It's About MarriageSTANLEY KURTZ
Whatever side you're on, the debate over gay marriage has got to become a debate about marriage - not just a debate about gays.
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I have friends who are polygamists who have said to me, "The four of us love each other so much. Isn't it unfair that we don't have the same rights to legal inheritance and health-care benefits as married couples?" Imagine the firestorm after Wednesday night's debate if Joe Lieberman had talked about marriage laws cheating polygamists the same way he talked about marriage shutting out gays. But there really is no difference. The trouble with the debate over gay marriage -- insofar as the mainstream media has allowed there to be a debate -- is that nobody seems willing to talk about what marriage actually is.
Marriage, as an institution, is society's way of showing support for monogamous heterosexual couples. In a society like ours, where marriage is based on love, monogamy guarantees stability. And unlike a gay male lover, a woman tends to domesticate a man -- to turn his attention toward fatherhood and responsibility. But if social support and encouragement for heterosexual monogamy is "discrimination," you might as well chuck marriage out the window.
Nowadays, everyone who's not a monogamous heterosexual couple has Gotten into the act. The latest liberation movement is for single people, who complain that legal benefits for married parents -- including tax deductions for dependent children -- discriminate. Then there are "polyamorists" -- people who believe in group marriage. They've got websites, support groups, and now a legal case. April Divilbiss, a Tennessee woman whose child was taken away because she was living with two "husbands," is suing for legal recognition of her "polyamorous" marriage. And of course there's the movement for gay marriage.
Yes, marriage "discriminates." So does every government policy aimed at creating a stable environment for children. If it's gotten to the point where even tax breaks for child dependents are dismissed as discriminatory, we can kiss the family goodbye. Once marriage has been reduced to just another lifestyle choice, it won't really be marriage at all. Marriage only works when it's something special. Ever tried to hit on a woman while wearing a wedding ring? For most people marriage is still something sacred, something not to be lightly interfered with. Remove the social and legal supports for marriage, and that feeling of respect will collapse -- as, in some ways, it already has.
But no one seems to want to talk about marriage. So far, the gay-marriage debate has been about whether to create complete moral equality between homosexuality and heterosexuality. But no one -- at least, no one in the mainstream media -- is asking what gay marriage will do to the institution of marriage itself. The truth is, gay marriage will be an enormous blow to an institution already on the rocks. We couldn't even be thinking about gay marriage if we hadn't already lost our feel for marriage as special social recognition and support for a particular way of life. Once we treat monogamous heterosexual couples the same way we treat singles, gays, and "polyamorists," marriage itself will be gone. But once we legalize gay marriage, "single liberation" and legalized polyamory will be impossible to stop.
What if, on Wednesday night, instead of asking about gay rights, Bernie Shaw had asked whether gay marriage would strengthen or weaken the institution of marriage? Now there's a question you won't hear in the mainstream media. But that is what's at stake. For all their weaseling, though, both Gore and Lieberman got one thing right. We really do have to strike a balance between liberty and the need to support traditional marriage. In their own ways, each of the candidates made that point Thursday night. But if we don't start to talk about what marriage is and why we need it, there won't be anything left to weigh in the balance.
Dick Cheney's answer on the gay-marriage question is cause for concern. He seems even less willing than George Bush to voice clear support for traditional marriage. By arguing that states should set their own policies on gay marriage, with the federal government out of the picture, Cheney implies that a country in which half the states had legal gay marriage would be just fine with him. That in itself is disturbing, but the truth is, this matter is not, and cannot be, restricted to the states.
For one thing, without the federal Defense of Marriage Act, gay marriages performed in any state would have to be recognized by every other. And even that necessary federal intervention may not hold up when DOMA is challenged in the Supreme Court -- as it surely will be. So Supreme Court appointments are relevant here. And it's already clear that Vermont's "civil unions" -- quite intentionally made available to residents of any state-are designed to spread civil unions throughout the country through a series of court challenges. Wait till one half of a "C.U.ed" couple gets into a car accident outside of Vermont and the partner sues for the right to make medical decisions. But the truly important point is that marriage is more than a patchwork of state or federal laws. Marriage embodies the attitudes of society as a whole toward the shape of its families -- and especially toward the rearing of its children. Now that all this has been turned into an issue, national leaders will -- and should -- find it increasingly difficult to avoid discussing it.
Yes, individuals ought to have the right to conduct themselves sexually as they see fit. Society should not punish people for their sexual choices, but we still need to reserve special rewards and recognition for the sort of family arrangements that best protect children. If there's one area in which even the staunchest libertarians ought to give some ground to social conservatives, it is in this fundamental definition of marriage. But whatever side you're on, the debate over gay marriage has got to become a debate about marriage -- not just a debate about gays. Are you listening, Jim Lehrer?
Kurtz, Stanley N. "It's About Marriage" National Review Online (10/06/00).
Reprinted by permission of National Review.
Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Copyright © 2000 nationalreview.com.
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