The secular case against same-sex marriage

HumanumLast week, Latter-day Saint leaders speaking at the faith’s worldwide General Conference reiterated the Mormon stance on marriage and family: the family, understood as a married man and woman and their children, is the divine sociological unit on earth and in heaven. Same-sex marriage, they taught, is not consistent with the heavenly plan.

Most Mormons are supportive of Latter-day Saint teachings on marriage. For some, however, the special emphasis on traditional family values at the faith’s most important worldwide meeting left a feeling of unease. These members are devoted to their religion but suspect their leaders are misguided on the issue of same-sex marriage, held back by conservative cultural attitudes.

I no longer share their uneasiness: over the last few years I’ve become convinced that the Mormon position on same-sex marriage is prescient and ultimately correct. What first changed my mind on marriage was not renewed religious understanding, however, but exposure to sophisticated secular arguments for the classical definition. A few days ago I shared my interpretation of these arguments with some of my Facebook friends and was surprised at the positive response.

So I’m posting my Facebook comment, lightly edited. I don’t consider it a debate-ender, or even a definitive exposition of my beliefs about marriage. I do think, though, that it’s a good representation of something most people haven’t heard before: a straightforward secular case for male-female marriage laws.

If marriage is a real thing, then before we can decide what the rules of eligibility are, we have to know what it is–what marriage is. We want our marriage law to deal with real marriage, in the same way that, say, our criminal law deals with “real” crime, and not just anything the government wants to call crime.

So there are two big ideas about what marriage is and what it’s for. The “traditional” view says the essence of marriage is procreation. That the institution ultimately exists to name a husband as the legitimate father of a woman’s children, to compel him to stay with his children and their mother and to put a structure around human sexuality by means of marital norms. It sees marriage as a public institution ordered toward the creation of family life. It’s what you’d read in an anthropology textbook or court decision any time before the last two decades.

The “postmodern” view says that marriage is a formalization of romantic love and commitment, a private arrangement of consenting adults ordered toward mutual personal fulfillment, and family life if the spouses desire. The traditional view nearly always goes along with opposition to same-sex marriage, while the postmodern view goes along with support for same-sex marriage. The postmodern view and the traditional view don’t tend to coexist, because people who see marriage in the postmodern way nearly always deny that marriage exists for procreation.

So what’s wrong with the postmodern view? At least three things. First, it doesn’t explain why marriage needs to exist as a public institution in the first place. If marriage is about a relationship of love and commitment, then what’s the purpose of a government licence recognizing that love? Governments don’t regulate friendships or other close relationships–why marriage? And indeed, many people are starting to argue that marriage should be “privatized”, reduced to a contract. The traditional view explains exactly why marriage should exist publicly: because the public has an interest in having kids grow up within marriages.

Second, the postmodern view can’t exclude polyamorous couples or sibling couples who love and are committed to each other. Most people who are pressed on this either end up supporting poly and incestuous marriage or else say marriage shouldn’t exist as a public institution any longer. That’s a little worrying either way. This isn’t just an academic question any longer, either (I wrote a blog post on polyamory a while back).

Third, the postmodern view can’t justify the socially enforced norms of marriage: monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence. It would say that two is not necessarily better than three, if love is the goal; that extramarital sexuality is permissible with consent and that marriage need not last if love fades. (Poly, open and beta marriages are now things.) The traditional view justifies all three norms quite neatly. Monogamy is a reflection of the biological reality of procreation (one male, one female). Exclusivity is vital because cheating breaks up families, and that’s bad for kids. Permanence means that parents stay together even when things are tough, because breakups aren’t good for kids.

I’ve heard some people admit that the postmodern view is incoherent, but then ask why we can’t expand the marriage institution anyway. There are a lot of problems with this. By publicly formalizing a false view of marriage, we reinforce that false view. The norms that sprung out of the traditional view won’t keep existing without justification. This is bad for kids. People will also be less likely to understand why marriage needs to exist. If marriage is privatized, it will become as messy as divorce (which was more or less privatized throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s). There’s evidence from the Netherlands that opposite-sex marriage rates fell in response to marriage redefinition (I wrote a blog post on this).

