Tolerance and Graciousness in the Gay Marriage Debate
A blogger named Dennis Sanders has written about the recent controversy in Arizona from the perspective of a gay man (“married” and “a man of the cloth”, he says). There are two main ideas in his piece, one that is the centerpiece and another that is peripheral but also important. The centerpiece is that “marriage equality” advocates (I will call them same-sex marriage, or SSM advocates) ought to recognize that the refusal of orthodox Christians to participate in gay weddings is not necessarily or even often attributable to hatred and bigotry. Though SSM advocates may not understand or condone the religious and philosophical arguments we put forward, it would be better for society if people on both sides could stop assuming the absolute worst of one another. The peripheral argument is that this proposed change of tone and behavior on the part of gay marriage activists is necessary if they are to be gracious winners in the culture war. It is Sanders’ belief, shared by many on his side of the argument, that they have won this war even if we on the other side have not surrendered yet. His language is civil and conciliatory, though one still cannot help but feel that the main point here is “let the babies have their bottles.”
As far as the first argument goes, I am all for it. Though I am sure that Mr. Sanders would be deeply offended or perhaps just annoyed at my refusal to recognize his relationship with another man as a marriage, I have always been a proponent of true and authentic tolerance. Sanders quotes another writer on tolerance, and both he and this writer agree with me: tolerance is only possible in relation to something or someone we dislike. I dislike the “marriage equality” movement immensely, not simply because of some passages from the Bible, but because of its concentrated philosophical and political attack on the natural law foundations of Western civilization. Its incessant self-comparison to black civil rights struggles is as fallacious as it is nauseating; its core assumptions, taken to their fullest implications, are anarchistic and nihilistic. It is precisely because the vast majority of ordinary people rarely take their stated beliefs to their logical conclusions that I am able and willing to tolerate most of those beliefs. I believe we can have a pluralistic society, governed by the 10th amendment of the US Constitution, in which different people in different polities can establish different laws and customs by which they live. Furthermore, they can and should peacefully co-exist within the same American nation. Such was, I believe, the vision of our founding fathers.
Though we may agree on the issue of tolerance, I must challenge Mr. Sander’s view, shared by writers such as Andrew Sullivan whom he quotes, that the SSM advocates have won the culture war. I do not expect the following considerations to change the somewhat patronizing tone that even tolerant SSM advocates such as Sanders adopt, but they ought to be enough for us to have second thoughts about waving the white flag of surrender – and for Sanders, Sullivan and others who hope to see it in the near future.
It is true that SSM advocates have won major battles, not only here in the United States but in other countries such as Canada, the UK, and other European countries. In the brief span of little over a decade, public opinion has undergone a massive shift. The average American, and indeed, the average professed Christian, often finds it impossible to withstand the arguments of SSM advocates – many of which, in all honesty, make persuasive appeals to basic American values. It takes more than just a general belief in the inerrancy of the Bible to make a persuasive case against SSM, though that argument is very present in Scripture (and no, it is not in Leviticus – those passages, as I have often argued to the point of exasperation, should never be used by proponents of traditional marriage). It takes a firm grounding in the basics of natural law, a grounding that few Christians receive in any sort of formal and systematized way. Not only must one understand the basics, but one must also understand the sociological implications of adherence to the natural law as well as deviance form it. Natural law sociology barely exists as an independent category of social scientific thought, though it permeates the arguments of social conservatives and even classical liberals.
Because the reasonably-informed Christian public, to say nothing of the general public, is far behind in these vital areas of understanding, we must fall back on the 1st amendment religious liberty position. It is inherently defensive, which means that it effuses an odor of despair and defeat. It also does nothing to help the rational foundations of our arguments, since the 1st amendment as interpreted by the courts essentially states that your beliefs can be as absurd and irrational as any belief can be provided that no vital interest is harmed in their exercise. All we have to do is prove to nine men and women in black robes that our religious nuttery doesn’t really harm anyone in a really important way and we will be left peacefully to it – and peacefully to die the slow and miserable death that some think we deserve.
Such is my view of the short-run. I think the picture changes quite significantly when we consider both time and space, time being represented in demographic realities and space being represented in global realities. Religious conservatives are winning and will win the demographic battle for the future, simply because we breed and our opponents do not. Though birthrates all over the globe will slow down and/or decline by mid-century, there can be no question that orthodox believers of all faiths, particularly Islam and Christianity, will decline at slower rates than liberals and secularists. Mormon Utah, which, incidentally, spearheaded the Prop. 8 campaign in California, has the highest birthrate in the United States. On the whole, red-state America outperforms blue-state American in the fertility race. The future does not belong to the sterile liberalism of the American coastlines or the social democracies of Canada and Europe. This is precisely the moment of history when the total societal influence of both groups has entered a steady and irreversible decline.
Whether or not our higher birthrates will be enough to offset the defection of Westerners from Christianity to secularism remains to be seen, of course, but even that trend will reach its natural limit; I see no reason to assume that it will continue at the same or increasing rates indefinitely. 70 years of atheistic communism did not erase Orthodox Christianity from Russia; 70 years of moral relativism and nihilism in Western culture will not erase our Catholic and Protestant heritage.
Globally, several large nations including China, India, and Russia are ruled by governments and inhabited by large majorities that are quite hostile to the global gay rights movement. In a world dominated by Western media and culture, it is inevitable that SSM advocates would make gains almost everywhere and anywhere. To predict sweeping changes in public opinion or law in the near future within these countries would be excessively optimistic. And yet these are the countries that will play a much larger role in 21st century politics, or in Russia’s case, as large a role. A sympathetic media enables SSM advocates to project an image of permanence and vitality that is extremely disproportionate to its actual strength.
In sum, it may well be SSM advocates who require tolerance from a global population that views their project with hostility and alarm. Natural law moralists such as myself are quite willing to extend it in the name of peace and liberty, though others may not be so willing. There will have to be a meeting halfway, though. And it may mean accepting a society in which two people of the same sex can enter into any sort of contractual arrangements they choose, can stage any sort of public ceremony they like, can even refer to themselves with whatever words they like – but in which the state does not recognize them as properly married, reserving that title and privilege for those of us who choose to conform to the requirements of the natural law (something any homosexual can do by their own free will, by the way – only the same-sex attraction is involuntary). At the very least, homosexuals who choose to live in polities that are dominated by natural law adherents will have to accept such terms.