I found myself in a Facebook conversation recently with a guy I don’t even know; a “friend” or a “friend: if you will. It got to the point where I invested enough time that I thought, hey, this could be a post.
I should point out that I have altered the conversation in two significant ways. First, I have eliminated all references to anything personally identifiable, which in some cases caused me to reword some sentences significantly – the content, however, remains unchanged. Second, I have actually combine the responses of several people under the general pseudonym of “Respondent.”
Respondent [Original Post]: I think that it’s great to hear President Obama speak up for the rights of all people to get married. This has been quite an important week, politically speaking!
Jake: Just as I am typing this, I fear that I may be deleted and/or misunderstood. I will try very hard to proceed charitably in the same spirit of dialog for which President Obama has so often called.
My problem with this President and events like the recent news conference is that he seems to not fully understand his own position(s). Rather, I should say, if he understands them, then he doesn’t full communicate them.
For instance, he has on multiple occasions said that marriage should not be a federal issue (in his rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act) – that it is, under the Constitution, marriage should be an issue left to the States. Yet in the same breath, he, as a representative of the federal government, makes a statement on proposing the legality of same-sex marriage. It seems to me, and I am happy to be corrected on this, that the President wants to make things federal issues when it fits with his political agenda (health care, for instance, or the national legalization of same-sex marriages), but then play the state’s rights card when it doesn’t (like the enforcement of the federal Defense of Marriage Act). The Democrats are not alone in this – don’t get me wrong – the Republicans do there fair share of selectivity/inconsistency.
The inconsistency of this President continues in his deliberate promotion of himself as a Christian. Now, I am not here to judge who is and isn’t a Christian – thankfully that is left to the infinite mercy and justice of God. However, we are called, as Christians, to point out where and when those who claim the name of Christ stray from His Gospel. We can debate, hopefully with great tact and respect, whether or not homosexuality is sinful, and certainly there are many world religions with differing views on this issue … but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that Christianity does not condemn the behavior. Both Old and New Testament, as well as the oldest writings of Church Fathers are crystal clear on this. Again, though, let me clarify my position lest I be misunderstood. My beef with the President is not solely with his new-found evolution on same-sex marriage, nor is it solely with his self-identification as a Christian. My problem is that he maintains both simultaneously. An honest reading of the Bible, the foundational text for Christianity, simply doesn’t allow for this. I would respectfully ask the President to chose one or the other, and then let the intellectual debate begin. As long as he tries to hold both in tandem, no honest discussion can occur.
My third issue, to add more to the pending firestorm against me, is a very practical concern with the federal government getting involved with marriage. My practical concern is related to the recent HHS debacle. If the Federal government can start mandating health insurance coverage, then the door is wide open for the violation of religious freedom, as evidenced by the recent attempt to force religious employers to purchase medical options that violate their religious conscience. In a similar way, then, if the federal government gets invalid with allowing (nationally) same-sex marriage, then the next step will become to tell specific faiths that they cannot discriminate in their marriage ceremonies and practices. This is the kind of thing that happens when the Federal government starts overstepping its constitutional bounds and wades into issue that are to be left to the States.
Finally, I would point out that for those who are opposed to the President’s position, this is not, and never has been, and issue of equality. At least it is not any more an issue of equality than is the reality that a male cannot give birth. Rather, it is a matter of the objective nature of a particular reality. A man cannot give birth, not because he is in some way less human than a woman, but because it is not in the nature of what it is to be male. The position of those who defend marriage between one man and one woman is much more along those lines than it is along the lines of civil rights, equality, and the like. Marriage has a particular nature to it, and it is the position of those who disagree with the President that it is against the nature of marriage to have it contracted between two men or two women. In other words, it is not that people believe two men (or two women) SHOULD NOT get married; the position is that two men (or two women) CANNOT be married. They can say the words, exchange the rings, but no valid marriage is confected. Obviously there are those that disagree, but the debate needs to happen on this level, the objective nature of marriage and sexuality, rather than on the level of ambiguous and undefined “equality.” Authentic equality, much like authentic freedom, is built upon objective nature.
I think that is quite enough for now. I hope, as I tried to do, that it was charitable. Alas, the difficulty with the typed word is that it never fully communicates nuance, emotion, and a whole host of other things.
