A thought occurred to me as I listened, recently, to a gentleman speak about his opposition to marriage equality. There was nothing unique or novel about his arguments; I had heard them all before. He spoke of the devaluation of the institution of marriage, the harm to children raised in same sex homes, and the inevitable suffering society would experience if such a thing–normalization of same sex unions, that is–were to be allowed to happen. How interesting, I thought, that the opposition hasn’t changed its narrative after all this time.
I was a freshman in college when marriage equality first entered my civic consciousness. Back then (fourteen years and some change), no state in the union recognized same sex marriage. As of this writing, sixteen states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same sex couples–five more have same sex marriage before their respective appellate courts. In terms of momentum, the rapid movement toward recognizing marriage equality is on par with the Women’s Suffrage movement of the early 20th Century, and the modern, post-Civil War African American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. However, when one thinks that the country went from zero states to sixteen that recognize marriage equality in ten years, the issue of same sex marriage has outpaced both of those aforementioned and much venerated reformations.
As I listened to this person speak, I was not thinking about the speed or efficiency of marriage equality as a political movement, but rather the tone of its opposition. When I began thinking about and discussing same sex marriage with my peers in college, the tone of that opposition was fairly easy to interpret as hateful bigotry. “It’s about love,” I would plead with my more conservative and religious associates. “How can you be against love?” I could never understand a response a response of “It just doesn’t belong in a moral society” as anything but smug sanctimony.
In a lot of ways, I still view every “argument” against same sex marriage (or “non-traditional” sexuality in general) as little more than smug sanctimony. It is a hallowed tradition in American political rhetoric to wrap oneself in the cloak of righteousness and moral rectitude. After all, that’s what Thomas Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence. That’s how Ronald Reagan characterized his “Shining City on a Hill”—a force for good in a world that sorely needed it. Lyndon Johnson imagined a “Great Society,” couched in the moral duty to lift the poor from poverty. But, as sanctimonious as you may think Reagan or Johnson was, sanctimony is a long walk around the block from hateful bigotry.
The internet is replete with examples of anti-gay hate speech. I have the memory of the language of anti-gay protest signs in Iowa City seared into my brain. I remember that a high school graduation was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church in 2004 because one of its gay students won the Matthew Shepard scholarship. This is heart-on-your sleeve hatred; it’s easy to identify. The late (and less lamented) Fred Phelps minced no words when it came to hateful rhetoric about homosexuals. Check out his Wikiquote page if you feel like taking a long, hot shower.
But Fred Phelps and those like him are easy examples. I’m more curious about the supposed hatred of the folks who don’t glory in the Virginia Tech massacre or 9/11 but are still uncomfortable with the idea of members of the LGBT community gaining marriage equality. Isn’t their opposition rooted in ignorance and hatred? Shouldn’t they be condemned with the likes of Fred Phelps? What about George W. Bush, Rick Santorum, Pat Buchanan? What about Bill Clinton? Barack Obama? All of these men, at one time or another, were opposed (or still are) to same-sex marriage. Are they (or were they) all hateful bigots?
It is reductive to answer this last question in the affirmative. However, in my view, it is also too generous to accept that there can be “honest policy differences” with respect to same-sex marriage. As I said at the beginning, the arguments against same-sex marriage haven’t changed much. However, those arguments have been largely unsuccessful. There is a growing consensus among psychologists that same-sex homes are likely to be no different than “traditional” homes. See American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Coparent or second-parent adoption by same-sex parents, 109 PEDIATRICS 339 (2002),; American Psychological Association, Policy Statement on Lesbian and Gay Parents; American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender Parents Policy Statement; American Medical Association, AMA Policy Regarding Sexual Orientation; Child Welfare League of America, Position Statement on Parenting of Children by Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adults. There has been no devaluation in the institution of marriage that has been reliably measured. It’s been five years since Varnum and the sun still shines in Iowa.
The opponents of marriage equality are not so easily swayed, however. The most vociferous critics of marriage equality, at least among the political class (not even Rick Santorum blamed 9/11 on homosexual tolerance), easily discount the ever-mounting evidence against their position. They do this by appeals to religious authority in many cases, but what you hear time and again is a recitation an ostensible “self-evident truth”. Same sex marriage legitimizes same sex attraction. Same sex attraction is against the laws of nature. Policy should be consistent with the laws of nature. Same sex marriage is not consistent with the laws of nature and is therefore invalid policy. I believe that it is not out of hateful ignorance of homosexuality that critics grow their opposition to same sex marriage. It is out of a fundamental disagreement as to how civil society is organized. Are we to be a tribe of cooperators–living together with a set of agreed to values and obligations that arise from our collective experience? Or, are we to be a tribe of subjects–living together out of a shared sense of duty to some bestower of rights and privileges?
