Ordinary Rights, Extraordinary Claims
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In his recent WaPo article, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick reiterates two vacuous claims in the course of defending same-sex marriage.
First, Patrick offers the good ol’ comparison between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage: Both, he argues, were prejudicially banned before the state came around and recognized that, in justice, it needed to recognize these unions too as valid marriages.
Second, Patrick observes that since his state legalized same-sex marriages nine years ago this week, “The sky has not fallen. The earth has not opened to swallow us up.”
Both of these arguments are common stock from same-sex marriage advocates, and both are quite tiresome. They do nothing but divert attention from the question that occupies the heart of the marriage debate: What, as an institution distinct from other types of relationships, is marriage? Until we have a working definition of what marriage is, invocations of justice, fairness and the 14th Amendment—treating like cases alike under law—are groundless.
Patrick first offers an argument that eludes this central question while simultaneously doing something rather insidious: employing the rhetoric of, and therefore inviting comparison to, the black civil rights movement in order to dress the same-sex marriage debate as just the next civil rights cause in marriage’s sullied history. Such a move is predictable, old, tired, and just a poor argument to make.
In ruling the prohibition of interracial marriages unconstitutional in 1967, the Supreme Court simply acknowledged that a man and woman of different ethnic backgrounds had all along been able to, in reality, form the sort of relationship that marriage is. That is, a white man and a black woman (for example) were just as able as a white man and a white woman to form the union of marriage, the essential characteristics and norms of which have been expressed in what was, until very recently, the universally-recognized understanding (if not articulation) of marriage: a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons. Loving v. Virginia simply established that race was not a salient feature of marriage. Loving didn’t entail any redefinition or change to the understanding of marriage at all; it represented the gradual shedding of pure racism in America.
To anticipate a possible objection, let me say that there are some types of marriage that the state legitimately “prohibits” on just grounds; it does not follow that these relationships aren’t marriages. On the contrary, as with interracial marriages prior to Loving, these marriages are considered to be marriages but are frowned upon or socially taboo.
For example, the state continues to forbid marriage between blood siblings, but blood siblings can form the sort of relationship that marriage is; in prohibiting such marriages the state is implicitly acknowledging that such people can in fact be married. In other times and cultures, marriage between persons from different social strata was at least socially prohibited and possibly legally prohibited; yet nobody asserted that the definition of marriage excluded these people from the institution.
This is not the case with same-sex marriage. Proponents of conjugal marriage have been arguing all along not that people with homosexual inclinations should not be allowed to get married—for such discrimination would be akin to the blatant racism that permeated the marriage culture prior to Loving—but rather that two men or two women, regardless of whether and/or how their sexual inclinations come into the picture, simply cannot form the sort of relationship that marriage is.
The logic that equates federal bans on interracial marriages and same-sex marriages is unsound because it is completely question-begging. It would be similar—and similarly ridiculous—if same-sex marriage advocates argued that since the state doesn’t prohibit Italians from marrying the Irish (if this were the case, I would not have been born) or a man over six feet tall from marrying a woman under six feet tall (again, my parents would have been out of luck), a man can’t be prohibited from marrying a man. Such an appeal proves absolutely nothing and simply arrives back at the same point: What are the essential characteristics of marriage?
Patrick’s claim that “all our Supreme Judicial Court did [in legalizing same-sex marriage nine years ago] was affirm the ancient principle that people come before their government as equals” is not true, but if it were true it would be moot and pointless. The ancient principle that people are equal before the government has no bearing on the present question about marriage. It cannot be stressed enough that individuals’ sexual inclinations or attractions are not at all a part of the marriage question today. The marriage question today is about the nature of a natural and civil institution, not the moral quality or charitable fiber of individuals. We do all come as equals before the law. This doesn’t mean we can just marry whoever we want. Let’s not conflate those two statements.
The question that the Supreme Court must answer now is whether marriage is a gendered relationship. Is gender, like skin color or height or ethnicity or financial status, an accidental quality of marriage? Or is marriage essentially a gendered relationship because of the institution’s link to the procreating and raising of children?
The answer to the latter question has universally and perennially been yes up until the last half century. Perhaps there’s some wisdom in the world’s—and history’s—collective understanding of the purpose of marriage.
Patrick’s second claim—I don’t call it an argument because it’s more of an emotional appeal— is that his home state hasn’t been plagued by unnatural disasters since legalizing same-sex marriage.
Last I checked, not a single notable public defender of conjugal marriage has predicted an immediate fire and brimstone (or, sky-falling and ground-opening) destruction of marriage as the consequence of redefining marriage. Rather, it is argued that obliterating gender and sexuality from the cultural understanding of marriage will have disastrous long-term effects not only for the marriage culture but for the nation’s children.
Many progressives dismiss such a prophecy as ridiculously wide of the mark at best and downright disingenuous at worst.
But such dismissals and hand-waving commonly accompanied each of the previous cultural and legal steps our nation has taken to shatter the marriage culture one blow at a time; blows which, numerous empirical data have borne out conclusively, have crippled American life and society in myriad ways.
Through no-fault divorce, the explosion of the contraceptive mentality, an acceptance of abortion (and, as some of our high-profile politicians would have it, infanticide) as a “family practice” and “woman’s health choice,” and ideological movements that have separated spouses from each other and fathers from their children (at record rates), the American marriage culture has taken quite the hit. Only time will tell if the affirmation of same-sex romantic relationships as marriages will be detrimental to the marriage culture, but if recent history is any indication, departing further from the conjugal view will only bring worse results.
President Obama has publicly commented on the need for fathers to step up and be more responsible and present to their children and wives. Now he, along with many Americans, endorses a marriage policy that makes fathers and husbands optional.
Deval Patrick, we’re all ordinary people before the marriage law. That doesn’t entitle us to make extraordinary marriage claims. Let’s put your tired arguments to rest and cut to the chase: What are we talking about when we talk about marriage?