Friday, May 11, 2012

Marriage: Primal Magic or Facebook Relationship Status?

Since Pres. Obama's announcement yesterday of his position on gay marriage, it's occurred to me that the issue is so politically charged--somewhat ironically--precisely because neither side really believes it's an issue the people should have a right to decide in the first place. Consider the following hypothetical debate:

Proponent: "I'm not asking for a favor: this is a right. You can't tell me who to love."
Opponent: "You can love whoever you want to, but you can't just change the definition of marriage."
Bill Clinton: "That depends on what the definition of 'definition' is. But you're missing the point: let's talk about how it will affect the economy, and then decide based on that." 
Proponent and Opponent: "What?!? Who are you?"

I provide this illustration less to suggest that Bill Clinton should probably not be weighing in on any debate involving marriage than to demonstrate that gay marriage debates are driven by "you can't" arguments rather than "we ought to" arguments. They're not arguing about policy, they're arguing about the nature of inalienable truths.  Which is a sure sign that some people are going to feel seriously alienated by any outcome.

Since I teach rhetoric, though, any sense of impending doom I may feel about the deep divisions in our country is delayed by curiosity about how people ended up with mutually exclusive "you can't" attitudes in the first place. It seems obvious that the people with the strongest feelings on each side of the issue have different views of marriage--but what exactly are those views?

The Facebook View of Marriage
There are some legal advantages--such as recognition in the state of Israel--which distinguish the word "marriage" from "civil union" or "domestic partnership." But those don't seem to be the things that keep activists up at night.

If you think of marriage as a Facebook relationship status rather than a legal term, though, it may be easier to see why the word matters so much to gay marriage advocates. If the purpose of marriage is to communicate a personal commitment to the community, how is it possibly fair to have a glass ceiling for some couples? I mean, if someone as incapable of lasting personal commitment as Newt Gingrich can climb the marriage-ladder three times (and counting?), why would we make anyone wait in a separate status off to the side?

In a view of marriage as public expression of private commitment, withholding the word marriage means denying a personal liberty and devaluing two people's care and concern for each other. I mean, how would you feel if Facebook left everyone else the option to put "married" on their relationship status, but took it off the menu for you?

Whether gay marriage becomes the legal standard across the country or not, it is discriminatory, in this view, not to have it. And discrimination is bad, bad stuff.

In a traditional American understanding, laws can make policy, but they don't create rights:  they recognize and protect rights which already exist (in some deep, moral sense Jefferson described as self-evident, God-given, and more significant than mere physical reality). When a state votes against gay marriage, then, they are not just snubbing gay couples--they are putting themselves at odds with the natural law this nation was founded on.

The Primal Magic View of Marriage

Not everyone, though, sees marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment between two people. To many people, marriage is less social contract than a primal magic which inherently and necessarily involves both genders.

In many cultures, there's a belief in male and female energies or forces. And in many cultures, marriage is a mystical way of fusing these forces together, making them one. If you look at the Abrahamic religions, for instance, the culmination of the creation myth comes when God creates human masculinity, sees that it's empty and incomplete--can't be completed, in fact, by anything in the rest of creation--and then creates human femininity and fuses the first man and woman together in marriage. The marriage is described as a radically important relationship that supersedes even bonds and debts to one's parents. In later narratives, other uses of sexuality are described as dangerous and destructive.

To most people who have this view of marriage, it makes no sense to talk about gay marriage as a right, because gay marriage simply isn't marriage: the primal magic recipe only works when both genders are involved. And the main reason, in this view, why governments acknowledge marriage in the first place is not to celebrate or affirm couples for their love, but because deep down they know that the primal magic does work and is the best foundation for society.

From this perspective, a government can really only pretend it is offering marriage to gay couples, something which it is not only unwise, but also impossible to truly do. To demand gay marriage on fairness grounds, then, is sort of like demanding on fairness grounds that gasoline be a renewable resource. That is, you could change the legal language to include gasoline under the category of "renewable" for purposes of taxation or grant money, but that wouldn't change the underlying reality the language described before the change.


