A Secular, Non-Religious Defence of Marriage Inequality

It should be obvious to all that the vast majority of objections to marriage equality for same-sex couples are motivated entirely by religious convictions. To a great many on the Religious Right, there is nothing wrong with this; God’s morality is universal and should be applied even to those who don’t believe in the Christian God, after all. Occasionally, however, they feel the need to justify themselves on secular grounds, and will frequently latch onto even the flimsiest of arguments so long as they are still coherent with all invocations of the Bible removed. These arguments are almost always laughably poor, and I’ve recently come across another courtesy of  The Pugnacious Irishman which does not buck the trend.

Gregory Koukl, writing on townhall.com, gives us Same-Sex Marriage – Challenges & Responses. We’re going in:

A few years ago, the L.A. Times quoted a homosexual mayor in New York State dismissing the cultural significance of same-sex marriage. “I’ve never heard of anyone’s life being destroyed because someone got married,” he sniffed. Reading this assertion charitably (he couldn’t have meant no one’s life was ever destroyed by marriage), I take it this government official was mystified by the idea that anything bad could come of men marrying men or women marrying women. I immediately knew I was listening to a man who didn’t understand a simple truth: Ideas have consequences. In the case of same-sex marriage, the consequences will be massive.

Note that the word ‘massive’ is not a synonym for ‘dire’. Keep that in mind.

First, changing the definition of marriage implies that marriage is just a matter of cultural definition. If so, then “marriage” is nothing in particular and can be restructured at the whim of the people. It’s privileges, protections, responsibilities, and moral obligations are all up for grabs. Even as I write, there are cases wending their way through courts in Utah challenging prohibitions on polygamy. Why not, if “marriage” is just a social construction?

Second, a marriage license for same-sex couples would be a governmental declaration that homosexual unions are no different than heterosexual unions in the eyes of the law. This, too, has consequences.

It will then be impossible to deny homosexuals full adoption rights. For the first time in the history of civilization a culture will declare that neither mothers nor fathers are essential components of parenthood; neither makes a uniquely valuable contribution. Same-sex marriage will deny children a right to a mother and a father.

So, for starters, motherhood, fatherhood, marriage, and family concepts foundational to any civilization are all at stake.

These are no small consequences.

Oof. Koukl has got us here, hasn’t he? The legalisation of same-sex marriage will imply that marriage is just a social construct (it is), that same-sex couples should be considered identical to heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law (they should), and that homosexuals should have full adoption rights (and they should). Civilization itself will crumble, presumably around the same time a cloud of shrieking bats descends from the heavens and rends the flesh from unrepentant sinners. Oh, sorry, we’re being non-sectarian here….

You may have noticed the underlying assumption which provides the basis for these ‘concerns’: that homosexual couples are not worthy to be seen equally with heterosexual ones. This rather blatant bit of prejudice is a running theme throughout the article, and I won’t bother pointing out every instance where it raises its ugly little head.

What follows is a point-by-point reply to those who are demanding this revision of civilization.

Revision of marriage, Koukl. Despite your hyperbole, this is not going to shatter society to pieces like a sledgehammer thrown through a plate glass window.

There are two complaints here. First, homosexuals don’t have the same legal liberties heterosexuals have. Second, homosexual couples don’t have the same legal benefits as married couples. The first charge is simply false. Any homosexual can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of the same sex. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally. I realize that for homosexuals this is a profoundly unsatisfying response, but it is a legitimate one, nonetheless. Let me illustrate. Smith and Jones both qualify to vote in America where they are citizens. Neither is allowed to vote in France. Jones, however, has no interest in U.S. politics; he’s partial to European concerns. Would Jones have a case if he complained, “Smith gets to vote [in California], but I don‚t[sic] get to vote [in France]. That‚s[sic] unequal protection under the law. He has a right I don’t have.” No, both have the same rights and the same restrictions. There is no legal inequality, only an inequality of desire, but that is not the state’s concern.

