Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Gay Marriage - A Rant

So now it’s Maine. It’s been a good spring for marriage in these United States.

You wouldn’t know this if the only thing on your radio was AM talk radio, where the hosts continue to beat the drums of the apocalypse. Then again, most of those hosts - and all of their callers - should probably be given sedatives, padded rooms and lollipops with looped handles and only gradually introduced to that complex and colorful thing known as "reality."

Nor would you know it if you listened to the army of zealots currently slandering the name "Christian" these days. It has been my sad experience that those who shout their faith loudest have the least idea what it means to be faithful, although that would conversely imply that I'm practically a theologian, which I'm fairly sure is not the case. At any rate, last week's disheartening news that the frequency of church attendance - particularly evangelical Protestant church attendance - correlates almost exactly with the approval of torture only deepens that sad experience. One recalls forlornly the words of Mohandas Ghandi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”

Last month, the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa legalized gay marriage. Iowa! The nation’s heartland, and all that. It was a unanimous decision, and unlike most of the people criticizing it I took the time to read it. It was well reasoned, moderate, and thoroughly in keeping with Iowa’s long history of refusing to go along with the popular bigotry of the day. Iowa was firmly abolitionist when it was legal for some Americans to own other Americans based solely on their skin color. It granted rights to women long before other regions of the US decided that women were good for more than childbearing. And now it has declared that it will defend the institution of marriage against those who would reserve it as a privilege rather than recognize it as a right. Good on them.

Add in Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and it looks like New England is once again in the forefront of American liberty, as it was in the early 19th century. It is not coincidental that Iowa, like most of the upper Midwest, was largely settled by New Englanders.

All this is unmitigated good.

The most interesting thing to come down the pike, though, was in Washington DC, where the City Council voted to recognize gay marriages from other jurisdictions. On the one hand, this represents the will of the elected representatives of the people of Washington DC, which ought to count for something in a republic. On the other hand, the ultimate authority in DC is Congress, not the City Council, and it will be interesting to see what grandstanding will come. Because you just know there will be grandstanding. Members of Congress - elected by people thousands of miles away from the people of Washington, though not, ironically, by the people of Washington themselves - will feel they have the right to overrule the Council, and they will claim to be representing the people of America when they do so. Well, they’re not representing me.

It is morally bankrupt that there are places in the United States where gay marriage is prohibited.

There is no good reason for this. I’ve been subjected to an awful lot of foamy rants on this subject, and none were worth the time and oxygen spent on them. I have tried to understand them, really I have - it is not good to be ignorant of deeply held views, even those with which one disagrees wholeheartedly - but in the end they always collapse to nothing, and the only thing I've gotten out of listening to them is older.

Most of that foam starts off on religious grounds, with people who seem to think that merely because their spin on the Bible finds gay marriage objectionable the laws of the United States should reflect this opinion.

This is not so.

First of all, the United States is a Constitutional Republic, not a theocracy (or even a democracy – we elect representatives to govern us – but that’s another argument for another day). If you want to live in a theocracy, go to Iran. It is my contention that the United States should not be taking lessons on governance from Iran. Words cannot express how utterly irrelevant what is in the Bible is when it comes to the content of American laws. What matters is the Constitution, which at least at present starts out with the words “We the people,” and does not discriminate further on that point. The Founding Fathers very carefully and deliberately left religion out of the Constitution, and no amount of delusional wishing on the part of fanatics can change that fact. They can try to amend the Constitution if they’d like, but again – another argument for another day.

Nevertheless, people do natter on and on about what is in the Bible when it comes to this issue, and they insist that it needs to be taken literally. Personally, I’ve always felt that the Bible is best treated as a parable of Higher Truths than as an exercise in journalism to be fact-checked, but I do seem to be in the minority on that point in these Evangelical States of America. There seems to be an unlimited supply of people here who will tell you that every word of it is Literally True And Meant To Be Obeyed. To which the only proper response is, dude, what are you smoking? Have you ever read the Bible? It prohibits such things as cotton/polyester blend shirts, shopping on Sundays and cheeseburgers, which few of the folks opposing gay marriage trouble themselves about. It allows such things as selling one’s children into slavery and murdering those who do work on the Sabbath, which few of the folks opposing gay marriage support. Why do they get to pick and choose? And why should I and the rest of the country be forced to take them seriously when they do?

There are also a number of religious denominations that don’t seem to have any trouble with gay marriage. Why then do the literalist zealots get priority, especially given the selective nature of their literalism in the first place?

Failing the religious angle, the next screed I get offered up is that gay marriage is somehow unnatural. Mostly this boils down to the bizarre notion that “natural” more or less means “that with which the person making the argument is personally acquainted and of which they approve.” Even a cursory familiarity with history is enough for thinking people to realize that natural, normal and familiar are all things that vary widely across times and cultures. Interracial marriages were once considered unnatural, and opponents of those cited the Bible to support that position as well.

