I Support the Minnesota Marriage Amendment

I had planned to spend tonight, the last night before the election, finally talking about Minnesota’s Voter ID Amendment, explaining why requiring photographic identification is a wise policy and why the arguments against the amendment are (as I was planning to call them) “nutso go-crazy,” being based largely on wild distortions of the truth or (at times) outright lies.  I was looking forward to this.  Between the Photo ID Amendment and the Marriage Amendment, Photo ID is a lot easier to talk about.  The public goods at stake are obvious, the harms well-documented, the facts clear to anyone informed, and the frank malevolence of those orchestrating the dishonest campaign against it fairly obvious. It is, above all, an amendment whose purpose neatly aligns with common sense, and it is much easier to persuade a voter if your argument is not merely true, but also commonsensical.

The marriage amendment is also a common-sense measure… but it is the common sense of a generation that died several decades ago, which is not very helpful.  This, by the by, is why you should always be wary of common sense: common sense changes, dramatically and quickly.  What is “obvious” to “most people” is not only wrong, as often as not, but quite often very evil – and proved evil in very short order.

However, in the waning hours of election season, my good friend David Allender finally got around to posting his critique of the marriage amendment, in response to another article, by my friend Michael Blissenbach, published in support of the amendment.  Unfortunately for my planned article on voter ID, David’s piece was thoughtful, lucid, and – if my Facebook feed is any indication – persuasive.  There was nothing for it: I would have to reply, and before election day.  Worse, I would have to do what I have carefully avoided doing throughout the entire campaign: I will explicitly endorse the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.  I don’t just think the amendment is merely defensible, which is as far as I have been willing to go before now. I think the present definition of marriage is good public policy, and I further believe that the peril in which our judicial branch has placed that definition justifies a defensive constitutional amendment.  I will be voting yes to the amendment on Tuesday, and I encourage you to do the same.

Mr. Allender is a former debater, so his argument is neatly broken down into clearly defined, individually argued points.  I prefer the more literary, free-flowing style I normally use, but, in order to make my case as clearly as possible, I will reply to Mr. Allender’s argument point-by-point, as he is accustomed.  Still, I encourage you to read his piece in its entirety before coming to mine.  I also apologize if any of my responses seem rushed or not well-edited; while Mr. Allender spent several weeks on his piece, I had only about 30 hours between the publication of his piece and the opening of the polls here in Minnesota.  My 6,000 words are, by necessity, a bit of a rush job.  I reserve the right to tighten it up on future revisions; I will note these revisions if and when they are made.

I wish to note at the outset that Mr. Allender sets a very high bar for himself in his opening statement.  He accuses marriage amendment supporters of perpetrating “a particular kind of violence” on their opponents (by “impos[ing] ideas” without sufficient justification), then states that the arguments in favor of the amendment are “so flawed, so full of premises that are both quite controversial and blatantly false, that it typically only takes a matter of seconds to recognize them as what they are: malarkey.”  Not only are we wrong, Mr. Allender argues; we who support the amendment are both violent and transparently mendacious.  These are very strong words, and with strong accusations come high burdens of proof.  If Mr. Allender’s case is not merely correct but absolutely airtight, then he has done his state a disservice and his friends a serious injustice.

Unfortunately, Mr. Allender is not alone in this claim. When facing this specific issue, it has become  commonplace for those who normally style themselves the guardians of civil and reasoned public discourse to attack their opponents as not simply mistaken, but malicious, presuming them to be motivated entirely by bigotry.  (The irony of this accusation is entirely lost on these bad actors.) I was disappointed to see my friend David (and, it appeared, my friend Joseph) join their ranks with this piece.  Fortunately, unlike many in their camp, David and Joseph remain willing to discuss the matter seriously – even as they argue that having the temerity to disagree with them is proof of our bigotry and hatred.  Still, as long as there are people like them willing to continue the conversation, I have hope, both for marriage and for our nation.

In this piece, I intend to show that the marriage amendment is a wise public policy choice, and hope to persuade my readers to cast their votes for it.  However, failing that, I intend at least to show that Mr. Allender’s charge that no person of normal mental competence could rationally support the marriage amendment is entirely unfair.