I shouldn’t need to point out why this analogy fails, but if you insist…

There is a very real, very sensible reason why Jones should not be able to vote in France: he doesn’t live in France. He’s not a citizen of France, presumably does not pay taxes in France, and has no particular stake in French politics beyond his own interest. The implication here is that same-sex couples are demanding something which they have no reasonable stake in, yet this isn’t the case; whereas Jones fulfills none of the requirements necessary to be allowed to vote in France, same-sex couples fulfill every single requirement for marriage bar one. Of course, Koukl would disagree with me by saying that same-sex couples cannot have children. I would respond to this by pointing out that the ability to have children is not a requirement for marriage; even if you argue that marriage as an institution exists for the purpose of facilitating procreation (and more on that later), the state’s willingness to grant a marriage license has absolutely nothing to do with the ability of a couple to reproduce.

The second complaint is more substantial. It’s true that homosexual couples do not have the same legal benefits as married heterosexuals regarding taxation, family leave, health care, hospital visitation, inheritance, etc. However, no other non-marital relationships between individuals – non-gay brothers, a pair of spinsters, college roommates, fraternity brothers – share those benefits, either. Why should they?

If homosexual couples face “unequal protection” in this area, so does every other pair of unmarried citizens who have deep, loving commitments to each other. Why should gays get preferential treatment just because they are sexually involved?

Koukl goes on to argue that the unique, defining point of a heterosexual couple is its ability to produce children, and that homosexual couples should therefore be exempt from the legal benefits of marriage. Let’s examine that idea a bit more closely:

It is true, as I have already said, that a heterosexual couple’s eligibility for marriage is not dependent on their ability to reproduce. A heterosexual couple also automatically qualifies for various legal benefits upon marriage even if one or both parties are sterile. It is also true that a non-married couple does not automatically qualify for these same benefits upon having children, nor does the fact of their having children in any way obligate them to marry.The conveyence of the legal benefits in question is reliant solely upon a couple being married; whether or not they have children, or whether they are capable of having children, is entirely beside the point.

Given this, does it make senst to exclude same-sex couples from the right to marry based on their inability to naturally produce children? No, it does not. Koukl begins his article with the intention of blowing apart the claim that the same arguments used against same-sex marriage could be applied to heterosexual couples who cannot (or do not) have childen, yet he’s simply reaffirming the hypocrisy inherent in applying these arguments to one situation and not the other.

Next up, another weak analogy! This time in reply to the objection that disallowing same-sex marriage is similar to disallowing inter-racial marriage.

This challenge has great rhetorical force, but it is a silly objection. Consider two men, one rich and one poor, seeking to withdraw money from their bank. The rich man is denied because his account is empty. However, on closer inspection, a clerk discovers an error, corrects it, and releases the cash. Next in line, the poor man is denied for the same reason: insufficient funds. “That’s the same thing you said about the last guy,” he snaps. “Yes,” the clerk replies. “We made a mistake with his account, but not with yours. You’re broke.”

I have to question whether Koukl actually thought this one through fully. The implication is that while prejudice against inter-racial marriage (and by extension non-white people) was wrong, prejudice against same-sex marriage (and by extension homosexuals) is perfectly acceptable. I would wager that Koukl would not hesitate in condemning racism, and would, like many, claim that it is more or less indefensible. Alas, prejudice against homosexuals is still very much a legitimate stance to take – perhaps if we give it a few more years?

Same-sex marriage and interracial marriage have nothing in common. There is no difference between a black and a white human being because skin color is morally trivial. There is an enormous difference, however, between a man and a woman. Ethnicity has no bearing on marriage. Sex is fundamental to marriage.

‘Morally trivial’? (I would have said ‘morally neutral’, but hey…) Should I assume that the ‘enormous difference’ between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage is a moral one, then? Koukl doesn’t say. Sex is indeed funamental to marriage as it stands now, but this is no reason to let things remain that way, unless one wishes to make fallacious appeals to tradition. Or, as we shall see later, unless marriage is an immutable aspect of human civilisation that we are totally unable to alter; rather than constructing its meaning ourselves, we must simply bow to its authority and be content to live within its confines. Unfortunately, that was a sneak-preview of what’s to come.

