My recent post “Virginity, Polyamory and the Limits of Pluralism” provoked more comments than any previous one. Almost all the comments latched on to a single sentence: “Once you legitimate same-sex marriage, you open the door to any number of alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman,” from polygamy to polyspecies. I prefaced this statement by saying that it provided empirical support to the warnings of conservative Cassandras (of whom I am not one), whether one agreed with their philosophy or not. When it comes to hot-button issues in the public discourse, nuanced positions are likely to be misunderstood. Thus my sentence was taken as, precisely, a conservative lament by both advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage (SSM). I am motivated to correct the misunderstanding.
My blog has been intended as a commentary to provide perspective on current religious and related developments, not as a platform for the propagation of my own religious and political views (though I have given some hints here and there). Commentary, especially if undertaken by a social scientist, is essentially value-neutral; religious or political propaganda, by definition, is not. But I promised in my very first post to give fair warning whenever I might cross the line from commentary to propaganda. Therefore:
WARNING: Parts of the following text are not value-neutral. (Parental discretion is advised – perhaps especially by conservative or same-sex parents.)
Putting the cart before the horse: I am in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, but mildly opposed to same-sex marriage. To borrow a term used by President Obama with regard to SSM, my view on this matter is “evolving”. It is based on empirical considerations, not on religion or moral philosophy.
Gays and me
My own sexual interests have always been parochially focused on women. I will not speculate as to whether this focus was inherited or acquired. It seems to be incurable. As a result, until my thirties I gave little thought to homosexuality, until I witnessed a scene which profoundly affected my attitude to this phenomenon. In 1959 I was on my first full-time job as a sociologist, teaching in North Carolina, when my attention was drawn to a court case in town. A middle-aged man, married and belonging to a prominent local family, was being tried for “sodomy” with a teenage boy. No coercion was involved and there was no record of previous offences. I was curious and attended the last session of the trial. The defendant was sentenced to prison for twenty to fifty years. I happened to look at his mother when the sentence was pronounced. I had one overwhelming reaction: This is barbaric!
I have had no reason to change my mind ever since. A few years later, in my book Invitation to Sociology (published in 1963), I discussed the moral implications of the perception of the human condition fostered by sociology—one of great precariousness, which is very often obscured by the false certainties of official ideologies. I proposed that opposition to the persecution of homosexuals was one of the moral implications (along with opposition to any form of racism and to the death penalty). I had an instinctive empathy with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when for the first time there was resistance against the then-common police raids of gay bars in New York City. Since then there has been a very great shift both in public opinion and in the law in this country (and in Europe—alas, not everywhere else). I regard this shift as a very good thing—an overcoming of the barbarism of earlier times, as exhibited, for example, in the inhuman punishment of Oscar Wilde, by all accounts a kindly man, and a law-abiding one—except for the “sodomy” statutes then in force.
My empathy with gays and their struggle has not led me to an uncritical admiration of the gay movement. I don’t much admire any movement. I have the gut feeling that any demonstration can momentarily turn into a lynch mob—and that I would be a likely target. Gay Pride Parades are rather unattractive events, though no more so than the Love Parades (which have become especially favored in Germany). I believe that people should celebrate their genitalia, however oriented, in private. When it comes to the gay movement, I am reminded of a comment supposedly made by Winston Churchill when he was introduced to a Tory politician who had been caught in flagrante delicto with a young man: “Ah, so you are the chap who gave buggery a bad name!”
I also regret that the gay movement (though not necessarily all gay individuals) have come to be identified with the “progressive” side of the political spectrum. This may have been inevitable, given the initially counter-cultural character of the gay rebellion. However, there is no intrinsic reason why gays and lesbians should be on the left politically. Oscar Wilde did indeed write a (rather puerile) essay in defense of what he called “socialism”, but he exhibited a deeply conservative instinct in his comment—“The trouble with socialism is that it takes away all your free evenings”.
I consider myself a conservative politically. It is a conservatism based on pessimism, not on faith. It is skeptical of rapid change, because such change is frequently for the worse, and it is doubly skeptical of all utopian visions of a perfect society, which are very likely to lead to tyrannies. This type of philosophical conservatism makes one to favor reform rather than revolution, gradual change rather than dramatic transformation. It does not always lead to the embrace of agendas labeled “conservative” in contemporary American politics, though my assessment of the empirical realities makes me favor the market over the state in many contentious issues. I have for many years now maintained my party registration as a Republican (often while holding my nose). Being a registered Republican in Brookline, Massachusetts, is comparable to being a Zionist in Saudi Arabia.
