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Why I am not Voting on the Marriage Amendment

October 6, 2012

Warning: Ridiculously long post. Reader discretion is advised.

Minneapolis neighborhood lawn signs sometimes make it seems as though there is not a single homo sapiens in favor of defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In reality, 31 states have amended their constitution to ban same sex marriage and Minnesota might very well be the next. Still, a majority of Americans now favor same sex marriage and Minnesotans United has been pushing hard to get out the “no” vote.

Whatever the outcome this November, neither side will receive support from yours truly.

To begin with, let me explain why I won’t be voting “yes.” The quick explanation is that vote “yes” folks make silly arguments, like this one: marriage is between a man and a woman because marriage is between a man and a woman. Would that I were joking. As proof that I’m not, here is an excerpt from the FAQ section of the USCCB’s “Marriage Unique for a Reason”:

Relationships between two persons of the same sex are not, and can never be, marriages, because two people of the same sex fail to meet a basic defining element for a married couple (sexual difference) . . .

Usually when the word “because” is inserted into a sentence, the conjunction indicates that B is caused by A. Thus, for example, in the sentence “I am eating because I am hungry,” being hungry (A) causes me to eat (B). In the excerpt quoted above, however, A and B mean the same thing: two persons of the same sex by definition lack sexual difference; that is what it means to be of the same sex. Now obviously this would be a minor point if it were not central to the Catholic bishops’ line of argument. But in fact, it is. In response to the question “Marriage: What’s a good starting point?” the Catholic bishops assert that “gender is not an afterthought or a mere social construct. The body shapes what it means to love as a human person.” The bishops take as their starting point the very assertion that their opponents reject. It’s as though I asked a vegetarian why she thinks it wrong to eat meat and she replied, “I take as a starting point that eating animals is wrong.”

Like their opponents, vote “no” folks tends to assume that which is in question. A very popular vote “no” argument—one that can be heard on buses and planes, on the television and radio, and at bars and family gatherings—holds that denying same sex couples the right to marry is on par with denying interracial couples that right. Opponents of same sex marriage are “bigoted” insofar as they discriminate against a particular class of people arbitrarily, the thinking goes. Admittedly, if gender is in reality a mere social construct, the race discrimination analogy is appropriate. But the question remains: is it?

I don’t profess to have the answers to the perhaps unsolvable mystery of gender. Nor do I claim to have read even a fraction of the academic literature. What I can say with confidence is that dogmatism is everywhere. Entering the Catholic Church at the age of 21, I knew I was in for a good deal of it. But the four years I subsequently spent as a grad student in English opened my eyes to another kind of dogmatism: the dogmatism of the academy, which is arguably more insidious insofar as it is not plainly acknowledged. (“There are two kinds of dogmatists,” Chesterton wrote, “those who know it, and those who don’t.”) Not once in my studies was it clearly demonstrated to me that gender is a mere social construct. And yet countless articles are published in prestigious academic journals each year celebrating gender-bending fiction and creating “genealogies” of marriage and sexuality!

So, conclusion number one on same sex marriage: beware of dogmatism; especially your own.

Because I am agnostic about gender, I am agnostic about same sex parenting. And because I am agnostic about same sex parenting, I am agnostic about same sex marriage. Let me explain. One of the most besetting problems in the current debate is that we are not actually having one debate but two. The first debate—the one the vote “no” folks are having—is over whether or not all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the right to formalize their commitment to each other via a legal contract. If the mere formalization of love and commitment is what is meant by marriage, then I certainly don’t see any rational basis for excluding gay couples from the institution. Surely it is only fair for such couples to be granted hospital visitation rights, the ability to share benefits, etc.

Disdain and mutual incomprehension arises from the fact that the Catholic bishops and other conservatives are having a different debate—a debate about the right of children to a mother and father. Before continuing, it is important to note that most conservatives don’t so much as blink if you talk about contraception or cohabitation or no-fault divorce or a hundred other deviations from the traditional ideal of marriage. These “conservatives” are to be ignored. But there are a few who still grasp the interconnectedness of the sex, marriage, and parenting and who argue that marriage is not so much a right as a certain kind of responsibility—the responsibility to bring new life into the world and to educate and care for that life.

Does the argument linking marriage to parenting hold up? I would suggest that it does. With respect to the debate over whether same sex couples should be able to form what I would call civil unions, I have argued that not only should same sex couples have this right, but that there is in fact no reason for the state to distinguish between straight and gay. At the same time, if civil unions are nothing more than contracts formalizing love between two people, I see no reason why the state should actively endorse them. To put the point in a more libertarian idiom, such unions are none of the state’s business. With that said, it does seem to me that the state has an interest in the role stable families play in the welfare of children–who are, after all, the future. For this reason, I would create a separate legal category (marriage) for couples who commit to having children and staying together to raise them, and have the state actively endorse such unions through tax breaks, family leave, and other benefits.

This leads us back to the question with which this post began: should the constitution be amended to define marriage as between a man and a woman? Although I have reframed the debate, the question still isn’t easily answered. But it does become possible to think coherently. If the bishops are right in asserting both that a) men and women are essentially different and b) that sex, marriage, and parenting somehow require the presence of these differences, then it seems clear that same sex marriage ought to be opposed. Has this in fact been demonstrated? To my knowledge the bishops have not even attempted such an undertaking. If the bishops are wrong, conversely, it seems clear that same sex parents should receive the same favoritism for marrying—vis-à-vis entering into a civil union—as straight couples do.

To be clear, I doubt that thorny questions surrounding human sexuality can be resolved by empirical study alone. Moreover, I doubt that sociologists are capable of unbiased research on these issues, just as I doubt that unbiased research can be produced on race and IQ. Sometimes the only way to learn is trial and error.

So where does all of this leave us? A Burkean conservative like Rod Dreher would argue that since we’re still unsure as to the impact same sex parenting will have on society, it ought to be opposed. For reasons I have elaborated here and here, I think this is a terrible argument. Instead, I favor civil unions and openmindedness about same sex parenting. It’s not inherently wrong to venture into the unknown; but it is stupid not to bring a raincoat and flashlight. As for the marriage amendment, the closest I can come to answering what I take to be a misguided question is “time will surely tell.”

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