Sunday, February 29, 2004

Three Views and Two Cents

The New York Times Op-Ed side presents three points of view on the gay-marriage issue:

  • Lisa Schiffren says that the Massachusetts judges and city officials in San Francisco and New Paltz, New York are “forcing” Bush into backing the anti-gay-marriage amendment.

    Whether you favor gay marriage or not, it should be a concern when judges and officials decide to circumvent the democratic process on a core issue.

    Still, even many Republicans who hold traditional views of marriage are asking whether it is really worth the enormous effort required to enact an amendment. The answer must be yes. Marriage, defined as one man and one woman, has been a foundation of our culture for millenniums.

    First, judges and officials have been circumventing the democratic process on core issues since the beginning of this republic. At times it has been for nefarious reasons – keeping Jim Crow laws in place, for example, or violating particular sections of the Constitution that they disagree with (vis. Judge Moore), but more often than not it has been to right a wrong that has been in place out of tradition – desegregation, contraception, mixed-race marriage, or reproductive rights. Sometime the law must be addressed by means other than waiting for the legislature to finally catch up with the culture, which is what the courts are for. As has been noted here and elsewhere, the fact that the Right runs to the courts to stop the marriages has not been lost on the Irony Patrol.

    Second, “marriage, as defined as one man and one woman, has been a foundation of our culture for milleniums” is a bit much. Whose culture is Ms. Schiffren talking about? If she means “Western Civilization,” monogamy – at least as we practice it – is relatively new, and gets short shrift in the Bible, which the Right Wing claims to be the foundation of our culture. Here in America, it required an amendment to the Utah territorial constitution banning polygamy before the state would be admitted into the union. Up until then, the Mormons were staunch advocates of “multiple marriages.” And still are, in some small outlying communities. So to use a sweeping generalization about the Ozzie-and-Harriet marriage as the foundation of our culture is both historically inaccurate and blantantly chauvinistic. (Oh, by the way – the plural of “millennium” is “millennia.”)

    Finally, the “look what you made me do” meme is yet another example of Bush’s inability to take responsibility for his actions. He wants something unpleasant done so he says he’s “forced” into doing it. That’s not leadership, it’s appeasement to his right-wing base who have made it clear that if he won’t do it, they’ll find someone who will. He’d rather be president than be right, and history has not dealt kindly with such presidents; just ask Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding.

  • Nathaniel Frank looks at the larger issue of how gay marriage will affect society.

    Supporters and opponents of gay marriage are talking past each other. Social conservatives argue from the premise that marriage is important to society — the president called it “the most fundamental institution of civilization” — and must be protected. Letting gays wed will undermine marriage, they say, but they are seldom able to explain how.

    Proponents of same-sex marriage, meanwhile, make a rights-based argument, insisting that gays deserve the freedom to marry — but they don’t address the possible impact of gay marriage on society. As a result, they are open to the valid retort that if marriage is an individual right (instead of a social good), why not polygamous, incestuous or child marriages?

    For a productive dialogue, we should be asking the question this way: is giving gays the right to marry good for society? And to answer that, we must ask what larger social purpose marriage serves.


    The argument is not so much that individual straight couples are threatened by gay marriage, but that the collective rules that define marriage are being undermined. Instead of feeling part of a greater social project that demands respect, people will feel that breaking their vows offends only their spouse, not the whole community. Knowing that their friends and neighbors no longer hold marriage sacred can make it easier for people to wander.


    It is silly to argue that broadening the definition of marriage will have no impact on the institution; it will. But no generalization about the nature and durability of same-sex unions can justify banning them. After all, society does not deny marriage rights to divorced, infertile or impotent people — so long as they are straight. We offer that right because society generally tries to encourage as many people as possible to live stable and productive lives. Marriage — gay or straight — helps society achieve that goal.

    The laws and morals of a civilization are a reflection of it, not the shapers. The rules we choose to live by, whether they are a result of legislation or of custom, are the result of choices we have made over time, not all at once. They are subject to change as we evolve because we see that they perform a needed role in our lives whether we know it – or accept it – or not. Our history is replete with examples of rebels and movements against the norm that have caused huge changes in society at great consternation to the short-sighted, and all of them changed us in ways they never imagined.

    It is not about two people forming a bond; it is about a society that sees that by expanding this right, it will improve itself in both a practical manner and in showing that it is willing and able to accept this change.

  • Joseph J. Ellis takes a look back at the men who wrote the Constitution and how their interpretation of what the goal of the document was got us to where we are today.

    The words that started the current controversy were written by John Adams. In 1779, Adams almost single-handedly drafted the Massachusetts Constitution. It was passages from that document that the state’s supreme court cited to support its decision to overturn all legal restrictions on same-sex marriage. “All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties,” Adams wrote. “In fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

    It is most unlikely, of course, that Adams had gay rights in mind. But like Jefferson’s more famous formulation of the same message, Adams framed the status of individual rights in absolute and universal terms. Certain personal freedoms were thereby rendered nonnegotiable, and any restrictions on those freedoms were placed on the permanent defensive. At the very birth of the republic, in effect, an open-ended mandate for individual rights was inscribed into the DNA of the body politic, with implications that such rights would expand gradually over time.

    This takes us to the essence of the question that has been asked in this blog and in other places over and over again, above the shouting and wailing about opening the door and sliding down the slippery slope to multiple marriages and all the other irrelevancies: how does the formation of a legally binding agreement between two people adversely affect the rights of others or threaten the welfare of the state? Both Jefferson and Adams made it clear that the objective of the laws of this land were simple: to protect the rights of the individual as long as it did not interfere with the same rights of other individuals or endanger the rights and well-being of the population as a whole. Therefore the Constitution is a document that limits the government and liberates the governed. To use it as a weapon against a segment of our society is counter to the nature of both the spirit and letter of the law.

    Jefferson, Adams, and the others had no idea of what this country would look like two hundred years into the future. And neither do we. But we must take a lesson from them in trusting that their legacy and posterity would be capable of expanding, growing, changing, and becoming what it has been and will be. It would be a shame if we cannot grant that same favor to our own future.