Respondent: Hi, Jake, I’ll simply say that the President hasn’t tried to get Congress to introduce legislation about marriage (plenty of other things on his plate at present, I suppose?). He was just expressing his opinion after Biden expressed his own opinion. I think it is good that they have been cautiously thinking about their stance on marriage and listening to the public about it. Many surveys I’ve seen show that the majority of young people in our country support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, perhaps because we grew up with these issues as a daily topic of conversation, I don’t know. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I’m glad that Obama and Biden continue to discuss and to listen before trying to get Congress to introduce legislation about it. Even Cheney endorsed the rights of gays and lesbians to marry (not just civil unions), and it’s probably because Cheney has experienced what his daughter lives with in her walk through life. Even a very conservative guy like Cheney can understand it because the Cheney family has lived through the experience of what a lesbian faces on her path in life. Until we live through an experience, it is hard to really understand it.
I salute the President and Vice President on this. As far as Christianity being crystal clear on homosexuality, the Old and New Testament are crystal clear on many things that even the most conservative of Christians choose to ignore.
Regardless, since we are a secular nation rather than a Christian one, Christian teachings are irrelevant when it comes to civil law. This is not an attack on Christianity, just a statement about how our government functions. Christian teachings are no more relevant to the functioning of our government than are Muslim teachings, Buddhist teachings, or the teachings of any other religion. And as long as we have marriage between two people as part of our civil laws, equality is very much the issue.
I just don’t like to “throw the first stone”. In other words, none of us is perfect, and I don’t know why people like to criticize the way other people live their lives. I’m imperfect, and I would rather try to improve myself, rather than spending time criticizing others. We are only on this earth for a short time, and I’m in favor of helping each other and building each other up.
Jake: I am impressed by the quality of of some of these comments. While I thrive on these discussions, when I write my thoughts down, it does not always come off as positive. I only hope people understand that this is a fault of my inability to communicate, and not what is in my heart. (Another discussion for another time might be how suitable the medium of Facebook is for having these kinds of conversations: a long discussion over a bottle of fine Scotch might be a more conducive environment.) At any rate, I will try, as best I can, to respond to a few items. The risk in these sort of thing is that too many issues are raised that can possibly be dealt with in a reasonable amount of space – but I will try nonetheless.
First, you raise a very good point about the President having not introduced federal legislation about same-sex marriage. Of course, for any sitting President, there are issues they support for which they have not introduced legislation (limits on time, energy, political capital, etc., will influence this), so the “lack of” does not mean he wouldn’t support such legislation. His comments indicate that he would; however, I am well aware that I am speculating – so your point is well taken.
First, let’s deal with the issue of what the Bible says and what it doesn’t say, and how much of what it says has been “overturned” either in other places in the Bible itself or by the various periods in Christian history. The best way to look at this is to note that Christianity claims, and has always claimed, the inerrancy of Scripture only in matters of faith and morals. In matters of science, it most certainly does not. In matter of prescribed worship – this is obviously something that can be changed organically throughout history. But in matters of doctrine and morals, I am not aware of where Christianity has changed its proverbial tune. It has been consistent throughout the centuries. (Now, of course, we will run into the side issue of the various branches of Christianity and their interpretation of Scripture – an issue that most certainly needs more space – but at least in their insistence that Scripture is inerrant in faith and morals, Christians have consistency.) At this point, I would turn those Christian supporter of same-sex marriage to the strong New Testament admonitions of St. Paul, a repeated phenomenon, against such an idea.)
Second, I would point out that, while we are not a nation with an official religion (deliberately so), neither are we entirely secular. The God of Christianity is invoked in the founding documents. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with you that the “laws” particular to Christianity are no more important for our governance than the laws particular to Islam. This is an excellent point, and duly noted. However, the argument I offered (that this is not primarily about “equality”) was not premised on Christian doctrine. It was premised on a philosophy in which we understand that the objective nature of things (either things of matter or things of ideas, in this case marriage) is prior to equality itself. True equality, like true freedom, must be built upon the objective nature of the things themselves. I stand by the example of a male being unable to give birth. Let’s compare this with the right to vote. Being able to cast a rational vote in not something that is inherent to maleness or femaleness (or the color of one’s skin), but rather something that is inherent to (adult) HUMANNESS. Thus, equality built upon this principle would suggest that it is immoral for a government to prohibit a female or an African American from voting. (I would point out at this time the invocation of a morality that supersedes government constructed laws; something is not moral simply because it is written into current law, nor is it moral because it is voted on by the majority of citizens.) Note here that the ability to cast a rational vote is not something inherent to being a child, which is why it is no way a violation of equality when we prohibit a five-year-old from voting. On the other hand, the ability to give birth is something inherent to femaleness, not to humanness. So, in a similar way, it is not a violation of equality to suggest that men do not have the “right” to give birth. (In fact, “right” here is not the correct word – it is too ambiguous.) It would, however, be a severe violation of equality and a moral abomination to suggest that a particular race of women did not have the right to give birth.
