The modern marriage ideology

Andrew Cameron

Marriage has always been ‘discriminatory’. Not everyone can have it: children, siblings, those already married, those with no-one offering to marry them, and so on. But three ‘marriage equality’ bills now before our Federal Parliament seek to leverage a good thing, equality, in a new direction.

I find it sad to write about this matter just as you might find it hard to read about it, for this dispute has become personal. I am acutely aware of those I know with same-sex partners. I don’t want to lose their friendship. On other days, I get angry at how disagreeing with same-sex marriage is portrayed as discrimination, homophobia and hate. So for Bob Brown, US President Barack Obama’s support of same-sex marriage is a “candle for those who are still back in the darkness of wanting this discrimination”.

The debate is now entirely ideological: sweeping changes to federal law in 2008 brought same-sex couples into parity with other couples at every legal point that matters. But as UK commentator Brendan O’Neill remarks, same-sex marriage has become the platform from which to announce a superior moral position. Those against it are portrayed ‘not simply as old-fashioned or wrong-headed, but as morally circumspect, possibly even evil.’ I don’t like it when friends, gay or straight, buy this line and treat me with contempt. So like many of us, I don’t say much (that’s why I won’t participate in live public talks on this matter). I wish the vilification and moral browbeating in this debate would stop.

I’ve tried to understand what matters most to those who want ‘marriage equality’. The arguments go like this. Current law affects gay and lesbian mental health because it discriminates against them, and so denies them basic human rights (to marry whomever they want and to not experience discrimination). ‘Marriage equality’ affirms gays and lesbians in their identity and ends the ‘state-sanctioned bullying’ they take to be inherent to marriage law. ‘Marriage equality’ celebrates love and gives people what they want – so extending the freedom of choice that we demand of a liberal society.

Let’s observe the assumptions in these claims.

Firstly, love is the sole defining element of marriage. Second, any assertion that gay and lesbian people are different psychologically damages them. Third, it is the state’s responsibility to limit such damage. Finally, every society and generation can renegotiate marriage as it sees fit. A deep attachment to – and ‘love’ for – this cluster of ideas drives the quest for marriage revision.

What reasons could possibly counter that view? And surely a Christian minority should not ‘impose’ its view upon others? I’ll respond to these concerns in turn.

For centuries, Christians have received marriage as part of the created ecology that we inhabit and regarded it as a relationship with three purposes. It expresses lifelong companionship. It’s the proper home for our sexual expression. It’s the venue for procreation, where children are hoped for and welcomed. Each purpose assists the other: sexual expression helps to build lifelong companionship, whether children come or not. The companionship assists in the task of raising children. And the logic undergirding these purposes is gender difference: gender complementarity assists lifelong companionship, makes conception possible and gives a child both a mother and a father, who serve the child differently. In Christian thought, no generation has done marriage particularly well, but every generation is called to express these purposes.

It’s to be expected that this view of marriage doesn’t always have traction with others, because it has been eroding for decades. Marriage still expresses companionship, but ‘lifelong’ has become an exceptional oddity, not an expectation. It is no longer the home for sexual expression, as many unmarried people now expect to engage in sexual activity. It’s not the only venue for procreation: married people can avoid children; people often raise children from other biological parents; and anyone can access assisted reproductive technologies. So what’s left? Marriage has now come to signify love and companionship, perhaps with some sexual exclusivity, perhaps with children.

And although gender difference is currently essential to marriage, without those ancient purposes it has become harder to see why. In a parallel trend, our society has also adopted a very minimalist view of gender difference, regarding it as basically only sexual difference – a variance in our plumbing. Any other differences based on gender are questioned, contested and not permitted any social or political significance. When most no longer believe that each gender complements the other in any important or interesting way, the whole idea of gender complementarity simply goes away.

So, when gays and lesbians want marriage to name their companionship, in a sense we can hardly blame them. They simply continue the same trajectory that has unfolded over decades. They, too, have companionships that they want recognised, which is what marriage seems to do. Some gays and lesbians are also on record as placing a lower priority on sexual exclusivity, which they think is fine, since marriage is no longer considered in the wider culture to be the sole home for sex. 

