|Reflection in the river, my backyard
A few people have been discussing this with me. Note: their discussion has been civil – thank you! To have a civil discourse about same-sex marriage means laying aside ad hominem abusives and other logical fallacies of irrelevant premises. So here we go!
- It’s not about “marriage equality”; it is about the definition of “marriage.”
The current gay marriage issue is not really about “marriage equality.” “Marriage equality” is a euphemism. It’s actually about “marriage redefinition.” The issue is about the definition of “marriage.”
Pro-gay-marriage advocate John Corvino seems to define “marriage” like this:
“Marriage is the institution in which people live out the commitment … to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better or for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; until death do us part.” (Corvino spends many pages defending why he is not thrilled about defining the term. See Corvino and Maggie Gallagher, Debating Same-Sex Marriage (Point/Counterpoint), p. 41. This is an excellent book to read to see the legal arguments from both sides.)
But note this. If “marriage” is what Corvino seems to think it is, then of course there is no problem with same-sex marriage. And the issue is not “marriage equality,” since by definition any persons (two or more, which Corvino admits) can make and live out this kind of commitment. Anyone meeting this definitional criterion has a “right” to be married. Of course!
But if “marriage” is legally defined as between a man and a woman, then of course the “right” to be married is reserved for opposite sex partners who make the stated commitment. It would then read this way: “Marriage is the institution in which a man and a woman live out the commitment…” If “marriage” is defined this way, by law, then same-sex partners have no more right to be married than a 10-year-old has a legal right to vote. The 10-year-old should not complain that voting is being “denied” to them, since legally they have no right to vote. Or, I have the legal right to leave my computer, get in my car, and drive. Should anyone tell me I cannot do this, it would be they who are violating the law.
So the issue is not really about “marriage equality” or denying people the “right” to be married. The discussion stands or falls on the definition of “marriage.” The question “Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry?” is like, legally, the question “Should 10-year-olds be allowed to vote?” If Corvino is correct and we change the legal definition of “marriage” then of course, legally, same-sex couplesmust be allowed to marry. But talk about “marriage equality” is irrelevant on whatever definition of “marriage” we take.
Here’s an imaginary dialogue:
X – Gays cannot be denied the right to marry!
Y – But if “marriage” is legally defined as between a man and a woman, then gays are being denied nothing.
X – Then we must change the definition of “marriage” to include gays.
Y – If that happens then gays will be denied nothing again, since by legal definition they have the right to marry.
As Princeton’s Robert George et. al. state: “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It is not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is. It is a pivotal stage in a decades-long struggle between two views of the meaning of marriage.” (Girgis, Sherif; Anderson, Ryan T; George, Robert P. What IsMarriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, p. 1)
- It is not about “rights”; it is about the definition of “marriage.”
The same-sex marriage issue is not about “rights.” It’s about the definition of “marriage.” The definition of “marriage” settles the matter of “rights.”
For example, I am the “owner” of a car. I have ownership rights. I have the right to a key to this car, the right to put the key in the ignition and turn the car on, and the right to drive the car. This legal fact (I am the car’s owner, you are not) means you cannot complain that you are excluded from some “right”; viz., the right to drive my car. All this is implied in the definition of “ownership.” If you wanted free access to the cars of other people then you would need to revise the legal definition of “ownership.” But as it currently stands driving other people’s cars without permission is called “theft.”
I do not have the right to drive my car wherever I please. I do not have the right to drive on your lawn, for example, or through your patio door. Should I complain that you or the state are “taking away my right to drive on your lawn” you should reply that no “rights” are, in this case, being taken from me. Legally, there is no existing “right” that I possess that is being taken from me. Legally, I am being denied nothing.
Laws involve definitions. Definitions create parameters. Parameters delineate “rights.” I do not legally have the right to enter your house at night, wake up your children, tell them to put their clothes on, and come shopping with me. How absurd it would be for me to complain that I cannot do this, and argue that some “right” has been taken from me.
In order to civilly discuss issues of marriage, the term “marriage” must be defined from the beginning, elsewise the discussion will go nowhere. If you and I are working off different definitions of “marriage” we will be involved in constant dual equivocation, with me using the term in one sense, and you in another.