The question, then, is where does marriage fit into this scheme? Is the objective nature of marriage limited to one man and one woman, or is its nature broader than that? I understand quite well that many people disagree on the answer to this question. But the only thing I was suggesting in the original post was that the question of marriage law(s) BEGIN with this question rather than an undefined and ambiguous notion of equality. What is the very nature of marriage, and how does one defend this nature? This is where we must begin, and note that neither this paragraph nor the preceding one has mentioned Christianity (oops … until now!). Those who wish to defend marriage as that which is confined to one man and one woman do not do so based solely on Christian (or Muslim, or etc.) principles, but rather on principles of natural law – in a similar way to why we defend the inherent immorality of being able to arbitrarily kill someone or steal from someone.
Finally, I appreciate your comment about not throwing the first stone. We should not cast stones at individuals. I would, however caution against the confusion of throwing stones at individuals (of which I am sure that I am guilty form time to time), and the pointing out of erroneous positions. When I, or others, criticize same-sex marriage, it is no more throwing stones than the original charge of discrimination or implied violation of equality. To suggest that the criticism of gay marriage is a violation of equality and an act of discrimination is a point that one has the right to make, and in no way do I take it as throwing stones. On the other hand, then, when I suggest that a marriage between two people of the same sex is a violation of the nature of marriage itself, it is also not an act of stone throwing.
I would leave readers with this: a concise statement of my position. We should distinguish here between my political position and my moral position. It should be clear by now that my moral position is that the very nature of marriage includes one man and one woman, so marriage between two people of the same sex is not possible. Vows can be exchanged, but a valid marriage is not confected. It is no more a reality than me self-proclaiming that I am still 18 years old. I can say the words, but it doesn’t change reality.
However, my political position is much simpler, and I am curious what others here think about this. The government should have nothing to do with marriage. Why would they bother defining it in the first place? Why would they bother getting into the documents/certification? Nothing good can come of this except a conflict between Church and State. The government should stay out of it altogether and leave it up to private institutions (religious or otherwise). This solves the problem altogether, and then politicians (Democrat or Republican) would have no business making this part of their campaign.
[Note to my American Catholic readers: I am sure there are those who will take issue with me on this. You can see my libertarian bent coming through.]
Respondent: In law, marriage is a commitment between two people that has implications of rights of all kinds, financial implications, etc. There is, in law, no expectation of reproduction. So that “natural law” you refer to is not really of concern in the eyes of the civil union.
I think it would be preferable if the government had never called the civil union a “marriage” because it confuses the religious and the civil sides. If the civil union had always been called just that, and “marriage” left to religious institutions, we wouldn’t have nearly such an issue. But that’s not the way history developed and I can’t imagine we’d have any success going to that now.
So, in light of the fact that marriage has a civil definition, it should not – must not – be up to the government or anyone else to decide which consenting adults can join in such a fashion.
Jake: These are excellent points. Supposing we could reinvent the whole thing, I am wondering if you agree that the government should have never been involved with whole business to begin with? It seems like your argument is, “this is how things have developed, and so …” But what if we could go back? Would it not be better to have the government out of the business altogether?
Further, there is a slight problem with “in the law, there is no exception for reproduction.” You are correct, of course, and this I don’t dispute, but this suggests that the “answer” to the question at hand has in large part to do with what is in current law? Surely we can’t use that as a litmus test, otherwise if the legislature passes an act that in fact does put reproduction as part of the definition, then you would have to join my side (in conclusion, but not argument) by saying, “Well, this is what the law says now.” The question here, I think, is not what the law says, but what it SHOULD say, and laws are in fact based on the natural law, otherwise they have no weight.
Further, if the definition of marriage is expanded past one man and one woman, I would ask where it stops. It must, after all, stop somewhere. If the definition cannot discriminate based on gender, can it discrimination based on number (can three people enter into a union); can it discriminate based on age; can it discriminate based on a definition of “person” (while not identical, in the eyes of the law, a cooperation is a sort of legal “person”, so should an individual be able to marry a cooperation, as absurd as that sounds)? It all gets very sticky, because at some point if the government is to be involved in the institution of marriage, then it must issue some sort of definition.