Ironically enough, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage used the same language and cited the same provision in the Massachusetts state constitution as that court's 1783 decision to abolish slavery. So you can have slavery and no gay marriage, or gay marriage and no slavery - take your pick, but they are linked that way. I'm fairly clear on what my choice is, but sometimes I wonder how others plan to decide that.

I think the most offensive bit of verbal chicanery I've been subjected to by the folks who would deny gays the right to marry is the idea that they are somehow "defending the institution of marriage" by doing so. This is pure unadulterated horse byproduct.

First of all, speaking as an almost comically straight man who has been happily married for thirteen years now, how exactly does this issue threaten my marriage? I'd be interested to hear that explained in specific terms and instead of the general fear-mongering and vaguely phrased innuendo that has been handed to me so far. I have come to suspect that there are no specifics to be had, and that all of the rhetoric is just so much hand waving designed to distract from a fundamental emptiness.

Second, I'd be more inclined to take this argument seriously if it weren't for the fact that its practical effect is to destroy real marriages - real commitments made by real people whose lives are being turned upside down by narrow-minded zealots who can't imagine that those relationships count. When California overturned its brief experiment with gay marriage, the question became what to do with all the couples who had been married in that time. And it didn't take long for the true colors of the anti-marriage movement to show - they are currently petitioning the courts to have all those marriages destroyed.

Now there's a threat to the institution of marriage that needs to be defended against.

So I will rejoice and be glad that, however slowly and with however much opposition, the institution of marriage is expanding to include people who will honor it, preserve it, and help it survive in this bitter and poisonous age.


Jack Lynch said...

Now, see, you're neglecting the most important argument of all. The theological argument is that "It's icky," and then there's old legal maxim, ickius ergo nope. I'm surprised you, a historian, would neglect such obvious Constitutional reasoning.

David said...

Yeah, I know - shameful of me. But theological ickiness is a two-way street and those who play that card risk falling under its purview themselves. Further, the applications of this doctrine under US law are somewhat limited - see US v Boiled Okra, 336 US 65, 73, 77 SCt 632, L. Ed. 224 (1963) acknowledging intent of the Framers to provide legal haven for things other people inexplicably enjoy, particularly when societal benefit ensues. Nutrition, human rights - it's all good.

tellthestories said...

I once (accidentally) brought a bacon cheeseburger to a lecture on Jewish ethics. Given by a rabbi. I walked into the room, opened my take-out box, and promptly closed it again.

Kudos to you, David. And to the various individuals who have seen fit to finally stand up and lead on this equal rights issue.

David said...

Kerri - When I was growing up (in a public school district where we got Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur off), there was a great deli called "Hymie's" where you could actually get a bacon cheeseburger on a Friday night.

Religion is such a personal thing that way.

Eric said...

I think the most offensive bit of verbal chicanery I've been subjected to by the folks who would deny gays the right to marry is the idea that they are somehow "defending the institution of marriage" by doing so. This is pure unadulterated horse byproduct.

I'd add a third objection, which is: if they're sincere, where's their opposition to divorce? Where's their campaign to amend the state constitution of Nevada to redefine marriage as a union between one man and one woman that lasts longer than 48 hours. Not a particularly original objection--at this point there's even a cute Facebook meme featuring serial bride Britney Spears making the rounds--but still salient. The greatest threat to "traditional" marriage, if there is one, is the same one that's been around since around the time Henry VIII decided his "little Pope" should have more voice in doctrinal matters than the dude with the funny hat in Rome: straight people.

Just had to throw that in.

David said...

Eric, I understand and agree with your point - that particular bit of hypocrisy is grating.

On the other hand, there are groups opposed to both marriage equality and divorce, and I worry about their ability to infect the body politic with that position too. Divorce, historically, has been a way for women to protect themselves against exploitative or abusive men (yes, I know, counter examples exist all over, but the plural of anecdote is not data), and cutting off that avenue of escape fits nicely into the same truncated world view that refuses to acknowledge the validity of social bonds other than those familiar and approved of by such people.

Sometimes I'm glad for the hypocrisy, just because it's one less battle to fight.

Eric said...

I grok that, David: ironically, the issue you cite and matters of child welfare frankly may be the only really good reasons for the state to be involved in marriages in the first place, but if the state's going to be involved with recognizing and sanctioning relationships for any reason, it needs to do so equally, fairly and justly. But you make a good point, anyway.

I have to confess I'm inordinately pleased with myself for "little Pope", though.

David said...

Yeah, that line made me laugh. :)