Part of the problem in the gay marriage debate is that emotions run high on both sides. Each side digs in its heels and refuses to budge in any way. Sometimes gays are vilified and misunderstood by traditionalists, but the reverse can be true as well. How do we handle this matter of defining (or changing the definition of) marriage in the public square? Are traditionalists discriminating against gays who believe they should have “equal rights under the law”?
Neither side should make inflated claims or distort data. Both sides need to be frank about their own shortcomings. Truth-seeking also implies an essential concern not to misrepresent others, and not to withhold research grants or publication from persons who hold other views. Genuine and principled disagreement needs to be respected, not dismissed as homophobia or bigotry. This debate is not an easy one. But if we all seek to act with integrity—if we promote truth-seeking and show real respect for those with whom we disagree—then we may realistically hope for the future.1
This pursuit of truth-seeking means that the gay community shouldn’t use biased studies or the flawed 10 percent statistic to make their case. Nor should they ignore clinical studies that reveal genuine transformation from clients being homosexually inclined to becoming heterosexually inclined. In the same way, Christians shouldn’t stereotype or generalize about homosexuals. For instance, Christians (or traditionalists) shouldn’t assume that gays have no visitation rights or inheritance rights (more on this below). Nor should one assume that all gays are pedophiles. It is true, however, that pedophilia is “statistically more closely associated with homosexuality than heterosexuality,” as psychiatrist Jeffrey Santinover of Harvard writes.2 This may not be apparent at first, because approximately 35 percent of pedophiles are homosexuals. However, what the media don’t report is that “homosexual pedophiles victimize far more children than do heterosexual pedophiles”—that is, “approximately 80 percent of pedophilic victims are boys who are molested by adult males.”3 While we ought to be on guard against pedophilia, whether initiated by heterosexuals or homosexuals, the point here is that the majority of gay men aren’t pedophiles. Whatever side is taken on the issue, there should be a commitment to getting the facts straight and not stereotyping.
In a pluralistic society, both sides should be committed to fairness of access when it comes to sex education in public schools. The wishes and values of parents should be respected in public school sex education programs. (In this important area, my wife and I have undertaken to teach our children ourselves, having them excused from public school “sex ed” instruction.) That is, why assume that public school students should listen to pro-gay perspectives about sex in “health class”? If parents opt to have their children taught sex education, then they should have equal access to another track—a safe environment—that supports sex within the context of heterosexual marriage. And why shouldn’t ex-gays be allowed to come to such a class to give another important perspective on this issue? School should allow their clubs and organizations to hold a spectrum of perspectives, not just a politically correct one.4
As Christians, we should speak the truth—but do so in love. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to see Christians invite homosexuals to a safe support group; protest gay bashing, hate speech, and other forms of harassment toward gays; visit AIDS patients in a hospital; or defend the basic civil rights of homosexuals to pursue employment or to visit their partners in a hospital? Even as we disagree about gay marriage, we can show that our disagreement doesn’t stem from hate or fear; we disagree in a spirit of love. As Chad Thompson reminds us: “whoever loves first wins.”5
Second, the gay marriage debate, though invoking “fairness,” tends to be rooted in moral relativism—“What’s right for you may not be right for me.” But if so, then why think humans have any rights—including a right to gay marriage—at all? If people insist on legalization of gay marriage as “inherently fair,” one wonders on what basis. Where does the standard of fairness or human rights and human dignity come from? As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s hard to see how such moral standards could be grounded in anything apart from a good Creator who has made human beings in his image. And if that’s the case, then we’re back to God’s original design for us at creation. Even when a person claims he can do “whatever makes me happy” without governmental interference, but then qualifies that statement by saying “just as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” or “but it should be between two consenting adults” or “just as long as you tolerate other views,” we see a moral standard being slipped in. But why should relativists or hedonists (pleasure seekers) include such statements at all? Where does this requirement come from?
Moral relativism and rights don’t mix. Relativism undermines any appeal to rights: If rights exist, relativism is false; if rights exist, where do they come from? Again, we’re pointed in the direction of a good God in whose image humans have been made—and thus who sets the parameters regarding our sexuality.
