Thursday, March 28, 2013

Toward Marriage Clarity

On Wednesday I logged into Facebook and found that many of my friends' faces had been replaced by an image which reminded me of Mark Rothko paintings like this one:

At first I was confused--why the sudden surge of interest in Rothko? As I looked at people's posts, however, it quickly became clear that the changing faces weren't about the iconic artist at all; they were political statements about the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court cases. And what initially appeared to me to be two abstract lines were, in fact, equals signs. People had found a way to simply, symbolically show their support for the cause of Marriage Equality. It wasn't a sudden rash of Rothko at all--it was an elegant, clever mass communication technique.

But it was one I could not take part in. Because I would prefer to see the Supreme Court uphold Proposition 8.

By the logic of my friends' profile pictures, I guess that makes me an advocate of Marriage Inequality. And probably an advocate of inequality, backwardness, and hate more generally.

Framed that way, mine sounds like a pretty terrible position to hold.

I don't want to hate anyone. I can't afford to: hate is a corrosive, self-destructive process that eats away at a person's strength on a physical, chemical level. I may be tempted by anger from time to time, but I hope I know better by now than to let anger canker into hate. There's too much to be done to waste my life that way.

But for me, concern about the definition of marriage is not about hate or discrimination. And so I want to try one more time to explain how I feel about the issue now while feelings are running strong. I don't know who I'm writing to--maybe to friends who feel betrayed by my position but still want to understand where I'm coming from, maybe to people who share my position and are feeling a bit isolated because of it.

Or maybe I'm just writing to leave a record of where I stand. A piece of evidence to incriminate myself by if this week's court cases become the landmark of progress so many people hope for. Because it's important to me to be thorough and honest. If I am going to be judged (and as a writer, I probably will be), let me be judged by my own account of what I believe.

Two Views of Marriage

I don't think the current debate over same-sex marriage is just about same-sex marriage. I think it's a political extension of a roughly fifty-year-old cultural debate over what marriage should mean in the modern world. That debate is complicated and I can't do justice to all its ins and outs, all the positions different groups have taken and reversed. But I think it's fair to say that there have been two broad camps in debates over everything from the sexual revolution to no-fault divorce to the question of whether gender roles should exist in any form to the charged debate over same-sex marriage today. On one side of these debates are traditionalists whose primary concerns are social stability and accountability. On the other side are experimenters whose primary concerns are freedom and acceptance. (Clarification on 3/29/13: this is not to say that traditionalists don't value freedom and acceptance or that experimenters have no concern for stability and accountability. The difference is in emphasis--do you raise questions of freedom/acceptance or accountability/stability first?)

Both camps have influenced society, and so many Americans hold a mixture of beliefs about marriage, drawing some on the experimenters and some on the traditionalists. Many Americans, though, do fall quite clearly into one camp or the other when it comes to choosing between the camps' competing views in five key areas:

Origin: when, how, and why should a marriage begin?
Exclusivity: what expectations about sexual exclusivity are part of marriage?
Family: what is the relationship between marriage and family life?
Gender: what role(s) does gender play in marriage?
Accountability: who is involved in the promise of marriage and when should a marriage end?

To understand any marriage-related debate in America today, I think it's important to first non-judgmentally describe the "emerging marriage" and "traditionalist marriage" visions on these five points. After all, if marriage is (so to speak) an apple to some people and an orange to others, we're bound to talk past each other a bit.

Here's how I see the two models operating:

Emerging Marriage

Origin: As adolescents and young adults, individuals go through a period of sexual exploration and self-discovery. It is considered unwise to commit to a long-term relationship before this process is complete or before a couple feels confident about their compatibility. But when two mature, compatible people fall deeply in love and want a deeper commitment, they may choose to use the word "marriage" to formalize their relationship in the eyes of society.  The word carries a certain legal and social weight which reflects the value of their commitment.

Exclusivity: Though pre-marital sex is acceptable for exploration or to test compatibility, a marriage is expected to be sexually exclusive. Some couples may choose to practice "open marriage," but such non-exclusivity carries a significant stigma even when both spouses freely consent to the arrangement.

Family: A marriage may be a good place to raise children. Single parents can also do a good job, though, and shouldn't be slighted in any way. And married couples shouldn't be expected to have children just because they're married.

Gender: Because gender difference is not essential to love, it is not an important component of marriage. Any two people who love each other can marry and can define for themselves what their roles within the relationship are.

Accountability: The promise of marriage is primarily a promise between two people. When those people agree that their love has changed or when one partner fails the other partner's expectations, it's OK to move on. Divorce isn't necessarily anyone's fault; it just happens sometimes.

Traditionalist Marriage

Origin: Marriage is a fundamental unit of society, and at a certain age young people should look for a person they can form a stable marriage with. Not everyone will get married, and that is too bad--though it's better to stay single than to have an unstable marriage. 

Exclusivity: Sexual exclusivity applies not only during marriage, but also before. Sex is exclusive to the institution of marriage; consensual premarital sex, while not as bad as adultery, is harmful and should be avoided.