Columnist Ellen Goodman writes, “The state is on shaky ground when it tries to criminalize sexual relations of the consensual living arrangements of adults.” In San Francisco, a giddy newly “married” lesbian celebrates, “Now we’re not second-class citizens; now we can have a loving relationship like every other married couple we know.” Another opines, “Anybody who is in love and wants to spend the rest of their life together should be able to do it.” [emphasis added in all]

These remarks reflect a common misconception: Same-sex marriage will secure new liberties for homosexuals that have eluded them thus far. This will not happen because no personal liberty is being denied them. Gay couples can already do everything married people do – express love, set up housekeeping, share home ownership, have sex, raise children, commingle property, receive inheritance, and spend the rest of their lives together. It’s not criminal to do any of these things.

Here Koukl is being outright fallacious, by focusing on a fairly infrequently used argument in favour of same-sex marriage and pretending that it constitutes one of the cornerstones of the gay rights movement. I, along with most others like me,  have never argued that disallowing gay marriage somehow prevents GLBT people from having loving relationships – what I have argued is that disallowing gay marriage unfairly prevents same-sex couples from being given the same level of respect and validation by the state as every single heterosexual couple is entitled to.

Unfortunately, Koukl and his ilk seem to have a serious problem with this.

Same-sex marriage is not about civil rights. It’s about validation and social respect. It is a radical attempt at civil engineering using government muscle to strong-arm the people into accommodating a lifestyle many find deeply offensive, contrary to nature, socially destructive, and morally repugnant. Columnist Jeff Jacoby summed it up this way in The Boston Globe:

I’m not going to quote any more from this section, as to do so would lend some sort of credence to Koukl’s nauseating bigotry. I’ve written about this before, but is simply shameful that this kind of ignorance is still considered acceptable and even praiseworthy by so many people. Why are so many on the Religious Right so deeply horrified at the idea that same-sex couples deserve legitimacy and validation by the state? Where is this social destruction that Koukl speaks of? Should we look for it in the provision of more able parents for children in need of adoption? Will we find it in the establishment of the United States as a daring forerunner in human rights advancements? Or is he saying that the ‘gay lifestyle’ is in itself socially destructive? But surely that has nothing to do with the issue of gay marriage – as he himself is so keen to point out, this is not a fight for the legality of homosexuality. Whatever social woes same-sex couples contribute to (and I daresay he has a list of stereotypes in mind), the recognition of same-sex marriage will be entirely inconsequential in that regard.

Bringing up the concept of social and legal recognition at all is opening Pandora’s Box for Koukl, though, since it severely undermines his earlier assertion that marriage as an institution is concerned entirely with procreation. What he should have said was that social respect is inconsequential, thus reinforcing his argument that a same-sex couple’s inability to naturally produce children invalidates their entitlement to marriage rights. Instead he’s opened himself up to attack by tacitly agreeing that social respect and validation are factors, and that they should be witheld from homosexuals. Unfortunately, this view is simply indefensible. I leave him to his bigotry.

The state doesn’t care if the bride and groom love each other. There are no questions about a couple‚s affections when granting a license. No proof of passion is required. Why? Because marriage isn’t about love.

The state also does not care if the bride and groom can or will ever have children. Marriage isn’t about children. It occurs to me that much of the beginning of this post was pointless, as Koukl is incredibly keen to punch holes in his own arguments.

He also suggests that the grand instiution of marriage can retain its essence despite the existence throughout history of racially prejudiced, forced, underaged, arranged, loveless and polygamous marriages, but will apparently fall apart like a sheet of wet tissue paper if same-sex marriage is allowed. Uh…huh. I’m going to need a bit more justification on that, I’m afraid. The assertion that marriage is ‘for children’ comes up again – see above if you’ve forgotten what I already wrote on that. The rest of the article is more or less a variation on that theme, right up until the end, when things get really weird:

What is marriage? There are only two possible kinds of answers to this question: Either marriage and family have a fixed, natural purpose (a natural “teleology”) or they do not. If not, marriage is some kind of social construction, an invention of culture like knickers or bow ties, fashions that change with the times. Marriages defined by convention can be anything culture defines them to be. No particular detail is essential.