Mr. Allender begins by striking right at the core of the pro-amendment case: our claim that “…[t]he government recognizes marriage between a man and a woman because they can produce children,” as he puts it.  He insists that this is “plainly false” for five reasons:

  1. It begs the question.  The mere fact that government currently uses the civil institution of marriage to promote something does not imply that this is the best use of the state’s power.
  2. Relatedly, the claim that government’s interest in marriage is procreative “operates under the false assumption that society’s laws and institutions have intrinsic purposes… We can change the purposes of institutions because it is we who give them purpose and so this decision is morally evaluable.”
  3. Sterile people and those who do not intend to have children may marry.  Are these people cheats?  Are they welfare queens?  Or does the state not care about reproduction at all?  Mr. Allender suggests the latter.
  4. Married people receive “additional benefits beyond those that are useful for raising children,” and these benefits (such as the notorious hospital visitation right) seem reasonable and just.  “If it were [true]… that teens oughtn’t drive with other people in the car,” Mr. Allender argues, “you still wouldn’t ban their owning cars in the name of taking away the extra seating.”
  5. Relatedly, “Society gains… little, maybe nothing, from the withholding of marriage rights while others are made to suffer from this withholding.”
  6. It is possible that one day in the near future, same-sex couples will be able to reproduce.  “It doesn’t make sense to pass an amendment… because only a man and a woman can reproduce when this might not be the case a decade from now.”

That is quite a lot of ground to cover!  Yet, oddly, he not only fails to prove his case against the pro-amendment position; he never even begins it.  The proposition, “The government recognizes marriage because of its procreative function” is an empirical one, and it can be readily proved by consulting our government.  In his abstractions, Mr. Allender forgets to refer to the single source relevant to his claim.

The fact of the matter is that our law has plainly stated its interest in marriage on a number of different occasions.  Baker v. Nelson (1971) is the paradigm case on marriage at both the state and federal level.  The final opinion on it was delivered by a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court; this opinion was upheld unanimously without further comment by the U.S. Supreme Court, which made the opinion binding precedent throughout the country.  The precedent remains binding today, and continues to be relevant in DOMA cases as of 2012.  The Baker court stated flatly: “The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis… There is a clear distinction between a marital restriction based merely upon race and one based upon the fundamental difference in sex.”

This was hardly an unprecedented claim.  Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) explicitly tied together the civil rights of marriage and procreation.    Maynard v. Hill (1888), calling marriage “the most important relation in life… having more to do with the morals and civilization of a people than any other institution,” stated, “It is an institution, in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”  For more at the federal level, see Zablocki v. Redhail, Turner v. Safley, etc. etc. etc. For myself, my personal favorite legal definition of marriage comes out of Massachusetts (and is therefore not binding on Minnesota): “Marriage is. . . a civil contract, founded in the social nature of man, and intended to regulate, chasten, and refine, the intercourse between the sexes; and to multiply, preserve, and improve the species” (Milford v. Worcester, 1810). Ironically, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, which same-sex marriage proponents love to cite, is based expressly on the procreative model of marriage espoused by Skinner and Maynard.

Were all this American case law not enough, we could go back another step to the English common law, which forms the basis of American jurisprudence wherever the legislature is silent.  Here, again, the purpose of civil marriage is explicitly expressed.  Writes the great jurist Blackstone around the time of the Declaration of Independence: “all marriages contracted by lawful perfons in the face of the church, and confummate with bodily knowlege, and fruit of children, fhall be indiffoluble.”  (Recall that the letter ‘s’ used to be spelled ‘f’.)

In short, there is ample evidence on the record to support the contention that civil marriage is established in order to better provide for procreation (which includes both bearing children and raising them to adulthood); there is none to support the redefiners’ contrary contention that civil marriage’s civil purpose is to affirm committed and loving relationships.  Mr. Allender had no choice but to avoid discussing the civil purpose of civil marriage, because doing so would have quickly shown his recriminations for the petty name-calling that they are.