I am a Lutheran, though hardly an orthodox one. People who find out that I am politically conservative, but theologically liberal, get seasick: if they like my politics, they are baffled by my theology, and vice versa. While I would be unable to subscribe to the full text of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, there are key elements of Lutheranism that continue to appeal to me. One of them is the distinction between Law and Gospel. Everything we call “society” and “politics” falls under the category of Law—to be approached responsibly and prudently, not in the high tones of prophecy. The Law is not part of the redemptive process, the Gospel does not provide inerrant rules for the order of society. Accordingly, the Lutheran Reformation declared marriage not to be a sacrament of the church. It belonged to the realm of Law, not of Gospel. It seems that marriages were not celebrated in church in the early days of the Reformation. A marriage was constituted by the act of the two individuals setting up a common household, not by any act performed by clergy—after the act by the couple had already occurred, it was blessed by a minister outside the walls of the church. Therefore, marriage is not to be understood as a sacred entity, but rather as a socially useful and morally acceptable institution—as such subject to prudential considerations. I find this a very helpful way of thinking about it.
What is “traditional marriage”?
Religious conservatives like to apply this phrase to what was the conventional view of marriage until the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. They also contend that this is the Biblical view—a very questionable contention. The Hebrew Bible does indeed declare that God created the human race as consisting of the two sexes, and the legal codes apply terrible penalties for adultery and homosexual relations. But the status of women is hardly that envisaged by modern convention, as most dramatically shown by the Tenth Commandment, which enjoins a man not to covet “your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s”. In other words, a wife is property, even if somewhat ahead of oxen and donkeys in the list of possessions. Jesus did not have much to say about marriage, though he was against divorce, said that there would be no marriage after the resurrection of the dead, and performed one of his miracles at a wedding. As to the apostle Paul, he was quite a misogynist, but he thought that to marry was better than “to burn”—not exactly a ringing endorsement. To be sure, one can make the argument that implicit in the Biblical worldview is an understanding of the ultimate equality of all human beings, and that this eventually led to the egalitarian ideals of the modern West—including an egalitarian ideal of the status of women in the family and in society. But that is a long cry from claiming a Biblical mandate for what Jack and Jill have in mind when they march to the altar in contemporary America.
Yes, what they have in mind is “traditional”—as long as one understands that the tradition goes back to the late eighteenth century or thereabouts. It is the tradition of bourgeois marriage. For reasons that cannot possibly be developed here, the rising bourgeoisie created a vision and then a social reality of marriage as an institution in which women were no longer a possession but a partner, in which the married couple set up a household separate from wider kin (the “nuclear family”), where the spouses were ideally bound together by romantic love, and where children were regarded as very special beings with distinctive rights. That is what conservative rhetoric refers to when it speaks of “traditional marriage”.
Marital disclosure of my own: Much of what I know about this phenomenon I have learned from Brigitte Berger, who is my wife, but (more relevant here) is also a sociologist. For many years she worked on the sociology of the family (a field that came to be swallowed up by an ideological enterprise called “gender studies”). She is the senior author of a book we wrote together, precisely in defense of the bourgeois family—The War over the Family (1984)—and she summed up much of her work in her monograph The Family in the Modern Age (2002). Her argument is multifaceted, but its central message can be summed up succinctly: The bourgeois family was an important causal factor in the genesis of the modern world in Europe and continues to be that globally. The main reason for this is its relation to individuation. This type of family, in contrast with other types, is conducive to the formation of autonomous individuals, who are the agents of modernization. Such individuals, among other things, are essential to the functioning of democracy. The bourgeois family is a school for democracy. One will regard this as a virtue insofar as one values freedom. We do!
Why “civil unions”?
The idea of civil unions came out of the intention to meet the legitimate grievances of gay and lesbian couples with regard to a whole array of personal status issues—insurance, pensions, inheritance, visitation rights and medical guardianship, the right not to testify against a spouse. I am in favor of almost all of these. As far as I know, most cases of civil-union legislation provide partners the same rights as have long been given to heterosexual spouses. Why then not give up this (putatively discriminatory) terminology and simply speak of “marriage”? Is the distinction merely symbolic? It probably is. But the symbolism is not insignificant. Advocates of SSM want the term “marriage” enshrined in law, so as to provide a solemn affirmation by the society that the homosexual lifestyle is morally legitimate. Opponents want to reserve the term to “traditional marriage”, even if they are willing to accept civil unions, because they want to affirm a privileged status to the former. Andrew Sullivan, who is openly gay and describes himself as a conservative, has argued that conservatives should be in favor of SSM because it promotes the virtues of stability, responsibility, fidelity—all distinctly conservatives values. Put differently, Sullivan sees SSM as a way for homosexuals to become part of the bourgeois family.