One more thing. The big question people have is, “what about infertile and elderly couples? Are you saying they shouldn’t marry/can’t marry?” No, and I think this is made out to be a bigger philosophical conundrum than it is. Not every expression of a concept needs to fulfill the purpose of that concept. A for-profit business is still a for-profit business even if it fails to make a profit. A soccer team is still a soccer team even if they don’t score or win, or even if the team is lazy and doesn’t really try. However, a soccer team isn’t one if they don’t use a ball or nets when they play. The form, or the structure, of the institution does need to match the purpose. So marriage has to be male-female, and soccer teams have to use balls and nets. As long as something takes the form of a marriage, it’s still a marriage, even if it doesn’t appear to fulfill the ultimate purpose for the marriage institution. This is how we make laws; by means of concepts and definitions more than circumstances. Marriage is a male-female union because it is ordered toward procreation.

There are lots of other ways to justify the classical definition. One has to do with religious freedom. One has to do with the problems of fatherlessness and motherlessness. Another one deals with the ethical problems of third party reproduction. There are a few others. But the bottom line, for me, is that marriage *is* something. Before we can make a case for changing its form, we have to understand exactly what we’re doing and why.

17 thoughts on “The secular case against same-sex marriage

  1. People procreate with or without “marriage”. It’s not a religious or political issue. However, marriage it’s a political and religious concer, and as far as politics goes, same sex couples should have the right to get married.

    Mormons and any other religion can keep sanctifying the secrete act of marriage between a man and a woman, while their LGBT teens keep committing suicide by not being accepted in their religions because of their sexuality.

  2. “It sees marriage as a public institution ordered toward the creation of family life.” Exactly – and that applies to LGBT families just as it applies to heteronormative families. No matter what your religious leaders say from their bully pulpit.

  3. I guess that I have come to the point where you have to divorce (pun intended) the legal aspect and the moral aspect. The problem is that this is very hard to do. One of the problems with the LGBTQ movement has been that they have intentionally conflated the two such that they promoted a legal acceptance of same-sex marriage (usually conferring legal rights associated with inheritance, powers of attorney, visitation rights, custody rights, etc.) as being equivalent to broad moral acceptance.

    In the Church’s recent movement in support of LGBTQ rights, I see this wholly consistent with their previous fight involving Prop8. I don’t think Prop8 was ever intended to limit LGBTQ right, it was intended to fight this false equivalence of the legal and moral, with the fight being the nomencalture associated with homosexual unions. Because of the posturing involved around Prop8, they are now able to move forward by supporting LGBTQ civil right legislation while still reserving the right to declare the practice of homosexuality a moral abomination.

  4. I respect the intelligent, straightforward way in which this article was written. With that said, I wholeheartedly disagree with your stance on gay marriage for several reasons. If this article accurately portrays your view on gay marriage then it seems your view rests solely on how marriage is defined. That, my friend, is a heated debate that has not been settled as you suggest it has. Considering we have something called “the seperation of church and state” in this country I am confident in saying that our governement isn’t bound by any religious readings on the definition of marriage.

    Whereas your definition as a “male-female union” created for “procreation” might have once been the widely accepted and sole definition of marriage, we are no longer living in the middle ages. Definitions change as the times do. As most among us are aware, terms like “faggot” no longer mean a bundle of sticks. This term is now highly offensive because of its changed definition. There is a certain “n word” that underwent the exact same transformation. My point is that definitions of words (such as marriage) change over time and that’s the honest reality. Holding onto past meanings of words in an effort to force your definition onto others is a hopeless endeavor that will bear no fruit yet you continue on stubbornly while the majority of Americans shake our heads.

    Nearly all polls show how there is currently a sizable majority of Americans who believe allowing LGBTQ to marry is not even a question anymore. I must add that a recent respected poll showed how two thirds of republicans under 30 are in favor of gay marriage. REPUBLICANS! According to this poll, and a number of others, your supporters on this issue are literally dying of old age. Besides older Americans, your other main ally on this issue is country folks. These are the same people who have hateful views towards non-whites, drink alcohol by the keg, and go through cans of chewing tobacco by the pound. These are hardly the type of people that “virtuous” Mormons should be aligning themselves with. Am I stereotyping? Of course. But as someone from Iowa, as others from the flyover states can attest to, there is some truth to that stereotype.