Nevertheless, having avoided the point entirely, Mr. Allender nevertheless raises some common objections, and these we shall now consider.  Fortunately, several of Mr. Allender’s points are not problematic at all.  I’m afraid he has confused himself in #1; neither Mr. Blissenbach nor anyone I know has argued that the standing definition of marriage should remain the definition of marriage simply because it is standing definition of marriage.  On the contrary, we believe it wisest to affirm the present definition of marriage because this definition promotes various public goods better than any other definition, and does so without violating any of the principles of justice or equality.  However, for the present, all we have attempted to demonstrate is that, right now, the purpose of marriage assigned to it by the civil society is essentially procreative.  We will argue for the wisdom of that intention further down.

With respect to #2, I happily agree that it is the right of a free people to alter or redefine their civil institutions.  Even if they wish to adopt a social policy that tends to promote injustices and social ills, it is the sovereign right of a free people to do what they choose.  In this, they are answerable only to God himself.  Nevertheless, the fact that our society may choose to redefine marriage in no wise suggests that redefining marriage is a good idea.  Our free society may also choose to invade Russia by land during the winter, but I will strenuously oppose it – for any number of reasons.  Perhaps, in twenty years, some young person will read this post with utter incomprehension, totally bamboozled by my understanding of marriage as a fundamentally procreative institution.  This will be the proof that civil marriage has been successfully and completely redefined… but only that hypothetical future young person can tell us whether that redefinition has been good for Minnesota or not.

With respect to #3, Mr. Allender acknowledges that it would be wildly intrusive of the government to ascertain the fertility or intent of couples before allowing them to marry, and that such a law would, indeed, be quite unenforceable.  Nevertheless, he insists that because the government did not enact an unenforceable, technically impossible, grossly intrusive regulation in order to promote the procreative purpose of marriage, it is therefore the case that couples that violate this nonexistent regulation and marry non-procreatively are somehow perpetrating a fraud against society in the same way that a tax cheat does.  Stated thus, Mr. Allender’s claim looks very strange indeed.  It is a little like accusing a welfare mom of fraud because she used her food stamps to buy junk food; it may be foolish, and the government may wish to consider regulating food stamps more closely in order to promote their intended end of nourishing the needy, but by no means has she committed an illegal or immoral act.  A reminder of the Baker court is apropos: “‘Abstract symmetry’ is not demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment” or generally rational laws grounded therein.

Moreover, both Mr. Allender and Mr. Berquist forget a crucial fact about couples who marry without intending to have a child, or even while believing themselves incapable of procreation: they very often end up having a baby anyways.  A working male-female reproductive system can (and probably will) be used; a broken male-female reproductive system can sometimes be fixed (more and more, thanks to modern medicine).  Even spouses who go to considerable lengths to permanently prevent pregnancy, through tubal ligation or vasectomy, sometimes have a baby anyway.

But a same-sex couple has no same-sex reproductive system; it is fundamentally and rationally distinguished from an opposite-sex couple.  One in ten heterosexually active vasectomy patients will make a baby within ten years.  Of the four billion homosexually active persons who have ever lived, not one has ever made a baby with a same-sex partner.

If this should ever change, as Mr. Allender wonders in #6, it would be relatively easy to bring the matter up for reconsideration.  The state Constitution is not granite, as Lori Sturdevant would like us to think.  It is the venue wherein the People dictate law to their future legislators and judges.  Nothing prevents the People from changing their mind by majority vote in the future.  What the amendment ensures is that no government official in any branch will attempt to change our minds for us.

With regard to #4, I am happy to find common ground with Mr. Allender (although I think his car example is altogether too optimistic – banning teen driving is almost certainly exactly the remedy the state would impose in his hypothetical).  The state reserves a number of privileges to married, sexually active, consenting, opposite-sex pairs of adults which have nothing to do with procreation.  This is an artifact of an era in which procreative marriage was the presumptive state of all American adults, which is understandable, but not efficient.  These rights and privileges, especially the rights of inheritance and hospital visitation, should be readily accessible to people in all loving relationships.