The larger issue here is the foundation of civil law. If we are not to base it on the natural law, then on what DO we base it? Is it founded on majority vote? Surely that can’t be, or we would have to defend past laws that most of us would consider highly immoral – we would have to defend them with, “Well, that was the sentiment in the country at the time.” And besides, I don’t think people in practice actuality believe this, otherwise we would never enter into these conversations – we would stop the argument simply by quoting current law. The mere fact that people see State laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as unjust and discriminatory laws means that they are using some sort of natural morality as a basis for judgement.
Respondent: What is your definition of natural law? Examples of homosexual pairing are found in species throughout the animal kingdom. Does that make it natural?
If our government gets out of the marriage business altogether, great. I would be happy with that. Let consenting adults do as they will.
Jake: The definition of natural law is that which is in the “nature” of whatever is under discussion. It is broader than the “natural world” (which I take to mean the world of matter) – and this seems to be how you are using the term. Every being by virtue of its existence is equipped with a nature by which it exists. Various beings can act either within or outside of that nature. An overly simplistic example would be a chair serving as a paper weight. It is not in the nature of a chair to act as a paper weight, and while it is possible for it to do so, the object in questing at that moment is acting more as a paper weight than a chair – it is acting outside its nature. My opinion of the matter is that even homosexual pairings that exist in the natural world are not consistent with the nature of sexual union. I know this is confusing, and the confusion has much to do with modern science and its reduction of the four causes to one (the material), so that “nature” is reduced to “that which is in the natural world.” We thus, as you wisely hinted at, must first define our terms.
Humans are different from much of the created universe in that we can actively choose, through an authentically free will, to act in a way consistent with our nature as human persons (or as male and female, if that be the case). While homosexual relations in the broader animal kingdom are, in my view, not consistent with the nature of the animal and its sexual union, the animal in question cannot be culpable for such action for lack of their free will. We, on the other hand, can. We can actively choose to act in accordance with our nature.
Regarding your second statement – I do believe we actually agree!
Respondent: I just think “natural law” is more nuanced and subtle that you seem to.
Jake: It absolutely is nuanced. There is no doubt about it. But this does not mean that it doesn’t exist and that we are not bound to both discover and respect it.
Respondent: So the idea that marriage must be between a man and a woman seems to me to be based on a simplistic view of natural law.
Jake: To the best of your knowledge, what is the nature of marriage?
Respondent: Two people in a loving, committed relationship, agreeing to spend their lives together.
Jake: Now that you have offered a description of the nature of marriage, I would ask you to defend it. (And while we’re at it, we should clarify a couple terms: do you really mean “two” or could it be more? “Committed” means what? How much of their lives are they agreeing to spend together?)
At this point, the conversation dropped off. It has been a few days, and “Respondent” has not responded. I was trying to drive in the end that people will offer their own definition of marriage, but be completely unable to defend where that definition comes from, which leaves it at the ambiguous level of personal opinion. The Christian concept of the nature of marriage is based on numerous things, from biology to theology. While there are those who will disagree with the concept and the argument, we can at least stand firm in being the only ones who seem to be offering an argument at all that rises above the level of opinion.
This is why I tried so hard to keep the conversation on the “lower” level of nature. In the end, the “other side” must offer their own concept of how they understand the nature of marriage, and, more importantly, they must defend it.
UPDATE: It seems that my interlocutor has finally responded, and it seems that the conversation has come to an end. Here are the final two posts.
Respondent: Frankly, I’m losing interest in this thread. But I’d say that whatever we offer/allow for heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.
Jake: I understand your loss of interest. This drives at one of my side points about Facebook and it not being very conducive to these sorts of discussions. The energy it takes is ten-fold what would be necessary in a face-to-face conversation. On your own time, I would challenge you to think deeply about the following: Your final conclusion seems to skirt the issue of the nature of marriage and fall back on an undefined notion of equality. ” Whatever we offer/allow to heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.” The problem with this is that it simply CANNOT be. Examples of such impossibility include the ability to conceive a child through the process of intercourse. This is “allowed” for a heterosexual couple, but not for a homosexual couple,. This is not for lack of equality but rather for lack of biology. This, then, only begs the original question about marriage and its nature. Is it, by nature, a reality that can only exist between a man and woman, or is its nature broader than that? This is why I have worked so hard to get people to (1) identify what they think the nature of marriage is, and (2) defend it on some grounds other than, “This is my opinion.”