    Several reasons I, a straight man, support gay marriage are as follows:
    1.) I believe I have no right to tell others how they should live their lives and what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their own homes. Americans are meeting gay people for the first time and having their minds changed on a regular basis by the following scenario:
    Guy 1: Have you met Dan & Ted?
    Guy 2: No.
    Guy 1: They are the two gay guys living across the street. As it turns out they are nice, everyday Americans just like you and I.
    Guy 2: Who would have thought! But we can’t be nice back right? They do sexual deeds with each other that I find repulsive.
    Guy 1: Well of course you are going to find them repulsive. You are straight. Simply be straight. What they do in the privacy of their own home has nothing to do with how you and I should treat them.

    2.) I view refusing to let anyone get married as something reserved for the self-entitled and arrogant among us. That some people honestly believe they have the right to control others in this way is quite infuriating to me. I am not alone in feeling this way.

    3.) Any other person’s marriage has NO effect on your own marriage. As much as I look, I fail to see how anyone else getting marriage has any impact whatsoever on the sanctity and pureness of your own marriage. You can refuse to accept gays all you want but how on earth do you justify the argument that their marriage has any impact on your own marriage? It is simply a silly excuse, one that I sadly hear on a regular basis.

    4.) If you honestly believe being gay is a choice then there is no hope to persuade you on this issue because ignorance has taken over. Why on earth would anyone want to put themselves through the amount of ridicule LGBTQ people get on a regular basis? The government denies them rights. Their employers deny them positions. Their peers judge them and send them their hate. Their parents disown them in some cases. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Faggot!” shouted at me from a stranger in a big old diesel truck as it passes by. I am not even gay but the fact that I am wearing standard running attire for my jog (short shorts) makes me their target. Each time this makes me feel pretty bad. I can’t pretend to understand how bad this makes people who are actually gay feel.

    5.) Why? Why stand in opposition to people you don’t even know from getting married? These people are not choosing to get married in spite of you. They are obviously doing so because it makes them happy. If you honestly believe you are standing in opposition to gay marriage in order to protect the morality and sanctity of marriage then your own morals should be questioned. Is it moral to make others sad because of your own beliefs? My answer would be no. No it is not moral to make others sad but especially when it is based on YOUR own beliefs. NOT THEIRS.

    Live and let live. Serve to make the lives of others more pleasant rather than a living nightmare. These are simple requests any moral human being would agree to. Does morality not apply to this issue?

    -A Reasonable Human Being

    • Of course I have noticed two of my own typos immediately after submitting: “separation” and “government” in the first paragraph. Shameful typos I know. I’ll try to type a bit slower next time. 🙂

  5. Here’s what I don’t understand when it comes to the intersection of Mormonism and the marriage equality debate: Mormons already have a super-secret, members-in-good-standing-only “sealing” ceremony, the existence of which suggests “normal” marriage is not-quite. Why on earth, then, would they concern themselves with two men getting a CIVIL marriage license?

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  7. Your facebook comment was very well argued – so well argued that the contrary comments here don’t seem to have even attempted to address its three main points!

  8. Tom:

    I love it, and yet there are some important things you are leaving out.

    Issues of blood and blood rights and who-is-related-to-whom is a huge issue from way back, because it deals with property, titles, inheritances and legal standings. Once there are no clear ties of mother-father-baby-blood lineage, the “inheritance” becomes one of “what does the state accept and justify?

    If gay people (not lesbians for this example) father or adopt a child, then who gets custody when they split up? Should the birth mother have no say in the child, even if the child was conceived by “normal” sexual means? Is she bound by her contract other than by whether she is the birth mother– especially if the contracted “recipient” couple is no longer legally valid?

    What if both “parents” are dead? Is the child technically a ward of the state if there is no clear sanguinity?

    What if the gay couple separate to different states, which have different laws and treatments for civil unions, divorce, birth-mothers, children’s rights and/or parental responsibilities?

    Are Gays Not Allowed Equal Treatment? Could they not argue successfully, at this point, that “standard” couples should abide by the same laws concerning children and inheritances that are given by the State, since otherwise they provide an unfair advantage to “traditional” hetero couples? Is that not the Very Definition of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment?

    The rights of individuals and families at this point are consequently taken from them, and they are “given” only as the governments will allow. The government controls the rights of parents, children, inheritances, etc. at their whim and bequest, and the people are left begging for them.

    In all cases.

    • Dale,

      Those exact same issues come up in situations of adoption, so they are not peculiar to same-sex marriages.

