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Criticizing a (Reluctant) Conservative Christian Argument For Same Sex Marriage

July 1st, 2008 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

John Schwenkler argues from a conservative Christian standpoint that resisting homosexual marriage does more harm than good:

What are the realities that make this so? They stem, I think, from the fact that in a society like ours, where the common understanding of marriage has been thoroughly contractualized and that of sexuality profaned, any political measures that treat some sorts of monogamously sexual relationships between consenting adults in different terms than they treat others are going to be perceived by a considerable portion of the population as – in e.g. the terms of the challenge that Helen was responding to – bigoted, and therefore will give rise to huge amounts of (both real and felt) hostility and resentment that make for the kind of societal division and unrest that should be avoided when possible. Much as some of the more “in-your-face” tactics of agitators for homosexual privileges have ultimately set back their cause by making other segments of society feel threatened in ways that they frankly are not, religious and traditional conservatives who persist in their refusal to recognize the civic legitimacy of same-sex marriage in this particular culture and at this particular time cannot but give rise to the (only sometimes accurate) perception that they are a group which does not only hate the sin, but despises the sinner as well. Even if – and I think this is quite a big “if” – this arrangement also has the outcome of contributing to the preservation of the traditional institution of marriage and/or discouraging immoral sexual conduct, the negative effects of the social discord it breeds seems to me easily to outweigh such benefits.

Put slightly differently and perhaps a bit more strongly, the point is that our public understandings of marriage, gender, sexuality, and the family already have changed in many of the ways Helen is worrying about (though the complementarity of gender has not gone away), and the proper conservative response to this should be to find a way to incorporate the growing public acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex unions within a set of cultural and political arrangements that recognize, and indeed “defend”, the particular goods of procreative marriage and traditional sexual mores. (Exactly what this would come to is a question for another day; suffice it to say that the rights of religious traditions to discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct should remain firmly intact.) That the state has an inescapable role to play in helping to form the moral attitudes of the citizenry and encourage certain ways of living at the expense of others seems undeniable; it cannot, however, do this effectively if it is perceived by crucial segments of the population as an alienating and unsympathetic force for repression. There are kinder, gentler ways to shape private opinion than preserving a bit of the legal code whose underlying rationale is frankly a thing of the past, and the hostilities that such laws engender should themselves be reason enough to aim for a middle way.

A critique: for one, Schwenkler fails to articulate any of the negative effects such social discord might cause, or even what makes them more undesirable than the goods of preserving traditional marriage.

Secondly, Schwenkler has, it seems, a low view of the homosexual community. Implicit in his argument is that homosexuals will inevitably be embittered against those who resist their “right” to marriage, regardless of the reason for their resistance. Hopefully, that won’t be the case: in a secular democracy, the rule of law is often shaped by the will of the people. If the only recourse of those who champion homosexual marriage is to drown out the opposition with cries of bigotry, then they have a shoddy intellectual foundation for governing indeed. I should think they can do and have done better than that.

Finally, I am skeptical that the bitterness toward Christian conservatives which exists because of our resistance to the “civic legitimacy of same-sex marriage in this particular culture and at this particular time” will cease once civic legitimacy is gained. If Schwenkler’s analysis of the homosexual community is right, and they fail to understand that bigotry is not the rationale for resisting homosexual marriage, then I do not see why they will cease to see us as bigoted once their marriages have gained civic legitimacy. The issue of sin and sinner will not go away, and while Christian conservatives have sadly (not to mention sinfully) often failed to distinguish the two, the grounds for viewing us as bigoted will remain. If resisting political homosexual marriage is bigoted and leads to social unrest, I fail to see how resisting private homosexual marriage (by not sanctioning it in our churches, youth groups, clubs, marriage counseling practices, etc.) will do any other. But the imperialist nature of homosexual marriage is precisely the religious conservatives concern.

Schwenkler anticipates the concern, but doesn’t articulate (unfortunately) how he would avoid it. I, for one, would be curious to read his thoughts.