Marriage And The Secular Conscience

by tristero

My friend, philosopher Austin Dacey, is in the Times today. I've posted before about his book, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life and it led to some lively discussions, with some of you strongly agreeing and others disagreeing with Dacey. (I hasten to add that I often disagree with Austin - and just as often agree with him. I value our friendship all the more for the opportunity to argue passionately with someone who is both intelligent and knowledgeable.) Here he has lost me, but probably because I don't quite grasp the fundamental level at which philosophers approach a question:
Mr. Dacey illuminated his notion of a fundamental conversation with his reaction to last week’s California Supreme Court decision that barring same-sex marriage violates the State Constitution. In a lengthy e-mail message, he noted that such court decisions had provoked “a powerful (and pretty permanent) backlash,” with more and more states adopting “pre-emptive state constitutional bans.”

Secular liberals, he proposed, should pursue “another, more gradual strategy,” emphasizing public debate and legislation rather than court cases. Currently, “conservatives resort to secular-sounding sociological research about child development and slippery slopes,” he wrote, while “liberals try to debunk this pseudoscience, and accuse their interlocutors of bigotry.”

But neither side, he said, is addressing the moral heart of the matter: a core conviction that “marriage is a sacred covenant” that homosexual unions would violate. “Who is talking about that?” he asked.

“This culture war will be lost if we cannot engage in public conversation about the religious significance of marriage and the moral value of same-sex relationships,” he concluded.
Please note that Dacey's problem is with the practical effects of the California Supreme Court ruling. He fears that by sidestepping, or short-circuiting a "fundamental conversation" on what exactly is meant by "the sacred covenant of marriage," a backlash is all but inevitable. It is that conversation Dacey seeks, because he is quite confident that the position stemming from a liberal conscience - essentially, any two people who love each other should have the right to marry - is the more reasonable one and will prevail.

My difficulty with Austin's position is that I can't see much to have a conversation about. Of course, the state's attitude towards any couple should be blind to the gender of the two people involved, including the right to be married. The only arguments in favor of discriminating the genders within a couple rest on interpretations of specific religious texts. Not merely do such arguments clearly violate the Establishment clause, they rest upon the fundamental fallacy of arguing from authority. If Austin wishes to have that argument, ie, challenging biblical authority, all well and good, but the proximate issue is marriage rights. And about that, there seems little to discuss.

Regarding the "sacredness of marriage," Austin is surely devil-advocating here. Of course, he knows that marriages are often a matter of registering down at the County Clerk's office and that there is nothing inherently "sacred" - ie, religiously special - about marriage at all. No one has shied away from discussing this. As no one has shied away from noting that marriages have often been pre-arranged, been entered into for financial reasons, political reasons, and even simply to assert citizenship in a new country.

As for the "morality of marriage," I fail once again to see what there is to discuss without getting specific. It's often a very good thing for two people to marry. And it's often a lousy thing. But without specific examples, I fail to grasp the meaning of phrases like "morality of marriage" - or "sacredness of marriage," for that matter.

Finally, I don't think that a "permanent" backlash is a necessary result. Perhaps he's unaware of this, but twice the California legislature passed gay marriage legislation and twice the piece of Hitler-loving garbage California has for a governor vetoed it. As Richard Kim points out in The Nation: marriage has become a thoroughly mainstream proposition [in California]. In 2005 and 2007 the California State Legislature passed bills granting gays and lesbians the right to marry; on both occasions, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bills. But by directly expressing their support for gay marriage through the democratic process, the State Legislature undercut the right-wing claim that gay marriage is something "activist judges" foist onto an unwilling public. Indeed, the majority on the state's Supreme Court, comprising three Republicans and one Democrat, weren't "legislating from the bench"; they were reaffirming legislative will. And despite his vetoes, Schwarzenegger has said that he respects the court's opinion and opposes an amendment to the California Constitution, something he calls "a waste of time."

None of this will deter conservatives from pouring money, ground troops and vitriol into their campaign to get a marriage amendment passed, and they may well succeed this fall. But even that short-term victory won't change two fundamentals: in the presidential race, California will go to the Democratic candidate, and the idea of gay marriage--endorsed by the State Legislature, accepted by the Republican governor and supported by growing numbers of gay-friendly voters--has become for Californians as banal as a Hollywood divorce.

...The California gay marriage debate illustrates important national trends for Democrats. Growing numbers of Americans favor gay rights, including some form of partnership recognition for same-sex couples, especially when framed as economic and legal rights. This is particularly true of young voters; in California 55 percent of voters under 30 support gay marriage, and nationwide 63 percent of voters under 40 support civil unions or domestic partnerships. But this trend also holds true for voters of all ages; a 2007 Field poll reported that Californians young and old were four times more likely to say they are becoming more accepting of gay relationships than less accepting. Moreover, when the symbolic weight of marriage is removed from the equation, support for gay rights becomes overwhelming. Nationwide, a whopping 89 percent of voters favor protecting gays and lesbians from employment discrimination.
And that's about it. What more is there to discuss? "The symbolic weight of marriage?" I suppose so, but I don't see it being amenable to reason. If you truly believe that your own marriage is diminished because two men have the right to marry, no amount of conversation or reason is going to convince you otherwise.

In short, it is hard to have a national fundamental conversation about objections to gay marriage for the same reason it's hard to have a national conversation about the validity of "intelligent design" creationism: There is no there there. That is, there are no good rational arguments, period, for a gay marriage ban or for knowingly teaching lies as science. And given that lack of rational arguments, how is it possible to have a fundamental conversation?

In truth, marriage rights, like reproductive rights, are about the exercise of power. To control who may marry, or what a woman can do with her body, is to wield power. Therefore, as I see it, the only purpose a fundamental conversation has regarding these issues is as part of an effort to advance the progressive positions. But since the objections to the liberal positions are more emotional than rational, discussions of fundamentals are much less important to advancing marriage rights than discussions of specific legislative and legal strategies. I don't think this is true of all issues, of course. Surely, there are many issues over reasonable people disagree (within evolutionary biology, for example, there are many important and exciting controversies ). I just don't see marriage rights as that kind of an issue.

Again, I'm not a philosopher, so there may be some subtle nuance I'm missing. I simply fail to see the social controversy over gay marriage as one between two competing positions, honestly and reasonably held - I see it only as an attempt to exert power over people's lives by the right. But if I am missing something, I'm sure you'll tell me all about it (grin).