Many people see gay marriage as a potential cause of future cultural upheaval, but the debate over gay marriage is also a symptom of the substantial cultural upheaval our society is already undergoing. For those who see marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment, the case for gay marriage is clear and compelling and opposition to it is backward and discriminatory. For those who see marriage as an inherently dual-gender sacred system, gay marriage is simply not marriage and efforts to have it recognized as an inalienable right are an alarming collective self-deception.

Currently, half of American voters are in favor of gay marriage and half of American voters are opposed to it. That may change in the near future (especially if the amount of time people spend on Facebook vs. the time they spend with traditional religions is a factor in how attitudes develop). But even if one side "wins" in the courts or through legislation, neither view of marriage is likely to go away any time in the next century or two or ten, and we will have to find some way to live with each other in the meantime. 

Maybe it will help us to remember that both positions are based on assumptions which are beyond the realm of the rational. It is not possible to experimentally confirm the existence of a cosmic right to have one's relationship affirmed by society: one must simply hold a truth of that kind to be self-evident. It is not possible to prove that marriage is based on a merging of male and female energies that goes deeper than any social contract: this is, clearly, a matter of faith and religious experience. 


  1. I really like your discussion of this, James. It throws light on why the issue is so polar, and why neither party seems able to see the side of the other. Might I throw in my two cents?

    My view has been that the issue is that the gvt needs to get out of the church business, and vice versa. It's just as wrong to dictate to churches what they must believe or allow, as it is to deny people the right to make choices about how they want to live their own lives, so why not just say that the gvt no longer recognizes anything but legal unions, regardless of gender, orientation, race, creed or even number? We already have to go to the courthouse to get a marriage license, so why not cross out "marriage" and put "legal union" in there instead? That way, any legally consenting people who want to be bonded for legal purposes can do so, and if you want to get married in a religious sense, that's between you and the church of your choice. In this we can be less discriminating against both gays and people of religious conviction, and gay and plural unions are no longer prohibited. (For the record, I'm not part of a plural marriage, but I've never understood why it's illegal or why people are against it but for gay marriage, as the principles seem to stand for both.)

    Put more simply, we should leave the legal stuff to the gvt, and leave the religious stuff to the churches. No more of having one meddle with the other's business.

    1. I can see definite advantages to that proposal. I also see two obstacles:

      1) It'd take work to get such an initiative going, and moderates like me don't tend to leave our other work to build up groups and lobby legislators and get stuff like that done. :)

      2) I don't know that it really would satisfy either current lobbying group. People who are fighting for gay marriage as a symbolic end to discrimination would probably see a move like that as "you hate us so much you were willing to take 'marriage' away from everybody just to keep it out of our reach" and those who feel destabilized by the change gay marriage represents are likely feel shaken by a removal of the term 'marriage' from our legal vocabulary as well.

      I do hope, of course, that we can have legal gay marriage and religious freedom at the same time. That seems to be working so far in states where gay marriage is legal. I also hope that gay people can feel they have good, productive lives even in states without gay marriage. And the documented willingness of gay couples to relocate from states with gay marriage to states without for a better job suggests that they do.

      I guess I'm saying that even if there's not a satisfying grand compromise on this one, I think we can make it work either way if both groups can be reasonably respectful of the other.

    2. I really do think that is (or at least should be) the goal - reasonable respect. I'm often pained by how things like this so quickly degenerate into "you can" or "you can't" or "Only one of us can be right", as you said in the article. And I agree, it wouldn't give either side what they want, but in a lot of ways that's part of what I like about it. If toddlers fight over a toy, usually the best solution is to remove the source of conflict and let them deal with with their feelings until they can figure out how to agree, and how to work and play together with the one object. Call me cray, but I think that that solution might be effective in this case too - say that nobody gets it until they can figure out how to be civil and make it work between them. :P

    3. Ha! I like it.

      "Marriage has been temporarily revoked. You all can have it back when religious people can be opposed to same-sex relationships without calling them icky or blaming them for things they have nothing whatsoever to do with and when same-sex couples can be satisfied with their own choices while accepting that hate is not the only possible explanation when someone disagrees with those choices."