This is why the real, primal matter in the same-sex “debate” is over the definition of “marriage.” Those arguing for the legality of same-sex marriages are revising the existing definition of marriage (which, BTW, they have the legal right to propose). We now have two competing definitions. Which are:
Traditional Definition (TD):
Marriage is intrinsically a sexual union of husband and wife, because these are the only unions that can make new life and connect those children in love to their co-creators, their mother and their father (from Maggie Gallagher, in Corvino and Gallagher, Debating Same-Sex Marriage(Point/Counterpoint), p. 95. Oxford University Press.).
Revisionist Definition (RD):
Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy the partners both find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear. (Ib., p. 99)
If RD is received as law, then of course, ipso facto, gays have a legal right to marry. If TD remains as law, then gays do not have a legal right to marry. And in this case no “rights” are being denied to gays, since by legal definition gays would not have the right to marry.
It is important to understand this. If the core issue is over the legal definition of marriage, then statements like “marriage rights should be extended to gays” and “gays deserve marriage equality” are only euphemisms used to spin an argument in one’s favor. Given TD to say “marriage rights should be extended to gays” is like saying “ownership rights should be extended to all people” (so that my car and your car is our car), or like saying “the right to be called “fish” should be extended to Scandinavians.” (I am Scandinavian, and have never felt denied of some right because I cannot identify myself as a fish on my passport.)
“Rights” and “equality” talk is, initially, irrelevant; legal definitional talk is what matters. “Rights” and “equality” are pursuant to legality. Legal definitions, whether of “marriage” or “ownership” or “legal guardianship” or whatever, determine and delineate “rights” and “equality,” not the other way around.
BTW – I’ve talked with a few people who think the state should not be involved in the issue of defining marriage. I think that is incorrect. If we lived in a perfect world then laws would not be needed. Laws protect; marriage laws (especially TD) protect children’s rights, and spouse’s rights. And just because a father or mother are Christians does not mean (though it should mean) that their children are protected.
For further study see especially:
Corvino and Gallagher, Debating Same-Sex Marriage (Point/Counterpoint)
Girgis, Anderson, and George, What Is Marriage?
III. The Issue Is That There Are Two Issues (at least for Christian theists). The Supreme Court Discussion Is About Law, not about Biblical Ideas of Marriage
For Christian theists concerned about the way the same-sex marriage discussion is going in America, I suggest there are now two debates going on: one legal, the other religious.
- The Legal Issue
Regarding the legal matter, the real issue is about the definition of “marriage.” Might we in America have a civil discourse about this? The truth or falsity of the statement We should allow for same-sex marriage rests heavily on the meaning of the term “marriage.” Some of us, myself included, feel like many of our government leaders are rushing forward to change the meaning of marriage, without discussion.
Please read the editorial in CNN by Robert George (prof. of jurisprudence at Harvard and Princeton), Sherif Gergis (Princeton and Yale), and Ryan T. Anderson – “Gay Marriage, then Group Marriage?”
“Of course, if marriage were simply about recognizing bonds of affection or romance, then two men or two women could form a marriage just as a man and woman can. But so could three or more in the increasingly common phenomenon of group (“polyamorous”) partnerships. In that case, to recognize opposite-sex unions but not same-sex or polyamorous ones would be unfair — a denial of equality.” Please read this entire editorial.
For a more complete version see their recent, essentially non-religious book What is Marriage? Man and Woman – a Defense. As you read it jump off the cultural bandwagon and think your way through it.
- The Religious Issue
There is a second debate going on, this one within religions, and within Christianity. (Irreligous people, of course, will be uninterested in this.) It is over the statement: Does the biblical text disaffirm homosexual unions? I believe it does.
If someone says they are a “Christian,” then I reason as follows.
1. We are obligated to follow God’s will.
2. God’s will is given to us in the Bible.
3. The Bible forbids homosexual behavior.
4. Therefore, homosexual behavior is against God’s will, or is wrong.
On P1 (Premise 1): I believe virtually all Jesus-followers affirm this to be true.
On P2 – again, Jesus-followers will have little problem with this. There may be discussion on the nature of biblical authority. That is another, and important, discussion.
Note again: Let’s say you are an atheist. As an atheist you see little or no authority in the Bible.But of course. Christian theism is not your worldview. The Bible means little or nothing to you as a life-guide, just as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion means nothing to me as a life-guide (and yes, I read it, and made about 45 posts in response to it). But if you are and claim to be a follower of Jesus, then it follows that you place a high premium on the words of the Bible. For those few billion people in this camp, we can and should have discussions over the meaning of the biblical texts, their interpretation, and the nature of their authority.
