Reality on the ground VS a Constitutional Amendment
The debate over same sex marriage comes
down to this. As cities and states across the US recognize civil unions, or in
the case of San Francisco and Massachusetts, issue marriage licenses to gay couples,
what was once an abstract, largely theoretical argument, now must be played out
against a new reality. On the ground, and in real life, gay marriage exists. About
this there can be no debate. Gay and lesbian couples are living as families, raising
children, contributing to their communities, joining and even leading churches
and synagogues, and in countless other ways, establishing their presence as valuable
and respected members of society.
While the opponents of
gay marriage raise ever more passionate objections, the reality on the ground
cannot and will not be reversed. To be sure, large numbers of Americans, probably
a significant majority, continue to feel that gay marriage is somehow inappropriate,
immoral, or just plain wrong. Still, the increasing visibility in our midst of
family units headed up by openly gay couples alters the terms of the debate fundamentally.
Now those who object find themselves in the awkward position of trying to attach
words like "sinful," immoral," or "contrary to the will of
God," to actual human beings living in actual families with lives as wonderful
and complicated as their own.
Beyond name calling, what
can opponents of gay marriage offer? For one thing, of course, heterosexual couples
can attempt to demonstrate by the persuasive power of their example that a traditional,
loving relationship between "one man and one woman" is something to
be admired. Set an example by being a positive, contributing presence in local
communities, in churches, and in public life generally. If you think that the
conventional model of marriage is to be preferred by future generations, prove
it by demonstrating the constructive difference that such relationships can make
on the ground where people can see what you are talking about.
I don't think the opponents of gay marriage are going to be satisfied by relying
upon the power of persuasion. Rather, lacking confidence in their convictions,
those opposed to gay marriage already speak about using force, in this case the
force of law, in the form of a constitutional amendment. Here is the language
of the amendment now being considered in Congress and in the White House. "Marriage
in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman; ...
neither this [Constitution] nor the constitution of any state, nor state ... law,
shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof
be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
language of the proposed amendment is rather obtuse; but the meaning is clear.
Having defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the Constitution
would then prohibit any "unmarried couples" from enjoying either the
subjective privileges of "marriage" or any of its legal benefits. Even
those who have entered into a "civil union" recognized by a city or
state would, by the force of law, be denied all of the rights pertaining to marriage.
Health insurance benefits, inheritance and property rights, even the privilege
of visiting a loved one on his or her death bed in a hospital and making life
or death decisions about medical treatment ... all of this would be denied by
the full force and authority of the Constitution of the United States.
this any way to protect the sanctity of marriage? I don't think so. For in a deeper
sense, sanctity cannot be conferred by the force of law. Traditionally, the realm
of the sacred belongs to God, not human governments, and if traditional marriage
is to be defended by any human institution, it would be the church, the synagogue
or the mosque that bears such a weighty and humbling responsibility, rather than
the state. I would think this is a point that conservatives and liberals would
agree on. Certainly, anyone with a faith deep enough to place his or her trust
in God should be more confident in allowing the sanctity of this precious institution
to be upheld by the authority of a loving God, not an institution as subject to
the corrupting influences of political power as the U.S. Congress.
sanctity of marriage is of God, not governments
founders of this Republic saw fit to make it exceedingly difficult for such Constitutional
meddling. The founders decreed that a proposed amendment to the Constitution must
achieve super-majorities: two-thirds of the vote in both chambers of Congress,
and then win ratification by three-fourths of the states. In the history of this
country thousands of amendments have been proposed, but only 17 since the original
10 in the Bill of Rights have received support sufficient to become a part of
In fact, so cumbersome is the process
of amending the Constitution that the most recent amendment to pass muster was
first proposed in 1789 and was not ratified by three-fourths of the states until
1992! That's a little over two centuries! Should anything like that be required
for this amendment to be fully considered, I am confident that both the reality
on the ground, and the will of God, would, by that time be as self-evident as
the foundational principle of this Republic: namely, that the right to life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness belongs equally to all of God's children.
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.