Third, if we change the definition of marriage, why restrict it to two persons—or even to humans? If marriage is just socially constructed, then why should any marital arrangement be preferred over any other, and why should gays get preferential treatment over others? Hadley Arkes recounts an unusual “marriage arrangement” he had heard of: “Not too long ago, some friends in Denver brought the news of a man who showed up at the county office seeking a marriage license for himself and his horse. And the clerk found herself in the situation of one who applies the law but no longer remembers the reasons. I take some pride in reporting to you that, when the story was told to me, I did guess the reason that the clerk finally gave for refusing to issue the license: the horse was not yet 18.”6
During the summer of 2004, I was listening to a radio talk show. A woman called in from Naples, Florida, to express her own marriage preferences—to her dog! Why couldn’t the state recognize this union as legal?
Once we cast aside the time-tested male-female, one-flesh-union view of marriage in favor of marriage as individuals choose to define it, we have a grab bag of possibilities. Why not consider the following “marital arrangements” as having equal protections under the law?
- Group marriage (say, five men and three women or vice versa). Why define marriage as involving two persons “committed” to each other?
- Incestuous marriage (e.g., a father and a daughter, a mother with a son, a brother and a sister).
- Bestial marriage (e.g., a human with a dog, cat, or horse). Why think that humans can’t marry nonhuman animals? This could be considered speciesism—inappropriately favoring your own species over others.
- Pedophilia (an older man marrying and having sex with a prepubescent child).
- Polygamous or polyandrous marriage (a man with multiple wives or a woman with multiple husbands).
- Marriage to self. A person may oppose “numbersism”—the prejudicial assumption that marriage must involve at least two persons.
- Marriage with non-consenting adults. Who says marriage has to involve consenting adults? Why not have a harem of sexual partners (“spouses”) who are physically restrained from leaving?
- Nonsexual marriage. Why not call university fraternities or sororities or two brothers sharing an apartment a “marriage”?
- Marriage to material objects. Perhaps we can recognize a person for being married to his money, his job, etc.
If the government doesn’t recognize any of these categories to be considered “marriages,” is that “unfair” and “discriminatory”? If marriage is just a socially constructed arrangement as a result of human choice and preference, it’s hard to see how any marital arrangement can rightly be banned.7
Fourth, the gay-marriage debate can’t avoid questions about human identity and purpose. The attempt to redefine marriage away from a one-flesh union between husband and wife often reduces to a relativistic social construct—marriage (like all other standards) can be fashioned according to our individual preferences. To promote the legality of gay marriage isn’t a neutral issue. It has widespread ramifications (adoption, child-custody laws, public and private school curricula, antidiscrimination laws based on marriage), and the government itself can’t remain neutral. It will either continue with the assumed definition of marriage as the one-flesh union between husband and wife—or it will undo this, giving the message: “Marriage can be defined as we wish.” In this case, marriage is based on nothing more than emotional and economic attachments.8
Are human beings just individualistic decision makers who live to “actualize” themselves through their preferred sexual expression? Are they just biological organisms? Or is there such a thing as a fixed human nature and so a design or goal for humans to pursue? These questions must be thoughtfully considered about so monumental a subject as marriage. A one-flesh union of husband and wife is more than just a sexual act; it is an expression of a deep interpersonal union that brings with it profound commitments and loyalties. This is not simply a matter of choosing one’s own marital arrangements, some of which are better than others. On such an issue as this, the state has historically recognized—not invented the idea—that a husband-wife, one-flesh union reflects moral reality and human nature and the sexuality bound up with it.
Fifth, the state can’t be neutral about the gay marriage issue. Even to say that “the state ought to be neutral about marriage” involves a moral standard. Lots of people say that government shouldn’t take a stand on the definition of marriage. Instead of being “biased” toward heterosexual couples, the state ought to be neutral and unbiased toward couples, including gay couples.
