Solving the same sex marriage problem
Michael Bird has posted a blog over at Patheos, entitled My Solution to the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, with an Ecclesiology of Exile. To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in the Ecclesiology of Exile bit, but I’m definitely interested in his proposed solution to the same-sex marriage “problem”. Bird starts by stating his two “non-theological arguments” against same sex marriage:
(1) It reduces marriage to a legal fiction.
(2) It paves the way for polygamy.
He later gives his solution to the so-called problem presented by same sex marriage. Make sure you check out Bird’s blog to see his arguments stated in full.
Regarding the first objection, I suppose if marriage is not ordained by some kind of transcendental power, then it probably is a kind of legal fiction, in much the same way that things like property ownership are legal fictions – sure, you have a piece of paper saying you own your house, but do you really own it? But what exactly is the problem with that? We humans have simply invented a word to describe a certain kind of publicly declared and recognised relationship. Allowing same sex relationships to be labelled in the same way is not going to make heterosexual marriages any more or less fictional. If this objection is supposed to hold any water, Bird needs to show that marriage really is something “higher” than a legal fiction, and that allowing same sex couples to be married would change that in some way. And keep in mind that this is supposed to be a non-theological argument – no appeal to the divine is allowed.
Bird’s second objection raises a few interesting issues. First, many people would say “So what?”. I don’t claim to have a settled opinion on polygamy. While I certainly have no problem with a few (i.e., more than two) people enjoying each other’s “company”, I think I can see problems with the Donald Trumps of this world having thousands of wives. We also have to accept that religious polygamy is almost universally polygyny, where a man has multiple wives (here is some information on polygamy in Christianity, Islam and Mormonism). The imbalance between the number of single men and women this could potentially cause is an issue that would need to be contemplated when considering legislating on polygamy.
Bird’s argument for his second point boils down to his assertion that “the same arguments used for same sex marriage can be used to justify polygamy”. But, even if it was the case (and I don’t at all think it is) that every single argument that could be put forward for same sex marriage applied equally well to polygamy, one would also have to consider the arguments against both to determine whether the practices should be legalised. And, as the previous paragraph indicates, there seem to be arguments against polygamy that don’t apply to same sex marriage. I’m not saying these are decisive arguments, but they are certainly arguments that apply to polygamy and not same sex marriage. Another argument that could be made against polygamy that does not apply to same sex marriages concerns legal matters such as property settlements upon relationship breakups. It’s hard enough when a married couple splits up (and would be no more or less difficult if the partners were of the same sex), but one could easily imagine scenarios when large groups go multiple ways. Sure, this would be an argument from inconvenience, but it is something to be considered, and something that does not apply to same sex marriages. Please note that I am not here arguing for or against polygamy, but just responding to the claim that “the same arguments used for same sex marriage can be used to justify polygamy”.
And this is all to completely ignore the blatant fact that the Bible portrays Yahweh as supporting polygamy, a fact that Bird dismisses most unsatisfactorily by saying that “[i]t was part of ancient near eastern culture which the patriarchs and Israelites lived in”, even though somehow God never meant it to be that way. I won’t get bogged down in this debate, but instead refer the reader to Thom Stark’s excellent book, Is God a moral compromiser?, which contains a very thorough treatment of biblical polygamy on pages 116-126.
