This used to be the one hot-button political issue I really didn’t care to talk about. My position on the matter could best be summarized with an apathetic shrug. I had liberal friends in college who fought passionately for gay marriage, convinced their cause was the next great civil rights battle. I had members of my family and church who fought passionately against it. I didn’t really care either way. Could we just change the subject, please?
It’s not that I was afraid to offend someone or uninterested in moral debates. Since I was in middle school, I have been willing to debate the pro-life position with anyone, at anytime, unafraid of how unpopular my defense of unborn life might be. I had the power of the Truth, capital T, behind me. I knew abortion was wrong, and I knew it mattered. Innocent lives hung in the balance, and refusing to speak up for the voiceless was something I wouldn’t contemplate.
But as the debate over gay marriage heated up and the tide of public opinion began to coalesce around the idea, my apathy turned to discomfort. As a libertarian-minded conservative, I didn’t like the government telling people what they couldn’t do. It was hard to answer the question of: why can’t a same sex couple marry?
I had several answers to the question of: why can’t a woman abort her child? The logic was easy, not because I was an expert in ethics, but because the fact that an unborn baby is a human life is obvious even to children and has been proven over and over again by science. One could quote scripture or get into the theology of the issue, but to do so was not strictly necessary. But every argument against gay marriage sounded judgmental or hypocritical or hopelessly dated.
I didn’t come around to the importance of the issue until I myself was married with children, until I learned that love is not a feeling but a commitment that requires sacrifice. Even then, it took a few years for me to be able to articulate my stance on the issue. That’s when I realized that the logic was off because the question was wrong. Instead of asking “Why can’t a gay couple marry?” I should have been asking, “What is marriage, and what is its purpose?”
The first phrasing puts all the burden of proof on the traditional marriage side. Gay marriage is good until you can prove it is not. It also sets you up to deny someone something they want. Once you start denying someone something they claim as a right, you put yourself in the camp of the 1950s segregationists who fought to keep blacks and whites from attending the same schools, much less marrying. It is the wrong way to approach the question.
So let’s return to the second phrasing, the one that should be at the heart of any policy debate. What is marriage, and what is its purpose?
Unfortunately, our culture seems to have forgotten the truth about the essence and purpose of marriage. Many today would answer that marriage is just a committed relationship between two people, the purpose of which is simply to make each other happy.
And what is the result of this misconception? People marry and divorce at will. Some have kids, others don’t. Some live together and have children without marrying. They stay together for a few years, until one party leaves or something better comes along. Our culture encourages the relentless pursuit of each individual’s pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment. When my partner no longer meets my needs, I move on to someone who can. The so-called “modern family” is a hodgepodge of people whose lives are thrown together for the time being by a series of circumstances. Fathers are absent and seem unnecessary. Where there is a breakdown in the ability to provide for women and children, the government steps in to pick up the slack.
So, what is marriage really, and what is its purpose? I would offer that marriage is a permanent monogamous commitment between a man and a woman for the purpose of creating and raising children. This legal definition is broad enough to encompass members of all the major world religions as well as people who are not religious. According to my faith, marriage is also a sacrament made in the presence of God (and thus, God is present in marriage). The purpose of Christian marriage is also to help the other person grow in Christ’s love in a way that only someone of the opposite sex can.
Traditional marriage respects the fact that men and women are fundamentally different in their natures. This is not to say that one is superior and one is inferior. It is not to return to 1950s stereotypes or deny women career opportunities. It merely acknowledges a biological reality. Men help women learn to nurture and care for others, while women help men learn to protect and provide. Without marriage, neither man nor woman can truly develop these gifts to their fullest. The instincts to nurture and protect lie deep within our DNA, but they need to be awakened or activated. Having a wife and a family inspire men to make sacrifices for their well-being and safety. A married man would go to war to defend his wife and children. He would work long hours of hard labor to ensure they are well-fed and sheltered. That same man, in the absence of a family, might decide to pursue his own well-being and pleasure instead.
Now, a few caveats. I mean no disrespect to single people. There are many single men and women who are very nurturing and brave in the absence of marriage. Most of us, however, need a little encouragement if we are to reach our true potential. I was not a particularly nurturing person before I met my husband and had children. I am still independent and strong-willed (and on my bad days selfish and oblivious), but I am now able to recognize and respond to the needs of others in a way that I never was before marriage. Likewise, my husband saw his protective instincts surge after the birth of our sons, and he started working twice as hard.