However, the remedy Mr. Allender proposes – redefining marriage to admit same-sex couples – does not solve the problem at all.  In fact, it makes the problem significantly worse.  Redefining marriage, aside from destroying marriage’s primary association with procreation and the family, invites into the fold one specific kind of loving relationship – the loving relationship that exists between same-sex partners who have sex with one another.  It would deliberately leave out in the cold every other kind of loving relationship, from that of the polyamorous triad to the convent of cloistered nuns who have given their lives to one another, from the older sister who has become legal guardian for her younger brother to the long-term roommates who don’t want to be together forever but who would really benefit from being able to rely on one another’s medical insurance.  Redefining marriage in this way would change a historical artifact to an act of flagrant and open discrimination.  Same-sex marriage advocates often make an argument based on compassion and fairness, but their cramped vision of fairness leaves a big part of society out in the cold.  This is how redefining civil marriage threatens the entire institution: it makes nonsense out of its rational basis, reducing it to an act of totally arbitrary civil subsidy for some relationships at the expense of others.  The chimeric institution redefinition advocates propose could not survive the scrutiny of the Equal Protection clause.  A vote to redefine civil marriage is, in the final analysis, a vote to end civil marriage.

This crucial point is where the pro-amendment case usually runs aground on the shoals of “common sense”.  People who think primarily in common-sense terms cannot conceive of a world in which group marriages and good friends who aren’t having sex would want to be admitted to the institution of civil marriage, much less that equal protection law would compel it.  (It is instructive to remember that common sense said the same thing about homosexual lovers barely twenty-five years ago.)  People who understand this point tend to understand the entire pro-amendment position, even if they disagree with it.  Unfortunately, they are heavily outnumbered on the Vote No side by the rhetorical dung-throwers.

A superior remedy to the “benefits problem” would be the one proposed by a number of strong thinkers on either side of the marriage question: the new civil relationship of reciprocal beneficiaries.  Every person would have the right to designate, for a small fee (less than the cost of a marriage license), a person (or, in some versions, persons) who would automatically become the beneficiary of these privileges, which, again, would include things like inheritance and hospital visitation.  For a nominal fee (unlike divorce), this arrangement could be terminated by either party at any time.  Unlike marriage, which has a number of rational restrictions on it because of its procreative purpose (for instance, the prohibition on marriages between brother and sister), there would be no arbitrary restrictions on this civil institution.  For married couples, the reciprocal beneficiary designation would remain automatic.  For everyone else, including not just same-sex couples but everyone, it would open up a plethora of rights and privileges which rightly belong to all friendships, not just the fruitful genital friendship we call civil marriage.  Hawaii has modeled this institution for a number of years (look it up on Google!).  It is a tremendous opportunity to answer the concerns of Minnesota’s Project 515.

Unfortunately, due to the current battles over the unwise proposals to redefine marriage itself, reciprocal beneficiaries have not been able to make much headway.  Although I know, from sources, that there was an effort to introduce a bill establishing this civil institution in Minnesota during the last legislative session, it made no headway.  Redefinition advocates feared that it would be used to forestall their efforts to redefine marriage itself.  Conservatives, on the other hand, fear that giving an inch of ground to the legitimate concerns of homosexual lovers (and many others) would be to invite further erosion of the pro-marriage coalition.  I fear that reciprocal beneficiarism will not get its fair hearing until the marriage question is settled definitively – the worse for all of us, including same-sex sexually-intimate couples.

Finally, to point #5 (“Society gains… little, maybe nothing, from the withholding of marriage rights”), Mr. Allender here assumes a conclusion which he has yet to prove (indeed, which we have already found weakened by his own argument in #4).  He will attempt to strengthen his case in the next section, so I pass over it for now – but I think it curious to notice that his claim would seem to apply equally to all non-marital relationships, not just the sexual relationship of homosexual lovers.  Does he mean to suggest that, because society gains nothing from withholding marriage rights from convents full of nuns, it ought therefore to allow them to be recognized as married?  Does Gov. Dayton commit violence against me by refusing to recognize the non-sexual relationship that presently exists between me and my fiancé?  Or against my friends Paul and Mark, longtime roommates?  This would be an odd conclusion, but is much less problematic than the one Mr. Allender actually reaches.

This brings us to the real center of the whole marriage question: the pro-amendment claim that, “Children are best raised [and can only be produced] by a man and a woman[,] so only opposite-sex couples should be allowed to marry,” because, as we have established, the present purpose of civil marriage is to promote positive procreation, which includes bearing and raising children, insofar as possible, within their intact families, so that they become productive, responsible, adult members of society.  Mr. Allender contends that this is false, arguing instead that a child raised by a same-sex couple flourishes just as well as a child raised by his or her own parents.