      I can certainly accept that we're all acting a bit like toddlers...too bad there's no one we all respect as a parent to authoritatively issue that kind of statement!

  2. James, I've been thinking about these issues quite a lot recently. Like Diana, I would love a more European separation of marriage into civil unions (legal) and marriage ceremonies (religious). But I also see how a lot of groups would see that solution as an act of social violence.

    Your post actually helped me understand why I approach the issue of gay marriage the way I do. Why I support gay marriage rights, without assuming this is an inherent civil right - it's because I hold both views of marriage, simultaneously. In fact, I think a lot of liberal Mormons do.

    It makes sense, when you consider the divide between eternal marriage and marriage "till death do us part" that we all hold in our minds. And when there's already such a strong divide, and I'm not trying to pass laws that prevent Newt Gingrich from being allowed to remarry (since he's demonstrated that he's not living up to the primal magic), I believe I should compromise with the LGBTQ demographic that I share this country with. If they want a part of marriage, why should I hold them to higher standards than I hold for two hetero 18 year olds in Vegas?

    1. I think the division you draw between LDS views of earthly and eternal marriage is the best argument I've heard for Latter-day Saints who support gay marriage. Our version of marriage is different from civil marriage to begin with: so why not compromise?

      As with any moderate stance, the main difficulty I see with your position is that some people on both sides will think it's hypocritical. If gay rights advocates are seeking social affirmation of their relationships, some will be scandalized to find that you still don't truly value such relationships equally. And you've probably noticed that some religious people struggle to make a distinction between legal positions and moral positions.

      I think the concerns of someone like Elder Oaks about legal recognition for gay marriage actually have to do with a fear that the rhetorical victory of gay marriage, which equates opposition to gay relationships with hate, will end up having legal and social consequences for the religious later on down the line.

      So I guess a counter-argument to your position is this: if gay marriage advocates want social acceptance, and you offer them legal status (but without full acceptance), are they really going to be satisfied? And if they're not, do you have another line of defense against a possible notion that you are hateful and should be punished for it?

      So it remains, I think, a complicated issue.

    2. Just remembered I can reply to a comment directly:

      James, you've expressed the very problem I keep running into - in fact, this conversation is the first time I have publicly expressed my views on same-sex marriage, for all the reasons you just stated. Like so many LDS people who support gay marriage, I wind up offending both camps.

      Also, I agree that there's real concern as far as broader repercussions for religious groups. In fact, I've offended a number of friends who support gay marriage, by suggesting that we need to address that question as part of the solution. They generally dismiss those fears as red herrings.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. James - I enjoyed reading your thoughtful analysis... You understand, of course, that these two conceptions of marriage are not mutually exclusive...

    Gay couples may also yearn to be included under the Sacred Canopy. Our relationships are magical too.

    And religious folks who insist on the sacredness of marriage want Facebook recognition, or they would be content to keep religious (temple/church marriage) separate from legal definitions.

    There are certain "sacred" concepts that are part of our public sphere too. Freedom and equality are sacred concepts, in the American conception of civil society. And there are certain things that don't sit well with those sacred concepts. That's why, for instance, I don't think slavery could ultimately endure in the American body politic. Nor could segregation or other forms of discrimination.

    As gay and lesbian couples have come out and shared our stories, it's harder for people to insist that invidiously discriminating against us and our relationships can sit well with the sacred foundations on which our society is built... That's the kind of language we heard in Obama's statement on this subject...

    1. J G-W,

      Both you and Emily have made good points about the way these two views overlap. Maybe a better way to state the problem would be to say that in the moment of considering gay marriage, proponents tend to think or talk about the "social recognition" component, while opponents tend to think or talk about the "primal magic" component.