Family: Procreation is a central purpose of marriage. When people get married and are unable to have children, it is viewed as a great tragedy. Getting married without wanting children is virtually unthinkable. What spouses do for each other is important, but the most important work married couples do is provide stability for their children and grandchildren.

Gender: Gender difference is an essential component of marriage. This is partly because of the procreative nature of marriage, but also because fathers and mothers have unique strengths and obligations within a family. How gender roles play out may vary from community to community and family to family, but distinct obligations for each gender do strengthen marriage as an institution.

Accountability: The promise of marriage is a promise to God, society, oneself, one's family, and one's partner. Effort should be invested in a marriage even in moments when love is hard to feel or when a spouse does not seem worthy or appreciative of the efforts. Divorce is a tragedy and a final resort, and should be used in cases where the marriage is so bad that one spouse is unable to live with dignity.


Where do I stand in all this? And what does my view have to do with how society defines marriage?

First question first:  where do I stand?

I realize that every position on this earth comes with certain costs and benefits. And I prefer the costs and benefits of traditionalist marriage on each of the five questions.

Origin: I understand the expectation of marriage becomes a burden for many, but I appreciated being raised with marriage as a challenge to live up to. I was raised with the idea that I had to work a great deal to be the sort of person who can sustain a stable marriage, and I am a better person for having tried to refine myself rather than find myself.

Exclusivity: I know that it's difficult to live in a culture as sexualized as ours with a belief that sex should be exclusive to marriage. But the struggle of staying abstinent before marriage is worth the payoff in trust. My teens and early twenties could have been far more wrenching and volatile if sex-related chemicals had been part of my less stable dating relationships. And it seems much easier for intimacy to nurture strong bonds of trust within my marriage without the obstacles of past disappointments or alternatives to distract me.

Family: I grew up in several strong extended families with deep senses of connection and community, and they've meant the world to me. I'm not entirely convinced it's possible to build big family networks like that when family is an afterthought in relationships and parenthood is an improvised accessory to marriage rather than the central purpose.
At one point during my testicular cancer treatment, some misread data made it seem doubtful that I would be able to father biological children. So I've dealt a little with the weight of disappointed expectations biologically-family-centered norms can create. But I've also experienced firsthand how even the best adoptions don't erase children's hunger for connection with their biological parents. I love my oldest daughter more than I can describe and she loves having me as her adopted father--but she does still wonder about the biological father she hasn't seen since her third birthday. The miracle of adoption is still built on the tragedy of failed or interrupted parent-child relationships. And so I think it's best to think of adoption as an important supplement to biological parenting rather than a replacement ideal.

Gender: Some see gender roles as inherently oppressive, but I've seen how they can offer a sense of place and permission instead of only negative pressure. My wife is a smart, talented woman who could be in a PhD program right now. But our faith's teachings on gender give her permission to focus mostly on children while teaching only one class as an adjunct instead. It's a career sacrifice she can make both because she's allowed and encouraged to value her work in the home and because my obligation as the primary provider relieves her of the full obligation for the family's finances.
While an absence of gender roles can lead to greater flexibility, it can be quite limiting when negotiations over flexibility fail. There's no shortage of families today where one parent (often the father) doesn't carry a fair share of the weight in either the financial or domestic spheres. At their best, gender roles can give the community a language to call such individuals to action and to help them take a more active role in family.

Accountability: This may be the issue I feel most strongly about. As more people have come to view marriage as an interpersonal contract, divorce rates have risen significantly. There's an argument to be made that that's a good thing--one writer I know called a fifty-year marriage a "terrible failure of the imagination" because of the limits it implies on two people's exercise of their freedom. But to me, most divorces are just sad. Too many couples are unable to make it through difficult periods in their relationships because one (or both) lacks a motivation and obligation beyond the love and satisfaction hard times make difficult to feel. And families and societies lose a lot of stability when so many marriages fall apart. As a society, I think we need to find ways to increase individuals' sense of accountability and commitment in marriage and countless other contexts if we are going to effectively face the social, environmental, and economic ills of our time.

Now to the second question: what does all this have to do with how society defines marriage?

My sense is that most of the main groups and individuals that promoted California's Proposition 8 did so not out of specific concern about homosexuality, but out of a broader concern that a handful of state Supreme Court Justices were beginning to enshrine an emerging view of marriage into the law at the expense of a traditionalist view. The definition of marriage Prop 8 proponents wanted to protect was not simply heterosexual marriage: they wanted to give traditionalist marriage a fighting chance in the ongoing cultural battle over the institution.

And as traditionalists, they couldn't accept the State Supreme Court's discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. On issues of family and gender, the court's position that marriage was between any two partners clearly came from an emerging marriage view where procreation and gender difference are not core components of marriage norms. On issues of origin and accountability, the court's findings also leaned (albeit more subtly) toward emerging marriage by prioritizing the desires of individuals over the established norms of the institution.