We have already seen that (science fiction aside) same-sex couples are incapable of reproduction.  This is a serious blow to the case that same-sex couples are capable of serving as parents, because same-sex couples cannot be parents.  They can be, at most, adoptive parents.  Adoptive parents are much to be lauded, but there is fairly good reason to believe that their children are at a disadvantage, on average, compared to those raised by their married, biological parents.  Adoption is a course we as a society ought to promote, not for its own sake, but only in those cases when it is the best available alternative to a worse fate (such as foster care, or abortion, or being raised by a single teen mom who doesn’t want a baby).  Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, whose role in that procreative institution is limited by biological nature to adoptive parenthood, would tend to do precisely the opposite: it would positively encourage same-sex couples to produce children so that the couples can adopt them, thereby becoming full participants in the marital institution.  This is unwise even as private practice; the promotion of surrogate mothers and sperm-donor babies certainly should not be given status as our statewide public social policy.

That being said, it is still important to consider whether or not the adoptive children of same-sex couples do as well in life as the adoptive children of opposite-sex couples.  If they do, then this would substantially weaken the central premise of the argument for marriage conservation – perhaps fatally.  Mr. Allender considers the available evidence.  He concludes immediately that the pro-amendment premise is “blatantly false.”  This extreme claim is totally unjustified even by the limited evidence Mr. Allender presents.  It is not just demagoguery; it is an abuse of science.  It is precisely the sort of stubborn self-satisfied self-certainty that has prevented the pro-life movement from processing the emerging body of evidence that suggests hormonal contraception is not abortifacient.   When we examine the studies and political resolutions Mr. Allender presents, what we actually find is some evidence against the conservative proposition.  Some of it appears, on its face, fairly strong.  But “fairly strong” evidence does not foreclose a conversation.  Shutting down dissenting voices and ignoring difficult scientific questions is the last refuge of a statistical scoundrel.  Since I know Mr. Allender is no scoundrel, I was surprised to see him adopt such strident and aggressive language with respect to his interlocutors.  But, as I said above, I am often surprised – and disappointed – by the willingness of marriage redefiners to engage in reckless personal attacks without sufficient support from the evidence.

Moreover, when we subject Mr. Allender’s body of evidence to examination, it becomes rapidly weaker.  Loren Marks’ study in this June’s issue of Social Science Research brought into formal, peer-reviewed focus what students of the field have long recognized: the existing social science research into same-sex parenting, including both the studies Mr. Allender cited and the APA resolution he mentioned, have little statistical power.  By far the most statistically powerful study on the question so far, Mr. Regnerus’s now-notorious “New Family Structures Study”, showed that there are, in fact, differences between the children of homosexual parents and other parents.  However, the particulars of Mr. Regnerus’s system of classification, combined with the extreme rarity of stable same-sex parenting pairs in the general population, have hampered our ability to draw useful and general conclusions from the study.  As I wrote in my original post on the Regnerus study, the most we can say about same-sex parenting pairs today is that we don’t really know anything about same-sex parenting pairs today.  We have interesting speculation and micro-findings.

Indeed, as I have written repeatedly during this past year, the present state of the science on same-sex marriage closely resembles the state of the science on the children of divorce at the dawn of the no-fault divorce revolution.  The kids of divorced parents, experts argued, did just as well as their married-family peers.  In fact, they did even better, according to some studies!  No doubt this was because divided families no longer suffered from the daily conflicts born of the miserable marriages so many contemporary couples were trapped in!

Those studies are gone.  (At least, they are very hard to find now on Google Scholar!  This book is representative of thinking of the time.)  Or, perhaps, those studies are not gone: they’ve been buried under the immense weight of all the studies showing that divorce is, on average, one of the worst things you can legally do to a child.  Divorce liberalization was one of the great social experiments of the 20th Century.  It was, without question, a disaster.  Those children are now adults, and now they are having children and recreating the disaster for more kids, who will now be even less likely to have stable marriages or fully realized adulthoods, forever.