What I am describing are different versions of classical social contract theory. The versions put forward by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are two of the best known formulations of the central disagreement I am talking about. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals were brutish sovereigns in themselves at one time, but came together to give up some of their rights so others would give up theirs. This agreement formed the first states, but because states too were brutish sovereigns, they existed in perpetual conflict with one another because there was nothing more powerful than the state to control itself. To Hobbes, power and authority were absolute and existed absolutely. The only way to ensure that a brute populace would live together in a civil society was to impose absolute authority upon them. Government will make you good. Put very simply, this is a classically conservative government. Though not authoritarian by nature (neither side has a monopoly on authoritarianism), they generally hold virtue as their highest moral value. A government that promotes virtue is to be favored above all else. A government granted absolute power by its citizenry is best equipped to deliver that virtue.
Locke, on the other hand, believed something different. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke argues that authority derives from the consent of the governed. Without this consent, no just government can exist. Locke argued that the basis of government was the protection of certain “natural rights” (we’ve heard this before)—among these being life, liberty, and property (we’ve seen these before)—from those other citizens who would seek to enslave of steal. The state, for Locke, is a neutral judge whose main goal is preserve freedom under law. Government will protect your freedom. This is more typically a classically liberal government. Freedom is the highest moral value. A government that protects freedom is to be favored above all else. A limited government, formed by the consent of the governed, is best equipped to deliver that protection.
While I am sure my dime store political philosophy lesson is riveting, I must bring this all to a point. I do not believe that the very religious hate homosexuality or any other variance of human sexuality for that matter. Some do, certainly, but probably not a majority, and it probably isn’t close. No, the very religious object to something like same-sex marriage because they desire (even if unknowingly) a fundamentally different kind of government than the one we have now that promotes a fundamentally different set of values than those we have shared for nearly 240 years. They don’t want a representative government confined by a constitution and divided among three equal branches. They want a monarchy. They want absolute authority.
At this point, I am going to point out that I am referring primarily to a conservative mindset that is uniquely Christian. There are plenty other religions out there that I could point to with a similar agenda, but I don’t know them as well. I wasn’t raised in a conservative Hindu household. On with the show.
The United States is a majority Christian nation. The Pew Religion Survey of 2012 lists self-identified Christians at 73%. Now, we know there are many subsets of Christianity, but I don’t think it’s too broad a statement to say that nearly 3 in 4 people in the United States profess that Jesus Christ is their savior and they are looking forward to the day he comes to set up a New Jerusalem on Earth. The New Testament of the Bible is rife with descriptions of the kind of government Jesus will put in place at the Second Coming, and it is not a constitutional democracy with co-equal branches of government and checks and balances. It will be an absolute monarchy. The values of the society will be Christian values and those who find living by those values will find themselves cast out. There can be no disagreement with this kind of monarchy—especially when the monarch is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfection incarnate.
So, where does same sex marriage come in? While most Christians recognize that the government I’ve described above is not feasible right this minute (that is—there is no consensus even among Christians as to what God wants), conservative Christians have made it their mission to ensconce and enforce as many specifically Christian values in our current government as possible. Enter, same sex marriage. As I’ve pointed out previously, same sex marriage “violates” the natural law as an extension of same sex conduct. Since Christian authority must be maintained absolutely, the conservative Christian seeks to eliminate this policy prescription as violative of Christian values. We seek not to preserve freedom but virtue—Christian virtue. When the conservative Christian attempts to set policy priorities in this way, as I’ve argued, they are seeking to make the United States Government as consistent with the government of the Second Coming as they can. They seek to promote absolute monarchy.
This is, of course, completely unworkable for a pluralistic society such as ours. Leaving aside the fact that we would be effectively excluding every non-Christian from government (and every Christian that didn’t think same sex marriage was a big deal), how could we ever be sure that the set of values promoted by conservative Christians were the right Christian values?
The answer is, we cannot. No one can. The Catholics and the Protestants have been arguing about intercession since the 1500s. The Baptists and the Methodists have been arguing about baptism for almost, but not nearly as long. There are more examples than this, but I think I’ve made my point. We live in a country that requires governing by consensus and in Christianity, like every other religious faith (and truly, every other human interaction), there is none. For a long time, same sex marriage was not a value we could tolerate. Now, that has changed. Our system of representative, constitutional democracy, allows for those kind of changes in a way that absolute monarchy never could—how are you going to change God’s mind? How do you make an argument to the all-knowing?
Conservatives do not hate homosexuals for who they are. They do not hate them for what they do. Their opposition to same sex marriage does, however, betray a dissatisfaction with the very foundations of our government. That does not make them stupid or ignorant or any other pejorative one could think up. It does, however, make their opposition unreasonable—their arguments unsound. With 60% approval of same sex marriage in recent polling, we’re moving on despite their loud insistence to the contrary. At least until Judgment Day.
Whenever that will be.
Blake D. Lubinus