It's important to note that Proposition 8 didn't challenge any of California's domestic partnership rights, which were both available to same-sex couples and equivalent under state law to the rights of marriage. It focused on the word marriage specifically to maintain a potential rhetorical distinction between emergent marriage "partnerships" and traditionalist "marriages."

In other words, Proposition 8 was an attempt to keep separate names for apples and oranges. It wasn't perfect: in the interest of simplicity, it failed to articulate the full social difference between the two views of marriage and drew attention to the bright line of gender difference at the expense of the complicated and multifaceted marriage values proponents wished to defend. But imperfect though it may have been, I have a hard time seeing it as evil: what is so wrong about wanting some sort of distinction in the language to represent a larger net of diverging assumptions?

Well--one important worry about preserving some sort of name difference is that we'd be falling into the old Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" trap. Having even a difference in a name between unions or partnerships and marriage might inevitably result in gross injustice to the minority group.

But while I respect that concern, I see a vital difference between separate physical facilities and separate words. I don't think we need to feel threatened by meaningful distinctions in our vocabulary. In universities, we divide degrees into Bachelor's of Arts and Bachelor's of Science Degrees. Those names strike me as representing important differences in a net of underlying assumptions. Has the division of degrees into BS and BA created gross inequality? I don't think so. People certainly make distinctions between (and sometimes sweeping assumptions about) each type of degree, but because enough people believe in each underlying set of assumptions, the degrees are able to coexist relatively peacefully. I would go as far as to argue that scientific disciplines and artistic disciplines coexist far more peacefully because of the naming differentiation which helps keep one side from dictating how the other should operate. While there's not a single bright line between arts and sciences, theater classes really are better off without having their norms set directly by science syllabi, and biology classes are better off without being accountable to the educational assumptions of the arts.

On a personal level, I worry about living in a society that implicitly defines emerging marriage as true marriage and traditionalist marriage as a backward, hateful counterfeit. Which is what will probably happen if a historic Supreme Court ruling takes the word "marriage" out of the realm of rational debate and enshrines emerging marriage as a constitutional right. And which may happen anyway as people rally around concepts like "Marriage Equality" and slogans like "Hate is a choice; love isn't." As values of freedom and acceptance become the only acceptable criteria for evaluating relationships, people who speak for traditionalist values--whether by discouraging single-parent adoption (and artificial insemination by single women) or by connecting the value of marriage with premarital abstinence--will be increasingly pushed out of mainstream marriage conversations. We will have an additional burden in communicating our values to our children when they are treated not only as divergent, but also as actively hateful and backward in school curricula.

Isn't there a way to recognize same-sex couples without making pariahs of the 40% or so of Americans who are still quite attached to a more traditionalist view of marriage?

I will be far more comfortable if future schools teach my children and grandchildren that our country has two different but coexisting views of marriage than if they teach that prejudice was the only reason people used to think (and their family and community still think) of marriage as requiring a husband and a wife. I want marriage clarity.

But I don't think a two-word system would only benefit traditionalists. In the worldwide conversation over same-sex relationships, a clear linguistic division between traditionalist views of marriage and an emergent-Western view of marriage would be a far easier path to legal recognition than simply asserting that gender doesn't matter in marriage.

Take India as an example. For the majority of Indians, religion is still the dominant guiding influence in marriage and family life and most religions in the region have wedding ceremonies with very clear gender roles and divisions--in the case of Sikhism, not only for husband and wife but also for a wide range of maternal and paternal relatives. Simply asserting that marriage is between two people without regard to gender makes no sense in most Indian contexts. There would almost certainly be widespread, intense resistance to any attempt by a high court or foreign lobby to impose a gender-neutral definition of marriage on India or many other countries.

That said, most Indians are familiar enough with American media to know that many American relationships are built on radically different assumptions than Indian marriages. A proposal to create a separate category for the Western-style relationships of many urban youth, including same-sex relationships, would likely lead to spirited debate but would at least have some chance of success without tearing the society apart.

A "marriage equality" argument for recognizing same-sex relationships wins significant support in Western Europe, the United States, and other areas where emerging marriage assumptions have filtered deep into the culture. But on a worldwide scale, "marriage equality" is probably a dead end as long as the assumptions of emerging marriage are positioned as a replacement for, rather than an alternative to, traditionalist marriage.

Where would I like to go from here? And where do I think we actually will go?

My ideal solution would be to use a term like "union" as an umbrella for both traditionalist marriages and emerging marriages, to keep "marriage" associated with a more traditionalist view and to come up with a word with more everyday appeal than "domestic partnership" or "civil union" for emerging marriages. After all, who wants to kneel down and ask for a lifetime commitment by saying "will you civil me?" The utter lack of romance in the unwieldy, clinical names California lawyers came up with may have been a significant factor in convincing Prop 8 opponents to hold out for the word "marriage."

That said, the weight of the word "marriage" doesn't come from its syllables. Marriage feels more committed to individuals and society largely because of the sacrifices generations of traditionalists have made for the institution's sake. We pour meaning into words slowly through the collective pattern of our actions, and it strikes me as a significant mistake for people who hold an emerging view of partnership and marriage to seek the old weight of the word at they same time as they strip it of its old assumptions.