Children can be optional for them, too. They can also access assisted reproductive technology to have children; and if society has accepted that gender difference is unimportant, it is not obvious that their children should have both a mother and a father. After all, there are plenty of other families without mothers or fathers, or with a parent other than the biological parent. Having rightly sought not to stigmatise single or divorced parents and their children, we no longer describe their families as ‘broken’ or in any way tragic; and so nuclear families cannot to be upheld, in law or society, as any kind of norm.

What we’ve seen is a shift in our society’s ‘common objects of love’ – those matters a society gathers itself to defend, and which help to make it a society. What matters about marriage has shifted over the decades. Our society now loves the idea of love; it loves freedom of expression; it loves eradicating differences. It doesn’t love permanence; it’s ambivalent about children; it’s less convinced that biological parenthood is significant to children; it abhors any notion that each gender might offer something particular and different to the other, and to children. These changes-of-loves are what make it seem that marriage can be renegotiated.

In the middle of these changing loves, Christians can ask helpful questions (there’s not much point being polemical when so little thought has been given to the nature of marriage). We can ask our neighbours: ‘Are you sure that you are not missing something? Do you really want to abandon those older loves? Will that actually help us as a community?’.

For marriage has named that part of our social ecology constituted by lifelong, sexually exclusive, gender-complementary relationships. To date, these relationships have been thought unique enough to deserve special recognition. Although not all marriages result in children, marriage affirms the link between children and their biological parents. But a move to ‘marriage equality’ finally disassembles this link. A gay couple must always source its child’s biological parent from outside the relationship, so to call the couple married confirms that biological parenthood is not integral to our understanding of marriage, nor expected of marriage. That in turn suggests that we believe loving biological parenthood is not particularly important to children’s wellbeing.

The public link between men, women and biological offspring has worked for the public good, despite the fact that some married people don’t have children. Opponents of the change simply want to ask others: are you sure you want to change all that? And do the gains in public good proposed for gays and lesbians suffice to offset the public good we think is being diminished? The argument that marriage simply names people’s love for those who want it so named misses the wider social canvas at stake (and the argument that marriage is necessary for gay mental health is simply odd, for surely there are many other means to this end).

To ask the questions ‘Are you sure?’ and ‘Are you missing something?’ doesn’t ‘impose’ anything on anybody. The charge of ‘imposing’ simply distracts us from discussing marriage (and is a form of emotional blackmail that cripples a lot of discussion in Australia).* Even though the Bible shapes our view of marriage, it’s a view that can be useful in public discussion when it gains traction with others and makes sense to them. Our view of marriage makes deep sense to those in society who feel the tug of marriage as we now know it.

We should also notice that, in general, it’s the one who wants to change the law who ‘imposes’ a view, since laws impose expectations on everyone. In this case, it won’t be a private law for some same-sex couples: everyone is being asked to live under a new definition of marriage. It’s not wrong to question its wider social effects, such as what it says about biological parenthood.

Obviously though, governments can only enact laws that most people accept. Our society may reject those old purposes of marriage and want its new loves. We should note that in a 2011 parliamentary debate, only six Federal MPs indicated that their constituencies wanted the change. We’re only at the loud activism stage, not the rioting-in-the-streets stage. However, if opinions sufficiently shift and a change in marriage law is widely demanded, Christians know how to live under a government with whom they disagree.

The question will then become whether our liberal polity can allow cultural space for those who view marriage differently, or whether it will pursue such dissidents punitively. A change to the law may create misunderstanding, difficulties and pain along the way. Handled badly, there could be decades of social friction as some refuse to recognise ‘new marriage’ in various contexts.

But if conservative Christians are right about marriage, perhaps we need not worry too much about the attempt to redefine it. After all, if we think of it as part of a created ecology that we receive and inhabit, men and women will continue to rediscover this lifelong faithful companionship, this proper home for sex and this venue for raising children. That kind of activity might require a new name if the label ‘marriage’ is taken.

But even so, original marriage won’t be going away anytime soon.

* It’s often claimed that Christian talk should automatically be excluded from secular liberal public discussion. I dispute this idea at ‘Christian voices in the public square’.

The Rev Dr Andrew Cameron lectures in ethics, social ethics and philosophy. He is the director of the Centre for Christian Living and is the Social Issues Executive chairman. You can also see this article in the June issue of Southern Cross.