Unfortunately, we didn’t understand the catastrophe of no-fault divorce, and the importance of intact biological homes, until nearly fifteen years after we changed the law of the land, and we didn’t accept the reality until nearly ten years after that.  I am very much concerned that we will discover the same is true of today’s attempt at further redefining marriage.  Given that kids are naturally raised by their respective mothers and fathers, and given that evolution has typically ensured that the natural way of doing things is inherently advantaged, and given the evidence from divorce studies that children missing either a father or a mother have measurably worse outcomes, this hypothesis remains unproven, but not unreasonable.

Nor need we assert that all children of divorce have more negative outcomes than their peers (which would be plainly untrue) in order to conclude that divorce ought to be discouraged by policy.  The law speaks, by necessity, in general terms, and attempts to formulate general rules that enable society to flourish as best it can.  The same applies to same-sex parenting teams: the fact that some same-sex parents may excel some or even most of their opposite-sex peers does not imply that we ought to promote same-sex parenting as social policy by redefining the institution of marriage.  Some people are quite capable of safely texting and driving at the same time, and they could benefit substantially from being permitted to do so; nevertheless, texting while driving is illegal, because, on average, it produces negative consequences for society as a whole.  This analogy is superior to Mr. Allender’s maths analogy, because mathematicians are selected on an individual basis by employers, and they directly harm no one by using mathematics badly; therefore no general rule need be applied to them by law, as it must be in the case of texting-while-driving.

And so I conclude that we do not know very much about same-sex parenting pairs; that what we do know encourages us to be cautious; and that the average outcomes, not the outliers in either direction, are the most relevant measures of same-sex parenting’s worthiness of promotion and support as an official social policy.  In arguing that we should redefine marriage even if we prove that same-sex parents are worse parents on average, Mr. Allender himself violates Mill’s Harm Principle, failing to account for the harm that would be done to children were the hypothesis true.

For now, the jury remains out on same-sex parenting, and it is likely to be out for a long while.  Mr. Allender seems to argue that redefinition should therefore have the benefit of the doubt.  This does not make much sense: no harm comes of retaining the present definition of marriage, but substantial harm to children may come from redefining it.  Meanwhile, redefiners have shown precious few positive goods that would arise out of abolishing the procreative model of marriage in favor of the sex-agnostic commitment model.  If we are sensibly hoping to maximize social good and minimize social harm, the burden of proof falls squarely on the shoulders of those who would enact the potentially harmful policy, not those who resist it.  When marriage redefinition advocates can produce solid sociological evidence, with robust sample sizes, diverse experimental and control groups, and longitudinal data, demonstrating that same-sex parenting does not, on average, harm the children it produces, then it will be time to revisit the conversation about the same-sex couples and their procreative role in society.  Many of them believe the conclusion obvious and firm evidence plainly forthcoming, but we have been down that road before.  Let us not make the mistake of divorce again.  Indeed, in light of Mr. Allender’s complaints about “bronze-age superstitions,” perhaps a remedial course in Chesterton’s fence is in order. Contra Allender, civil marriage’s relatively stable makeup over the course of several thousand years of civilization tells strongly in its favor.

This suffices to explain my endorsement of the marriage amendment: it is a wise and prudent public policy, which is not furthered, and may be substantially harmed, if not entirely wiped away, by redefining it without sufficient material justification, which proponents of redefinition have neither provided nor, in many cases, attempted to provide.  For the time being, I shall leave the incidental matters – the cultural aftershocks and civil strife that continue to arise out of the marriage conflict – out of the discussion, because I do not consider them central to the arguments on either side.

Except I will say this: couched in the cold arguments of precedent and sociology, as it is in both my piece and Mr. Allender’s and much of Mr. Blissenbach’s, the marriage argument does not seem like one which should stir the passions as it has throughout the country.  It is a quintessential public policy argument, in which competing goods are weighed, and maximally efficient mechanisms for ensuring the public good are proposed and debated.  In the post-Lawrence era, with civil marriage no longer a prerequisite to legal sexual relations, human rights are not implicated on either side of the question.  Yet everyone acts as if they are.

