means to be in a marriage regulated by the first definition. Indeed, a person might have a “committed and loving relationship” with any number of other persons without it being marriage.
Now precisely because of this, the only way that a committed and loving relationship can be upgraded into marriage is if the state steps in and declares that relationship to be a marriage, in much the same way as the state might declare something to be a corporation or some other legal entity. By contrast, conjugal marriages have and could exist without the state’s recognition because it is fundamentally a pre-political institution. Marriage is pre-political in the sense that it has intrinsic goods attached to it, not least of which is the assurance of patrimony and thus the integrity of inheritance. Such goods do not exist by the state’s fiat even though the state may recognize, regulate or protect them.
An imaginary example should make my meaning clear. If an unmarried man and a woman are shipwrecked on an island together with no one else around, and they decide to be husband and wife, it is meaningful to talk about them getting married and having a family even in the absence of a civil government. To be sure, a legitimate marriage almost always involves recognition by the wider community, but because the community is recognizing something that is existentially independent to itself, there can and have been situations in which the recognition of the community is posterior in time to the marriage itself. This is why the type of families created by traditional marriage have an a priori claim on the state. By contrast, one cannot say the same about two homosexual men or two homosexual women on an island who decide to get “married”. Without the mechanisms of the state to confer the status of marriage upon two members of the same sex, there are no acts that organically mark the relationship out as being marriage within a state of nature. Indeed, the philosophy behind same-sex marriage is one which makes both marriage and family entirely the construct, and therefore the province, of positive law.
Now let’s take my island scenario one step further and imagine a scenario involving three persons: a 35-year old man named George, an 18-year old girl named Mary, and a 40-year old man named Kevin. George and Mary have a sexual relationship with each other and perhaps they even have children, while George also enjoys a homosexual relationship with Kevin. Now, looking at this situation from the outside, there are a couple possibilities. One possibility is that George and Kevin are in a gay marriage, with Mary being their adoptive daughter whom George is pursuing an incestuous relationship with. But a second possibility would be that George and Mary are husband and wife, with George simply being unfaithful to Mary by having a relationship with another man (or even acting with Mary’s consent because she understands her husband’s bisexual urges). Now here’s the important point: without the state there to declare one of these relationships to be ‘marriage’, we simply can’t say which of these two options are correct. Looking at the situation from the outside, there is just no way to tell who is married to whom. Unlike heterosexual marriage, which has an existential fixity that can be recognized within a state of nature, gay marriage is meaningless without the mechanisms of government to legitimize it. The state has to replace nature as the sole determiner for what is and is not a marriage, and therefore a family.
Someone may object to my example by pointing out that similar confusion would abound if there was a heterosexual married couple on the island and one of the spouses engaged in illicit sex with a third party. For in that case, looking at it from the outside, we wouldn’t be able to tell who was married to whom. Very well then, let’s modify my second example so that George and Mary are still having a sexual relationship but George and Kevin are not. You might think that this would simplify things by removing the possibility that George and Kevin are in a gay marriage. However, since sex is not a necessary condition for gay marriage (for remember, gay marriage is usually described merely in terms of “a committed and loving relationship between two adults”) it is impossible to know that George and Kevin are not married merely because they are not having sex with each other. The only way we could know whether or not they were married would be for there to be civil government on the island to confer the status of marriage upon them.
My thought experiments have been complex, but my basic point is very simple: without the intervention of government, there is no a priori existential state of affairs that marks certain types of same-sex relationships out as being marriage within a state of nature. Unlike heterosexual marriage, which exists in nature and is then recognized by the state, homosexual marriage is an abstract legal entity with no natural or existential existence. Now to be sure, within the paradigm of traditional marriage there are sometimes hard cases and it is not always clear whether something can count as a marriage, but at the centre there is a recognizable reality that is pre-legal, and the hard cases arise by virtue of how far removed we are from the centre. But there is no comparative ‘centre’ for determining what a normal same-sex marriage would be within a state of nature. Just try to map over the concept of a “common law wife” to the relationship of two lesbians and you’ll see what I mean. What counts as “a committed and loving relationship” is incredibly vague and open to any number of interpretations or further applications. Indeed, once marriage is divorced from nature like this, then in principle there is no limit to the types of relationship that can have the status of ‘marriage’ or ‘family’ conferred on it by the state, as Jeremy Irons recently warned.
Premise 3: The State that Introduces Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Necessarily Redefines its Relationship to EVERY Marriage and Family in the Nation
By rearranging the very nature of what it means to be married, gay marriage raises the question of whether family and marriage can be considered pre-political institutions on the basis of natural and biological realities and intrinsic goods. This is because such natural and biological realities are being expunged from the essence of what we are now told marriage.
Since consummation is unnecessary for a same-sex union to be called a complete marriage (even putting aside the question of what would count as consummation within a same-sex context), then what determines whether or not a heterosexual marriage is complete? Either we can have two separate non-equal definitions of marriage, or we can realize the logical consequence of same-sex marriage and say that the only thing left to determine what actually makes something a complete marriage or a legitimate family is the law itself. But have we really considered the implications of saying that traditional marriages and families are entirely the construct of the law?
There is no escaping from this problem. If homosexuals and heterosexuals are really “equal” before the law, then logically heterosexual marriage must collapse into being little more than a legal construct as well. Indeed, marriage and family become mere adjuncts of the state after the removal of the de facto conditions that make the traditional family a pre-political institution in the first place. No longer is family something that, in the words of Douglas Farrow, “precedes and exceeds the state.” No longer is the family a hedge against the totalitarian aspirations of the state because no longer is the family prior to the state.
