On the Futility of Certain Arguments in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
Up here in Canada, there has recently been a lot of to-do regarding a family in Winnipeg who sent their child to school with Nazi symbols written on her body. The major question, socially speaking, has been whether or not these parents should retain legal custody of their children. We are loath to remove a child from his or her natural family, but we are also loath to let a child be raised as a virulent, and perhaps violent, racist. It does not take a lot of imagination to view such an upbringing as abusive, and the state has the duty to protect children from abuse.
Though it won’t be the first connection that most people make, this case has particular relevance for the group of Canadian parents (a large minority) who raise their children to believe that marriage is only possible between one woman and one man. The issue for these parents is, what happens in 5 or 10 years when their kids make a comment at school about their parents’ support of traditional marriage? In Canada, the narrative of same-sex marriage as the latest step in the extension of civil rights to historically oppressed minorities is virtually absolute, at least in the public square. In this narrative, same-sex marriage is a change to traditional marriage in exactly the same way that interracial marriage was. “And you’re not opposed to interracial marriage, are you?”
It is tempting to portray the almost overnight success of this narrative as the result of ‘gay propaganda’, but surely that misses the point. Propaganda is only effective because it draws on something already present, if latently, in the culture. In this case, something that had been perfectly obvious through all of human history, namely the privileged status of the female-male relationship for the good of the community, was made perfectly incomprehensible in one generation. The widespread acceptance of birth control has not only made children a non-essential aspect of marriage, it has, unexpectedly and perhaps ironically, made marriage non-essential for the raising of children.
For the vast majority of Canadians, marriage has become the government’s endorsement of the (preferably, though not necessarily, life-long) commitment between consenting, sexually involved adults. In other words, same-sex marriage has not redefined marriage; it is simply the necessary corollary to the relatively new definition of marriage that is already operative in the vast majority of the Canadian populace. This includes, it must be said, a great many who oppose same-sex marriage. In such a cultural context, the only thing necessary for the victory of the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage is that the public simply has the argument. If marriage is only about government approbation for loving couples, what difference can their gender possibly make?
What does this mean for people who are opposed to same-sex marriage? Should they just lick their wounds and move on? As many here in Canada have noted, several years of legalized same-sex marriage does not seem to have changed our culture all that much. My view, of course, is that this is precisely what we should have expected. The associated changes in the culture took place before the legalization of same-sex marriage. They were the prerequisite for it.
The real problem for supporters of traditional marriage is not how to reverse the legislation that opened marriage to same-sex couples. The legislation was inevitable given the operative understanding of marriage in the culture. The real problem for supporters of traditional marriage is articulating their views about family life in a way that does not leave them open to the charge of hate speech and, consequently, child abuse.
I am not totally convinced that the Nazi parents should be allowed to retain custody of their children. If I am not convinced of that, how can I expect someone who sees my views of marriage as morally equivalent to racism let me retain custody of my own?
What this means is that there are arguments that opponents of same-sex marriage should use and arguments they should not. Regardless of what you make of the particular details of his argumentation, David Novak’s piece is an example of the kind of arguments traditional marriage advocates must use.
I cite this in order to highlight its difference from two kinds of arguments that traditional marriage supporters often use, out of ignorance or frustration, which will only make this debate harder for them in the future. The first one is that supporters of traditional marriage vilify their opponents as ‘perverted’, ‘evil’, ‘advocates of the culture of death’, etc. Apart from being simply uncharitable, which is bad enough, such arguments drive many, including their own children, into the other camp.
Traditional marriage supporters almost certainly outbreed same-sex marriage supporters. If it were a matter of pure demographics, the ‘culture wars’ would be won in two generations. We do our best to raise thoughtful Catholic (Evangelical, Jewish, etc.) children who are interested in human dignity and social justice. Such vilification as often takes place in debates about same-sex marriage ensures that when our children meet practicing homosexuals who don’t have horns and a tail, the arguments for traditional marriage look heartless. Arguments based on the depravity and ill will of homosexually active people and their supporters will always lose in the end because they are almost always contradicted by real-world experience.
The second argument that must be avoided is the argument from freedom of religion. The screeching on this point has become almost unbearable. Those who employ it feel so clever: “Same-sex marriage proponents want to make it about rights, then let’s make it about rights. Freedom of religion has a much longer pedigree as a ‘right’ than a right to marry [which was never broadly understood as a right before this debate, anyway]. Their imposition of same-sex marriage on us is a violation of our religious freedom.”
Apart from being one more step on the way to making rights language totally useless, this approach is simply not grounded in reality. The prevailing sentiment in the culture is that supporting traditional marriage is equivalent to racism. No right to religious freedom allows the propagation of racism in our society, nor should it. According to both the Catholic Church and the basic canons of western democracies, racism is intrinsically evil. If we want the state to let us raise our own children, we need to demonstrate very clearly that opposition to same-sex marriage is not an example of the same kind of discrimination that underlies racism. Calling people nasty names and campaigning for our own ‘rights’ does precisely the opposite.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.