  9. First, it doesn’t explain why marriage needs to exist as a public institution in the first place. If marriage is about a relationship of love and commitment, then what’s the purpose of a government licence recognizing that love? Governments don’t regulate friendships or other close relationships–why marriage? And indeed, many people are starting to argue that marriage should be “privatized”, reduced to a contract. The traditional view explains exactly why marriage should exist publicly: because the public has an interest in having kids grow up within marriages.

    You are being shortsighted: the public has an interest in encouraging fidelity, not just kids. Your progeny-fixation is inadequate, as your allowance for “real” non-baby-making marriages by the elderly makes clear (while providing no real reason why other non-monogamous non-baby-making arrangements can’t also be included). So child protection is one aspect of the utility of a public acceptance of “marriage”, but it is not the only one. So this first point, while having some validity, is also inadequate. I would also add that, historically, marriage was primarily about property and heirs, not the kids per se. This is why women were considered their husband’s property (e.g., the Ten Commandments) until somewhat recently, why fines against harm to males were higher than for females, why “spousal rape” wasn’t made illegal till very recently (and many still don’t think it is possible), etc. Even just with that example, the meaning of “marriage” you are proposing is different than that accepted within the large bulk of human history, making “traditional” a huge misnomer.

    Second, the postmodern view can’t exclude polyamorous couples or sibling couples who love and are committed to each other. Most people who are pressed on this either end up supporting poly and incestuous marriage or else say marriage shouldn’t exist as a public institution any longer. That’s a little worrying either way. This isn’t just an academic question any longer, either (I wrote a blog post on polyamory a while back).

    We already have separate laws against incest and they have their reasons divorced from the concerns you are making here. It is also the case that siblings already can be the lawful inheritors of their sibling’s things, already have hospital visitation rights, etc., but same-sex couples can’t.

    Third, the postmodern view can’t justify the socially enforced norms of marriage: monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence. It would say that two is not necessarily better than three, if love is the goal; that extramarital sexuality is permissible with consent and that marriage need not last if love fades. (Poly, open and beta marriages are now things.) The traditional view justifies all three norms quite neatly. Monogamy is a reflection of the biological reality of procreation (one male, one female). Exclusivity is vital because cheating breaks up families, and that’s bad for kids. Permanence means that parents stay together even when things are tough, because breakups aren’t good for kids.

    Sure it can: polyamorous relationships have a strong sense of fidelity that can be broken, which marriage status would help enforce by recognizing the arrangement and then presenting potential penalties if the relationship structure is broken…just like in a monogamous relationship. Similarly, a monogamous same-sex couple is by definition trying to live together in a way that enforces monogamy. I will also point out that Mormonism still practices polygyny: men sealed to multiple subsequent women. If your definition of “marriage” cannot include this (like this one doesn’t) then it is incompatible with LDS theology and practice.

    On the question of exclusivity, in case you haven’t noticed, people being lawfully married in a monogamous structure also cheat…somewhat regularly. Furthermore, as I said above, people within polyamorous relationships can cheat; it’s not an “anything goes”, nor is it swinging (though the former doesn’t always exclude the latter). In relation to polyamory, I would hasten to add that having more responsible adults around to assist in the child-rearing has a great positive effect, not the least of which is less burnout, more financial resources within the 3+ structure, a constant mirroring of healthy communication skills, etc. There’s more that could be said, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

    On permanence, yes, breakups aren’t good for kids, but often enough staying together isn’t good for them (or their parents) either. Do you know that the numbers of spousal murders dropped dramatically after divorce became more common and easier? Your black and white “breakups aren’t good for kids” allows for absolutely no nuance and, thus, is inadequate and shortsighted.

    Your “secular” arguments are fundamentally inadequate, relying more on assumptions and over-generalizations than on good reasoning.

    • Sorry, I meant “non-heterosexual non-baby-making arrangements” in the first paragraph, though I think the argument generally applies to non-monogamous structures as well.

  10. Your arguments are sound and would be good enough in a sane, honest, moral society, but if we were in a society like that, this would not be such a big issue. The fact is that any agenda aimed at artificially changing the definition of ANY word, forcing your political and philosophical opponents to “accept” it, and use it to alter the culture ranges from intellectually dishonest, to Orwellian, to utmost evil, even if the word weren’t one tied to a sacred institution like marriage.

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