Let’s make this practical. When a family sits down at the table to eat together, there is a huge practical difference if they think they are only a family because of bonds created by the state vs. if they think they are a family because of bonds that are natural and pre-political. When a son says, “that’s my Dad” or a man says “that’s my wife”, the network of implicit meaning is completely different if you think these relationships are purely legal constructs instead of natural, pre-political realities.
Most people are not aware of how gay marriage will undermine the traditional family because it does so in ways that are subtle and ubiquitous. However, once gay marriage is introduced into a nation, it undermines the integrity of every family and every marriage in the nation. It does this by rearranging the family’s relationship to the state, implying that there are no natural pre-political realities that make us a family. Indeed, the state has then granted to itself the god-like power to declare which collections of individuals constitute a ‘family.’ But by this assumption government declares that both marriage and family are little more than legal constructs at best, and gifts from the state at worst. In the former case, marriage and family lose their objective fixity; in the latter case, we become the wards of the state.
This is not mere hypothetical speculation about what ‘might’ happen if same-sex marriages are legalized. Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow has shown that after Canada legalized same-sex marriage, even traditional marriage began to be perceived as little more than a legal construct, with the result that everyone became the de facto wards of the state. In his book Nation of Bastards: essays on the end of marriage, Farrow criticized “the novel idea that the state has the power to re-invent marriage.” He warned: “By claiming such a power the Canadian state has drawn marriage and the family into a captive orbit. It has reversed the gravitational field between the family and the state… It has effectively made every man, woman, and child a chattel of the state, by turning their most fundamental human connections into mere legal constructs at the state’s disposal. It has transformed those connections from divine gifts into gifts from the state.” Echoing these concerns in his Touchstone article ‘Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage?’, Farrow observed that:
“Institutionally, then, [marriage becomes] nothing more than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state’s assumption of the power of invention or re-definition. Which changes everything. Six years ago, when same-sex marriage became law in Canada, the new legislation quietly acknowledged this. In its consequential amendments section, Bill C-38 struck out the language of “natural parent,” “blood relationship,” etc., from all Canadian laws. Wherever they were found, these expressions were replaced with “legal parent,” “legal relationship,” and so forth. That was strictly necessary. “Marriage” was now a legal fiction, a tool of the state, not a natural and pre-political institution recognized and in certain respects (age, consanguinity, consent, exclusivity) regulated by the state. …. In doing so, it effectively makes every citizen a ward of the state, by turning his or her most fundamental human connections into legal constructs at the state’s gift and disposal.”
Why Separating the Civil from the Ecclesiastical is a False Solution
I have argued that gay ‘marriage’ is a threat to everyone because it redefines our relationship to the state. It positions a totalitarian government over us by implying that our most vital connections (such as what it means to be married or to be in a “family”) exist as gifts from state and can be defined and re-defined at the whim of our lawmakers. It thus makes family relations mere constructs of positive law rather than realities that exist within a state of nature that is prior and more basic than the state.
Some Christians will find this argument uncompelling. It is becoming trendy to assert a sharp distinction between civil marriage vs. ecclesiastical or sacramental marriage. This view is particularly attractive to those within traditions—such as the Eastern Orthodox church—that believe marriage is a sacrament. If marriage is one of the church’s sacraments, so the argument goes, then marriages outside the church are not sacraments and therefore not really marriages at all. But if so—the argument continues—then we shouldn’t really be concerned about governments debasing the meaning of marriage because civil marriages have nothing to do with religious marriage anyway.
I have addressed the problems with this line of reasoning in my post ‘Can Ecclesiastical Marriage be Separated from Civil Marriage?‘ and I do not want to retrace the ground I already covered other than to add one thing. Because the state interacts with families in a nation on the basis of civil law and not on the basis of ecclesiastical categories, Christians have a practical interest in civil law being based on justice and truth. Even if there is or ought to be a sharp distinction between civil and ecclesiastical marriage (both of which we deny), the fact that the state’s relationship to every marriage is governed by civil law is itself justification for taking an interest in how that civil law functions and is regulated. I have showed earlier in this article that introducing same-sex ‘marriage’ will drastically change the nature of civil marriage in a way that will touch every person, not simply those within same-sex ‘marriages,’ and this should be a concern even for those who think ecclesiastical marriage can be partitioned from civil marriage. As Girgis, Anderson and George point out, “once the state decides to recognize marriage to all, it is obligated to get marriage right, so as to avoid obscuring its distinctive structure and value.”
To learn more about why same-sex ‘marriage’ is a public threat, read ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat (part 2).’
- ‘Why Gay ‘Marriage is a Public Threat (part 2)‘, by Robin Phillips
- ‘Can Ecclesiastical Marriage Be Separate From Civil Marriage?’, by Robin Phillips
- ‘Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage‘ by Douglas Farrow
- ‘Five Gay Marriage Myths‘ by Robin Phillips
- “Gay Marriage, Consummation and Interference in the Bedroom‘, by Robin Phillips
- ‘The Real Problem with Gay Marriage that Almost Everyone is Ignoring,‘ by Robin Phillips
- ‘The War on the Word Marriage‘ by Robin Phillips
- ‘Apples, Oranges and Gay Marriage‘, by Robin Phillips
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