That is because the institution of civil marriage is, for better or for worse, all but inextricably bound up in the larger cultural institution of marriage, which itself is closely tied to the religious institution of marriage (“religion” = “cult” = “culture”).  As we have seen, on close examination, there is very little rational basis for the drive for marriage “equality.”  Indeed, redefining civil marriage would only make it a less rational, more discriminatory institution.  At its heart, it is, rather, a cultural battle, a final conflict over the social acceptability of homosexual relations, which is being waged through the organs of the state.  Redefinition advocates are not (chiefly) motivated by their excitement about the potential social benefits of getting a particular set of tax breaks to same-sex-headed households; they are excited by the idea of a world in which homosexual erotic love is seen by everyone as being no different from heterosexual erotic love, and they see the fundamental distinctions made by the procreative model of marriage as a serious and permanent obstacle to that goal.  (They are probably right.)  In order to change the culture, then, the law must be changed.  If one begins from their premise that homosexual lovers are just as good as heterosexual lovers in all important respects, this is an entirely rational – even praiseworthy! – response.

Those who believe that homosexual sexual and romantic entanglements are immoral, unhealthy, and a bad role model for children are thus placed on the defensive.  In order to remain members of good standing in society, they must fight back against a movement whose premises necessarily mark these cultural conservatives as retrogrades and bigots.  If the law sides with the no-differences movement, it will spell the expulsion of these yes-differences thinkers from polite society.  It will destroy their businesses, turn the schools against them, and hem them into tiny buildings where they are allowed to discuss their beliefs only on Sundays, with the rest of the world frowning heavily on them.  The main risk to these marriage traditionalists is not the damage to the institution of marriage (which will mainly impact future generations) but the potential losses of prestige, respect, and livelihoods for themselves, their families, and their communities.  This stirs a counter-reaction far more powerful than the actual issue (which is considerably less important than the issue of, say, liberalized divorce law) would indicate.

The problem is that, while the law may be able to find some accommodation between the two sides, some fig leaf to preserve the illusion of social tolerance, the culture cannot.  Despite our pretentions to pluralism, the public square actually cannot tolerate viewpoints that are too much in conflict with one another.  In the end, either the traditionalists will win, and acceptance of homosexual activity as substantially equivalent to heterosexual activity will recede, or the redefiners will win, and the traditionalists will join the ranks of white supremacists in history’s trash bin of bigotry.  The losing side will end up relegated to disreputable internet forums and attention-seeking rabble-rousers. There is not much visible middle ground.  As an acquaintance of mine (who supports redefinition) put it to me the other day, “…one must destroy the other—very Harry Potter/Voldemort-esque.”

In short, if this argument were really about civil marriage, it would be a lot easier to figure it all out.

Or, at the very least, it would be a lot less full of angry people saying angry things and making groundless accusations about the other side.

Nevertheless, I see the definition of civil marriage on the ballot, and I refuse to treat that vote as a proxy vote for the outcome of the entire culture war.  Instead, I will cast my vote as if it were actually about enacting the most favorable public marriage policy for Minnesota.  I will vote yes on those grounds – and so, I think, should you.

P.S. There is, in my opinion, one reasonably good argument for voting “No” on the amendment.  It is not unreasonable to want to abolish civil marriage entirely, on the basis that government interference in marriage does far more harm for children and the culture than it does good.  I don’t think that’s true, but I’ve heard some good arguments (or at least starts-of-arguments) that make me suspect I could be wrong.  If you want to get the government out of marriage, obviously you won’t want to support an amendment that helps cement government’s role in marriage.  Indeed, since, as I have argued above, redefining marriage to remove its sex requirements would lead inexorably to the destruction of civil marriage, you might even find that redefinition quite tolerable.

P.P.S. I remain very interested in the intersection between individually-held moral beliefs and voting on public policy.  It does not feel entirely fitting for me to separate myself and my vote from the moral questions being asked (and loudly answered) by both sides of the marriage debate.  If a vote against the marriage amendment would be a vote, however indirectly, for the eradication of traditional sexual ethics from the public square and their replacement by the libertine sexual ethics of the post-revolutionary era, do I not have some responsibility to factor that into my voting decision?  If a vote for the marriage amendment is a vote, however indirectly, to send homosexuals back into the dark world of closeted oppression in which they suffered for far too long, do I not have some responsibility for that as well?  I rejected that proposition in my conclusion to this piece, but I am not entirely sold on it.  Look for more from me on this subject in coming months.

This post was last updated at 12:23 PM on 6 November 2012: some links were added where relevant, and a paragraph on common sense added just prior to the paragraph about reciprocal beneficiaries.

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