I would like to see both forms of union recognized by the law, but in a way that allowed new-paradigm couples to build up a new word with the connotations that gradually collect around their way of approaching partnerships.

But--things are highly unlikely to unfold according to my ideal. So here's what I think will happen:

Probably not right now, but probably before too long, the position of the United States Government and the majority of Americans will be that considering gender difference an essential component of marriage is discriminatory and wrong. Freedom and acceptance will become the core values of our society in regards to marriage.

But a significant minority of Americans, perhaps a third or so, will remain attached to traditionalist views of marriage because our family values are shaped less by government and media than by an alternate conversation, such as the teachings of our faiths or the traditions of our ethnic subgroup. Having lost any claim to the word marriage in public discussions will be a difficult burden for us, and so we will eventually coin a new term or adopt a new symbol of our own to describe the different assumptions we bring to marriage. Maybe traditionalists will take a foreign loan word, maybe we will adopt a certain type of ring, maybe we'll shift to a compound concept like "covenant marriage" to differentiate, but sooner or later we will create a language that gives our position its own place and purpose again.

And then slowly, perhaps over generations, we may achieve some degree of Marriage Clarity. People will have an easier time seeing the differences between the two main views of marriage in our society, and they will have an easier time choosing for themselves whether they prefer a model primarily focused on freedom and acceptance or a model primarily focused on stability and accountability.

And maybe, just maybe, our grandchildren will be able to get along reasonably well in their differences. Maybe they'll stop framing their debates as equality vs. hate or natural vs. deviant and have both the understanding and underlying appreciation of difference we can see today between thoughtful people over the differences in assumption between science and art. 


  1. especially on the distinction of words, this CS Lewis comes to mind:

    " People ask: "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?": or "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

    The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - "Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

    Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served."

  2. but also: Don't you suppose that in your 2nd proposed scenario, with the new adopted term "covenant marriage" that over time the same strife will attend that term, too?


  4. "I see a vital difference between separate physical facilities and separate words." There is a difference, but I'd say the difference between civil unions and marriage is closer to separate facilities than words. They're legal ones instead of physical, but that's still a pretty big deal.

    It's not just words. Civil unions are a separate part of the legal code. In some states that part of the code may mirror the marriage laws, but they're still separate laws. There were probably some "coloreds" restrooms that were actually equal facilities. It was still legal separation. And of course in many states the civil unions are separate and clearly unequal, granting nowhere near the same rights of marriage, just like public facilities were.

    Separate is inherently unequal, even when the laws mirror each other (and I most emphasize again that they often don't). Separate laws means its a matter of politics. What is given can be taken away. Operating under the same laws make it a matter of justice.

    I don't think you're a hate filled bigot; you don't believe in legal discrimination. But still you're supporting it, because you think it's just about words (which I agree are also important and matter), but really it's about legal right, just like it's being presented.

    1. Let's talk just about the Prop 8 case for a moment.

      The arguments in the Prop 8 case did not focus on the legal distinctions between the marriage and domestic partnerships, which were fairly limited (Israel would recognize states' marriages but not their civil unions and domestic partnerships, for example). They focused on a social and cultural weight of the word marriage.

      And it's that argument I think will prove most problematic in the long term. I agree that same-sex couples should be able to take care of each other. I don't agree that we should do that by stripping the word marriage of any restrictions.

      And if we do decide that having a definition of marriage with restrictions is discriminatory, I don't think we'll be finished by recognizing same-sex marriage. If two adult siblings who live together want the legal rights of marriage, by what reasoning should we deny them? Or is it OK to have sibling-run households counted as marriages?

      What do you think the legal and cultural normative limits on marriage should be?
      -Should it be limited to sexual relationships?
      -Should it be limited to non-related persons (this question sounds silly--but if two biological brothers who had been raised separately reunited and fell in love, should we bar them from marriage)?
      -Should marriage be limited to relationships that are intended to be lifelong or should people be allowed to start fixed-term marriages?

      Which boundaries for marriage do you see as valuable--or do you think any two people should be able to decide for themselves what marriage means?

  5. I was happy to find this article. Good insights. Nice to see other perspectives.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to go into such detail. I think you've given a bunch of us a voice with this article.

  7. I really liked how you laid out the two different types of marriage at the top. We really are speaking past each other, probably much of the time. If I defined marriage the modern way, I'd think SSM was a go, too, but since I am a traditionalist, I just can't give up all those historical connotations. Also loved your conclusions. It will be interesting to see how this goes.

  8. That was refreshing. Thank you for the courage to share. I think the problem is that people, in the name of "fairness" want to get rid of all rules in case they might make someone feel "uncomfortable". You cannot be a true Christian and separate your behavior from your beliefs. Moral ambiguity will not lead to a better life. Most people just want to be free to do want they want to do. That sounds nice but if we truly followed that philosophy we would have no need for a justice system. There are many people who feel like they don't fit the mold. But the answer is not to break the mold. The ideal is still there and attainable. The church response was correct when they stated the legal problems it would cause to anyone with any Biblical standards at all. It is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Is their discomfort worth losing the right of a church to practice their religion? That is what this is all about. There are laws that can be, and have been passed that provide "rights." A same gender couple is not the same, biologically, emotionally, legally as a traditional marriage. It may be possible to raise healthy children, but as a whole it turns society on its head. The defense of examples of disfunctional relationships in traditional marriage does not make the case. No amount of legislation will change what it is.