      I haven't look at everything Obama has said on the subject, but the religious references I've heard from him (and in many other places) are different than the argument you make briefly here.

      In the limited religious discussions I've heard of, proponents of gay marriage tend to invoke Christian principles of compassion, freedom, or reciprocity (Obama mentioned the Golden Rule) and contrast them with obscure passages on homosexuality (I saw Obama reference Romans in one statement, Leviticus is more commonly cited as the standard obscure passage trope). The core argument--and it's a pretty good one--seems to be that Biblical views of homosexuality are situated in specific cultural contexts which are poor matches for our current one, while the Biblical notions of fairness and hospitality are universal.

      What that argument misses, I think, is that mainstream religious opposition to gay marriage is not based in those obscure passages, but in the broader pro-natal (and implicitly hetero-normative) emphasis at the root of all the Abrahamic religions (which is, I think, essentially the basis for the "primal magic" view I've described above).

      I have not seen--but would be interested in seeing--someone doing the theological heavy lifting of making same-sex relationships accessibly "magical" from that Abrahamic frame of reference. (This will be particularly important, I think, if advocates ever move on to gay marriage in the Muslim world.)

      If you're interested in this, I discuss it in greater detail during my four-part series about gay marriage on another of my blogs:
      I'd be very interested in seeing two people speaking the same language on this issue, so to speak.

  5. James - I was more referring to Obama's referencing of the civil religious concepts of freedom and equality... In his most recent statement supporting same-sex marriage, he acknowledged that "civil unions" for gay people and "marriage" for straight people is incompatible with straightforward, broadly understood concerns about equality. I would argue that the success of this argument is probably inevitable... The American system doesn't sit well with the notion of "separate but equal."

    I think a major problem with the way you've framed it is that it seems to assume that gay people don't have a spirituality and that people with religious concerns aren't gay, or that religious concerns don't drive those religious people who are concerned about including gay people under the sacred marriage canopy.

    My first "coming out" was to God... I couldn't dare confide in anybody BUT God at the time. And at that time (in August 1986), I had a spiritual experience that really became pivotal for my life... God told me he already knew that I was gay, that this was how I had been woven together from "my inmost parts." I felt just the most incredible, overwhelming love and comfort. God made it clear to me that this was not an issue for him, not something I needed to have fear about; not something it was appropriate to reject in myself.

    Since that time, my decision to enter into a committed relationship (we're celebrating our 19th anniversary this summer), our decision to solemnize that relationship in a legal marriage in California (traveled out there from MN), our decision to have a foster son were all decisions that I've made in response to promptings from the Spirit.

    As I've become active again in the LDS Church, I've of course had to wrestle with the contradiction between Church teaching and what I've learned in my relationship with my husband and in my relationship with God. Whenever I've sought clarity about this from God, it has been made very clear to me that God blesses my relationship with my husband, that it is a good, sacred thing.

    For a long time, I thought I was the only one who has had these kinds of experiences. Most GLBT folks have been driven far from the Church, and many harbor (very understandable) anger toward the Church and are very alienated from religion in general. But over time, being both gay and faithful, I've found others in similar situations who have had very, very striking experiences very similar to my own. Bottom line: God is with us in this journey, and God blesses our relationships; God strengthens us, gives us courage, comfort, patience... Whatever we need to face the intense rejection we experience from our brothers and sisters around this issue.

    I know this will get sorted out eventually.

    The "heavy lifting" is being done by those of us who just quietly and simply live our lives with dignity and faith... Ultimately, that's the only kind of theological heavy lifting that can have merit, as far as I can tell.

    But perhaps you can understand why I (and many others) will never find it satisfactory to split this issue apart between religious/spiritual concerns and issues on the one hand and public/civic concerns on the other. If you are gay and a person of faith, these issues cut right through the core of who you are... I can't just be satisfied with civic public marriage; because I can't be unconcerned about my relationship with God or my place in the Kingdom of God.