Re. P3 – this is where the intra-Christian discussion lies. If you want to go straight to the heart of this discussion I can suggest nothing better than Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, by Dan O. Via and Robert Gagnon. See, e.g., these reviews, which I copy to defend the scholarship contained therein.
“Christians challenged by questions surrounding Scripture on same-sex relations will find an invaluable chart for navigating these confusing waters.” — Joel B. Green, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary (endorsement inside book)
“Gagnon’s brilliant condensation of his arguments should be a significant asset for clergy and laity, while Via opens new challenges.” — Catherine Clark Kroeger, Associate Professor of Classical and Ministry Studies, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (endorsement inside book)
“I know of no finer presentation of all the main issues.” — Graham Stanton, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge (endorsement inside book)
“I know of no other work that so clearly illumines the biblical issues at the heart of the controversy.” — Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke Divinity School (endorsement inside book)
“Presents a vigorous, illuminating debate about the implications of scripture for contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality. I strongly recommend this book.” –James F. Childress, Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics, University of Virginia
Via is pro-gay marriage, Gagnon is against gay marriage. Both are New Testament scholars. But note this. Via agrees that one cannot interpret the biblical text as supportive of same-sex marriage. In spite of this he presents a loving principle that seems of God to him as a justification for allowing same-sex marriages today.
For Gagnon’s even more complete biblical argument against textual support of same-sex marriage see his The Bible and Homosexuality: Texts and Interpretation. Of this book reviews include:
“…In its learnedness, [Gagnon’s] book will…be in the vanguard of its position and cannot be ignored….” — Martti Nissinen, University of Helsinki, and author of Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (From the Jacket Flap)
“…the fullest and best presentation of the conservative position….expressing the case same-sex intercourse sympathetically and convincingly.” — I. Howard Marshall, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, University of Aberdeen, Scotland (Blurb Inside Book)
“…the most thorough examination of the scriptural and theological…perspectives on same-sex relations….a tour de force.” — Marion L. Soards, Professor of New Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (From Jacket Flap)
“Gagnon has offered a learned, judicious, and comprehensive examination of the biblical testimony….fair and compassionate…a major resource….” — Brevard S. Childs, Sterling Professor of Divinity (Hebrew Bible), Emeritus, Yale Divinity School (From Inside Book)
“Gagnon’s book is an extremely valuable contribution to the current debate….I recommend this book wholeheartedly.” — C. E. B. Cranfield, Professor of Theology (New Testament), Emeritus, University of Durham (From Inside Book)
“Gagnon’s incisive logic, prudent judgment, and exhaustive research should make this book a dominant voice in the contemporary debate.” — Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., Professor of New Testament, Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem (From the Back Cover)
“I believe that this volume will become a classic in the ongoing discussion of the church’s…response to homosexuality.” — Duane F. Watson, Professor of New Testament, Malone College (From Inside Book)
“I know of no comparable study of the texts and interpretive debates that surround homosexual behavior.” — Max L. Stackhouse, Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics, Princeton Theological Seminary (From the Jacket Flap)
“No Christian concerned with homosexuality can afford to ignore this book.” — John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford (From the Back Cover)
“This is a brilliant, original, and highly important work,…indispensable even for those who disagree with the author.” — James Barr, Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible, Emeritus, Vanderbilt University
I’ve read and studied these books, and others. If you really want to enter into this discussion, you will do well to do the same. Among other things this will help you avoid hermeneutical errors such as conflating Old Testament ideas about marriage with New Testament ideas.
I am currently studying, especially, the legal issue.
I began to study the biblical issue in the early 1980s. For those of us who have done something similar I suggest the area we should now be most concerned to address is the legal issue, and not the religious issue. This is because, overwhelmingly, we don’t legislate biblical morality. For example, biblically, gossip and gluttony are sins. Engaged in, they mitigate against human flourishing. But I don’t think we should legislate against them. I don’t think we should make a law against gossip, or a law against gluttony (in spite of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to do so).
Address the meaning of “marriage.”
Focus on this now. (Stay focused – there are so many rabbit trails in this discussion!)
Don’t be intellectually seduced by the bandwagon fallacy.
“Arsenokoitais” (ἀρσενοκοίταις) in 1 Timothy 1:10 (et. al.)
N.T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and Narrative Point to Complementarity