    1. In this post, I used "traditionalist" marriage rather than "traditional" marriage because I think it's important for Prop 8 proponents to acknowledge that our view of marriage, while closer to most historical views of marriage, isn't the same as every historical view of marriage. How could it be?

      A traditionalist view may can't be identical to "Biblical marriage," for example, because there are several vital differences between views of marriage within the Bible (Moses and Jesus have different standards on divorce, etc).

      As far as examples of dysfunctional marriages in traditionalist marriage: most of the examples I've seen on facebook are not from traditionalist marriages at all. Britney Spears's marriage is based on emerging view assumptions. And religious leaders have been arguing against those assumptions for a long time. Blaming many oppressive, unhappy marriages on traditionalist marriage may be fair. Blaming traditionalist marriage for Britney Spears's break-up is not.

  9. I like a lot of what you have to say, James. I, too, look forward to a day when we will be able to see differences and not feel the need to be defensive about it. I also think we should allow those differences. That said, here are some things I wanted to take a closer look at in your argument.

    I think your comparison of BS & BA to marriage and civil unions falls short because we still value heterorosexual relationships over homosexual relationships—this is your admitted value system as well. Our society is dubbed heteronormative for a reason. Just because 60% or so of people don't see a legal reason to not let homosexual people get married does not mean we think homosexual relationships are just as good as heterosexual relationships, but simply for different people. (But that’s what you hope will ultimately happen—heterosexual marriage and homosexual civil unions ?)

    We prize marriage over civil unions, we prize heterosexual over homosexual. Until those words and their corresponding definitions, as you lay them out in your argument, are actually prized as two equal options--well, they won't be equal. And so we are back to the separate but equal conundrum. You say, “I see a vital difference between separate physical facilities and separate words.” The problem with separate but equal in my mind is that we prized white over black and that showed in the way we treated black people—in the case of segregation, it showed up in the physical facilities people had access to based on the color of their skin, and the quality of those facilities were based on what color of skin we as a society prized. I think there is a valid concern that if we call unions by separate names, but still value one over the other, this value system will be codified in a word and the discrimination homosexual people currently face will persist. I wonder how you can argue that separate but equal is not a problem when this assumption is embedded in your very argument?

    Personally I’m all for all legal unions to be called civil unions and let the definition of marriage rest in the hands of individual religions, but that, too, is not the debate we are currently having.

    I also see it being problematic that embedded in your argument is the assumption that because homosexual people don’t have clearly defined gender roles and are not currently capable of biological reproduction with one another that they don’t value all the other things traditional marriage values and are therefore incapable of “stable” and “responsible” relationships.

    What makes you feel that the same sorts of “sacrifices generations of traditionalists have made for the institution's sake” will not be made by those relationships composed of the same sex instead of the opposite sex?

    I also find it troubling that you find “freedom and acceptance” in a mutually exclusive position with “stability and accountability.” And I don’t think I’m missing the point, because you compare them to apples and oranges and apples cannot be oranges and oranges cannot be apples—that’s the point.

    1. Bianca, thanks for the comments.

      A few clarifications:

      1) I don't find "freedom and acceptance" mutually exclusive with "stability and accountability." I just think that the two camps prioritize different ones. Emergent view advocates often do value stability/accountability, but their argument focus on freedom/acceptance. Traditionalists value freedom/acceptance, but tend to prioritize questions about stability/accountability. (In my metaphor: there's red in oranges, but the yellow is more dominant than in apples. There's juice is apples, but also more fiber than in oranges.)

      2) Many people prefer BS degrees. Others prefer BA degrees. Many prefer emergent marriage. I prefer traditionalist marriage. I don't believe any given American should value all relationships equally: I'm saying that if we're honest, the division isn't between gay and straight marriage, it's between emergent and traditionalist assumptions. I can think Britney Spears's marriage was built on poor assumptions; plenty of people think my marriage is built on backwards assumptions. But maybe we would get along better if we used clearer names for those assumptions.

      3) I definitely believe that individual people in same-sex relationships can and do sacrifice for each other and can have stable relationships. That's real. I'm not as convinced that over a broad population the assumptions of emergent marriage will lead to sacrifice at the same rates. But we'll see. Let's say emergent marriages are actually stronger than traditionalist ones: if they had their own name, it would likely gradually become more valued as a direct function of their success. Let's say we did keep "civil union." Gradually, the stories of gay and straight couples who chose that designation would give weight, history, and meaning to the term.

