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The Blessings of Gay Marriage
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?

As 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 gay marriage.

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.

And 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. 

Why 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.

For more on this topic see: "Gay Marriage -- the Debate Continues"

Homosexuality and the Bible

For our Poll and Discussion: "Gay Marriage is ..."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.