It used to be obvious that the creation of children required a man and a woman. Modern science has separated sex from procreation in a way that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. A woman can now go to a sperm donor and be inseminated with the DNA of a complete stranger. But even if science has given us the ability to create life outside of the act of love, years of research in the social sciences and numerous studies have failed to deliver a law as well-supported as this: Nothing is better for the long-term mental, emotional, and financial well-being of a child than to be raised by a married mother and father. Here are 30 simple statistics to support this. Also, it is becoming well-documented that growing up without a father is much more harmful to boys than girls. See here and here.
Again for the caveats. There are many couples who struggle with fertility issues and for one reason or another cannot have biological children. Some may choose to adopt, while others may assist in the raising of nieces and nephews. The inability to have children does not make a marriage less valid, as it still serves the first purpose of helping one’s spouse grow in Christ and contributes to society in numerous ways.
To state the basic truth that children do best in households with a married mother and father once again runs the risk of sounding outdated and judgmental. What about all the single moms who are doing their best? President Obama likes to point out that he himself was raised by grandparents and a single mom, and yet he rose to the highest office in the land. Yet he has also acknowledged that he would have liked to have had a father around. What child wouldn’t? Single parents or grandparents raising children are doing admirable work. But they will be the first to admit that there are difficulties in having to be both mom and dad, the nurturer and the provider at once. For a gay couple to make the decision to create a human life outside of the bond of marital love, a child that will never know a mother and/or father, for the purposes of fulfilling their own desires and needs, fundamentally misses the point. The marriage exists to serve the children; the children do not exist to serve the needs of the individuals in the marriage.
So, back to the marriage debate. When people say that a man should be able to marry another man, or a woman marry another woman, they are proposing a radical redefinition of the very understanding of marriage. The burden of proof should be on them to explain how this is even possible. If marriage is understood as a committed monogamous permanent relationship between a man and a woman, then “gay marriage” makes as much sense as a “male girl” or a “married bachelor.” By definition, it isn’t possible. To say so does not reflect “hatred” or “prejudice.”
I decided to finally write my opinion on this for two audiences.
First, for my liberal friends, especially those who are not religious. I do not expect to convince you to support traditional marriage. But you should not look at all traditional marriage supporters as bigots or homophobes. You should not push the Christian religion into the same camp as the KKK. Please respect that our position comes from our deeply held religious beliefs that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. We will fight the political battle over what our government should recognize as a marriage, but let’s not demonize the other side or impugn their motives. You should be able to eat a Chick-Fil-A sandwich without feeling like you are aiding the enemy.
Second, for my conservative and religious friends. Don’t get stuck in the trap of trying to explain why gay people shouldn’t be able to marry. Instead, steer the conversation to the essence and purpose of marriage. It makes me sad that a friend once felt the need on Facebook to post something along the lines of “I’m a Christian, but I don’t hate gay people.” When you say things like that, it gives credence to the lie that all Christians are hateful and homophobic until otherwise proven. Surely there are some who are, but they are a minority. You can support your gay friends and still defend traditional marriage. Laws can be passed against discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and allowing committed gay couples to visit each other in hospital rooms without redefining marriage.
Why does the marriage debate matter? I think most of the “same-sex” or “marriage equality” crowd are committed idealists who believe in what they are fighting for. Some have bought the argument that opposing gay marriage is tantamount to opposing interracial marriage (which is false). Some are themselves homosexual and seeking the affirmation of their peers. But I fear that there are some liberals and secularists who seek to use the gay marriage issue to undermine Christianity. The scary truth is, it’s working. And as Christians, this should concern us. Some have taken Jefferson’s prescription for a “wall of separation between Church and state” to argue that religion has no place in our laws or institutions, something our founders never intended. This misreading would pit the First Amendment against itself, as Christians would have their free speech violated. But the idea of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman is not unique to Christianity. It is as old as society itself and predates civilization.
Love is not a fleeting emotion. It is a commitment; it is a sacrifice. Love helps us grow as individuals and holds us together as a society. Love has both a soft and a hard nature, the nurturing love of a mother and the stern at times but always protecting love of a father. Supporters of traditional marriage must base our defense of the institution in this love, and in God’s love for us—all of us, regardless of sexual orientation. Hatred of any kind has no place in it.