    2. The one knitpick I have with your article and also with this comment is laid in number one. It's in the concept of Stability and Accountability but also in the concept of Exclusivity. Some of the first civil unions started in 2006, so we simply now do not have the data to conclude that homosexuals would not hold up those concepts of Stability and Exclusivity. If you believed in no sexual relations before marriage but marriage was not available to you, would you then say that you were not allowed to love therefore you should never have sex? Your arguments about the two types of marriage would have more value if both parties were and had been allowed to marry for longer periods of time. There is no way to conclude that just because we think they want to do this means they would or wouldn't. They haven't been given any chance to prove themselves.

      Now yes, they do seem to be on the side of the emerging... why? Because those on the side of Traditionalist have not shown themselves to even allow the discussion to take place, so of course they would be on that side. If you as a heterosexual male were not allowed to be married, and there were two groups one side who wanted you to be able to be married and one who absolutely did not, and you believed more in the aspects of marriage as defined by the ones who did not but not the concept that you should not, would you decide to side with them simply over the moral argument? Or would you side with those that would help you to get the one thing you want above all else?

    3. I've known gay men who believed in traditionalist marriage on all five counts, including that marriage is between a man and a woman. These men experience various kinds of love, but do believe in remaining celibate.

      There are also many gay Americans who side with the traditionalists on some aspects (for example, exclusivity) and with experimenters on other aspects (for example, gender).

      As you suggest, acceptance and freedom are primary values among gay Americans, so many do fall squarely into the emergent camp.

      I don't know that we've proven that emergent marriage is less stable than traditionalist marriage. But the higher rates of divorce and continuing disappearance of strong extended family values suggests to me that something in the emergent view is trading stability for freedom. Maybe gender is not an important part of stability. But from my perspective, most changes that have been made to marriage in the name of freedom and acceptance have come at a cost in stability and so I won't be surprised if changing gender requirement represents the same freedom-stability tradeoff.

  10. What would you think about legally calling all unions, "civil unions" and saving marriage for the religious ceremony?
    That's actually what I vote for. I think it keeps things equal, allows us freedom to define things for ourselves and I think it would help reinforce the division between church and state that I feel would actually allow for greater freedom of religion. (not that I'm worried that if same sex marriage becomes legal it will put in jeopardy religious freedom, but some people are, and I just think it's a good practice to separate those things when we see them still tangled up.)

  11. I don't see as obvious a connection between traditionalist marriage and opposing marriage equality as you seem to. I kept looking for an explanation of that, but it seems to be taken as given much of the time: "On issues of origin and accountability, the court's findings also leaned (albeit more subtly) toward emerging marriage by prioritizing the desires of individuals over the established norms of the institution." You see "more subtly," I see "didn't."

    My own views are very traditionalist on all points except gender difference: Marriage is about stability and extends beyond the couple to creation of stable intergenerational family dynasties, sex ought to be thought of as exclusive to marriage including the premarital period, primacy of children in the definition--marriage is as much about creating a pair of parents as it is about creating a pair of spouses.

    I think that gay couples should--and can--be brought under the umbrella of this view of marriage. Indeed, for many gay couples, marriage is about exactly this. About creating a new branch in their extended family, about creating a stable foundation for the rearing of children and the lifelong support of children and grandchildren. The sense of accountability is just as strong.

    Bringing in gays to this definition of marriage would strengthen it against the real threats to marriage, which aren't gays but straight couples pushing towards the more permissive, individualistic understanding. If this traditionalist view of marriage is fighting an uphill battle for survival, don't we need all the troops we can muster on our side?

    Rejection of gays from the institution of marriage risks weakening it by causing it to take on negative connotations of "hate" and outdatedness in the eyes of younger generations. Shouldn't those of us who value marriage rejoice to see Facebook awash in an unprecedented show of visual support and enthusiasm for the institution? Would anyone have thought, in the heady days of the 1960s-1970s sexual revolution, that we would see legion young people stamping their feet demanding that marriage be seen as fundamental to participation in life and society? Let's leverage this cultural fixation on marriage, occasioned by the gay marriage debate, to re-enthrone marriage as the central organizing principle of society. My sense is that we can only do that if it includes gays. Whether any particular traditionalist sees that fact as right and just, or as a necessary concession to realpolitik is their own business, but I contend it is a fact.

    1. Cynthia,

      Thanks for the thoughts. I will try to expand on the origin/accountability issues I see--not to persuade you to change your position, but just to show you where my reasoning is.

      In a traditionalist view, the institution is seen as extant and important outside of the individuals. People are accountable to a certain core definition of marriage they don't negotiate.

      Arguments for same-sex marriage tend to put the individual over the institution. If one's desires don't line up with the definition of marriage, it's the definition of marriage that ought to be changed. Individuals can take a more active role in choosing/negotiating what marriage will mean. The main advantages to a negotiated view are greater flexibility and freedom. The disadvantage I see is that once you start renegotiating the conditions of marriage, it's hard to feel accountable to the limits of the institution the same way.

      I'll give a concrete example: a month or so ago, I heard an interview with author Andrew Solomon. He is a very bright, very empathetic, and very articulate man I have a lot of respect for. He's also married to his male partner under Connecticut law.

