I really don't want to get into an acrimonious debate but I wonder if anyone, liberal or conservative, can calmly, and without inflamatory or deprectory language, explain to me why some people feel that same-sex marriage threatens or undermines heterosexual marriage?Right after reading his question, I read an article by a conservative Christian leader who felt extremely threatened by the San Francisco federal court judge's ruling against Proposition 8. "The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit, and its future hangs in the balance," he wrote, but he offered no reasons for that belief that would persuade anyone who did not already agree with him. His reaction was typical in the conservative Christian blogosphere, and I figured my old friend was not likely to get a reasoned answer anytime soon.
But finally this morning comes an intelligent commentary in defense of traditional marriage: "The Marriage Ideal" by Ross Douthat, who is conservative, Republican, and Christian.
Douthat begins by demolishing the usual anti-gay-marriage arguments. He then offers his own description of what he calls "a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes":
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.He allows that this understanding of marriage has been on its way out for quite some time, having been replaced by "a less idealistic, more accommodating approach." "If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal," he concludes, "then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary."
Douthat is not happy about the fading of the older marital ideal. Still, I don't expect most conservative Christians to love his op-ed piece. While affirming the value of the traditional Jewish and Christian definition of marriage, he points out that this definition is not necessarily held by other religions, other cultures, or even many contemporary Jews and Christians.
One could argue that in a diverse, democratic society, the state's duty is to ensure that people of all religious traditions - as well as people with no religion at all - are left free to practice their own beliefs. While a religious group could marry or refuse to marry according to its doctrines, civil marriage should allow for varying traditions.
If the older marital ideal really is, as Douthat believes, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization," then churches who share his view would do better to stop fighting gay marriage and instead turn all their attention toward fostering lifelong fidelity among the already and about-to-be married. Marriage will not be saved by a legal definition. As Douthat points out, "the lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights."
If anything can save marriage - traditional or contemporary - it will be the witness of married couples - straight or gay - who are getting it right.