But the main point of Bird’s blog was to offer his solution to the gay marriage problem, and this bears quoting at length:
I say we adopt a European model on civil unions and marriage. Basically, everyone gets a civil union. So on Friday, rock up to town hall with your fiance, see the magistrate, get licensed as a couple, so all the legal bases are covered. Then on Saturday, if you so chose, go to your Cathedral, Synagogue, or Mosque and get sacramentally married with divine blessings. This provides a base level of rights and benefits for everyone and gets government interference out of what has normally been a religious ceremony. As far as the state is concerned, there are only civil unions. Marriage, as a sacramental union, does not exist in the state’s eyes. They only recognize contracts between people … any people and as many people as you like. If you want to be in a civil union with a pretty girl, your biological brother, three Ukrainian women you met on-line, two pet monkeys, a racoon named “bongo,” and a box DVD set of Supertramp, go ahead. If it can [be] physically sighted you can be civilly united. If marriage is just a legal fiction, then there is no legal argument why you cannot do this. You want to throw that bigoted Christian heritage away and discover your inner pagan sexuality, gratify your every lust with state approval, go ahead, fill your boots, throw off the shackles of those perverse Christian values. If you need me, I’ll be on a family picnic with my wife and kids while you’re in law court figuring out who gets the house and kids in the love dodecahedron you’ve made for yourself.
Let’s just ignore the last few sentences, where Bird seems to think that non-Christian-endorsed marriages are more about “discover[ing] your pagan sexuality” and “gratify[ing] your lust” than a public display of commitment to your partner. The idea seems to be this:
Everyone can have some kind of no-frills, state-approved relationship, but only religious people can call their relationship “marriage”, whether these people be Christian, Muslim, Jew, or something else.
Well, I think there are a few problems with this.
First, and most obviously, it creates more inequality, not less. You’re all upset that gays can’t get married? Well, let’s solve the problem by also banning atheists, agnostics, and the typical apathetic person on the street, too. If Bird’s solution is only meant to please the more conservative members of his religion, then he may have succeeded in his objective. But if it is meant to appeal to the broader community, then I doubt too many gay people will be happy simply on account of having more people to share in their plight.
The second problem is that it relies on the erroneous view that you can’t be both gay and religious. There are loads of deeply committed religious people (whether Christian, Mormon, Hindu, or whatever) who are proud members of the GLBT community, not to mention many more who wish they could openly acknowledge their sexuality but fear rejection (or worse) from their religious friends and family members. It is a massive slap in the face to such people to tell them they should be happy to have a civil union, just like the pagans, and leave “real marriage” to the real Christians, Jews or Muslims.
But I think the most serious problem concerns religious diversity. Where did marriage come from, anyway? Bird thinks marriage is from Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and that marriage is only the real deal if it is Yahweh-endorsed. But this would mean that Muslim and Hindu marriages are not real. It’s not just about thinking that some imaginary deity endorses your relationship – it’s about really having the approval of the creator of the universe. Why the double standard in letting members of false religions pretend to be married, but not atheists and agnostics (and gay Christians)? On the other hand, if Christianity is not true, then Bird is dead wrong. Maybe Islam is true, and Christians are only pretending to be married, after all. But maybe no religion is true, in which case anyone who claims that a marriage is not real unless it is endorsed by their God is actually claiming that no marriage is real.
Maybe marriage isn’t “real”, after all, at least not in the kind of way that Bird envisages it. If marriage really is just a kind of “legal fiction”, and I think it probably is, then why should this be withheld from same sex partners? Two gay men or women in a committed relationship won’t be harming any opposite sex couples simply by having their relationship legally termed a marriage. After all, they’re already in the relationship, and I don’t think the existence of millions of same sex relationships around the world has led to the downfall of an heterosexual ones. (Maybe the same could be said of polygamy, but that’s a debate for another day.)
As it turns out, my solution to the “problem” is similar to Bird’s. Let religious and irreligious couples get legally married, whether they are of the same or opposite sex, and let them call it “marriage”. Let secular people have a secular ceremony. And let religious people have a religious ceremony, one that recognises their marriage as “real” according to the deity of their choice. That way, Christians can be married in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the church. If they want, they can feel that non-Christian marriages are not as real as theirs. Muslims can have real Muslim marriages. Hindus can have real Hindu marriages. Mormons can have real Mormon marriages (oh wait, they already do). This way, everyone can be happy with having a marriage that is as real to them as everyone else’s is to them. At the end of the day, nobody really cares whether or not their marriage is thought to be real by members of a religion they believe is false.