      Solomon and his partner have a child (I think adopted) of their own. His partner also fathered two children for a lesbian couple and has sort of an uncle or godfather type relationship with them. A close heterosexual friend of Solomon's got divorced without children and mentioned to Solomon how she regretted not having had children of her own. So Solomon offered to donate sperm and be the biological father to a child who she's raising on her own, though with Solomon in a sort of godfather role. If I recall correctly, the three sets of children each live in different states.

      Now, from Solomon's point of view this is a cool new nontraditional family structure. He and his partner have been pioneers in redefining marriage and can also act as pioneers in redefining family.

      To me, though, this suggests that redefining the gender aspect of marriage does lead to redefinitions of other aspects. Solomon and his partner do seem to feel an accountability to their biological children, but it's a very different (and less direct) sense of accountability than I want marriage to demand from people toward their biological children.

      There's also a strong differentiation on the origin issue in terms of Solomon's biological son's mother's situation. Basically, Solomon's reasoning seems to be that if he can marry a man and raise a child, why shouldn't his unmarried friend have the joy of raising a child?

      Again, that line of argument reflects an emerging view emphasis on freedom and acceptance rather than a traditional view that marriage is an important prerequisite to childbirth.

    2. "Arguments for same-sex marriage tend to put the individual over the institution. If one's desires don't line up with the definition of marriage, it's the definition of marriage that ought to be changed."

      It may be that rhetoric sometimes goes in this direction, but I don't see it as a necessary thing to understand their participation as changing the institution in any way other than adding their participation. Put it this way, if we woke up tomorrow in a parallel universe culture where the traditionalist view of marriage was strongly held, but gays were allowed to marry, I think that could be a cultural worldview with more than enough coherence to be workable and carry enough social force to regulate behavior. (Certainly no less coherent than saying that elderly can marry or known infertile individuals can marry in a traditionalist view of marriage.) So if it is true that a coherent traditionalist view that is inclusive of gays is possible, then it is simply the technicality that we have needlessly excluded gays in the past that is necessitating their need to ask for a change, not any fundamental incompatibility, right? So then saying that what's wrong with gay marriage is the mere fact that gays are asking the institution to change becomes, to me, a really vacuous argument from tradition. You can't ask for a change because asking for a change is per se wrong?

      On the other hand, I think the scenarios you describe in your comment above *are* fundamentally incompatible with a traditionalist view of marriage. I can't imagine waking up tomorrow in a parallel universe holding strongly to a traditionalist view of marriage that also happily includes such arrangements, and seeing that that worldview has any coherence. (You've picked extreme examples; we could also talk about pride parade hedonism, but I don't see the relevance there either.) It sounds like you're sounding a slippery slope warning bell that allowing gay marriage will lead to familial anarchy, but I've been trying to argue that isn't the case. To me, that alternate universe of gay-inclusive traditionalist approach makes sense and I'd rather use whatever voice and social capital I have in the world to push towards that goal, than fight a two-front war against both gay marriage and emerging marriage when I don't see really any *necessary* connection between the two. (again, apart from rhetoric some have happened to deploy and how things happen to have unfolded historically)

    3. (BTW someone decades ago could equally well have said that "Arguments for interracial marriage tend to put the individual over the institution. If one's desires don't line up with the definition of marriage, it's the definition of marriage that ought to be changed.")

    4. Since my grandparents got married over the objection of an interracial marriage law, I'd like to chime in on that specifically.

      The thing many people seem to miss is this: interracial marriages debates were not about the definition of marriage; they were about which restrictions could be placed beyond that core definition.

      Everyone knew that interracial marriages were marriages. The main problem people had with them, in fact, was that they were obviously procreative. Interracial marriage bans were separate, specific laws often created to specific situations: my grandparents, for example, were informed that an Arizona statute prohibited a "Hindoo" man from marrying a Caucasian woman. When interracial marriage laws were struck down, the law code changed by dropping those laws, not by redefining what marriage meant.

      Now, people could still have argued that allowing interracial marriages would destroy marriage as an institution, but they typically didn't. They argued that interracial marriages would destroy society--because society relied on a racial classification system mixed-race kids made a mess of. The assumptions against interracial marriage didn't have to do with the definition of marriage; they had to do with definitions of race and nation and the importance many people placed on those distinctions.

      While interracial marriage debates may provide useful parallels to same-sex marriage debates in many areas, it's also important to remember key differences: like whether the definition of marriage was at stake.

    5. Re: the parallel universe argument

      Your feeling seems to be that of the 5 values of traditionalist marriage I've outlined, 2 (a strong emotional attachment to biological procreation and a belief in two genders complementing each other) are not actually important to the institution's health.

      You may well be entirely correct. Those two may not, so to speak, be weight-bearing pillars of marriage. It may be that in a parallel universe a view of marriage could evolve with traditionalist views #1, #2, and #5, a modified #3, and no #4 and would end up functioning in almost exactly the same way 5-point traditionalist marriage here does.

