Here’s an email I just received from my friend Angus McLeay. It speaks eloquently to how Christians should think about marriage legislation in Australia. Please read it.
You may or may not know that today is the final day for submissions to the Australian Senate inquiry into marriage. The Australian Christian Lobby is urging all Christians to make submissions to the Inquiry. In that spirit of civic engagement, I hope you consider doing so today. But before you do (and a submission will only take a couple of minutes) please consider the following about the arguments made by Christian leaders on our behalf against legalising same sex marriage.
Arguments by Christians against legalising same sex marriage
An introduction from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis:
“Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.” – Mere Christianity, Chapter 6, Book III.
However our views are formed by scripture, public laws and policies cannot be solely based on our reading of scripture. Otherwise Christian leaders should campaign for Australian law to prohibit people of different faiths from marrying, for it to criminalise divorce, adultery, sex before marriage and homosexual sex – among other things widely seen as prohibited in biblical teaching. I doubt that most Christians would employ such a simplistic view of how Scripture applies to public policy, although some blog posts and circular emails suggest a number do. A more credible approach might be to appeal to the general welfare of society. Yet is hard not to see an inconsistency in the Church’s campaign whereby laws affecting same sex relationships receive enormous energy whilst our leaders are relatively mute on other marriage-related conduct permitted by Australian law and addressed in Scripture. For instance, why aren’t there high profile campaigns for the ‘common good’ to criminalise adultery, divorce, de facto relationships and so forth? Isn’t the legal recognition of de facto relationships more harmful to the institution of marriage than gay marriage could ever be, given the vast majority of couples now co-habitate prior to marriage? As C.S. Lewis pointed out in relation to the debates in his era about reforms to the divorce laws, biblical doctrines and public policy operate in different spheres of authority. What binds the Christian community must be clearly distinguished from the State’s power to bind all citizens by law.
Tradition matters, but is not in itself a sufficient reason to avoid change. Otherwise society should never have changed marital laws that diverged from tradition, such as permitting inter-racial marriage, giving women an independent legal identity and economic rights in the marriage, raising the eligible legal age for marriage, and many other reforms. The other problem with the argument from tradition is that history shows that marriage has varied enormously across time and culture. One simple example is that the majority of marriages have been polygamous, not 1 man – 1 woman. This is attested to descriptively in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) which, regardless of whether polygamy is endorsed or not, frequently portrays polygamous relationships.
Protecting the institution / preserving the definition
The theoretical proposition that gay people marrying will harm the institution has no evidence to back it up (the issue was debated at length by experts in the trial, Perry v Schwarzenegger). Besides the lack of evidence, it faces its own theoretical problem: why would extending rights to a minority threaten a majority’s pre-existing right? e.g. men didn’t lose their voting rights when women were also allowed the right to vote, nor did allowing Aborigines to vote disenfranchise other Australians.
Not changing the definition of marriage is a slogan, yet also a common form of argument. Marriage, some claim, has a certain definition that would be lost if the law allowed same sex couples to marry. This argument, by itself, is circular. It answers a question about the definition of marriage by postulating that it has a particular definition. The definition argument, if it is more than merely circular, must rely on either the tradition argument (above) or the procreative argument (below).
Freedom of religion
Rumours and claims of religious groups being forced to perform same sex marriages against their will are circulating. This is scaremongering, not least in Australia where every proposed marriage law amendment includes specific protections for religious groups. It also overlooks the ‘freedom of religion’ issue whereby the law currently prevents some religious groups and individuals from doing or being married due to their sexuality.
This argument has two strands. The first involves human rights while the second involves empirical research into the effects of same sex parenting on children.
Frequently it is said that the “research” overwhelmingly shows that children do best when raised by their biological parents. The claim is correct – so far as it goes. At the same time, however, research shows overwhelmingly that the children of same sex parents fare just as well, if not better, than their heterosexual counterparts. So how does the research into children’s welfare support two apparently incompatible claims, on the one hand that those with two biological parents do best, while on the other, that children of same sex parents fare equally well?
