As concerned as I am about marriage and the family in general, there is something about the same-sex “marriage” (SSM) issue that troubles me even more. It’s a worldview issue to the very core, and it goes even deeper than SSM. I can explain it best, though, by starting from there.
Definitions, Feelings, and Empathy
The leading supporters of man-woman marriage focus on the definition question: “What is marriage?” The other side typically comes at the question from the perspective, “How do you think it would feel to be in the gay person’s shoes?” There’s no better illustration of this difference than Ryan Anderson’s recent encounter with Piers Morgan and Suze Orman.
Empathy is essential, and for men or women who have never felt any homosexual attraction, it’s difficult. We would all do well to ask, and to try to understand, how it might feel to be told that our deepest relationships are not endorsable as others’ are. It’s an exercise that can help bring us together in caring and common humanity. At its best, empathy can motivate us to seek out the best possible decisions for all concerned.
Feelings vs. Policy
But the question at hand isn’t, How should we feel about marriage? or How should we feel about homosexuals being united in marriage? Those are great questions, but they’re not on any ballot or any court docket, nor could they be. The legal issue isn’t feelings, but what marriage is or ought to be.
Note the implication that there actually might be some right and true way for marriage to be; and if there is, we ought to bring law and policy into conformity with that standard. From there the question forks. It either moves toward, What is marriage? for those who think there may be some real answer to that question; or else for those who are unsure of that, then it might move toward, What should marriage be? For What should marriage be? is inescapable in this debate. Indeed, it’s the whole point of it all.
What Marriage Is
Now, either there is something that marriage really is (or ought to be), or there is not. Defenders of traditional marriage, such as myself hold that marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman, uniting them as a couple, as founders of a family, and as parents building the next generation. Judeo-Christian defenders of marriage add that it is this way by God’s creative decree.
So therefore we may look to natural law, as best exemplified in Girgis, Anderson, and George’s "What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense," where we can find an is statement, a definition of marriage, that’s grounded in what it means to be human. It’s a stable, solid, transcendent answer, not dependent on cultural or personal preferences. The same kind of transcendent definitional approach comes through explicitly in Scripture.
Or What We Feel Marriage Might Be
But that’s a far cry from the way many are approaching the debate. I do not mean that SSM defenders offer no marriage definitions at all, but that their definitions’ boundaries cannot be maintained by principle-based reasoning. (I wrote about this in my last column here.) So for example, when asked whether SSM opens the doors to polygamy (as some already insist), polyamory, and incestuous marriages, the answer typically runs along the lines of, "No, that’s not what we’re talking about. We don’t want that, and we have no intention of that happening." The language is that of preference, not of principle.
This is characteristic of SSM proponents. It’s not universal: I’m aware of attempts at principle-based boundary definitions around marriage. These attempts are unsuccessful in my view; and more to the point here, they’re out of the mainstream of debate. Far more often, the tack SSM supporters take is to attack traditional definitions of marriage as arbitrary rather than to provide their own; or when they do, they set boundaries that they’re unable to defend other than through current perceived preferences.
Two Approaches to Law and Policy
Now, if I am right, and there are only two approaches to choose from in this debate (either transcendent-truth-based or feelings/preference-based), then have we only two principles on which we could conceivably settle the policy questions we’re wrestling over. We could try to decide according to some true and transcendent answer to What is marriage, or what should it be?, or else we must decide according to the aggregate feelings and preferences of the culture.
SSM proponents seem to doubt the former approach is possible: that there is any such thing as a true and transcendent answer. They can doubt that all they want, for this I know, with no possibility of dispute: The latter approach cannot succeed. There is no such thing as the aggregate feelings and preferences of the culture. There is no basis for agreement there.
Please let me be clear on that, even if it means being redundant. If there is no transcendent truth to guide us, then there is no basis for agreement.
And yet the dispute is on, and we must come to agreement. Citizens and legislators must vote. Courts must decide. Laws will be enacted, ostensibly as the will of the people. But if there is no basis for agreement, where does that leave the will of the people?
Again: We could approach the debate by coming together to work on the question, What is true about marriage? Even if it’s a tough question to tackle together, there can be something humanizing and uniting about the attempt.
If that option isn’t on the table, then that leaves feelings and preferences, which could only be divisive. Humans feel a million different ways about marriage, and there’s no sensible way even to think about adjudicating between them. But we can’t enshrine a million different feelings in law. Each jurisdiction can only have one legal definition, which means one set of feelings will win, and others will lose.
Transcendent Truth or Raw Power?
In sum, either there exists a principle of truth to guide us through debate together, or the victory goes to whoever most effectively wields power. In practice this power rarely takes the form of physical coercion, yet it is hardly less raw than that: clamor, name-calling, accusations of hate and phobia, disgust, contempt, manipulations, and propaganda—all for the purpose of winning for our side (there is some of this on each side) and whipping the other down.
And where does that leave empathy? Do you see now that, important as feelings are for living together as humans in a shared world, they could never be an adequate foundation for policy? To commit to decide according to feelings is to commit to decide by a clash of power.
To their credit, the best leaders on the man-woman marriage side of the debate reject that approach. Again I refer you to Ryan Anderson making the case for man-woman marriage, in contrast to Piers Morgan and Suze Orman speaking (sometimes shouting) their feelings about it all.
The Larger Problem of Which Marriage Is a Symptom
And now I hope you can see what concerns me above all in the marriage debate. It is a symptom of a larger problem, our most glaring indicator of what we are about to lose: the very basis of civil, democratic decision-making, built on transcendent truth rather than battles over particular preferences.
Feelings-based debates cannot unite us. SSM defenders, if you win that way, you will do it by undermining the democratic society that permits you to conduct the battle. I can’t believe you really want that.
Image courtesy of Snopes.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.