You've heard all the arguments against same sex marriage; now hear this
You've heard all the arguments
against gay marriage: that it represents a threat to the core values of Western
civilization; that it undermines the institution of the family; that it's unnatural,
unhealthy, and un-Christian. First it was the Supreme Court striking down sodomy
laws, next it's the institution of marriage that will fall. And soon after that,
the last vestiges of our culture will collapse, not because of a frontal assault launched by
terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, but rather because of a moral
and spiritual decay from within, a sickness unto death. Now even President Bush
has indicated that he has a team of lawyers at work, trying to find a way to outlaw
it. Frankly, I don't get it. Is marriage such a frail, helpless, vulnerable tradition
that it will roll over and die because some gay and lesbian couples what to establish
their own families and live in commitment as partners "as long as they both
shall live?" What's so terrible and frightening about that?
a Presbyterian minister and a happily married heterosexual male with a brood of
children and grandchildren, I find none of these arguments in the slightest degree
convincing. Rather the reverse is true. Marriage has never been stronger. This
institution is as robust as ever and it would only grow stronger should Congress
or the courts eventually decide to extend to committed gay couples the same legal
protections that the rest of us enjoy. Further, as I have come to believe, people
of faith will lead the way in awakening the wider culture to the blessings of
Though conservative Christians haven't heard the news,
the free love experiment of the 1960's is history.
To be sure, during
the 1960's, marriage did seem to be under attack. Divorce rates were rising. Some
were advocating "open marriage," "free love," or simply living
with a partner of the opposite sex without any of the responsibilities of a legally
sanctioned, long-term commitment. But within a relatively short period the results
of the "free love" experiment were in. Though many people
tried it, few found it a solution to any of the serious challenges of life.
marriage has come roaring back.
Divorce rates have declined. All around
there is a new appreciation for the benefits of relationships that endure and
families that extend across several generations. In our highly mobile, stressed
out world, marriage is seen as providing exactly the structure and stability
that are essential to the pursuit of happiness. Rather than seeing this institution
as restrictive and tradition bound, many of us are seeing it as providing a wonderful
foundation on which to build families, pursue careers, and participate in activities
beyond the walls of the home.
To be sure the "traditional"
nuclear family is now seen as only one part of a wider array. Today there is renewed
emphasis upon extended families and blended families and single parent families.
What I see happening is the enrichment of what is means to be family, rather than
anything that looks remotely like decline. It is, in fact, a tribute to the health
and attractiveness of marriage that some gay couples want in. Further, it is an
inspiration to see the sacrifices that many such couples are willing to make creating
families of their own. For when a gay or lesbian couple makes a conscious decision
to enter into a life-long commitment, you can be fairly certain that such relationships
are not entered into lightly or without deep thought. Gay couples do not seek
out marriage simply because it's expected of them, or to win approval of parents,
or because "it's tradition." They often do so thoughtfully, deliberately,
and sometimes even courageously in the face of strong opposition.
should a couple that is willing to assume the responsibilities of marriage be
denied any of its privileges?
And among the privileges
of civil marriage are these: sharing in the protection of single family health
insurance plans, purchasing and holding property in common, and passing along one's
life savings by inheritance to the love of one's life free of taxes
at the time of death. If it's right for me to enjoy such privileges, why
should the same pattern of rights and responsibilities not be extended to gay
couples who are equally committed to each other? All of this can be accomplished
by action of state legislatures without in any way changing what religious communities
refer to as "marriage." And doing so is simply a matter of
providing all people with equal protection under the civil law as the US Constitution,
for example, requires. So what about the "sacrament of marriage"
as it is referred to by many Christian churches?
Clearly there are arguments
against gay marriage that are rooted in deeply held religious conviction; and
many Christians cite the Bible as the authority for such beliefs. In
fact, marriage is not so much inculcated or even defined by the Bible as it is
assumed. It is taken for granted in much the same way that it is assumed that
health or wealth are a sign of the blessings of God. We now know that while health,
wealth, and the benefits of a stable family are blessings, to be sure, they are
also something that humans have a hand in creating and sustaining. Marriages
are not "made in heaven," rather they are made here on earth by people
who freely choose to live their lives together in committed, loving relationships.
What about civil unions?
Can gay couples do this without calling
it "marriage" or without seeking the blessings of either the state or
the Church in doing so? Absolutely. But inevitably, some gay couples will
want not only the protections of the civil law, but also the blessings of the
Church as they celebrate the commitments they have made. I must report sadly that
my own denomination refuses to sanction gay marriage and the majority of Presbyterians believe
that marriage consists or a relationship "between one man and one woman." Church
law, like civil law can and must be changed, however, when it is recognized that
there is good reason for doing so. In this instance those reasons are becoming
clearer and clearer every day.
In my own view marriage is a relationship
between two people defined by human choice and commitment, rather than by gender. My
reason for arriving at this conclusion is not abstract or theoretical, and it's
the same one that will ultimately convince a majority of Christians of the truthfulness
of what I am saying: the best evidence of the value of gay marriage is the presence
of gay couples and families in our religious communities. My experience
is that when gay couples participate as contributing members of any community
of faith, other members of the community welcome their contributions and
their participation. The motivation to recognize and celebrate gay marriage
will not come by fiat from the top down in any religious community. Therefore
few people have any reason to fear that the recognition of gay marriage will
be imposed upon them. Rather a respect for and appreciation of gay marriage
results from those loving, contributing and faithful gay couples who make our
churches, and indeed the world itself, richer for their presence. When people
of faith see this happening in their own communities they will be eager to celebrate
the blessings they have experienced personally.
In a recent statement on
gay marriage, President Bush told reporters, "I think it is important
for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts.
On the other hand, that does not mean that someone like me needs to compromise
on the issue of marriage." True enough, Mr. President, and no one is
asking you to compromise on this issue at all. What some are asking is that you
simply follow the Golden Rule on this one and do unto others as you would have
them do unto you.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.