Why then not simply accept the idea of same-sex marriage?
I would stipulate that the democratic state has no business to interfere with the sexual activities of consenting adults—not to defend supposedly traditional values, nor to promote radical changes. But there is one very important exception to such a libertarian role of the state: when children are part of the picture. Society has a vital interest in the raising and the welfare of children—its future depends on it. A democratic state also has an important interest in children being raised in such a way as to become adults capable of acting as responsible citizens. I think it follows that the democratic state has an important interest in the values linked to the bourgeois family. The intriguing question is whether Sullivan is correct in his view that legalizing SSM would do just that. I think the short answer is that we don’t know—at least not yet.
It is not a rare situation that public policy has to be made in the absence of conclusive information. In that case the responsible politician or legislator can only assess what we do know, and then, if he must act, do so as best as he can. What do we know about children being raised in different circumstances? And what can we reasonably surmise?
There is very strong empirical evidence that children raised in single-parent households suffer considerable disadvantages—in terms of physical and psychological health, educational achievement, social mobility and avoidance of delinquency. The majority of single parents are women, but I don’t know of any evidence that gender makes a difference here. Anyone who has ever raised children will not be surprised by this finding. Two persons who love and take care of a child are obviously more effective than only one. This will be true of any two persons, but the law gives priority to the two natural parents and, if that is not possible, to one of the two. This preference is important in cases of adoption and custody, though American law gives latitude to courts to make decisions based on the best interests of the child. The law here agrees with common sense: the presumption is that, normally, nobody loves a child more than its mother and father. It follows that it is best for a child to be in the care of its natural parents, next best of two loving adults, next best of one loving adult, and only then in the care of temporary foster parents or institutions.
But does it make a difference if the two caring adults are of the same gender? As far as I am aware, there is insufficient evidence on this. Some studies have suggested that children raised by such couples suffer no disadvantages. Some psychologists have argued that it is important for children to have both a father and a mother as role models—a proposition that also seems to reflect common sense. It seems to me that the available empirical evidence does not allow any confident assertions either way. In this context it is useful to recall that common sense is frequently wrong. In graduate school my instructor in methodology used to start the course with a list of commonsensical propositions, which everyone agreed were obviously true. He then cited research that showed the propositions to be false. If nothing else, the state of our knowledge about children of same-sex couples suggests hesitancy and caution.
A very tentative policy recommendation
Minimally, one should refrain from confident assertions either way. Federalism suggests that states should be free to go their own way in this matter, making possible different experiments over time. Conservatives contradict themselves here: Many of them want an amendment to the U.S. constitution defining marriage in “traditional” ways, while they also want to leave abortion to the states.
But the symbolic weight of the term “marriage” is very important for both parties to this dispute. This accounts for the passionate character of the dispute. It seems to me that it would be useful to take the symbolism out of the practical policy issue.
There is no reason why government, on any level, should be involved in the symbolic definition of private relationships beyond the protection of children. Let the term “marriage” be left out of the law completely, with individuals and religious communities allowed to define it in accordance with their own beliefs. If, say, two individuals want to be married in accordance with Catholic moral doctrine, they have the absolute first-amendment right to do so, as do two agnostics who want to cohabit with no ceremonial credentials whatever. Government has no business to interfere. The law should only recognize, register and regulate civil unions, in the same way as all other contracts between individuals. But there would be two categories of civil unions: category A, where only adults are involved, and category B, where there are children. Needless to say, the regulations governing category B would be much more stringent (for instance, with regard to the ease of dissolution). Of course there would be numerous legal issues to be decided, be it by way of legislation or litigation. A society crawling with bright lawyers as ours does would not have to worry about this. And one of the most divisive battles in the so-called culture war would be defanged. Much of this battle revolves about the emotional freight of the very word “marriage”. Advocates of SSM want to wrap themselves in its emotional warmth. Opponents, even if they might accept civil unions, are deeply offended if a word they consider sacred is applied to something which, to them, is definitely not sacred. I think that advocates, if they get just about everything they want in practice, might consider it politically useful if they made this, as it were, terminological sacrifice, to avoid giving offence to what is very likely a majority of the American people.
I have no illusions about the likelihood of such a policy being realized. Activists on both sides would agitate against it. And I assume that many readers of my blog would also be agitated. But there is a sliver of possibility here: We do have empirical evidence to the effect that the majority of Americans are somewhere in the middle concerning below-the-navel issues. Politicians who share such a middle position are constrained by the primary system, which vastly enhances the power of activists. Some politicians manage to play the system.