    My only stab at contextualizing gay relationships in a more abstract, theological way is to point to a couple of scriptures... Genesis 2:18 and 1 Corinthians 12:14-25.

    1. J G-W,

      Thanks for joining the discussion here. I appreciate your willingness to show how your personal experience calls into question my model.

      The primal magic view of marriage I describe is one rooted in gender difference, and therefore doesn't seem to accomodate same-sex marriage. It's the historically dominant interpretation of marriage in at least Jewish, Christian, and Muslim contexts--but it's certainly not the only possible religious view of marriage.

      What my model should have included is that for many modern Americans--even ones in conservative religious communities--the primal magic is not about complementary gender forces, but rather about loneliness and love in gender-neutral terms.

      So: people who hold the gender-specific primal magic view can still support same-sex marriage on social recognition grounds, as Emily does. And people who advocate for gay marriage may considering the issue in social recognition terms or in terms of an alternate myths (or readings of myth) that emphasize the move from loneliness to love rather than the complementary synergy of two genders.

      Is it fair to say, then, that the magic you're feeling is a slightly different one from the magic I've described, but that it's your conviction that it still works?

    2. P.S. I really like your use of 1 Cor. 12: 14-25 for use in Christian communities to talk about this issue. It's particularly poignant to me because of our shared LDS identity: you're not just another person with a different position--you are part of our body, and we have a deep obligation to you as such.

      We we don't agree, but we are doubly bound (by our humanity and by our baptismal covenants) to share one another's burden and to do the best we can to hold out until Christ comes.

  6. James - it is worth pointing out that when God notes that "it is not good that man should be alone," he forms Eve from Adam's own rib. Arguably, the moral of this story is not that Eve is different from/complementary to Adam, but that she is the same, literally the same flesh. All humanity, all human diversity comes out of that primordial body -- all human gender diversity (male, female, intersexed), all racial diversity, all sexual diversity.

    The yearning to connect, to not be alone is primal; it antedates gender complementarity. It marks us all -- gay and straight -- as human. So, yes, that's powerful "magic."

    And to put it in terms such as "I'm more special than you are -- more magical than you -- because I'm attracted to someone of the opposite sex" does sound vaguely to me like saying "I'm more magical than you because I'm white." Or American. Or pick any other invidious difference.

    But, yes, Paul reminds us, we're all of the same body. And we all have different functions. God intended it that way. That's why we have all sorts of diversity. And for a very long time, many members of the Church have been involved in the kind of sin that involves the eye telling the hand, "I have no need of thee." Isn't it possible God made gay people for a very good reason? Isn't it possible that we're doing exactly what he intended for us to do, forming exactly the kinds of families he intends for us to form?

    But part of my original point was... I agree with you. We have had people shouting arguments at each other that don't connect. I think the more fundamental question has to do with this one: What place do gay people have in God's good creation? If we answer that question, then the answers to the other questions about magic and about social recognition answer themselves in a harmonious way.

    1. "What place do gay people have in God's good creation?" is a great question to ask. We can both agree, of course, that most of the answer is that all people have a fundamental role simply as people. You don't have to know a person's skin color or gender or sexual orientation or disability status or wealth or anything else about them whatsoever to know that they are children of God and heirs to a portion of divinity.

      But as the passage in Corinthians suggests, it's not clear from that what specific role each of us has to play. Maybe God's purpose for same-sex desire is to motivate certain people to form families, but it's also possible these desires are given or allowed for completely different reasons. The body metaphor implies that different parts fulfill different functions without having an ultimate hierarchy of importance.

      In a religious discussion, then, it makes sense to talk about what roles people are supposed to fulfill and to assert that surface differences between roles don't change their eternal significance. It's religiously consistent, I think, to believe that some people could be called on to build spiritual strength as they raise families while others are called on to build spiritual strength as they endure a certain type of loneliness.