      I have my doubts, though. I think #3 and #4 have value of their own. And I think that taken down those two pillars does threaten the other pillars. But I absolutely could be wrong.

      Just out of curiosity: would you concede that there's a meaningful possibility that definitional change could turn out badly? Or do you fall more into the school that seems these definitional debates as smoke and mirrors to cover animus?

    6. "The thing many people seem to miss is this: interracial marriages debates were not about the definition of marriage; they were about which restrictions could be placed beyond that core definition."

      Well that's what these always come down to, right? People who support the change say that the change doesn't change the "core," and those who oppose the change say that it does. That's precisely what you and I are going back and forth on--I think a core traditionalist marriage definition isn't particularly perturbed if gays happen to not be excluded.

      "would you concede that there's a meaningful possibility that definitional change could turn out badly? Or do you fall more into the school that seems these definitional debates as smoke and mirrors to cover animus?"

      Definitional changes could turn out badly in some cases, sure. But I do also think that this particular definitional debate is, for a majority though not all of debaters on the "no" side, smoke and mirrors for animus. Deeply subliminated animus that isn't consciously being covered up by smoke and mirrors. But animus nonetheless.

      As someone who cannot reproduce biologically without artificial intervention, I'm also not personally really inclined to see interventionless procreation as being necessary to a meaningful marriage relationship. Of course the definition of marriage must include those who are statistically prone to interventionless, even accidental, procreation. I support an understanding of marriage in which creating enduring, intergenerational family dynasties is a primary purpose, and I think it would be fair to say that easily-procreating people have a starring role in that. But even conceding that point, I still don't see a lot of point going out of one's way to draw that boundary so tightly that it excludes every last person who is not so blessed. It will always be the case that the vast majority of married people fall into the prone to interventionless procreation category (gays are what 8% of the population on the high end of estimates?). Why strain at gnats trying to cut out a tiny percent? Sure, they might not really be the front line of supporting a core pillar of our traditionalist understanding of marriage. But saying that is not the same as saying that their mere presence knocks down the pillar, any more than infertile people knock down any pillars. At some point, the influence on the overall definition is so tiny that, yes, it does seem like animus to bother worrying about it. What would we think of someone who proposed laws to ban elderly (post-fertility) couples from marrying? Wouldn't it seem odd and a waste of time, even to the most zealous possible believer in the procreative pillar of marriage?

      Here's some interesting reading: Although not exactly the same as what I've been saying, it echos some themes of, "Why not go after the anti-traditionalist straight people?"

    7. Re: "Why not go after the anti-traditionalist straight people?"

      I'm pretty sure the church has been doing that for a LONG time. I've seen a lot of arguments on Facebook that basically go "marriage is in crisis anyway so it's hypocritical for religions to suddenly be worried about same-sex marriage." What those arguments miss is the constant, unrelenting, and often unpopular calls over churches, especially over the past fifty years, in defense of traditional marriage on other issues.

      Our prophets and apostles talk far more about the divorce epidemic than about same-sex marriage. Far more about premarital sex, marriage as a norm, families, accountability, etc.

      That's one reason I'm saying we need to start using separate terms. This is not just about whether marriage should be male-female or gender-neutral--and if we want to defend a broader set of "traditionalist" norms against "emerging" alternatives, we need to say so.

    8. You're right about what we talk about. But as someone who lived in CA through Prop 8, it's pretty hard for me to feel like there wasn't some sui generis ire for same-sex marriage. Short of being called to a full-time mission, there's nothing the church asks us to do that is that intense, ever.

      It seems like we're back where we started though, because I'm happy defending a broader set of traditionalist norms against emerging alternatives (and not bother to waste my time cutting gays out of traditionalist marriage).

      Nate Oman has a great piece that just went up. "Ultimately, I think that gay marriage is a good idea. I think that recognizing gay marriage has the potential to create stronger gay families and a better environment to grow up in for the children of homosexuals. It also carries within itself the possibility for an ethic of gay chastity, which ultimately strikes me as superior to either gay celibacy or gay promiscuity."

  12. I've been thinking about this post off and on, and it occurred to me that "matrimony" might be co-opted/specialized (drawing a blank on the linguistic term for it, though I'm sure you know what I mean) as a distinguishing term for traditionalist marriage. It's gendered at its root and is already a synonym for marriage that puts an emphasis on the religious aspect. Not sure how one could turn it into a verb, but I have faith in the plasticity of the English language. :)

  13., India's leading matrimonial portal site strive hard to provide you the perfect match with a touch of tradition from a wide array of community, caste, city and much more for the global Indian community you can find your life partner with help of makemylove
    matrimonials sites indiaMatrimonial

  14. "I don't think the current debate over same-sex marriage is just about same-sex marriage. I think it's a political extension of a roughly fifty-year-old cultural debate over what marriage should mean in the modern world." – Rightfully stated. While many of us may stand at opposition and have different views on marriage, I think one thing is clear: the value of marriage has indeed devalued through time such that it sometimes is nothing more than a legal confirmation of a couple’s exclusivity.

    Lynette Mcguire


Related Posts with Thumbnails