However, those who think the government is morally obligated to be morally neutral about the definition of marriage are misguided. It is in fact a moral position to say the state has a moral responsibility to view the marriage question as nonmoral. As Princeton’s Robert George says, “Neutrality between neutrality and non-neutrality is logically impossible.”9 The state will have to take a stand on the nature of marriage and family (e.g., are these just artificial social constructions?) and the basis of marriage (e.g., is it just two consenting adults?).
So if gay marriage is legalized, this won’t simply be a neutral change. One can expect that principled disagreement of traditionalists who think gay marriage is a bad idea will lead to denunciations of their “hate speech” and intolerance. In fact, Christian groups (such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) on various university campuses (e.g., Tufts University) have been “de-funded” by the administration because they didn’t allow gays in leadership positions (though the ruling didn’t stand). This de-funding had been based on the claim that these Christian groups were bigoted and intolerant. No doubt, if present trends continue, similar pressures could well be applied to “intolerant” churches that do not accept homosexual activity as morally legitimate.
Sixth, a mother-father parenting arrangement is most beneficial for children and society, and public policy should support and assist this increasingly at-risk arrangement rather than contribute further to its demise. Church considerations aside, as marriages and families go, so goes the culture. A society will be as healthy and strong as the family units that constitute it. If families are fragmented and dysfunctional, societies will be as well.
We must be careful about defining the ideal about marriage (or family) according to current cultural trends. Just because a third of all children in the United States are born out of wedlock, this is far from optimal. Average isn’t ideal or normal (e.g., the average temperature of patients in hospital beds may be well above normal). That said, we should give credit and support to abandoned (or widowed) single mothers who raise their children alone or to grandparents who raise their grandchildren without the help of (perhaps) deadbeat parents. Nevertheless, it is the traditional two-parent arrangement that helps provide an important balance that other arrangements (including gay marriage) don’t help promote.
Sociologist David Popenoe argues that fathers and mothers make complementary contributions to the lives of their children: “Children have dual needs that must be met [by the complementarity of male and female parenting styles]: one for independence and the other for relatedness, one for challenge and the other for support.”10 A child doesn’t just need “parents”; she needs a mother and father, and must learn to relate to each in different ways. Maggie Gallagher argues in The Case for Marriage that cultures and communities die when the marriage idea dies out.11 Gay marriage separates marriage and parenting, which marriage traditionally has not done: when you were ready to marry, you were ready to have children. In Scandinavia or the Netherlands, what cohabitation (and then legal equalization of marriage and cohabitation) began, legalized gay marriage expanded and reinforced. In 2000 the Los Angeles Times reported that Scandinavians have “all but given up on marriage as a framework for family living, preferring cohabitation even after their children are born.”12 For example, the number of children living with married parents dropped 16 percent from 1989 to 2002 (78 percent to 62 percent). With legalized gay marriage, which further reinforces the separation of marriage and children, the plummeting continues: “[Norwegians] started to shift from treating the first child as the test of a possible marriage, to giving up on marriage altogether.13 A similar trend has taken place in Holland, as Stanley Kurtz has shown.14 Furthermore, it is well-known that gay men tend to be more sexually promiscuous and more emotionally detached than women; this consideration alone does not encourage family stability. As gay marriage tends to diminish the family rather than reinforce it, we should be careful about rushing to legalize it and further destabilize the institution of marriage.