It is not possible, however, that marriage is a social construction. Here’s why.

Columnist Dennis Prager has observed, “Every higher civilization has defined marriage as an institution joining members of the opposite sex.” I agree with Prager’s position on marriage, though I take exception with one of his words.

I don’t think marriage has been defined by cultures. Rather, I think it has been described by them. The difference in terms is significant. If marriage is defined by culture, then it is merely a construction that culture is free to change when it desires. The definition may have been stable for millennia, yet it is still a convention and therefore subject to alteration. This is, in fact, the argument of those in favor of gay marriage.

The truth is, it is not culture that constructs marriages or the families that marriages begin. Rather, it is the other way around: Marriage and family construct culture. As the building blocks of civilization, families are logically prior to society as the parts are prior to the whole. Bricks aren’t the result of the building because the building is made up of bricks. You must have the first before you can get the second.

I can tell he’s bending over backwards in an effort to not involve the Bible here…

There seems to be a fundamental confusion between ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ at work here. Families could indeed be presented as the building blocks of society; however, that does not imply that there exists only a single, heterogenous definition of ‘family’. As Koukl has already pointed out, the legalisation of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with legalising monogamous, long-lasting relationships between people of the same sex. It is possible for two men or two women to live with each other and to raise children together (in that there is no law against it). Same-sex families exist, by any reasonable definition of ‘family’ and despite Koukl’s assertion that ‘marriage begins a family’. Whether the Religious Right likes it or not, American culture is already influenced by families that are outside the norm. It has already accepted their existence.

The institute of marriage is born out of culture, not the other way around. Functioning, content same-sex families exist, and it is natural to assume that the cultural definition of ‘marriage’ should be altered or added to based on that fact – particularly because, as I think I’ve made clear, the only real difference between ‘normal’ marriage and gay marriage is the sex of the participants. Do you think that same-sex families should be excluded from the activity of defining cultural norms? Tough; by their very existence, they have an influence.

Throughout this post I’ve been rather critical of Koukl, which may not seem justified based on what I’ve quoted so far. Unfortunately, he shows his true colours right at the end of his article. Keep in mind that the following is coming from an educated man, one who believes himself to be fighting for what is morally good and right. Emphasis mine:

Same-sex marriage is radically revisionist. It severs family from its roots, eviscerates marriage of any normative content, and robs children of a mother and a father. This must not happen.

Homosexuality is broadly tolerated in this country. Gays are allowed to pursue their “lifestyles” without reprisal, even to the point of forming committed, monogamous unions. They may not be universally respected or admired, but they have the liberty to live as they choose. This is all they have the right to demand.

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5 Responses to “A Secular, Non-Religious Defence of Marriage Inequality”


  1. 1 Rich Bordner December 23, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Augustine,

    Thanks for linking to my post! It wasn’t a very positive link, but in this case, any press is good press.

    I read your post, and most of what you bring up can either be answered by reading Koukl a bit more closely, or what I have to say in response will be brought up in the series starting tomorrow. No reason to say the same thing over and over again, so if you are curious as to what I think, just keep checking back daily…the last post in the series is scheduled to go up Friday. You are of course encouraged to comment.

  2. 2 augustine December 23, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I’ll check your blog, but I doubt that reading Koukl more closely is going to reveal some greater erudition behind his arguments. As you’ve noticed, I have little respect for him.


  1. 1 “Eviscerating”…?? « The Pugnacious Irishman Trackback on December 23, 2008 at 12:34 am
  2. 2 Same-Sex Marriage Conversation Part IV « The Pugnacious Irishman Trackback on December 24, 2008 at 8:18 pm
  3. 3 Imaginary Crimes « Nous Trackback on December 31, 2008 at 6:55 pm

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