The answer lies in the careful construction of Christian claims about the research on children’s welfare. A closer examination shows that the claim fails in two ways: First, the research referred to does not specifically compare the sexuality of parents. But that is the contention in the debate. For instance, the same research shows that children do better in two parent households than single parent ones. But that would support the proposition that two gay parents are better than a single heterosexual parent. This case would, however, fall foul of the qualifier that a “biological” connection is essential for children’s greatest well-being. But since both same sex parents cannot be biologically related to the child, same sex parents are by definition unable to be comparably good parents. By excluding non-biological parents the biology qualifier also sidesteps all the (actually relevant) research on same sex parenting, because it compares parents of different sexualities. Such research cannot compare the biological children of gay parents with their heterosexual counterparts because they don’t exist. So the second failure of the claim is that it relies on circular logic in order to sustain its validity.
The claim that children have a right to be parented by their biological parents is a red herring. Gay marriage won’t remove children from their biological parents. Indirectly, it would possibly promote surrogacy or adoption by reinforcing the acceptance of gay parents. However, laws already exist in most jurisdictions allowing gay couples to adopt. Access to reproductive technology and surrogacy arrangements need not breach children’s rights as long as they retain a right to access their biological parents (as jurisdictions typically mandate). The real objection might be that gay marriage sends a message of acceptance of same sex couples as parents and the in-principle idea that children would be raised by same sex couples. Thus the objection over rights can be turned around to ask about the right to form a family, the right to equality before the law and the right of children to be treated with dignity by recognising their parents’ relationship.
The Slippery Slope
This argues that if we legalise same sex couples “because they (genuinely) love one another” then, using the same reasoning, all other forms of relationships can (and will) be legalised, e.g. polygamy, polyamory, incest, etc. This argument is ignorant of the history of marriage. Exactly the same reasoning was used to warn against permitting different classes of people to marry, whether of different social classes, or races, or prisoners, or different religions, or divorcees and so on. So when the Catholic Church began to permit Catholics to marry non-Catholics, did it thereby open the door to polygamous marriages? When Governments repealed anti-miscegenation marriage laws, did they invite incest to be legalised? Such reforms did not invariably tip us into moral oblivion. Throughout the history of marriage the same reasoning which overcame religious, social and other barriers to couples marrying could also have been used (and frequently was) to claim that the reform would destroy marriage. But reforms haven’t led to such disasters (the marriage rate has been stable or rising for decades while the divorce rate has recently been dropping). Besides, a strictly logical response to a slippery slope fear is to argue that we reverse “back up the slope” (which began some 3 centuries ago). To prevent the slippery slope decline we should re-institute the old regime, such as arranged marriages, religious, class, racial and social restrictions. Only then will we be safe from the inevitability of sliding into polyamorous marriages of people, animals or objects.
Marriage is inherently procreative / child-centric
It is argued that marriage is based in “procreative capacity”, and relatedly that the institution should be centred on raising children rather than on a couples’ romantic desires.
The second point about the proper focus of marriage is a straw man argument. It says that either you have a child-focused marriage, or you have a (same sex) couple-centric relationship. The choice assumes that same sex couples only marry for “couple-centric” reasons (because they can’t have children by natural means) while opposite-sex couples marry to bear and raise children. Neither is true in practice, nor in principle. The claim imputes generalised motives for marriage based on the sexuality of the couple. We don’t generally base public policy on speculated motives but in facts and rational argument.
Related to this is a more substantive objection based in Catholic natural law tradition. It proposes that because same sex couples cannot be “naturally” procreative they are ineligible for marriage since procreation is inherent to the meaning of marriage. By defining marriage in this fashion, it is impossible by definition for a same sex couple to be “married”. But aside from the circularity of that logic, there are fatal inconsistencies in its application. The law permits couples to marry even if they are infertile, or incapacitated from producing children (e.g. through illness or injury) or even if physically prevented by incarceration or distance. Couples can also legally marry if they declare no intention to have children. All these exceptions to the general norm have not yet destroyed the institution of marriage nor does the church declare such marriages void.
In response, proponents argue that these exceptions can be distinguished by intention or natural capacity in order to distinguish the category of same sex couples. This requires the marriage law to employ a finely shaded distinction between, for instance, a gay couple who wants to raise a family (by surrogacy or adoption) from a heterosexual couple which openly rejects having children (or are infertile, disabled, or incarcerated). But shouldn’t the church be modelling this crucial distinction by refusing to marry couples who lack procreative intention or capacity? Which marriage liturgy does this? Even if the law could or should make such a distinction, it would need to be balanced against the potentially negative message of a law that is fundamentally inconsistent. Such a law affects all same sex couples who can’t be procreative while ignoring non-procreative opposite sex couples (who can marry and choose to be childless). The effect of such a law is that it treats people differently by virtue of their sexuality alone.