On Nov. 6, the citizens of Minnesota will vote on whether or not to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. As with any other constitutional amendment vote in Minnesota, any ballot submitted without a vote for the marriage amendment will be counted as a "No" vote. A mid-September poll of likely voters by The Star Tribune showed that 49 percent supported the amendment, 47 percent opposed it and 4 percent were undecided.
Views | Daniel Ritchie
Daniel Ritchie, professor of English, supports a "vote yes" position on the marriage amendment. | Erin Gallagher
At the end of the wedding service when a young bride and groom come down the aisle together, many people wonder — if just for a moment — when they will have children. Marriage marks the beginning of a new family. Even if a couple has been sexually active, everyone assumes that this event marks the possibility of welcoming children into a household. Even if a couple has older children from previous marriages, their union marks a new relationship between parents and children. Until now.
If the marriage amendment to the Minnesota Constitution is defeated, we will move further down the road that cuts apart the relationship between children and marriage. Marriage means different things in different cultures. But in nearly all cultures, as David Blankenhorn writes, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, understood both as a personal relationship and as an institution, in which any children born from their union are emotionally, morally, practically and legally affiliated with both parents.
Recognizing gay marriage won’t change our expectation that married couples raise children. But we will have taken away the child’s right to expect a mother and father. More states will follow the lead of California’s legislature and recognize three people or more as parents — say, the lesbian couple, the sperm donor and perhaps his partner as well. Is this just? Is it moral to say to a newborn: “as a society, we no longer understand your right to be affiliated with the man and woman from whom you came”?
Moving away from natural marriage toward gay unions will invite vexing moral and legal questions like these. Over time, we will increasingly have to disregard both traditional sources of authority and existing legislation. To learn what marriage is, we will have to rely more on judges, the branch of our government that is furthest from the source of political authority, namely, the people.
Not every couple has children, of course. Single parents can adopt children. Beyond this, we all know other, sad exceptions to our older understanding. Our families have experienced cohabitation, children out of wedlock, and marriages that end in divorce. We know that America has moved away from this understanding. And how has that move affected children — the most vulnerable members of society? By 2009, over 40 percent of children were born to unmarried women. They began life without a clear relationship to their father. In 2006, 36 percent of female-headed households were below the poverty line (compared with 6 percent of married-couple families). Other measures of childhood well-being — education, health, delinquency — strongly track with a stable marriage. Public policy analyst Isabel Sawhill estimates that childhood poverty would decline by about 20 percent if American marriages regained the stability they had in 1970.
Legalizing gay marriage has not strengthened marriage in Sweden and Denmark. Instead, it sends the message to the entire society that marriage is simply a matter of individual preference. And that’s our problem. African-American pastors get this. At a July forum in Minneapolis, Jack Burnett of Shiloh International Ministries explained that families in his community were already suffering: they don’t need more kids being raised without a father and mother. If you want to promote the social structures of justice, support natural marriage. The household is the basis of society, as Aristotle wrote. To reduce marriage to an individual right or a basket of benefits is to mistake the nature of our social and sexual relationships. People do not marry to inherit their spouse’s property in the absence of a will, to take one of the Human Rights Campaign’s talking points. And anyway, nothing in the marriage amendment would prevent Minnesota from extending such benefits, from legalizing civil unions or from allowing gays to adopt children. These issues would still be open to debate and political change.
Marriage must be defined by society. We can’t avoid it. “Don’t limit the freedom to marry,” say the pro-gay “No” campaign signs. But why then should we limit marriage to couples? This is not an idle question. Many new citizens immigrate to the U.S. from polygamous cultures. The leading public intellectual to defend gay rights in the ‘90s, Martha Nussbaum, has come out in favor of “polyamory” on the grounds of fairness and equality. On what principle would Minnesotans United discriminate against the freedoms of these sexual minorities? The basis for limiting marriage to two comes from existence of two complementary sexes in nature. Take this away and you’re left only with desire. The best theorists in Gender Studies have long recognized this. They favor a sexuality that is disruptive or transgressive or subversive. Until the recent push for gay marriage, they would have rejected as ridiculous the notion that their sexuality was in any way equivalent to what’s enjoyed in natural, man-woman marriage.
The progressives’ position suffers from having too limited a menu of moral intuitions: one very large helping of “fairness” (understood as equality) with a garnish of “care for others.” Fairness gives you a highly caffeinated kick, but you’re soon left shaking your head at how backward the rest of society is. Let me illustrate. Those with the political power to enforce this version of fairness for gays have:
• prevented Catholic Charities from providing adoption services in Illinois, Boston and elsewhere. (Catholic Charities doesn’t place children with parents living outside of marriage.)
• stopped the Christian Legal Society from functioning fully on state university campuses in California. (CLS expects its leaders to abide by biblical sexuality.)
• ostracized sociologist Mark Regnerus for questioning the conventional wisdom that children from same-sex and heterosexual parents have turned out the same.
In my own denomination (Presbyterian Church, USA), local progressive clergy identify those who promote biblical sexuality as “resist[ing] the spirit of God” and “bring[ing] contempt on the faith they profess”; when we suggest that all of us could serve God better in different denominations, they denounce us as “schismatics”; when we start moving to another denomination, they refuse to let us know the process and fee for keeping our church property.
Progressives call this social justice. But it feels like bullying to me. And if CLS and Catholic Charities can be stripped of their constitutional right to free exercise of religion, why should Bethel continue to enjoy the same constitutional right, when we too recognize biblical sexuality as normative?
Here’s why progressive leaders, who condemn the bullying of gays, lose their civility towards those who support natural marriage: their main moral taste is for fairness, which they understand as “sameness.” Once we understand why homosexuality should be treated as the same as marital sexuality, they think we’ll come around to their view of social justice. They set aside tolerance and civility — temporarily violating their secondary value of “care” — because they believe reason will ultimately vindicate their commitment to fairness. As for the other elements of a just society — loyalty, sanctity and authority, as writer Jonathan Haidt has explained — they have virtually no taste at all. The rest of us savor those elements, and honor them in natural marriage, but they’re mostly absent from the progressives’ moral menu.
Nothing I’ve said requires Christian belief. But now put this in the “Christians and Culture” categories from CWC and Humanities. The progressives in my Presbyterian denomination follow a “Christ of Culture” (to use Richard Niebuhr’s terms), which we at Bethel interpret as “Christians affirming culture.” To learn their cultural values, you need to read the New Testament through the prism of The New York Times. Their statements and concerns track closely with progressive media and culture. Their Christ is tolerant and open. He welcomes the woman at the well – though they overlook the fact that he does not affirm her way of life. Their Jesus is the hero, the model of what is best in elite, progressive culture. And that’s why there’s almost no significant Presbyterian presence in undergraduate education today. Why should there be? Presbyterians are saying nothing distinctive to this culture.
Bethel promotes the approach of “transforming culture.” I’ll have to admit, in agreement with James Davison Hunter, I don’t think evangelicals are in a position to transform anything. But there are plenty of areas in which we can still be a faithful presence. In our speaking, we can preach what we practice in Bethel’s covenant. In our families, we can honor marriage between a man and a woman as a “holy mystery…created, ordered, and blessed by God,” as the (now outdated) Presbyterian liturgy says. And in the poll booth, we can resist any further widening between marriage and its relation to children.