Seventh, we should consider how the push toward gay marriage involves the push toward pedophilia and lower age-of-consent laws. This fact should make us cautious about encouraging gay marriage and gay adoption. Organizations such as NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), which advocate pedophilia and lowering the legal age of sexual consent, should be resisted. Although NAMBLA condemns sexual abuse and coercion, it asserts: “We believe sexual feelings are a positive life force. We support the rights of youth as well as adults to choose the partners with whom they wish to share and enjoy their bodies.”15 In a double issue of the Journal of Homosexuality (devoted to adult-child sex), one author approvingly refers to “social workers achieving miracles with apparently incorrigible young delinquents—not by preaching to them but by sleeping with them.” This “did far more good than years in reformatories.”16 To make matters worse, the American Psychological Association (in its Psychological Bulletin) no longer views pedophilia as harmful.17 There is even a (Dutch) journal, Paedika: The Journal of Paedophilia, whose premier issue began with the editorial acknowledgment: “The starting point of Paedika is necessarily our consciousness of ourselves as paedophiles.”18
What is disturbing is the increased openness within the gay community about pedophilia and seeking to lower the age-of-consent laws. This, compounded by the much higher rate of sexual partnerships among gay men and the higher rate of pedophilia/child molestation by homosexuals, should raise warning flags about gay adoptions. Yes, many gays/lesbians can and do offer nurture and care to children, but this shouldn’t be the basis for shaping public policy and revising our definitions of family and marriage.19
Eighth, many concerns that homosexuals raise can be addressed without having to change the definition of marriage. Homosexuals already have plenty of civic freedoms in the West. They are legally free to engage in homosexual sex, cohabit, hold down well-paying jobs, run for political office. And, yes, they have a right to marry heterosexually! A major barrier is whether marriage should be redefined to give homosexuals identical rights as a husband and wife have. For example, many homosexuals claim that marriage as presently defined means that homosexual persons will be deprived of inheritance rights, Social Security benefits, visitation rights in a hospital (e.g., visiting a gay partner who is dying of AIDS), acting as power of attorney, sharing insurance coverage, and the like. However, these sorts of benefits for homosexuals can be accommodated without having to change the definition of marriage. “Gay marriage grants no new freedom, and denying marriage licenses to homosexuals does not restrict any liberty. Nothing stops anyone—of any age, race, gender, class, or sexual preference—from making lifelong loving commitments to each other, pledging their troth until death do them part. They may lack certain entitlements, but not freedoms.”20 A radical redefinition of marriage isn’t needed; perhaps modifying some secondary laws is.
Ninth, Christians should be politically engaged and attempt to preserve certain important culture-sustaining conditions for the common good. But more important, the church must be the church. Believers, in dependence on God’s Spirit, should live lives of truth and love rather than depending on government policies to set the moral tone of a nation. Of course Christians should vote, run for office, get involved with public school boards and curricula, and work hard to prevent marriage from being redefined and the age of consent from being lowered.
Too often, however, Christians respond to cultural decline with fear or attempt to take control of a culture through legislation. They cry, “Take back America!” or “Make America Christian again!” Such assertions are often motivated by fear of the loss of majority status and a desire for political influence and power.21 We’d be wise to listen to the historian Tacitus (AD 55–120), who wrote of Rome: “The more corrupt the Republic, the more numerous the laws.”22 Many Christians have put their trust in changing laws rather than, with God’s help, changing hearts of fellow sinners for whom Christ died (1 John 2:2). The church in America often depends on legislation to do the work that God calls his people to do. The Spirit’s transformation of ourselves and of those around us comes when we love God and neighbor—the very core of our Christian commitment.
- Our first priority is to show grace and extend friendship to those who disagree with us on the emotional issue of gay marriage. We should try, however, to graciously address misperceptions (e.g., the “10 percent statistic”). Both sides should be committed to truth-seeking, not name-calling and playing power politics.
- The gay marriage issue, despite appeals to “fairness,” is likely rooted in moral relativism (“What may be right for you may not be right for me”). This raises the question, Why think humans have any rights—including a right to gay marriage—at all? Moral relativism undermines any appeal to rights; if rights exist, relativism is false. If rights exist, where do they come from?
- Changing the standard definition of marriage leads us to ask, Why restrict marriage to two persons—or even to humans? If marriage is merely a socially constructed arrangement, why should any marital arrangement be preferred over any other, and why should gays get preferential treatment over others?
- Human nature/identity and purpose are a crucial and inevitable part of the discussion. Redefining marriage away from a one-flesh union between husband and wife tends to leave us with a relativistic social construct—marriage (or even human identity) is just a matter of personal choice, fashioned according to one’s own preferences.
- A traditional model of mother-father parenting is empirically more beneficial for children and society. Public policy should support and assist this model that is being undermined rather than contribute further to its demise.
- We should take note that the push toward gay marriage moves us in the direction of pedophilia, and this should make us cautious about gay marriage and gay adoption.
- Homosexuals often raise certain “civil rights” concerns, but these can be addressed without having to change the definition of marriage.