      My impression is that before Pres. Hinckley, most LDS discussions of homosexuality had to do with sin. Pres. Hinckley seems to have made a significant step forward by publicly emphasizing that same-sex oriented people participate in the church and contribute in many ways. My hope is that we're almost at a point where we can give young people coming to terms with their same-sex orientation a strong sense of how that specific characteristic can be a positive thing as well as a unique challenge for them.

      Since religious ways of thinking about meaning and American ways of thinking about public life are hardly the same, I'm not sure continuing LDS progress will help resolve anything politically. But I think we are doing far better personally than when you or my "uncle" Jay Bell were young, and I'm optimistic about what will happen in LDS religious discourse over the next few years.

  7. James - I assure you that God's purpose for me in this life is not to make me an example of saintliness achieved by enduring a life-time of loneliness. I know that with every fiber of my being.

    I know it in the profound things that loving another human being, and being loved by another human being, has taught me.

    I have a profound spiritual sense that has been reinforced time and time again that in learning what I learn through that relationship, and in experiencing the joy (and challenge) of that relationship, I am fulfilling the measure of my creation. I am experiencing in that relationship exactly what God intends for me.

    But apart from my personal experience, if you want to insist that God's plan for gay people is a life-time of loneliness, if you want to insist that that makes a kind of religious sense, you still have to square it with the fact that this is the one state at the near completion of creation that God in Genesis declared "not good."

    As far as the relationship between LDS "progress" and the civic/political question of same-sex marriage... I guess what I'm saying is that as a devout Latter-day Saint, I could much more easily live without progress in the latter sphere than the former. In any event, I can't separate the questions...

    1. God's plans for different people are different. The same God sends Abinadi back to die and lets Alma run to live. Who knows what each of us has in store? Who knows what God expects from another person?

      I took a look at your blog and realized I'd read your story before in Brent Kerby's book ( I am certainly not your judge, but it seems to me that you've done a great job making context-specific decisions about your life. Having made a commitment to your partner while you were away from the church, you were in a very specific situation when you decided to start attending again. You sought personal guidance on what to do, and have followed it to the best of your abilities. It seems you've done well finding ways to draw strength from the Church your faith is based in even as you've lived with certain tensions. I can only wish you the best as you continue to move forward in your path, with a confidence that "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28). After all, what can any of us do better than to live with integrity, acting according to the best of our understanding?

      While that's meant staying with a partner for you, it's meant staying celibate for many Latter-day Saints through the history of the Church who were oriented toward members of the same sex.

      I'm sure that in the next world, God will sort things out and that He'll make use of everything we learned in consequence of the decisions we made in pure intent. Even in cases where "pure intent" required apparently opposite decisions from different individuals.

      In terms of this post, I do think it's clear that for you and for a sub-set of people like you, a stronger mythic sense of meaning (and accompanying community?) are far more important than social recognition in a public sphere.

    2. None of those major decisions in my life -- to leave the Church, to find a life partner, to come back to the Church -- were made without the Lord's guidance. I think it is possible that some people (gay or straight) for context-specific reasons, as you say, might be called to a life-time of celibacy. But I'd say what a person's life calling is, is for each individual to work out with the Lord, and not for others to impose on them based on perceived outward characteristics. After all, "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."

      In terms of this post, the impasse you suggest exists between people who espouse different kinds of arguments about marriage can only be an impasse so long as people who embrace a mythic sense of meaning refuse to consider gay people's testimonies of their relationship with God; and so long as people who embrace public recognition refuse to consider that individuals relate to the public sphere through their mythic understandings and commitments.

  8. Very interesting ideas. That is all.

  9. This is the greatest, most articulate and respectful discussion of gay marriage I have seen in recent memory. It is nice to know that these are actually happening in the world--as opposed to the extremism of facebook.

  10. Ditto what Amanda said! I'll be bookmarking this post and sharing it for sure. Best delineation of the issues and why we are so tangled up about it that I've seen anywhere.

    Thanks, James! I'm glad to discover your blog.


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