Posted by: Jeff | August 10, 2010

The Marriage Argument II

I’m not sure if I would describe Ross Douthat’s column yesterday on gay marriage as a “watershed moment” per se. But I do think it stands out as an instance of a social conservative defending opposition to gay marriage with an unusual amount of self awareness, honesty and intellectual humility. For that alone I think it deserves kudos.

However, I also think it demonstrates that, when an opponent of same-sex marriage actually constructs their argument while maintaining said awareness, honesty, etc, the argument inevitably collapses under its own structural flaws. I’d agree with Paul Waldman that Douthat’s column basically shows us a man throwing up his hands and admitting his position has no logical leg to stand on other than his own contingent moral and religious preferences.

Still, a generous missive, even when made in defense of something wrong and unjust, deserves a generous response. And Andrew Sullivan has delivered. I’ll just quote at length:

Ross’ core argument is that “lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.” I’m going to repeat what I have said before: I don’t disagree with this at all. I remain in awe of the heterosexual life-long coupling that produces new human life. There is a miraculous, sacred, awe-inspiring aspect to it. I understand why this is a Sacrament, and have no interest in being included in such a Sacrament since it is premised on the very Thomist arguments Ross puts forward.

Sex for me has long been an intimation of the divine. Yes, we know that there are many ways human  beings experience pleasure and transcendence – try magic mushrooms or a great Bordeaux or a rip-roaringly funny conversation or a quiet walk on a summer’s afternoon. I see all these things, as Ross does, I think, as part of the glories of divine creation (okay, maybe not the shrooms in his case). But the extreme, compelling, irresistible nature of the orgasmic pleasure – I know of nothing more sublime or self-losing – and the linkage to creating new life does make it special.

This is why the Catholic church upholds this as an ideal. And it does so with great wisdom. But, as Ross concedes, the question is whether this ideal should rest on its own laurels or needs to be elevated by law and doctrine to the highest level of human relationship, and also, in order to achieve this ideal, actively exclude others – both in the religious and the secular sphere?

We know the answer in the religious sphere. The church – even in its current High Ratzinger phase – opts for inclusion over exclusion. It allows the infertile to marry. It does not remove the Sacrament of Matrimony from those who do not produce kids. It even annuls countless marriages, many of which have been consummated, in enormously large numbers. It marries those past child-bearing age. It treasures adopted kids, even though they violate Ross’s parent-procreating “microcosm of civilization” ideal. And that’s only the Catholic church. The Protestant churches freely allow divorce and contraception – breaking both the monogamy and the procreative elements of Ross’s ideal (which is to say all of it). So in the religious sphere, the Church breaks its own ideal with regularity, and the other churches have long since given almost all of it up. And yet the Catholic church still insists that its ideal be enforced as an act of civil exclusion in the secular sphere, even on people who are atheists.

On what conceivable grounds, if you pardon the expression? Look at how diverse current civil marriages are in the US. The range and diversity runs from Amish families with dozens of kids to yuppie bi-coastal childless couples on career paths; there are open marriages and arranged marriages; there is Rick Santorum and Britney Spears – between all of whom the civil law makes no distinction. The experience of  gay couples therefore falls easily within the actual living definition of civil marriage as it is today, and as it has been now for decades. To exclude gays and gays alone is therefore not the upholding of an ideal (Britney Spears and Larry King are fine – but a lesbian couple who have lived together for decades are verboten) so much as making a lone exception to inclusion on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is in effect to assert not the ideal of Catholic Matrimony, but the ideal of heterosexual superiority. It creates one class of people, regardless of their actions, and renders them superior to another.

Ross’s view is increasingly, therefore, one faction of one religion’s specific definition of Matrimony out of countless arrangements that are available for cohabitation in civil society and world history. It’s a view freely breached within his own church itself. And it has already been abandoned as a civil matter in some of the most Catholic countries on earth, including Spain and Argentina. And heterosexuals-only marriage is only a microcosm of civilization if you exclude all other relationships from civilization – friendship, citizenship, family in the extended sense, families with adopted, non-biological children, etc.

And – this is my main point – Ross’ argument simply ignores the existence and dignity and lives and testimony of gay people. This is strange because the only reason this question has arisen at all is because the visibility of gay family members has become now so unmissable that it cannot be ignored. Yes, marriage equality was an idea some of us innovated. But it was not an idea plucked out of the sky. It was an attempt  to adapt to an already big social change: the end of the homosexual stigma, the emergence of gay communities of great size and influence and diversity, and collapse of the closet. It came from a pressing need as a society to do something about this, rather than consign gay people to oblivion or marginalization or invisibility. More to the point, it emerged after we saw what can happen when human beings are provided no structure, no ideal, and no support for responsibility and fidelity and love.

If you have total gay freedom and no gay institutions that can channel love and desire into commitment and support, you end up in San Francisco in the 1970s. That way of life – however benignly expressed, however defensible as the pent-up unleashed liberation of a finally free people – helped kill 300,000 young human beings in this country in our lifetime. Ross may think that toll is unimportant, or that it was their fault, but I would argue that a Catholic’s indifference to this level of death and suffering and utter refusal to do anything constructive to prevent it happening again, indeed a resort to cruel stigmatization of gay people that helps lead to self-destructive tendencies, is morally evil.

What, in other words, would Ross have gay people do? What incentives would he, a social conservative, put in place to encourage gay couples and support them in their commitments and parenting and love? Notice the massive silence. He is not a homophobe as I can personally attest. But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization”, then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand. It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma – not a contribution to the actual political and social debate we are now having.

We gays are here, Ross, as you well know. We are human beings. We love one another. We are part of countless families in this country, pay taxes, work hard, serve the country in the armed services, and look after our own biological children (and also those abandoned by their biological parents). Our sex drives are not going away, nor our need to be included in our own families, to find healing and growth and integration that alone will get us beyond the gay-straight divide into a more humane world and society.

Or are we here solely to act as a drop-shadow to the ideal heterosexual relationship?



  1. Just read the Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan columns. It’s funny how long these arguments have to be. It’s all very, very simple.

    Does same sex marriage specifically harm anyone? No.

    Does same sex marriage generally harm society? No. (Well, at the very least, it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it does.)

    In the absence of positive answers to either case above, does an arbitrary opinion of abstract morality justify civil/criminal law? No.

    Does banning same sex marriage withhold a broadly available civil right from a specific group of people? Yes.

    That’s it. Case closed. And I think you could replace “same sex marriage” with pretty much anything and come to the same conclusion that such a law has no justification.

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