- While Christians should be politically engaged and attempt to preserve certain important culture-sustaining conditions for the common good, the greater obligation is for the church to be the church. We should live lives of truth and love, depending on the power of God’s Spirit rather than government policies to set the moral tone of our culture.
Beckwith, Francis J., and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. Chapter 12, “Relativism and the Meaning of Marriage.”
Ellison, Marvin M., et al. “The Same-Sex Marriage Debate.” Philosophia Christi 7, no. 1 (2005): 5–58.
George, Robert P. The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001.
Popenoe, David. Life without Father. New York: Free Press, 1996. Chapter 5, “What Do Fathers Do?”
Santinover, Jeffrey. Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
Wolfe, Christopher. Homosexuality and American Public Life. Dallas: Spence, 1999.
1. Moberly, "Homosexuality and the Truth," p.33.
2. Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 62.
3. Noted and documented in Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? 114.
4. Chad W. Thompson, "Treat Gays With Respect, but Don't Add Bias to Curricula," Des Moines Register, April 27, 2004, 9A.
5. Thompson, Loving Homosexuals, 58-61, 63.
6. Hadley Arkes, "The Family and the Laws," http://www.fww.org/articles/wfpforum/harkes.htm (accessed October 18, 2006).
7. But didn't the Bible permit polygamy? Did Jacob, David, Solomon, and others have more than one wife? In response, the spirit of Scripture seems to be that God tolerates such arrangements because of human hard-heartedness. However, we are regularly pointed back to God's original design: "from the beginning it was not so," Jesus says (Matt 19:8). Some of the points here are taken from Francis Beckwith, "Street Theatre in the Bay Area," National Review Online, February 26, 2004, www.nationalreview.com.
8. From David Orgon Coolidge, "The Question of Marriage," in Homosexuality and American Public Life, ed. Christopher Wolfe, 200-238.
9. Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (Wilmington, DE.: ISI Books, 2001), 75.
10. David Popenoe, Life without Father (New York: Free Press, 1996), 145. See especially chap. 5, "What Do Fathers Do?"
11. Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
12. Study cited in Stanley Kurtz, "Unhealthy Half Truths: Scandinavia Marriage Is Dying," National Review Online, May 25, 2004, http://www.nationalreview.com/kurtz/kurtz200405250927.asp.
13. Ibid. See also Stanley Kurtz, "The End of Marriage in Scandinavia: The 'Conservative Case' for Same-Sex Marriage Collapses," Weekly Standard 9, no. 20 (February 2, 2004), http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/003/660zypwj.asp.
14. Stanley Kurtz, "Unhealthy Half Truths."
15. NAMBLA's "Welcome Page," http://www.18.104.22.168/welcome.htm (accessed October 16, 2006).
16. Edward Brongersma, "Boy-Lovers and Their Influence on Boys: Distorted Research and Anecdotal Observations," Journal of Homosexuality 20 (1990): 160.
17. Referenced in NARTH, "The Problem with Pedophilia" (1998), http://www.narth.com/docs/pedophNEW.html (accessed October 18, 2006).
18. Cited in Jeffrey Satinover, "The Trojan Couch: How the Mental Health Associations Misrepresent Science," NARTH. Available at http://www.narth.com/docs/TheTrojanCouchSatinover.pdf. (accessed February 28, 2008).
19. See Gregory Rogers, "Suffer the Children: What's Wrong with Gay Adoption," Christian Research Journal 28, no. 2 (2005), http://www.equip.org/free/JAH050.htm (accesssed October 17, 2006). The failure of heterosexual couples to parent adequately isn't itself an argument for the superiority of homosexual adoption. Studies advocating the positive results of gay parenting tend to be biased, limited, anecdotal, and inadequate. Exceptions shouldn't be the basis for shaping public policy.
20. Greg Koukl, "Same-Sex Marriages: Challenges and Responses," (May 2004), http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6553 (accessed October 17, 2006).
21. Os Guinness and John Seel, No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Chicago: Moody, 1992).
22. Tacitus, Annals 3.27 (or "laws were most numerous when the Republic was most corrupt").